Many production knives, particulary any inexpensive ones, should be sharpened before putting it in your kit or taking it into the field. These knives come from the manufacturer with an ever so slightly concave edge that is not as quickly sharpened in the field, or they just are not sharp to begin with. If you don't prepare it properly ahead of time, you will waste valuable time and effort sharpening it in the field the first time. Some of the better manufacturers are now using equipment that grinds a flat primary edge, so the need to re-harpen a new blade is not nearly as universal as it once was.
A sharpening device is a must. Some will argue you aren't likely to be out there "that long." Hogwash! Given the misuse and abuse a survival knife may be subjected to, it is short sighted not to carry a sharpener, particularly since there are many small models available. Any knife will lose its edge with use. A survival knife can be dulled very quickly, especially one of lesser qualtiy steel, particularly when used by those unfamiliar with the tool or if circumstances require using it creatively for non-traditional tasks.
Best to leave the traditional natural stone behind. They require water or oil for decent results, can be somewhat fragile and take more effort on harder steels. That's fine for a bench stone, if you're a traditionalist, but not the best choice for survival use. Man made stones are much better, but still work best with lubrication of some sort. These two types are the sort normally included when the knife purchased includes a stone with the sheath. It's not that they won't work, it's just that technology has produced far better for survival use.
I prefer a fine diamond sharpener for survival use since they are sturdy, virtually unbreakable, and do not require lubrication, though it doesn't hurt to wash them out regularly. The choices here are between rod or stone styles. Either will do the job, provided you know how to properly use it. It's purely a personal issue as to what works best for you. For those with no experience whatsoever, using a stone seems a bit more intuitive and it seems easier for the novice to control the blade angle using a stone.
Sharpeners come in a range of abrasiveness. "Fine" is probably the best all around choice. Fine will give a good sharp edge and with a little effort will even bring back a badly dulled or damaged blade. "Medium" or "Coarse" will quickly sharpen any blade and the edge will suffice for most uses, but it won't be quite as keen as a fine stone would give. "Ultra fine" is not well suited for general purpose sharpening. Many sharpeners are available with grooves to sharpen fish hooks, but how important that is for a survivor is debatable. Probably not enough to seek out one if the style you want is readily available without it.
EZE LAP makes a number of good lightweight rod style sharpeners in fine abrasiveness which are inexpensive, compact, light and easy to use. The EZE LAP model "B" (model M with a much lighter aluminum body instead of brass), "C" and "S" are the smallest and lightest versions, in descending order. The smallest "S" model is the size and shape of the upper portion of a typical retractable pen, with a pocket clip, and 4 in. long closed. This 2 1/4 in. rod has a flat side, rounded side and a fish hook groove and is one of the most versatile small sharpeners around. The "ST" is the same size as the "S," but the rod is tapered for use on serrations. Rod styles with brass bodies such as the EZE LAP "M" and GATCO "Diamond Stix" work just fine, but weigh quite a bit more.
A number of small flat ("stone" style) shapeners are available. The EZE-LAP 2 1/2" x 3/4" Keychain Diamond Stone with Fishhook Groove is the smallest and lightest and a goood value. Only available in fine. If size and weight are your primary considerations, this is the one to go with. It comes with a plastic snap clip larger than the sharpener itself, but that can be dispensed with. A plasic sleeve protects the surface from contamination in your pocket. Somewhat larger stones, but still pokcetable, are Diamond Machining Technology's (DMT) "diamond whetstones." They are lightweight and come in a range of small sizes: 70mm (2 3/4") x 25mm (1") and 3 inches and 4 inches long by 7/8 inch, all 3/16 inch thick, in a range of abrasiveness from "extra fine" to "extra coarse." The only drawback to these small stones is that it isn't too difficult to slip and cut yourself, since due to their small size your hand is in close proximity to the blade.
DMT's solution was to introduce the "Mini Sharp," a nifty little package comprised of a 70mm diamond whetstone which unfolds from an integral plastic case that becomes a handle, making it easier and safer to work with. A detachable plastic swivel and key ring are included. About 3 1/2 x 1 1/8 x 1/4 in. closed (and just over an ounce), it is a suitable compromise between size and utility for this style sharpener, a good choice for a survival pack. The 4 inch diamond whetstone is also available in their "Diafold" style with integral "butterfly" style folding handles cum storage case, making it easier and safer to use as well, but it is quite a bit bulkier, though not a whole lot heavier.
Ceramic sharpeners, rod or stone style, are excellent, but they tend to be somewhat fragile for use in a survival environment, though they are not nearly as breakable as one would expect. You have to work at busting them. Lansky makes a "Pocket Crock Stick" with a pair of fine ceramic 4 in. rods which store inside the plastic base, protected from damage. The base has a pocket clip, but it really is a bit bulky and awkward for pocket carry. It would work fine in a survival kit. They also make another small sharpener, the "Fold-A-Vee," which offers a pair of 5 in. rods and two sharpening angles. The enclosed "vee" makes it somewhat safer to use, less chance you might inadvertently cut yourself. This one is definitely a kit size and configuration sharpener.
The smaller plastic pocket sized or field variety with encased pairs of 1/8 in. diameter rods, arranged to form a vee, such as is available from Gerber, Normark and Fiskars, are sturdy and unlikely to break unless violently abused. These generally have two sets of rods, fine and medium or coarse, one set to a side. Note that some knives with thick blades won't work on some of these pocket ceramic vee sharpeners because they won't fit in the narrow slots. Best to try before buying, if you have any concerns.
