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Survival knives: Do you need a machete in your emergency kit?

If you think one of those big South American knives is only good in the jungle or rain forests, think again!
Survival knives: Do you need a machete in your emergency kit?

If you think one of those big South American knives is only good in the jungle or rain forests, think again! 

This under-construction igloo was built using several survival tools, including a machete.

This under-construction igloo was built using several survival tools, including a machete. (Leon Pantenburg photo)

by Leon Pantenburg

The Oregon blizzard was sending snow sideways in the Cascades and the igloo was nearing completion. The snow blocks had to be angled just right to finish the cap. My machete did the job very well.

A month earlier, about 1,500 miles away, with the temperature at least 70-80 degrees warmer, I used a machete in the middle of a bamboo thicket. The plants grew at thick as hairs on a dog’s  back (a  little Mississippi vernacular, here,) and  I needed several cane poles. We were visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Vicksburg, MS, and the day was so pretty we just had to go fishing.

I had line, hooks, bobbers  and bait, and some quick work with a machete got us all poles. (If you’ve never fished for bream, with a cane pole, bobber and hook baited with a worm from a tin can, you don’t know what you’re missing!)

A machete is a big knife, with blade lengths ranging from 12-14 inches on up to about 24 inches. (Much longer than that, and I suppose the classification would have to be changed to “sword”!) . Various websites defined a machete as:  “…a large, heavy knife used in Central and South America as a weapon or for cutting vegetation.  A machete is a large cleaver-like cutting tool. The blade is typically long and usually thick.”

You can use a machete to build snow shelters, cut through jungle vegetation, and clear brush. You can split wood with a

Igloo interior: Blocks must be beveled correctly for the shelter to be secure

Blocks for an igloo have to be beveled correctly to form the dome. (Leon Pantenburg photo)

machete – just pound it, with the grain of a log with a wooden stick or baton. A machete in your hand might deter a potential mugger or looter.

I have several, mainly because they are cheap and versatile. At the last gun show, I got a machete for $3. I didn’t need it, but enjoyed the bartering and dickering to get the price I wanted! Once sharpened and cleaned up, my $3 gunshow special will be a quality survival tool. At some point,  a Boy Scout will use it to build a snow or brush shelter.

My machetes are mostly used for shelter building, so I usually tie a bright-colored piece of paracord and flagging on the handle so they don’t get lost.

Today, machetes range in price and quality. I stopped at a local sporting goods store on the way home from the gunshow, and could have bought a new machete with canvas sheath for $8.99. But quality comes with a price. You can get a high end machete for a higher price from such knife companies as Gerber and Cold Steel, and can expect to pay between $20 and $50.

Like most survival tools, a machete is multi-purpose, but it doesn’t shine in all areas. If you anticipate splitting a lot of wood, get an axe.  (And know how to use it! An axe or hatchet relies on velocity to work, so you have to swing it hard! If your aim is inaccurate, the blade can ricochet off the log or branch and be very dangerous.)

For gathering wood for the evening campfire, I prefer a saw over any other portable tool. While a hatchet is very dangerous to the untrained user, it’s considerably harder to hurt yourself with a saw.

My trusty medium weight wool pants kept me warm and dry while building a snow cave during a winter outing.

My machete worked well for cutting blocks in this snow cave.

And if you’re on the arctic tundra, desert or above the treeline where the only firewoods is scrubby bushes and shrubs, get a hand clipper. You can gather a lot of twigs and small branches for fires quickly with a clipper, and there is virtually no danger in using one.

Machetes have a few inherent flaws. Like an axe, they rely on velocity to cut and chop, so there is always the danger of poorly-aimed strokes. The cheaper ones may have poor steel. Sharpening a machete is important, and because of the length of the edge, can be quite a chore.

But, like any survival tool, a machete may have its place in your survival gear or car survival kit. The option is certainly worth considering!

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Leon's Blog

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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