Wilderness & survival tools – price versus quality

I’ve been puzzled by something for a long time, and talked about it with Miss D. this evening.  I’d like to put the question to my readers, and ask for your input.

Most of us have used wilderness and survival tools such as a hatchet, a machete (which I knew as a panga in South Africa), a fixed-blade belt knife, a folding pocket knife, and so on.  However, when I came to this country I was surprised to see the number of people who insisted on buying very expensive tools in those categories – knives from Bagwell, or Randall, or any of a number of custom and semi-custom knife makers.  Even more common brands such as Cold Steel charged more than I expected for their knives and tools.

In Africa, the lesson I learned from an early age was that tools of this sort are disposable items.  Sooner or later (and probably sooner under hard use) you’re going to break it, bend it, lose it, or have it stolen (either by other people, or by a jackal or hyena wanting to gnaw on the blood-scented handle of a skinning knife, or something like that).  For that reason, ‘designer’ or name-brand tools were not very common among my contemporaries.  They mostly carried cheaper tools, ones they could break or lose without worrying about the cost;  and they usually carried or had available multiple copies, so that when one was gone, they could replace it without difficulty.  I used wilderness tools according to that philosophy for many years.  It became second nature for me to expect to lose or break one from time to time, shrug my shoulders, and pull out the next one.  They worked as well under normal conditions as the more expensive tools, and I was never heartsore at losing one when the time came.

I was therefore surprised to realize that friends here routinely took multiple-hundred-dollar knives, axes, tomahawks, etc. on hunting camps and cross-country treks.  Sure enough, I saw them broken or lost from time to time, amid wails about the financial cost involved.  I stuck to my African habits.  For example:

  • When it comes to folding pocket knives, I use them mostly for small utility jobs like cutting string, opening parcels and packages, etc.  Any cheap pocket knife will do for that, provided it’s kept sharp and the mechanism is in good working order.  The most I’ll spend on one is $20-$30.  Lower-cost models from Cold Steel, Gerber or Kershaw (particularly the latter) suit me fine, and there are really cheap Chinese knock-offs if economy’s the thing, although their quality leaves a great deal to be desired.  I treat the latter as throw-away items.
  • My favorite general-purpose belt knives (for skinning, whittling, striking against firelighters, even for use when eating) are Mora knives from Sweden.  At $8-$12 apiece, they’re very affordable.  They’re the sharpest blades I’ve ever known straight out of the factory, and they’re tough enough for most routine jobs.  This one is currently my preferred model, mainly because it has a finger guard – something I find important, given the extreme sharpness of the blade.  I have several of them ready for use right now.
  • My heavier-duty belt knife, for tougher jobs in the field, is the Glock field knife (model 78) or survival knife (model 81).  The latter is the same as the former, but with a saw-back to cut roots, etc.  Both are very tough indeed, come with a polymer sheath, and are reasonably priced at $28-$35.  (The olive drab knives are frequently cheaper than the black, for some unknown reason.  Since a knife is a working tool to me, not a fashion statement, I buy the cheaper option.)
  • Machetes have to stand up to a lot of abuse.  Frankly, I find the expensive ones don’t do much better than the cheaper ones under normal use, although under extreme conditions I daresay the former would have an edge (you should pardon the expression).  One that I really like from a design and utility point of view is the Cold Steel gladius machete.  Not only is it sharpened on both edges, meaning you can simply turn it over in your grasp and continue chopping when one edge gets blunt, but it’s modeled after the Roman legionary gladius or short sword, making it a very viable defensive weapon against snakes and nasty aggressive critters (even those on two legs, in a pinch).  On the other hand, you do have to be more careful when using it, as the back edge can cut you or a companion if you mishandle it.
  • As far as small camp hatchets go, I again buy cheap units (like, for example, this one), and carry a low-cost but effective sharpening tool to keep its edge (and that of my machete) in good cutting order.  This tool is also very useful to dismember animals.  A Mora knife can take care of the hide, sinews and muscles, and the hatchet can cut through bone, joints, etc.  The combination makes it unnecessary to spend a lot of money on a high-end skinning and butchering knife.  (Some cheap hatchets have poorly-shaped blades.  I find it worthwhile to re-shape them using a grinding wheel and/or files, then re-sharpen them.  YMMV.)
  • I choose to spend more money on a good-quality wood axe, to fell small trees, break up larger branches, and to use its blunt top as a hammer if necessary.  This tool might have to work very hard, and a better-quality blade will hold its edge longer and not suffer nicks so easily.  The haft will also probably be of better quality and last longer.  My personal preference is for Gransfors Bruks Swedish axes, but there are many other choices.

