First Look: Iconic Opinel Knife Gets Survival Upgrade

A classic French brand pivots this month with a survival knife design. We took it into the woods for a first test.

Opinel survival knife

Opinel made its first knife in 1890, and since that date the French company, based in Chambéry, has produced untold millions of its iconic wood-handle blades. This year, the classic look gives ways to a knife designed for survival.

The Opinel No. 12 Explore, new this month, has a whistle, fire-starter, and a hook-blade built-in. These features blend seamlessly into a 6-inch handle that houses the company’s stalwart, fine-edge folding blade.

Review: Opinel No. 12 Explore Knife

I reviewed an early-release version in the woods this summer. At $49, the No. 12 Explore is a solid value for anyone in need of a backcountry blade. Its survival features are reasonable add-ons, and the system to hold them in place is unique.

Folding survival knife

Like most Opinel blades, the Explore model employs a stainless steel called 12C27 Sandvik. It will not rust and is known as a workhorse metal that will hold a razor edge. It can be sharpened easily.

The blade is about 4 inches long and 0.8-inch thick. It came out of the box medium-sharp — not fine enough to shave arm hairs and in need of some work with a stone.

Its blade deployed, the knife is large — a 10-inch piece in the hand ready to get to work.

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Folding Blade, Survival Features

At first, Opinel knives appear to be non-locking. But a ring on top of the handle spins, moving into place to keep the blade secured and locked, open or closed.

Opinel adopts this tried and true design used across its line for the Explore. Where the knife diverges from its heritage is the rubber and reinforced fiberglass handle and in-handle accessories.

The company made this knife for backpackers, hunters, fishermen, and survival-minded individuals. It can certainly perform for a variety of tasks in the outdoors, though serious knife junkies may prefer a sturdier locking mechanism or a non-folding blade.

Hook-blade moves laterally, secured in place by fire-starter 'pin.'
Hook-blade moves laterally, secured in place by fire-starter ‘pin’

Whistle, Fire Starter Built-In

Opinel’s design uses its built-in fire-starter as a pin to hold a hook-blade at the butt of the handle in place. It slides out of the handle a few millimeters and clicks in place when needed in the field.

Pull the pin all the way out and you have a ferrocerium rod capable of producing 5,000-degree sparks. I scrapped it against the back of the blade to shoot tiny balls of fire, igniting kindling into a smoldering mass.

The whistle is in the handle, and Opinel cites a 110-decibel max output. That can serve as a strong signal if you’re injured or lost.

Finally, the cutting hook is a small gut-hook type blade. It could be used to cut cord easily, and some hunters use them for cleaning game in the field, but the applications are fairly limited.

The above mentioned fire starter and whistle border on the “gimmicky” category of feature sets. Survival knives usually avoid bells and whistles. However, in this design, the extra elements are functional and don’t get in the way of the knife’s overall utility.

Whistle on knife handle
Whistle on knife handle

The handle is reinforced fiberglass. A rubbery material inlayed with topographical line details gives grip. It feels solid in the hand, hiding the fact that tools are built in. The ferro rod, whistle, and hook don’t detract from the utility, and may come in handy in a pinch.

Overall, Opinel has built a sturdy, streamlined product with its No. 12 Explore. At $49, the price is fair, and the features all performed in my test.

Look to this blade if you’re a backpacker or hunter searching for an affordable upgrade to the common straight-edge and like the extra security of an always-there fire starter and whistle while heading into the wilds.

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Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.

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