Knives and hatchets are staples among the Prepper community, and for good reason. Both a trustworthy knife and a functional hatchet (or ax or tomahawk) are critical tools for survival situations thanks to their versatility in dealing with almost any situation.
But what if you can have only one of these tools with you in a survival situation? That’s not an idle question – in the backcountry, carrying both a knife and a hatchet can add significant weight to your pack and slow you down if an emergency arises. In addition, not every Prepper has the cash on hand to invest in both a knife and a hatchet immediately. To answer the question of knife or hatchet, we’ll look at the advantages and disadvantages of the two in different survival applications.
One of the most important functions of a knife or hatchet during a survival situation is to chop tree limbs for building a fire or a shelter. Both tools can handle this task, but typically a hatchet will make the job much less strenuous and faster because of the larger blade, heavier blade head, and added leverage on the handle. While a large Bowie knife can accomplish some chopping, even the burliest knives won’t stand up to a limb more than a few inches in diameter.
In some cases, you’ll need to take chopped wood and fashion it into a particular shape or carefully notch it. For example, building a bow and spindle requires a fine notch in the wooden bow, while building a shelter out of wood can also benefit from carving out joints in the logs you choose to use. In this case, a knife is much more agile than a larger hatchet since you can safely hold the knife closer to the blade and have a finer edge to work with.
Chances are, if you’re packing prepper gear you also have a fire starter or magnesium rod in your survival bag. Creating fine shavings from these fire starting tools is significantly easier with a knife than a hatchet, although the latter can be used in a pinch. More important, actually striking the fire starter to create a spark is much more easily done with a knife thanks to the ease of making quick, repeated movements with the blade. For a hatchet, it is better to create a spark by running the fire starter against the hatchet blade, which is difficult and can be somewhat dangerous.
Skinning and Dressing Game
Another critical function that your blade will need to fulfill in a survival situation is skinning and dressing game – after all, you’re going to need to have some food to cook over your fire if you plan to last more than a few days. Here, a hatchet and knife each have a distinct advantage.
For large game like deer, quartering is much simpler with a hatchet than a knife since this process requires chopping through bone and heavy sinew. However, a Bowie knife can also accomplish this with some careful work and using the precision of the knife to work through tendons rather than bones themselves.
The skinning process is much easier with a knife thanks once again to the precision you can wield with the blade as well as the sharpness of the edge. However, note that the best Bowie knife for skinning game will be much smaller than the best knife for chopping wood, so there are some tradeoffs even in choosing a knife. A hatchet can also be used to skin large game in a pinch, assuming you keep the blade razor sharp, although this will be nearly impossible to use for smaller game like rabbits and squirrels. An additional advantage to a knife is that if you plan to fish for food, a knife will help you to clean fish and remove bones while a hatchet will be much to large to be of any use during this process.
Every tool you carry must have more than one function when it comes to a survival situation. A good survival hatchet will typically have a large hammer on the backside of the blade, which can be used for pounding in stakes – whether for your tent or for setting rope traps. Although the butt of a knife can also be used for hammering, it lacks the same leverage as a hatchet and will take much longer to achieve a similar result.
Self-defense is especially important for preppers thinking about urban survival situations, for example during an extended blackout, to consider since one of the most significant threats in that situation is other people. Assuming you will most likely be fighting in hand-to-hand combat, the reach of your weapon of choice is one of the most important things to consider – a longer reach provides a major advantage. For this reason, a hatchet will typically be the better self-defense tool, even though it lacks the pointed tip of a knife. A survival hatchet will also give you more momentum with any given swing that a knife thanks to the long handle. In addition, the handle of a hatchet is typically burly enough that it can be used to defend yourself against your opponent’s weapon and used as a hook.
Weight and Portability
A knife is typically much smaller and lighter than a hatchet, making it less onerous to carry around if you are travelling in the backcountry and easier to pack away when it is not in use. However, some lightweight folding hatchets come close to matching large knives in terms of weight and portability, so depending on the tools you are choosing between this can be a toss-up.
A small, agile blade can also come in handy for first aid if it is needed. For example, you may need to cut a shirt into bandages, pierce blisters, or even cut twine for makeshift stitches. For any of these tasks, the precision and control of a small knife blade makes a knife a better choice than a large and heavy hatchet.
A knife and hatchet each have their place in survival situations, and while there is much overlap between the two tools neither will be the best for every use. There are some cases, like skinning game, hammering, and self-defense, where either tool can work, while there are others where a knife will simply never be able to do the work a hatchet could or vice versa.
In an ideal situation, you would get the best of both worlds by carrying both tools. If you are travelling with a partner, for example, one of you could bring a knife and the other could bring a hatchet. But if you can only carry one or the other, you need to strongly consider what a survival situation might look like for your particular trip and opt for the tool that will give you the most versatility to improvise. This decision will depend in large part on the terrain you plan to cover, whether hunting game is a possibility in the event of a survival situation, the weather you anticipate dealing with, and the amount of gear you can carry. In addition, comfort with using whichever tool you opt for is extremely important to being able to use it to its fullest when the time comes.
For better or worse, there may come a situation when you need to choose between a hatchet and a knife in the event of a survival situation. Although there is no best solution, adapting to the situation with the tools you have on hand is ultimately the foundation of survival.