Having spent more than the last decade practicing survival skills in the jungles of South America, I’ve learned that a simple machete is one of the most important blades to ever be invented. True, most of them are not made from some super-duty, exotic steel; nor will they pry the tracks off a bulldozer, but when it comes to vegetation and chopping out a living in the wilds, no other blade can outdo the common machete. In my opinion, a lot of folks often overlook this style of blade since it doesn’t have the cool tactical factor, but users such as surveyors and indigenous cultures who spend a lot of time in heavy undergrowth will tell you there’s nothing more valuable.
The simple machete is often thought of as a cheap piece of steel made only for jungles and tropical regions. And while there are tons of low-priced machetes out there that do an exceptional job, a few manufacturers have recognized the value of the blade style and are beginning to add higher quality machetes to their lineup. When I say “higher quality,” I’m talking about better fit and finish, along with better heat treat, and, most important, good factory edges. While I’ve been a user of cheaper machetes for many years now, the one thing that’s always a given is you have to sharpen the factory edge before using it. For years I’ve kept an old belt sander in the shop that’s used for nothing but sharpening machetes. Well, these new higher quality machetes come ready to cut right out of the box. A couple of notable blades that fit this category are the Gerber Gator and the Condor Knife and Tool El Salvador Machete. Both of these blades come from the factory with shaving sharp edges (the Condor’s edge is convex), comfortable handles and a heat treat made to work in heavy vegetation.
Recently, I put these two machetes to the test in preparation for another upcoming survival trip to the Amazon jungle. Typically, we just wait until we’re in-country and buy whatever the flavor of the day is at the local hardware store, but by the time this article reaches the newsstands, a Gerber Gator and Condor El Salvador machete are literally going to be making a new home in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. These machetes will be tasked with building shelters, clearing jungle and waterways, making fire and gathering/trapping food.
With an 18- or 22-inch machete, you can easily cut sapling poles to build a raised sleeping platform, cut down large palm trees to gather palm fronds for a waterproof roof and cut enough vines to lash the world together. In fact, you could go to the jungle with nothing but a machete and be sufficiently tooled up to build your own community. And even though we typically allow our students a few “non-essential” items such as ponchos, plastic ground cloths and smaller folding and fixed blade knives, by the end of the trip they’re living a day-to-day life with a few simple tools: a mosquito net, a fire starter and a machete. All the other stuff they thought they needed is either stored in their packs or given away to the local guides. Life here is truly lived at the tip of a machete and not much more.
How To Really Hack It!
Granted, our existence in the USA doesn’t require trapping food, fishing and living in thatched roof shelters, so the machete may never gain the respect here that it has in the Third World, but I do believe they are overlooked in the States as a viable survival tool. A quality machete with proper use can cut through hardwoods, split firewood and make quick work of shelter building. But there are a lot of knife users who think the flexibility and thin design make it less of a survival tool but not tough enough for hard use. Well, I disagree. Bush survival does not require stiff, thick blades. If anything, these type blades are more of a hindrance to bushcraft than a help. Of course, I think a lot of this has to do with our mentality that stronger is always better. If you watch a typical American wield a large knife or ax, they do it as if their life depended on it, stressed to the max with all their energy and muscles clenched in a death grip.
When you compare that to the fluidity of the South American villager, the difference in work efficiency is apparent. First of all, the proper grip for swinging a machete is what I like to call a pinch grip. By gripping the machete with your thumb and index finger and allowing it to rotate slightly just before impact, the machete blade reaches higher cutting speeds than the hammer grip that most machete users tend to use. When used in this fashion, the blade flexibility actually works to the user’s advantage. A dull machete that is held and swung properly will cut as well as a sharp machete in the hands of an inexperienced user. When you swing a machete, relax and let the blade do the work—not your arm. Allow technique and blade length to do the work. The reason for the length of a machete is twofold: It allows more blade speed at the end of a blade without the user having to swing like they’re trying to drive a golf ball 500 yards, and it allows a longer reach than standard fixed blades. Use the final 1/3 of the edge for your cutting chores and cut at extreme angles when cutting through flexible material such as vines and light brush. When chopping, don’t try to drive the machete into full depth, since you will simply stick the thin blade. Cut out chips of wood by cutting at an angle and alternating from one side to the other to produce a wedge of wood that releases—same as using an ax.
Stateside Survival Use
So, what type of machete is the best for stateside survival use? I prefer a thin blade such as the 2-mm thickness found on the Condor, a traditional Latin blade shape and an 18-inch blade length. A standard “V” edge grind works fine for most uses and is easy to maintain, but if you have the time and can put a convex edge on the blade, it will hold up longer and not stick as quickly in heavy cuts. Sheathing is not that important to me since I typically travel through any vegetation with blade in hand. When it’s no longer needed, I lash it to my pack, throw it in the bottom of the boat or in the bed of the pickup truck, or stick it in the ground by a tree.
One thing I do like on my survival machetes is an easy-to-see orange handle. With that said, very few manufacturers are using this color for machetes marketed in the United States, even though we probably have more land surveyors in the bush than any other part of the world. Tramontina makes an orange-handled model but does not offer it for sale inside the U.S. So, the option to this is to tie a bright-colored lanyard to the handle or simply spray paint a bright color on the first 1/3 of your machete blade beginning at the handle, and then keep the paint touched up between trips.
If you travel through a lot of bush like I do and want a blade that’s easy to use, easy to maintain and works extremely well for most any survival situation and environment, then a machete may be just the ticket. While efficient use of a machete is an art, once you get the hang of it, you’ll never go back to the thick, rigid blades that cut from brute force instead of true technique.
Having spent more than the last decade practicing survival skills in the jungles of South…
by Terrill Hoffman / Sep 28, 2008