You’ve got your knife or knives, so you are all set, right? Not so fast. Any knife will dull during use, particularly the heavy use which might result from a survival or emergency situation. It is highly recommended to include a knife sharpener in your survival kit.
There are a number of ways to sharpen a knife. These fall into the categories of ‘grinding’ or ‘cutting’, and ‘rearranging’. Grinding and cutting are pretty close; the difference tends to be that when grinding, the material removed tends to become embedded in the sharpening media, which wears down during use, whereas when cutting, the material removed falls away or can be easily wiped off and the media does not wear down or at least not as fast. Rearranging, of course, does not have much, if any, material removed.
The classic ways of rearranging an edge for maximum sharpness are a ‘steel’ and a leather strop. These generally are not the best choices for survival sharpening, since they tend to be larger in size and can only increase sharpness of a decent edge, not repair a dull or damaged edge. There are ‘pocket sized’ steels, but they generally are only of use for smaller blades, so would tend to be a secondary sharpener, not your primary one. If you wear a leather belt with an unfinished or natural back, it can serve as a strop for any size blade, but again is a secondary sharpener, not a good primary one. Note that with a steel, you are moving the edge INTO the sharpener, while when stropping, you move the edge AWAY from the sharpener. This makes sense, as if you moved the edge into the leather, the odds of you cutting into it are pretty high.
Stone and sandpaper are classic ways to grind an edge. The problem with grinding is that you often need multiple ‘grits’ to properly handle all sharpening situations. ‘Course’ grits to reshape a damaged edge and ‘fine’ grits to sharpen it. Plus, the grinding media wears down during use and in the case of stones, usually needs to be used ‘wet’ with oil or sometimes water to reduce clogging. Most sandpapers are not used wet; you just discard them when they become too worn or clogged. Stones can break, and the small ones suitable for a survival kit tend to be dangerous to use due to the closeness between blade and fingers, and the lack of any guard. Not only that, but they are inefficient, since a long blade has to be done in ‘sections’. A small stone with differing grits on each side, or two small stones can work though if you really like this methodology; for maximum effectiveness and safety, use them as ‘files’ with the knife stationary instead of the classic method of having the stone stationary and moving the knife. At home, a set of large stones in good mounts and a good supply of honing oil is one of the better ways to get a really good edge. In a survival kit and situation, stones are usually not the best choice for most people.
Ceramic and diamond impregnated media are ways of grinding which reduce some of the disadvantages. You still need multiple grits, but the sharpeners can be thinner, don’t need water or oil, and don’t clog or wear as fast. They do need to be wiped off after use though. Depending on what the base a diamond impregnated sharpener uses (often metal, sometimes even magnetized), it is usually not at all fragile; on the other hand, ceramic is even more fragile than stone, so unprotected ceramic sharpeners should be avoided for survival use. Diamond impregnated is easier to get in courser grits, whereas ceramic is easier to get in finer grits. Ceramic in a protective holder can be a good choice; diamond impregnated is often a good choice.
When it comes to ‘cutting’, most common is carbide, although a standard file is also a cutting methodology. Cutting sharpeners have varying degrees of effectiveness, since you are pitting the hardness of the sharpener against the hardness of the blade being sharpened. Cutting tends to be best for reshaping an edge; you may need a second sharpening method to really sharpen the new edge. Carbide can be a decent choice for a survival sharpener, particularly along with a fine grinding methodology. Files generally are a bad choice, unless the blade to be sharpened is relatively soft.
As to shapes, sharpeners can be found as ‘blocks’ (most stones, and some ceramics and diamond impregnated are this shape), flats with or without ‘handles’ (some steels, diamond impregnated, a few carbide and most files), rods or tapered rods (ceramic, steels, and diamond impregnated), and ‘V’ notches (carbide and ceramic). The ‘V’ sharpeners have two cutting surfaces arranged in a ‘V’ shape; the advantages are that you are guaranteed a constant, ‘correct’ angle when sharpening and most can be quite safe to use. They are also fairly durable. The downside is if your knife does not have the angle that the V is set for, or the notch is not wide enough for your blade, it won’t work at all. Rods, particularly tapered ones, are about the only way to sharpen serrations.
As you can see, you need to match your sharpener(s) to your knife or knives. Very often, a sharpener which is perfect for one knife is of little or no use for another. Let us consider some possibilities.
Smith’s Diamond Retractable Sharpener is a decent contender. Carried, it is the size of a large pen, with a two part rod. One end has a flat for improved straight edge contact, and the other is tapered for serrations. It also has a groove for fish hooks and other pointed objects. In form, it is pretty good, but only has one, medium grit, so might not provide the sharpest edges. The Gatco Scepter 2.0 is bigger and heavier, magic marker sized, but has both a carbide ‘v’ to restore the edge and a tapered diamond rod with fish hook groove for serrations or other angle blades. It also has a magnesium fire starting rod. This one also only has medium grit. Both of these provide an excellent and safe grip while sharpening.
Smith’s Pocket Pal is even more versatile, with a carbide ‘V’ groove to restore an edge, a ceramic ‘V’ groove to hone the edge and a tapered diamond rod, with a decent grip during use. If the ‘V’ angle is correct for your knife, this would be a superior choice, but if the ‘V’ is not correct, this would be of limited use. Note they have a ‘survival’ version of this; bigger but with LED light, whistle, magnesium fire rod and compass in addition to the same set of sharpening options.
