Get a (Borneo Jungle) Knife!

Jungle Survival Knives
Ok the title is a take on the expression “get a life” but in the rainforest your knife may well be the thing that saves your life.

See the starting a damp fire article for one essential use of a knife. Other uses go beyond the basic idea of cutting rope or tangled bootlaces. I could fill an entire book with the various uses that a good knife can have in the jungle but chances are I’d miss some!

When it comes to knives people tend to fall into one of three camps:

“You don’t need a knife, at least nothing more than a penknife”

“You do need a knife and it should be a really good one if possible”


“You need some dirty great machete of a thing on your belt as well as a machete.”

While the huge ‘Rambo’ style is great for bragging rights it will soon get noticably heavy so think about the weight rather than the length or “features”.

Solid Tang

One useful tip is to get a good quality knife where the tang, i.e. the bit that goes inside the handle, extends for the full length of said handle. Some of the more exotic and pretty knives out there can look great but the first time they’re subjected to real stress you find the only thing holding the handle and blade together is a bit of glue! The hollow-handled type of ‘survival knife’, usually with some little widgets such as a fishing kit and compass in the hilt, are great for everyday use but ensure that somewhere in your kit you have a truly solid knife where the money was spent on the blade, not the extras.

Folding Blade?

While there are certainly some very good quality folding knives around, and of course there are distinct benefits to a folding knife, your back-up knife of quality should be a fixed-blade.


Presuming you’ll be carrying a regular machete in places you’ll need one, or will be on a regular path and won’t need a machete, a good solid knife of a blade length anywhere between 4 inches and 8 inches will do. Personally I tend to favor longer models as long as they’re light enough. If you’re going to carry a 10 ir 12 inch monster of a thing you might as well go for a machete (and it’ll probably be lighter!). There is also the fact that a long knife that is not a machete may be considered a ‘weapon’ knife, see warning at end of page.

If in doubt aim for 6 inches or less, as that seems to be the legal cut-off point (pardon the pun) in many countries. An 8 inch blade tucked away inside a rucksac full of camping gear is less likely to get you into trouble than the same knife sitting in your day pack.

Reflective Blade

Some knives carry a dull and non-reflective coating. Sure, that may be great for skewering some Ninja attacker in a dark alley or something but one great use for a knife in an emergency is using the blade to flash reflections at people. As such when I’m sharpening my knife I tend to polish one side of the blade at the same time. See this tip on using a reflective surface to signal.


Serrated blades are great in many ways but realistically they are a pain to sharpen. By all means use a serrated back but your main blade should be smooth-edged.

Handle Material

Very much a matter of choice but consider impact resitance. To produce axe-like impact you can place the blade against something and wack it with a rock – brittle handles will tend to shatter doing this. My own knife has a rubber handle for just this reason plus it reduces the felt shock to my hands. Rubber is not everybody’s choice though.

Airports and Local Laws

I don’t think you’ll find any airport or airline today that will allow a knife in your hand luggage but you can carry a full-length sword in your cargo bag. However check the local laws before carrying the thing on your person in towns or cities. Generally it should stay in your rucsac or similar.

Be aware Asia on the whole tends to have pretty strict laws on knives. No form of switchblade, gravity knife or other such implement is legal – and penalties can be very harsh. The larger the knife the more it should be a simple machete, single-edged and without any weapon-like features such as an enclosed scabbard.

One notable law to be aware of is Malaysia’s strict ban on knives carrying any form of religious writing or symbol.

“In God we Trust” or something of that nature engraved in the blade could seriously ruin your holiday if you’re caught with it.

Buy Locally

When it comes to a plain workhorse machete it may be easier all-round to just buy one locally rather than lugging the thing halfway around the world. A standard item, without any fancy engraving of rhinos or anything, will only cost about $10 or so.