Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Make Mine a Machete

You can keep the axes and hatchets, I'll stick with my machete.

The author putting an edge on with a mill file.

Anyone who has spent any time adventuring in the tropical regions of the world has surely seen the many uses of the ubiquitous machete. Variations of this extremely versatile tool are found around the globe in the hot climates of the lower latitudes, but surprisingly, the machete is under utilized in temperate zones such as North America. Sometimes referred to as jungle knives, it’s easy to see why these long cutting tools are popular in the tropics. For cutting your way through thick underbrush and vines, a more effective tool has never been invented. But the common machete finds thousands of uses in Third World countries, from butchering meat to cutting firewood and even building houses. Machetes are cheap, lightweight, and easily carried in a sheath that can be slipped into a backpack, canoe dry bag or worn on the belt.

Given these advantages, it’s surprising that more survivalists and other outdoors enthusiasts do not make the machete a standard item on their gear checklist. One reason for this is the north woods tradition of using axes or hatchets for chopping and cutting tasks, rather than long knives. Few wilderness travelers really have need of an axe however, as this heavy and cumbersome tool is best used for serious tree cutting and jobs such as splitting large quantities of firewood or building a cabin. This sort of woodcraft is rarely necessary unless you are in a secure bug-out location where you plan to stay for an extended period of time.

An alternative to the axe - the hatchet is meant to be a scaled down axe that is handy to carry and can be used to cut smaller pieces of wood to build campfires.  But it’s really a poor substitute for an axe in this capacity, and a good machete with a sharp blade can handle all your firewood cutting tasks and can also be used to fell small trees in an emergency situation where you might need to build a survival shelter.

The one job that axes and hatchets cannot handle at all that machetes excel at is cutting trail through dense brush. The narrow cutting surface of only 3-4 inches on an axe or hatchet blade is useless for cutting vines, springy branches, cane, or dense grasses. With a sharp machete, you can wade through such undergrowth with ease, the long blade clearing a wide swath with each stroke. In jungles around the world, native people who are experts with machetes can clear trail almost as fast as they can walk. In some places it's almost impossible to travel without one.  Aside from tropical jungles, the cutover land and second growth forest found in much of the U.S. abounds in briar patches and other dense undergrowth that forms walls of vegetation.  The same is true in many swamps where impenetrable canebrakes or palmetto thickets occur, and even in some mountain areas.  On numerous occasions, I have spent days at at a time bushwhacking off trail in the Appalachian Mountains where rhododendron thickets made walking practically impossible without a machete.

The machete can also perform many of the tasks you might need a knife for, as it can be used to cut almost anything, including chopping up vegetables and other food items. With a good machete, you can eliminate carrying a large camp knife and take only a small pocket knife or multi-tool for delicate tasks.

Although all machetes are cheap compared to fine knives, it’s worth spending a few extra dollars to get a good one. The bottom of the barrel variety usually cannot be sharpened to a fine edge. The best machetes are the imported ones from Central and South American countries, where the makers know and understand what qualities a machete should have. Look for a blade of spring steel that can be flexed, but avoid the flimsiest, lightweight blades and get one with some heft. Much of the effort of cutting is eliminated by letting the weight of the blade do the work.

Blade length is another consideration. Machetes typically range in length from 18 inches to as long as 30 inches. The shortest variety is handy for many tasks, but I prefer a blade of about 24 inches for all-around usefulness. This length will still fit inside a backpack and it is long enough to have the necessary weight for serious cutting. Many jungle dwellers that use their machetes daily prefer the longer 30-inch blades because they cut even better.

To keep your machete razor sharp, you will need a small mill file. Knife sharpening stones are too slow for putting an edge on such a big blade, but they can be used for the final honing after you’re done with the file. Don’t try to carry a sharp machete without a good sheath. The best ones are made of leather and many imported machetes come with nice, hand-made leather sheaths. Remember that the machete is an extremely dangerous implement that can cause horrendous damage if you cut yourself or a bystander who is too close to where you are working. Always keep the edge away from yourself and others and be especially careful of your legs and feet while cutting brush in front of you.


  1. Well said. Could you give a personal opinion on the Cold Steel machetes? I have several of them, but have not used them enough for a good opinion of them. I also have a few Tramontinas and am looking at those Condors (especially the Golok), that one looks really nice.

  2. My favorite right now is one I brought back from Honduras that has the label "Montero" on it, made in Honduras. I've used it for years and it's springy, well-balanced, and of good steel that takes an edge. I do intend to test a couple of the Cold Steel blades and will report on that here, but have not had extensive experience with them. The Tramontinas look pretty good, but again I have not used them. Before bringing blades back from Central America, I purchased my machetes at a forestry supply company back when I worked as a land surveyor. They had high-quality Collins machetes made in Colombia and I found them to be excellent and designed and built to do real work.

  3. I bought the Condor Golok but am mildly disappointed with it. It cuts fine, but the round handle shape with gloves often turns in the hand sideways, giving only glancing blows. :^( One of my friends told me to install a lanyard (hole already provided by Condor) and tighten it to prevent it from twisting - hope that works. Otherwise, not a good buy.

  4. Okay, neat trick I found out yesterday I should have thought of earlier.

    Had purchased a CS machete, on-line, but thought the factory sheath was over-priced (and not good quality) so I looked around. At a surplus store, found a Cordura sheath looking much better quality - bought it. The rated length is 2 inches longer than the blade I have, which is great for inserting handle into the extra length. Tight fit - machete will not fall out, even if shaken upside down. And when I need the machete when worn on belt, just let handle rest on top of as normal.

    Another thing I noticed - the shop had the military 'plastic' military sheath as well, but not only was heavier, but when you inserted the blade inside it, it made a 'thonk' sound I think would carry in the woods. I also wondered how moisture would be released from it - it has drain holes along the side, but I think it would still retain a lot of moisture inside it, damaging tool.

    Or maybe I'm wrong - but thats what I learned yesterday.

  5. More machete doings . . .

    Using that trick written at American Bushman, I removed the black 'paint' from the machete blade with Bar Keeper's Friend and a ScotchBrite pad - worked very easily, as a matter of fact. Not completely cleaned yet, but way better.

    That black paint does a pretty good job protecting finish, but it sticks in thicker vegetation that isn't cut outright - so it had to go. A little more cleaning and more sharpening with the file is next on agenda.

  6. For me it has to be the cold stel Ghuka Kukri in SK-5 steel. Fantastic knife for both outdoor survival tasks and close combat.

  7. I totally agree with what you said here, but
    it seems like a bit of a contradiction to say "it’s worth spending a few extra dollars to get a good one." and follow that with, "The best machetes are the imported ones from Central and South American countries". Especially when you consider Tramontina, Imacasa and other brands from Brazil and El Salvador, etc., can be had nearly dirt cheap in the U.S. and have an excellent reputation.


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