I like Les Stroud and his Macgyver-style survival solutions, as demonstrated in his Survivorman series on the Discovery Channel, but I totally disagree with his concept of the survival spear as shown in the photo at left. To me, that’s a waste of paracord and a good way to ruin the only knife you have with you. You can use that knife to make a better spear than that without much effort at all. A small hardwood sapling or bamboo cane, with a sharpened point hardened over the campfire for an hour or so, makes a much better spear than the Rambo knife lashed to the branch. The simplest spear is just a pointy stick. Shove it through something and it wedges in, holding better than a knife blade and putting your other vital equipment at no risk.
Why anyone would want to put a good knife on the end of a pole and bash it against rocks in a stream bed, I just can’t figure. Many knives are tempered hard enough to snap when used in that way, and in a survival situation you don’t have a grindstone handy for putting a new point on what’s left. Knives lashed to a pole penetrate only to the length of the blade. With a simple wooden pole spear you can run something through and pin it to the ground.
Evidence for the practicality of the simpler approach can be found in any indigenous culture. In Australia, spears were tipped with very basic points, using materials such as the claw of an emu or a piece of chipped stone, lashed in place and glued with pitch. All you need for the spear tip is a hard, sharp point. The rest of it follows upon impact.
A good steel spearhead does outperform the simple, disposable spears that ancient people tossed around with atlatls. But, if you only have one steel spearhead it’s something you want to hold onto, not throw. The Masai spear illustrates that efficient defensive design, built to penetrate the target and slash from inside. If you throw it at something, you’d better be on the mark, because a missed throw can do considerable damage to the weapon and leave you defenseless. Some Assegai spears were designed for close combat, not for throwing, and those designs, shorter and stronger, often make the best sense as defensive devices. For throwing or hunting by thrust, you need something more expendable.
Modern spear designers often expect that users will want to carry the spearhead as a knife and equip it with a shaft when necessary. Military survival knives might include holes in the handles to facilitate lashing the knife to a pole. SOG invented a knife with a spear-shaped blade, fitted with internal threads that grip the end of a broom handle or a maintenance man’s extension pole. Seems kind of useless in the woods, however, because those threads are just going to sit crooked and strip out on the first use. If you carry a broom handle when you hike, I don’t want to talk to you. If all you have with you is a pocket knife, you can whittle a better spear than the SOG. It’s pretty good for digging cat-hole latrines, though.
Spears can be very efficient in some survival circumstances. In the winter, you might stand a better chance of spearing a fish than of catching one on hook and line, simply because in many climates fish don’t feed as actively in cold weather. In the cold clear water of a temperate lake, you can often find schools of fish hanging quietly beneath rock ledges during cold weather, within reach of a spear thrust. Dangle a lure in front of them and they’ll ignore it. A slender spear with a pronged tip or a barbed point at least gives you one chance at a meal. A knife-bladed spear like the SOG or Les Stroud’s cobbled knife/spear would just slice through most fish and leave them dying in the water, out of reach.
In the summertime, you might find rough fish like carp feeding in shallows. To catch one with a spear you’d need to design the weapon to fit the quarry. A little frog gig might not hold a large carp for long, but a simple pole spear could pin the carp in place. Frog gigs, on the other hand, can yield quite a lot of food if you focus on frogs. Sneaking up on a bullfrog in the daytime probably won’t work, but at night if you have a flashlight or even a torch the light dazzles these tasty amphibians and blinds them to your quiet approach. Frog gigs made from split cane or split saplings work well enough until you bash them into rocks. Then you can make more. The same tool also works for fish, but it’s a much tougher game to play.
Most frog and fish spears are cheap trident spears made with prongs that bend rather than break when you hit something unexpected. People unfamiliar with the craft complain about that, but something that takes this much abuse shouldn’t be expensive. You can sometimes bend the cheap Made-in-China gigs straight again with no tools other than your fingers, or pound them back into shape with a couple of rocks. They might not look as pretty as they did in the store, but they still work.
For daytime frog hunts, that almost useless hook and line in your pocket survival kit will work a lot better than any spear. Cut a long, slender cane or branch and tie the hook and about a yard of line to the tip. Use a small swatch of cloth or paper as bait. You can sneak close enough to dangle the bait in front of a bullfrog, which almost always mistakes it for a flying insect. Kind of a mean thing to do to a frog, but when I was a kid I put a lot of frog legs on our supper table this way and I know it works shamefully well.
For defense against an animal slightly larger and more dangerous than a frog, a cavalry lance point serves well. You’ll probably never need it but it’s a nice thing to have around. Paul Chen of CAS Hanwei designed a beautiful and functional replica lance point with spur pommel, but you’ll have to provide and fit your own shaft to it. With or without the pommel it’s a very good hiking and self-defense staff/spear — an efficient point that won’t scare other people unnecessarily.
Condor Knife & Tool recently developed the Pipe Spear Knife. I like this design a lot, and not just because it’s carbon steel instead of stainless. CK&T makes knives, machetes and other tools that are usually more beautiful in concept than in appearance. The Pipe Spear Knife can be used as a survival belt knife, but take the pommel cap off and you can fit a spear shaft to it. This is a strong blade that will take a lot of hard use — much better when used as a spear point than as a knife, but usable for either purpose. The belt sheath makes a very nice cover for the spear point when mounted on a hiking staff. In an emergency I wouldn’t even bother to remove the sheath, it still pokes things painfully well.
Good tools are always helpful in the woods, but they don’t have to be complicated. Observation and imagination are your best resources. Most of the things you bring in survival kits won’t be all that useful for gathering food, in the configuration they come in. It’s always the wrong season for that, or you’re hunting something the toolkit doesn’t fit. In nearly every situation, a knife will build the right gear from found materials, and you can fill the gaps in with your other supplies. If you lash your good knife to a sapling and bash it on a rock in a stream bed, blame yourself. You should have better sense than to do that.
Visit these links for a look at some old aboriginal tools that worked better than most things you can buy today. With a good knife and a little practice you can make them, too.