February 4, 2015
If you’re concerned about survival in the backwoods, having the tools you need when all hell breaks loose, or don’t feel comfortable heading anywhere unprepared, you need a survival knife. A survival knife isn’t just a blade – it’s an instrument of defense, but also one you’ll use to build shelter and cook. It has to be versatile, durable, and reliable.
We asked seven of the most widely-respected campers, hikers, and preppers for their input on what makes a great survival knife. And then we asked 100 more – because you can never have too much information. This guide is based on their input, as well as our own experiences. You won’t find a better resource on how to choose a survival knife you can depend on.
“I’ve been a wilderness survival instructor for almost 20 years, and if I only had one criteria for a survival knife it would be this – simplicity. I don’t need a knife that’s also a saw, hatchet, and cheese grater. Quite often, the more features you stack onto a knife, the more each feature suffers. For an EDC knife, I need a basic blade that performs cutting, slicing, and carving tasks very well. And if it happens to hold an edge a long time, that’s just gravy on top.”
MacWelch is the author of Prepare For Anything and the Hunting and Gathering Survival Manual. He is also the founder of Advanced Survival Training and contributor to Outdoor Life. Follow Tim on Twitter.
“In my opinion, the most important factor in picking a survival knife is trust. You have to be able to trust the manufacturer, the materials used, and the construction of the knife. By definition, a survival knife may be with you as your only cutting tool in situations where you might find yourself under duress. There’s absolutely no margin for manufacturing error or sloppy second rate materials when your life is in the hands of this blade.
You’ll of course want to pick a knife that suits your style and ergonomics, but always make sure the manufacturer is reputable and that the materials and construction are up to par for adverse conditions. The very last thing you want is your core survival tool to fall apart when you need it the most.”
“The single most important consideration when buying a survival knife that you can carry with you and count on all the time is the size of the knife. This is going to depend entirely on your situation, and how you plan on carrying the knife. For example, if you work in an office and you want to have the knife with you at all times, you probably won’t want a 12 inch long blade strapped to your waist. But if the knife is going to be in your car, that would be totally fine.
Really consider when the knife will be on your person, as small knives are easy to conceal but larger knives have advantages in some survival situations. Also be sure to comply with your local jurisdiction’s laws on concealed weapons.”
“Here’s a fact you can bank on… a large blade can do everything that a small blade can, but a small blade can NOT perform the role of a large blade. For an ‘ideal’ survival blade, all you have to do is look at all of those cultures that live closest to nature. Also look throughout history to see what people have used to tackle true wilderness environments.
You’ll find those folks carrying goloks, parangs, kukris, pangas, latin machetes, barongs, bolos, bowies etc. Hint: NONE of them carry pocket knives or anything resembling a ‘bushcraft’ blade. This has NOTHING to do with ‘machismo’, it’s a simple matter of what works and what doesn’t.”
Michael is a USAF veteran, and a graduate of the Air Force Wilderness Survival, Water Survival, and Special Survival courses. Michael is the owner and webmaster of one of the top ranked Wilderness Survival websites.
“The single most important thing is that the knife is such that you want to carry it with you all the time… This may seem obvious… But you have got to weigh your preferences, comfort, how you will wear it, the style of the knife, the weight, and the size, in light of the fact that the best survival knife is the one you have on you when you need it…
If there is any obstacle to you wearing your knife all the time… You are likely NOT to wear it all the time and run the risk of not having a knife on you when you need it most.”
“I think the most important consideration when selecting an EDC knife is that the pocket clip works work well in your clothes. I wear three distinct types of pants (suit pants, jeans, and BDUs) and finding a clip that works well with all three is tough! But when you do it is sweet!
The term survival knife is typically applied to a full-tang, fixed-blade knife. But these are not often carried as EDC gear. But if that is the only option, I would say that it needs to have at least 7 inches of blade length.”
JJ grew up in the Midwest on a small farm and fell in love with the outdoors. Later, he became a USAF Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Instructor. He now runs RealitySurvival. Check him out on YouTube and Twitter.
“The single greatest consideration for a survival knife is trust. You need a knife that says ‘I will not fail you.’
The number one rule for survival, if I remember my merit badge, is ‘maintain a positive mental attitude.’ I can think of little more devastating to one’s personal morale than to have a tool fail at a critical time. With a good knife and the knowledge you carry in your head, you have the foundation to begin to take control of your situation.”
The best in the field agreed on a few points, but left us with more questions than answers. That’s why we turned to an additional 100 knife experts, preppers, campers, hunters, and hikers. You need the perfect knife for every job when you’re in the backwoods, and we wanted to find out what one blade could do the job.
The answers our panel of experts gave us echoed our own beliefs about choosing a survival knife, like the trust you need to have in your blade. A survival knife has to perform under some extreme conditions – you need excellent materials, high-quality construction, and confidence that the knife won’t break, bend, chip, or rust. Your survival knife may be your only cutting tool in life or death situations. There is no margin for error. Sloppy construction and second-rate materials in a survival knife have real consequences.