I can put together an outfit with one each of all of the above items of equipment for less than the cost of a single knife from a high-end manufacturer (never mind a custom bladesmith, who may charge several times as much again).  I think I get much better value for my money that way.  What say you, readers?  Do you think it’s worth paying higher prices for better-quality tools in these categories, knowing that they’re going to be not just used, but probably abused, and are easily lost or damaged?  Are my African habits out of sync with the American way of doing things?  Let us know your views in Comments.

(I apply the same perspective to many aspects of camping, preparedness, self-defense, etc.  I’d rather have a strong, practical but low-cost tool, instead of spending much more money on a high-end product that I know will inevitably suffer damage or be lost in due course.  Even in firearms, for the same price I’d rather have several Glocks than a single high-end 1911 pistol.  That’s heresy to some people, I know, but . . . )



  1. My most useful tool, year end and out, is a surplus US Army entrenching tool. I have two KABars, one, about 30 years old with a 4" blade, one regulation size. These three tools, along with a Leatherman type multipurpose, seem to fill all my needs. Total investment? Less than $100.

  2. Peter, I'm with you for the most part. I buy quality gear, but I'm not a name-brand gear-snob like many that I know. When it comes to knives, I want good steel and rugged, solid construction. (The Glock knives are right up there with Camillus and K-BAR work knives, IMHO.) They are tools and I also expect mine to get scraped, nicked, rusted, etc., and eventually lost or broken. It happens, like you said. I just want something that will resist breaking for as long as possible and when it does go, I want it cheap enough that I don't feel the need to mourn it and can readily replace it if I don't already have a spare handy. My dad always taught me that you get what you pay for with your tools, but you can also be foolish and over-pay just for a name brand or some silly feature that you likely won't use. Common sense in gear buying is the way to go, and brother, I think you've got it.

  3. Mostly agree – quality doesn't have to cost a lot. Sometimes, yes, but not always. Disagree on the cold steel gladius; I've tried a lot of machetes, and if I had to use it in a fight I'd be happy to have it, but for all ordinary field work the sharpened back edge has almost been a problem too many times. I'm comfy with swords (spend a lot of time doing medieval recreation fighting with swords and spears in my misspent youth) but when not armored or needing thrusting or wrap-aound back-edge strikes, I don't like it.
    My "Air Force Survival Knife" has butchered just about every deer I've ever shot, still love it. Gerber folding shovel, or cold steal for an "undercover self-defense" tool that also makes a sturdy kids beach sand shovel.
    Speaking of saving money on "survival tools," I got a GPS for Christmas, a Garmin 62s, and was appalled that it came with essentially no topo maps, and they are expensive from Garmin. Went looking, asked around, got pointed to GPSFileDepot.com and switchbacks.com for some GREAT free maps. The same coverage would have cost more than $500 from Garmin, just to get decent coverage of the handful of states I'm likely to visit.

  4. While I'm not a veteran such as yourself, I have had to draw a gun in self defense (I was fortunate enough not to have to pull the trigger). At that point, familiarity with the gun was far more important than whether the trigger was 4 lbs or 8lbs etc. In that scary moment, all I wanted to know was that, if I pulled the trigger, the gun would work.

    My opinion on guns and most knives is the same as yours. I too feel that "good enough" with a spare or two beats a work of art.

    Besides, a bullet doesn't care what kind of gun it was shot from.

    Regular practice makes defensive gun carry work. My advice is to put the price difference into ammo. And, don't hoard it – shoot it!

    I do differ a little when it comes to my everyday-carry knife. I use one a lot, and it has spent hours in my hands over the years. For the last decade (plus or minus), I have carried a fairly expensive knife that, for me, is ergonomically superb (Griptilian with thumbhole blade).

    The fact that it is still as tight as the day I bought it is indicative of money well spent.

    Also, I feel I can rely on it as a defensive weapon because I am able to draw and open it instantly and almost without thought. In this case, the ergonomics of the knife do make a difference. And, yeah, I have a spare (2 in fact).

  5. I don't think you're off-base at all. While I certainly see the beauty in something like a Randall knife, it would be a safe queen – and I don't make enough money for that.

    My hunting knife for the past ten years or so has been a Buck "Small Diamondback". I keep a second one tucked into the console of my truck as a spare. I think they were about $25 each. (Buck has since discontinued that model in favor of the "BuckLite"; I would happily use those in the same role.) I keep a Buck 110 in my hunting gear as well, just in case.

    My daily pocket knife has been a CRKT or Kershaw for quite a long time, although I switched to a Boker Auto once I reached a free state. Like you, the $25-40 range is normal, and if I see a good price on a good knife on Woot! or similar, I'll grab a couple and tuck them in the toolbox as replacements.