The Lansky "Mini Crock Stick" is a bit different. It offers two fine removable rods and two sharpening angles with its offset "X" design. A weakness to this design is that the rods are not as well protected as the fully enclosed designs and the potential for their being broken is higher, though it withstood repeated drops onto concrete and rocks, as well as other abuse. You can break the rods, however, if you accidentally step on it just right.
Another take on this concept is the GATCO "MICRO-X" sharpener which has an interchangeable pair of rods, fine and medium in the "2x4" model. The pair of rods not installed in the vee, or "X" as it is in this case, are stored on the side of the sharpener where they can be used to sharpen a serrated edge, provided the serrations aren't smaller than 1/8 in. diameter. A molded guide gives you the proper angle to use, a nice touch. The MICRO-X has the widest throat of any of this style sharpener, by a big margin, large enough for any knife. Like the Lansky, its only weakness is the exposed rods. This would be a good choice of this variety of sharpener, if you're carrying a knife with a serrated or partially serrated blade.
Tungsten Carbide sharpeners also will do the job, but don't leave as keen an edge as a fine diamond or ceramic sharpener. These sharpeners have a pair of tungsten carbide pieces arranged so a vee is formed, through which you draw the blade. In fact, they do a pretty crude job, relatively speaking, but they are very effective and pretty much foolproof, both worthwhile attributes. In general I am not enamored of these sharpeners. Perhaps I am being a snob.
On the other hand, there is one carbide sharpener I am, paradoxically, fond of and often carried it in my pocket in the past whenever flying or off in the wilderness. This is the Sterling Systems "Superior Sharpener."
This sharpener is a very convenient pocket size and shape (3" x 1" x 1/8" w/ round ends) and is very well thought out. Besides the basic model with just the carbide inserts, they also offer a model with a small flat fine diamond dust surface glued to the lightweight aluminum body (available both anodized and in plain polished aluminum), perfect for giving a final edge to the blade or for use just as a touch up. I drilled a small lanyard hole in mine, the only feature it was missing and they have since added a lanyard hole to the sharpener.
It takes a bit of finesse to use it properly, you must hold the sharpener at an angle to get the best results, but with a bit of practice it becomes second-nature. It's a good value and perfectly sized so there is no excuse not to carry it with you. Let me emphasize that I carry and recommend this sharpener as a field expedient sharpener because it is effective and compact and as I often say, if it isn't with you, it can't save you. Like all carbide shapeners, it does not leave a refined edge, but it will sharpen a dulled knife so that it can be useful again. I would not recommend it or any carbide sharpener for regular sharpening and if size and weight is not a critical concern, or you are confortable using a stone style, use a diamond or ceramic sharpener in the field (see above). For the much harder stainless steels now available, such as BG-42, S30V, etc, the carbide sharpener is a poor choice and I do not reccommend it.
For sharpening at home or to sharpen a dulled knife there are better devices than a small field sharpener as discussed above. For simplicity, ease of use and a inexpensive price, nothing beats the Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker. I use one for quick touch-ups and for the kitchen cutlery. It also works very well for serrated blades. It comes with a decent video on how to use it by Spyderco founder, Sal Glasser. The GATCO and Lansky sharpening systems are also adequate, a bit more complicated, but also with more options. The best available sharpening system and the one I use at home is the Edge Pro. This sharpener is infinitely adgustable for those wishing to modify edge angles and such and takes some practice to use. It is not for someone who uses a sharpener only occasionally. However, it is simply the best, for which you will pay a premium. The Edge Pro is not for serrated edges. It comes with a decent video on how to use it by Edge Pro designer and manufacturer, Ben Dale.
In the opinion of some, both the ceramic rod and tungsten carbide vee style sharpeners are flawed because you are locked into the angle they give you, usually 20 - 30 degrees. Though a purist might argue the point, that's not generally a problem for the survival user. In fact, for those unfamiliar with sharpening a blade, these designs actually offer a major advantage. Holding the blade at the correct angle for use with conventional rod or stone style sharpeners and maintaining that angle throughout the sharpening process is one of the most difficult tasks for the novice. It is almost impossible to mess up with these designs. A minor disadvantage to these vee style sharpeners is that they are less versatile and cannot easily be used to file or sharpen other things, something which you might want to do if improvising some tool or hunting weapon. Flat and rod sharpeners lend themselves to these sorts of tasks.
There are those who prefer a butcher's steel to a sharpener for touching up a plain blade's edge, rather than removing metal. Pocket size models are available, but they are not a replacement for a true sharpener, especially out in the field. While a steel does a great job at keeping a kitchen knife's edge straight and sharp for longer periods, without removing any steel, the sharpening angle used in a survival knife is generally not so fine in order to make a more durable edge. As such, it doesn't work the same as on a thin kitchen knife and a steel simply isn't appropriate for the job. Leave the steel in the kitchen and take a real sharpener into the field.
If you carry a serrated edge blade, be sure your sharpener will work on it. A flat sharpener won't do. Some serrated blades can be sharpened with a carbide vee sharpener, but the results can be marginal. If there are multiple sized serrations, different size scallops in the edge, a tapered rod design such as the EZE LAP "Model ST" or the DMT "Model FSKF Diafold Serrated Knife Sharpener" that tapers from 1/4 to 1/16 inch, work best. A sharpener such as the GATCO "MICRO-X" with very small diameter rods may also work, depending upon the serration design. All of these models will also work on plain edge blades when used carefully.
Lastly, if you carry a traditional style sharpener, as opposed to a "vee" style, learn how to use it, on the knife(ves) you will be carrying. Alone in the wilderness with a dull knife isn't the best time to learn how to sharpen your blade. If you purchase the sharpener locally at a knife specialty store, they will usually be happy to teach you how to use it.
For more detailed information on sharpening products and how to sharpen a knife:
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