Bladed tools were one of the first developed by mankind. They were used for hunting, fishing, and self-defense—all of which fall under the broader category of survival. Even today, when the term “survival” connotes less of a life-or-death situation than the strict definition would imply, knives are a primary tool in the field.
Different types of knives are useful for different types of tasks, but because survivalists need a tool that can break down wood, clear brush, and generally be put to hard-use chopping tasks, a machete is a commonly-seen item on the survival gear checklist.
Below, you’re encouraged to use the interactive table below to compare likes of machetes such as the Spyderco Schempp Rock and ESEE Junglas against other larger tools, like axes, hatchets and tomahawks:
|Gransfors Bruks Axe
|Gerber Clearpath Machete
|CRKT Kangee Tomahawk
|SOG Tactical Tomahawk
|Expat Libertariat Machete
Now, machetes come in many different shapes and sizes (as I’ll discuss below), but these disparate styles are unified by design choices that emphasize robustness and big chopping ability. Survivalists use them to clear brush and chop wood, de-limb trees, help build shelters, and more. And while most outdoorsmen don’t need their blades to accomplish that wide a variety of tasks, a machete is still a useful tool for them to have.
The fixed blade scene has grown considerably over the last ten years, and now more than ever there are hundreds of choices for someone looking for a machete; these blades range anywhere from $20-700 in price and terrible to excellent in quality. I think the five best machetes for survival are:
- The Bark River Knives Parang
- The ESEE Junglas Machete
- The Cold Steel Gurkha Kukri
- The Spyderco Schempp Rock
- The Busse Battle Mistress Anniversary Edition
These are all very different kinds of machetes, representing a diverse array of design cues and histories, and all will perform the heavy-duty tasks a survivalist, as well as a more casual outdoorsman, will demand of them.
Machetes: Design and Brief History
The word “machete” is an umbrella term for blades from all over the world. They seem to have evolved simultaneous from field tools and weapons—a fact reflected in their current usage as both an outdoor tool and, in many parts of the world, an effective, widely available weapon. In South America, Cuba, and the Malay Archipelago it has some of the same cachet and significance as the Bowie knife does in America.
In general, a machete is a medium-to-long length fixed blade with a wide blade, suitable for gross-motion slicing such as chopping brush or wood. Because it is not typically used for delicate work, and because momentum aids greatly in the penetration and breaking apart of material, a machete is going to feel strangely forward-heavy to someone used to other types of knives. A machete also needs a comfortable handle, because, as it is going to be used in heavy snap cuts, a lot of shock is going to be transferred to the user’s hand.
Below, please take a look at some of the best selling axes and tomahawks currently available on Amazon:
|1) Estwing Sportsman's Axe
|2) SOG Tomahawk
|3) Gerber Pack Hatchet
|4) Gransfors Bruks Hatchet
|5) CRKT Chogan
Finally, a machete needs to be made out of a tough, durable steel. Edge retention isn’t the main concern because of the nature of the cutting tasks a machete performs. Instead, impact resistance, and resistance to chipping, are key.
One final note: the machete is closely related to a type of knife called the kukri: this is a knife with an unmistakable curved or bent blade from Nepal. That blade shape is a great aid in chopping, and two of the designs below can more properly be considered kukris than machetes; but because they perform the same functions, and because they perform them so well, they made the list.
The Bark River Knives Parang
Bark River Knives makes fixed blades of outstanding quality. It is a company run by ardent outdoorsmen, and that shows in the variety and utility of their many, many designs. The Parang is one of their less iconic models, but it is a superb machete.
The blade length is 12”, which is very long, but the way the Parang is designed that length is leveraged to its fullest: the swell in the blade towards the tip puts a lot of force into snap cuts, just as you’d expect in a machete. The handle is also straightforward and comfortable. The Parang is made of A-2 steel, which is a carbon tool steel.
A-2 is very comparable to D2; the biggest difference is that it tends to be less hard (Bark River runs their A-2 at 58RHC), allowing for better toughness and less chipping, but also less edge retention. In a machete, these are precisely the characteristics we want: toughness is more important than edge retention, because the force of the swing is going to make up for the lack of a very fine edge, and chipping is the death knell for any outdoors blade.
The Parang is available in many different handle materials, including such exoticisms as maple burl and C-tek. Most models cost around $300.
The ESEE Junglas was designed by Randall’s Adventures & Training, and is a scaled up, heavier-duty version of their popular and most excellent RAT fixed blades. According to RAT, this knife was designed for Counter-Narcotics operatives in Latin America. If that doesn’t make you rush out to buy one on its own, there is much else to recommend the Junglas: the 10” blade is a very traditional, very beautiful, and very functional machete blade shape.
The Junglas weighs 23 oz.; because it is smaller and lighter than the Parang (which weighs 28 oz.), you get a surprising amount of control over the blade and so, while its primary use will always be chopping, you could manage to do some food prep or other finer-detail work with the Junglas that you couldn’t manage with the Parang.