    I'm a fan of the Cold Steel kukri machetes, and have a couple M7 bayonets floating around as larger utility knives.

    My carry gun has been a 1911, a S&W snub, a PM9, a S&W .40, and now an M&P40… I think the PM9 is the highest price tag of the bunch, and still WELL under a thousand.

    So, in short, no, your views are not at odds with the US way… but to those who CAN afford to use a Randall or custom 1911 daily, AND won't cry about it when it gets damaged – bully for them.

  6. Peter, the endless supply of extra special new stuff and "gotta have it gear" has been going on for years- pick a hobby- skiing? Motorcycling? Woodworking? how much stuff do you really need? And if you already have it, how can the manufacturers convince you to buy the newest model?-
    by making the price higher and telling us it is the be all and end all of cool stuff. And since we have been swimming in money, we go for it. When the money is absent, the gadgets drop away.

  7. I can't argue with a single point you've raised, Peter. Solid quality is not always synonymous with name-brands, nor is price always a correlation.

    I have a standard-issue KaBar, a Leatherman belt tool (more useful at work than in the bush), an inexpensive "entrenching" shovel, and a $15 hatchet.

  8. I've been carrying a knife since age seven or eight always considering it an essential tool to have. Does it work without falling apart? If I lose it can I replace it?

    I think the most expensive knives I have are a couple of Gerber LMFs. I got one new by trading a pack of South African 7.62×51 for it-about $30 at that time) and the other I bought used from an Iraqi vet for about the same amount.

    I think a bunch of inexpensive knives and machettes make good "trade goods" too.

  9. I have relatively cheap knives and some more expensive ones.

    My hunting knife is a Buck Ranger
    that I paid under $40 for.
    I wouldn't be without one. One of
    my EDC knives is a $19 K-Bar folder. Those are a lot more knife than they might appear to be.

    So far, I've never had a mainland Chinese-made knife that was worth
    the price. Knives from Taiwan, on the other hand, work fine and stand up well.

    I have one large Browning knife that I bought just because I wanted it. And a fairly expensive "bird and trout" bought for the same reason. Would like a custom Bowie but haven't found one I liked enough to buy yet.

    One of the machetes around here was broken off short, possibly in
    World War II. When we lived in the Islands my parents had us use it to chop up block ice. It hasn't been used for much in a while but I don't see any reason to get rid of it.

  10. I remember being told as a young man (during one of several Cold War scares) that buying low cost/"disposable" tools and weapons gear was a safe option only as long as the re-supply source could be relied upon. If there suddenly was "no more store", then having bought the most reliable/useful/dependable/capable/cost-be-damned item was the economic best choice.

    Personally, I've come to the similar conclusion as yourself and others here have observed; many inexpensive examples of the same (effectively similar) gear item is the most robust option for both recreation and survival situations.

  11. I have mora's, Gerbers and Kershaw. I think the mora is the best of the bunch. I don't see much need for machete, but I have a couple of no names of those. Hatchets are the roofing kind and I pick a couple up from Home Depot when the one I am using is a little ratty.

    While I have a 1911 it is not my first choice in carry pieces. while a lot could go wrong and I would be minimally armed, I am still armed.

    Best scouts are sent out with one knife, few clothes and little food. Keeps one on their toes.

  12. I agree with you about Mora knives — I have two so old that they have wooden handles, and I still think they are great.

  13. I don't buy something for its' name, but for its' use; hefty price tags do not impress me. I buy the right tool for the job – good quality stuff that will last if I take care of it. There is usually a "sweet spot" for each product type of very good quality and functionality without very high cost.

  14. Peter:
    I agree wholeheartedly! My philosopjy has been to use the inexpensive stuff from great quality manufacturers and keep spares.

    Cold steel makes several good low cost field knives, in addition to the Gladius machete. The "Bushman" knives started it for them ($30 retail belt knives that can be made into spears, sharpen easily, come with a good sheath). They offer several other choices in field knives too. I also like their tomahawks for hiking and camping.
    Cold Steel offers the multi-hundred dollar knives too, but you don't have to spend that kind of money to get good tools from them.

    Glocks. M&P's would also work, but I'm old and started out with Glocks and don't have a good reason to change. Model 19's for around the house or general carry. Model 20's and 29's for fishing in Alaska. As an aside, nobody but Glock makes a cheap and reliable 10mm.

    Leatherman Tools in the $30 range. I have lost too many to buy expensive ones ever again.

    As usual, YMMV, void where taxed, licensed or stupid.


  15. Got an original Collins machete from 1944. When it gets a little dull all I need is a ten inch flat bastard file.

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