From Left to Right: Gatco Scepter body, mount with firestick and tapered diamond rod which screws over the firestick,
Smith’s pocket diamond body and rod, Smith’s Pocket Pal
EZE-Lap is a major player in the diamond impregnated field. They have compact diamond impregnated ‘stones’ (1″ x 3″, 1″ x 4″ or 1″ x 6″) in a variety of grits. These don’t need oil or water and are very durable, so a pair of these in appropriate grits would be a potential choice. Be aware that these tend to be relatively heavy (the base is metal) though. Even better is a two sided, folding handle 3/4″ x 4″ unit with super fine and medium grits (they also have one with fine and course grits if you want a complete set). Perhaps their most iconic product is a line of plastic strips with various grits of diamond impregnated surface on the end, available separately or in sets. Try one to see if it works for you; some people have great luck with these; some find them of limited usefulness (safe to use but the small size makes them inefficient for bigger knives). Finally, they have (or at least used to have) a line of ‘credit card’ sized sharpeners in various grits. If you have the room, the two sided folding model is probably the best choice of these; the credit cards are a good option if space is limited.
From Left to Right: EZE-Lap stick set, EZE-Lap Stone and pouch, EZE-Lap folding dual grit sharpener
From Left to Right: EZE-Lap credit card sharpener set,
2 mini files, an ignition file and a needle file with accessory handle
Note that there are other companies with possible useful models that I don’t have any experience with. DMT is another company big in diamond impregnated sharpeners; they have products similar to those from EZE-Lap. Lansky has something like the Pocket Pal which might be superior for a serrated blade, since it has a serration hone in addition to the 2 V notches and the diamond rod. Lansky also has a dual sided folding diamond sharpener similar to the EZE-Lap one. Vulkanus has a spring-loaded ‘V’ technology which they claim both sharpens and hones any angle blade; either of their 2 smallest models might be useful in medium and big kits. If you can find one. Undoubtedly there are other companies who make sharpeners.
See the picture below for some stones, particularly an ultra small stone in a case which protects it when packed and helps protect your hand during use. Something like this, in two grits, might be a good option, but does not seem to be available. The one shown is claimed to be for USMC Special Forces, and as far as I can tell, is only available in a medium grit. Spyderco has the ‘Double Stuff’, which is a thin ‘stone’ with medium grit on one side and fine grit on the other which does not need oil or water, which sounds promising, but the cost is too rich for my blood, so I haven’t tried it. Besides, it is not clear what technology this is, but there are indications it might be made of ceramic; if so, it should be packed in a protective container.
Left to Right: Dual grit stone, Single grit stone
Bottom: Military pocket stone and cover
The smallest sharpener is probably the carbide one from http://www.beltbuckleknife.com. They have a ‘fancy’ one for your keyring, or a cheaper ‘wholesale’ version which comes with a matching magnesium fire starting rod. If the small size is not a necessity, EZE-Lap has a carbide blade mounted on a serious handle (EZE-Edge).
As ceramic rods go, one of the few to consider for a survival kit is the Gatco Tri-Seps. This has a flat edge, large and small notches for fish hooks and pointed items, and two different radii for serrations. The rubber end caps provide some protection against breakage, as well as reference flats for a correct angle. These can really enhance the edge, but of course are of little use in repairing a damaged edge. It would be a worthwhile secondary sharpener to put on a fine edge after your more aggressive primary sharpener reaches its limits. They also have a diamond impregnated version of the same thing which might be a decent choice as a primary sharpener.
From Left to Right: BeltBuckleKnife.com sharpener and ‘wholesale’ version with firestick
EZE-Edge with cap, A pocket steel, Gatco Tri-Seps, an old KaBar sharpener
I’m not sure what the KaBar sharpener is; at first I thought it was a flat steel, but then I noticed that it was removing a noticeable amount of material. Not that this is important, since it does not appear they offer this any more.
As with most survival equipment, look for a way to attach a lanyard. Stones will be a problem, but most others have a lanyard hole or ring, or can have one added.
What would I choose? If at all practical, I would have a Pocket Pal, which works well on many of my knives, for EDC (Every Day Carry). In the smallest kits, I’d at least have the beltbuckleknife.com carbide sharpener and possibly a super fine grit EZE-Lap stick (cutting down the handle if necessary) or even better, credit card sized sharpener. In bigger kits, I’d have the EZE-Edge carbide sharpener instead of the beltbuckleknife.com one (not that it is any better, just easier to use). The Tri-Seps pair (diamond and ceramic) or the folding EZE-Lap dual grit would be my remaining sharpening selection for larger kits. This would provide the best sharpening (of my knives, at least) practical in any sized kit. In general, I try to always have carbide, a medium grinding option and a very fine option for honing; if that is not practical, than at least the beltbuckle.com carbide and a very fine option.
UPDATE – I found that the Tri-Sep diamond version seems to “wear” fairly quickly (visibly and with reduced performance). I no longer include that in any kit.
Note that while in an survival situation with a dull knife is not the time to figure out if and how your sharpening system works. Make sure you can sharpen your knives in the comfort of home before you need to under duress. The best method would be to have a duplicate knife and ruin the edge so you can practice, but this may not be economically feasible. Destroying the edge of a cheap knife similar to your real one would be an acceptable alternative to learn how to sharpen an unusable edge. Once you are good at using your sharpener, you do want to enhance the edge of your real knife to ensure that the sharpener will work with the real thing (even if the blade shape and grind is ‘nearly the same’ as the cheap knife, the steels and/or heat treatments are likely to be different).