I’ll Take Sheaths for 500: Choosing the Sheath Material That’s Right for Your Survival Knife

Posted by Leighton Taylor on

Photo by Bill Bradford. Used under Creative Commons.

There’s something very satisfying in the *click* that comes as you load your gun, the explosion as you pull the trigger, and the *thud* of whatever it is that you hit as it falls to the ground. That’s a gun though. A knife is meant for stealth--a quiet slip out of the sheath into your capable hands to whittle, skin, slice, or stab.

Your knife is your companion, and as your companion, it deserves to be protected and carried in a worthy vessel. Sure, a survival knife’s sheath isn’t quite as important as the knife it’s carrying, but it still plays a crucial role in every aspect of your knife’s well-being.
Not only does it help you carry your survival knife around without accidentally hurting yourself or anyone else, it also provides your survival knife protection against exposure to the elements. A good knife sheath keeps your blade from getting scratched while you lug it around in the great and cruel outdoors, allows you instant access to your knife, and prevents you from losing it.

So a sheath is definitely important, and if it’s important, then you ought to put a good bit of thought into the type of sheath you want to use to carry and protect your precious blade. The various types of sheaths on the market today are usually designed based on how you want to carry your fixed blade survival knife. Do you prefer to have it strapped to your belt or leg, hung around your neck, or tied to your bag? While the designs do vary depending on the manufacturer, the materials used are mostly the same. Each material has its pros and cons, so we’ll take a little time today to talk about that to help give you a better idea of what kind of sheath material you’ll want for your blade (no matter how you decide to carry it).

Leather Sheath

Leather is one of the traditional materials used to make a knife sheath. It's very rugged, tough, and strong. It won't break like plastic does and can easily be re-sewn should the stitches come loose. A leather knife sheath feels and looks good and may remind you of or even make you feel a part of the “good ole days” when mountain men and cowboys ruled the land. As an added bonus, the attractiveness of a leather sheath only gets better as it ages (if properly cared for, of course). Aesthetics aside, a leather sheath is quite versatile and will provide a custom fit to your knife once it's broken in. The best thing about leather knife sheaths is that they're silent; you can easily pull the knife out or put it back in without making a sound.

Photo by Eugene Peretz. Used under Creative Commons.

While there are many advantages to a knife sheath made of leather, there are also some disadvantages. It's not waterproof (though it can be treated to make it water repellant) so getting it wet a lot or exposing it to extreme heat can dry out the oils in the leather which could lead the sheath to crack. Fortunately, oiling it from time to time can help make it last a long time.

Nylon Sheath

Nylon is another material that is commonly used in knife sheaths. Just like their leather counterpart, nylon sheaths are also tough and strong. Unlike leather though, nylon sheaths are resistant to rot and mildew. They're also not as vulnerable to water as leather sheaths. Another great aspect is that nylon sheaths aren't easily scuffed or torn. The best thing about nylon sheaths (IMHO) is that most of them are MOLLE compatible.

Photo by Jun Wang. Used under Creative Commons.

As for its disadvantages, nylon sheaths don't last as long as leather ones, and where leather sheaths fit your knife better over time, nylon sheaths get stretched out over time which means that your knife won't always fit snugly inside its sheath.

Plastic

Plastic sheaths (not Kydex) are probably the cheapest ones you'll ever find on the market. You get what you pay for though, so you shouldn’t be surprised that plastic sheaths are quite probably also the ones that are the cheapest quality. A plastic sheath is most definitely an inhospitable home for you trusty blade to be carried for an extended amount of time. If you do get a plastic sheath with your fixed blade survival knife, make sure you replace it as soon as possible.

Kydex

Kydex is a thermoplastic acrylic-polyvinyl chloride (what a mouthful!) material that is used in creating holsters and sheaths. There are several advantages to having a sheath made from this modern material. It's waterproof, scratch resistant (it has a Rockwell hardness rating of 90), and will not stretch or shrink over time (under normal conditions). It remains unaffected when exposed to most chemicals like skin acids. In fact, Kydex sheaths are extremely durable and will hold up fairly well when exposed to different environments. They are also great for the forgetful or negligent person as they really don’t require much attention or care when compared to leather sheaths.

As for disadvantages, one of the biggest complaints about a Kydex sheath is that it's noisy and cannot be used in stealth mode. There’s no such thing as silently withdrawing your knife from a Kydex sheath, and if you accidentally brush against something you can count on your Kydex sheath to make a bit of noise. That being said, there is something particularly smile-worthy about “snapping” your blade into its sheath, but I digress. Because it is stretch proof, a Kydex sheath can sometimes be too loose or too tight for your survival knife (rattle time!). With a Kydex sheath, you do risk dulling your blade’s edge as you repeatedly withdraw and replace your knife into the sheath unless there's an insert within the sheath.

I’m sure price, appearance, and practicality all factor into your survival knife sheath decision, but it’s always important to remember that your survival knife is only good to you if you can ensure that it remains protected and secured. And let’s face it, your knife is more important in a survival situation than the sheath. So, while you're debating on which material works best for you, also put a great deal of consideration on how the sheath will “get along with” your survival knife and how it will help you carry and secure your knife while you explore the great outdoors.

 

Survival knives

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