Also traditional, and also awesome, is the handle: reminiscent of the Ethan Becker-designed Ka-Bar knives’ handles, it is simply perfect. There is also a hammer pommel on the end of the blade; I don’t find this particularly useful but it doesn’t impact performance or anything.
The Junglas is made of 1095 carbon steel, a classic choice for a chopper fixed blade. Like A-2, it favors toughness over edge retention, which is fine. I will say that, although neither A-2 nor 1095 are stainless steels, 1095 is going to be more suspect to rust. This is addressed to a certain degree by the thick blade coating on the Junglas, but it is still something to keep in mind.
The Junglas is about half the price of the Parang, coming in it at $170.
Cold Steel is a company with a very particular reputation. They make some excellent, tough knives, but also some of the most amazing testing videos ever committed to celluloid. The Gurkha Kukri is a particularly popular design in their extensive fixed blade catalogue.
The Gurkha Kukri is made on a traditional Kukri pattern, with that unmistakable curved, heavy blade. This blade makes it a phenomenal chopper; it may look different than a regular machete, but the minute you use it the shared lineage becomes clear: this thing hits material hard.
It may not be able to do much else besides chop, but it can chop so well that you probably won’t care.
The handle is made of Kray-Ex, a plastic similar to FRN. The shape is excellent. The one small complaint I have with it is that Kray-Ex seems to transfer more shock to the hand than the Micarta of the Junglas’s handle, or the G10 of the Parang (if you opt for that handle material).
The Gurkha Kukri has a 12” blade, the same length as the Parang (although it feels shorter thanks to the curve), and weighs 22 oz., the same weight as the Junglas; fittingly, it feels almost like a combination of those two knives. The blade on the standard model is made of Carbon V steel, which is very similar to 1095. If you are interested in the Gurkha Kukri, I would advise that you purchase the black-coated version to prevent as much corrosion and rust as you can.
The Cold Steel Gurkha Kukri costs $170.
The Spyderco Schempp Rock
This is the obligatory avant-garde Spyderco knife on the list. It is also the shortest knife on the list, with a blade length of only 6.75”. This makes it less suitable for super heavy-duty brush clearing; the tradeoff, however, is versatility: the Rock can chop wood and other material, even if it is smaller, but it can also be used for the more traditional camping/outdoors tasks as well.
In many survival scenarios, particularly here in the U.S., there isn’t so much undergrowth and brush that a long blade is really necessary to clear it. Of course you always want to pick the right tool for the job, but the Rock is a great do-everything choice.
And there’s something to be said for restraint. The Rock only weighs 9.2 oz., so it is easier to carry than the others. We tend to forget, when we’re looking at knives online, that they’re going to be on a sheath on our belts for hours at a time; the difference between 22 or 28 oz. and 9.2 is huge when it’s strapped to your leg during a four hour hike in to the woods.
The Rock is made out of VG-10 steel, a surprisingly great choice for an outdoor tool. VG-10 is very rust-resistant and, when kept a little soft as it is on the Rock, pretty tough as well. I don’t think VG-10 holds a great edge, but as we’ve discussed already, keenness is less important than toughness in a chopper, so I’m willing to forgive it here. The biggest issue you’re going to run into is sharpening: VG-10 isn’t fun to sharpen on a pocket knife, let alone on a nearly 7” blade with a recurve.
The Rock is available for about $150.
The Busse Battle Mistress Anniversary Edition
Okay, forget everything I just said about restraint and minimalism and all that, because we’re about to talk about the Busse Battle Mistress.
Busse makes extreme knives. Extremely big, extremely bold, extremely tough, extremely expensive, and extremely, extremely cool. I dare you to take one look at the Battle Mistress and not be an instant convert. Something about it just makes you want to grab one and trek out alone into the wilderness, never to be seen again.
In all seriousness, though, the Battle Mistress, although it is marketed as a combat knife, is an amazing machete. It has classic machete lines, particularly in the stout, wide blade shape. The 11” blade’s stock is thick, but ground well, making it an excellent snap-cutter. The handle combines the elegant simplicity of the Junglas or the Parang with the forward choil of the Rock; you’re never going to get the control out of the Battle Mistress that you will out of the Rock, but you can definitely approximate it, and the extra blade length, of course, makes it more suitable for some tasks.
The biggest selling point for the Battle Mistress is the steel. Busse uses a proprietary steel called INFI. INFI is the Platonic ideal of a hard-use steel: it is ridiculously tough, has great edge retention, and is not impossible to sharpen. The closest analog in the larger steel world is 3V, although INFI is reputedly less stain-prone than that particular steel. INFI seems to have earned its reputation over many years of use and testing, and for a hard-use blade like a machete, seems about perfect.
This perfection comes at a price, however: the Battle Mistress, like all Busse Knives, is built to order. Think of it as a semi-custom piece, and expect to pay semi-custom prices. The Anniversary Edition of the Battle Mistress costs $697.
Survival in the wilderness demands a lot out of a person: patience, intelligence, resilience. Similarly, it demands a lot out of the tools you use. Machetes are perfectly suited to these demands, and, as a survivalist, having a good one by your side is of paramount importance. The ones above are the best of the best.
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