Pick a knife that suits your style and ergonomics, but make sure the manufacturer is reputable, and that the materials and construction hold up under adverse conditions.
According to our survey, blade type is the most important aspect when choosing a survival knife. Why? Because fixed blades tend to be more durable and more effective at prying, batoning, etc. Of course, there are folding blades that can do these type of tasks, but in general you want a fixed blade for outdoor use.
Our interviewees consistently mentioned two great picks for anyone who expects to spend serious time in the wilderness. The ESEE 4 Plain Edge Black Fixed Blade Knife is a great knife for outdoor enthusiasts with a preference for fixed blades. For folding blade users, the Spyderco C95GPBBK2 Manix2 XL is a well-built tool that will last years in the field.
Despite what a lot of people say, you can use a folding knife for chopping and batoning…as long as it has a locking mechanism that you can trust. Keep in mind that folders can rust on the inside, and require more maintenance. They’re not a good pick for messy jobs, like skinning.
A tang is the back end of the blade, the part that secures it into the handle. In some knives, this piece extends to the butt. Other knives, especially folding blade designs, use partial tangs that extend just past the start of the handle itself. There are pros and cons to each design.
A full tang is powerful, and unlikely to break during use. Folding knives are not as durable as a full tang design. The connection between handle and blade can break long before the blade shows signs of wear. That doesn’t make a folding knife less valuable, however. When crafted from high quality steel with sturdy connections, a folding blade can be an extremely valuable asset. The portability and lighter weight offered by folding knives is a remarkable advantage in scenarios where space is limited.
Let’s get one thing straight. A flimsy blade won’t do you any good in the wild. Think about the amount and type of work that a survival knife is expected to perform. You need a blade with a thickness of 5/32” to ¼”. That may sound monstrous, but trust us. You’ll want that thickness when you start chopping wood.
If you don’t really plan on doing much brush clearing, chopping, or wood splitting, you can get away with a 3/16” blade. The 3/16” thickness is just about perfect for daily use. Be warned, though – thicker blades handle wear and tear better. When you know you’ll be doing heavy work, aim for a blade thickness of ¼”. You can get a good idea of blade variations and use from this discussion thread on Blade Forums.
Blade length is more important than you think. The length helps determine what you will be able to do with your knife. Most survival blade range between 4” and 7” in length, but as JJ mentioned earlier, there are some strong reasons to consider a blade of at least 7”. The smaller lengths are good picks for daily use, but set a strict limit on what you can get done in the back woods.
For wilderness use, stick with longer blades – they give more leverage for digging and chopping, and substitute as hunting blades when necessary. Knives that are too long or too short don’t provide the versatility needed for wilderness survival. Most survival knife owners find a happy medium near the 5” mark.
If you want to make a smart investment in your knife, get a blade with hard steel – but not too hard. The harder the metal, the better the edge holds. You’ll find a blade with hard steel like 52100 steel or W2 steel is better at breaking things and for use in tougher tasks in the outdoors. The drawback is that 52100 is prone to rust if not stored and dried correctly after use.
Don’t buy an extremely hard steel. Steel that is too hard is often brittle, making the blade more likely to break during use. Other popular, durable, and rust-resistant options are 440C steel, 154 CM steel, and S30V steel. The material you choose will also affect the frequency and ease of sharpening your blade. Certain steels lose their edge very easily, while others may hold a great edge, but don’t offer any other benefits for knife owners. Ceramic and titanium blades are NOT recommended for survival knives.
For more information on blade steel, check out Spyderco’s Edge-u-cation center’s Steel Chart.
Sharpening your knife in the wild is an essential skill for anyone planning on spending significant time outdoors. Accidents happen, you can over use your knife, and you can easily find yourself in a situation where sharpening skills can save you significant time, effort, and hassle. Even Bear Grylls made the importance of these skills known, during a trip to Costa Rica. Check out this video clip from Man vs. Wild:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cnk1A-PsgQ
As Bear demonstrated, sharpening your knife with water and rocks is recommended for survival settings. Oil sharpening can be slower, not to mention messier. If you don’t have a stream or water source nearby, you can use your spit to moisten a rock, and sharpen your blade that way.
Wider blades require a 25 to 30 degree stroke once you have smoothed the lip off the worn blade. Narrow blades can be sharpened at a 15 to 20 degree angle, as shown in this video.
Selecting the right blade material can help minimize the amount of time and effort you need to spend sharpening your knife, so choose wisely. Another factor to consider is the edge grind. Hollow edge grinds are a poor choice for use in the wilderness, even though they look good. They are tricky to sharpen. Look for a blade with a good compound grind, it will be much easier to sharpen when the time comes.
A high-quality survival knife should exhibit excellent craftsmanship in every aspect of its design. The key elements of knife handle design that you should watch for are:
In addition to these traits, the materials that are used to make your knife’s handle can have an impact on its lifespan. Make sure to choose an impervious and durable material. Many of the best survival knives include lanyard holes or pommels. A strong pommel on a full tang knife is a priceless feature – it allows you to use your blade for functions like splitting wood, chiseling, and digging without damaging the knife itself. Lanyard holes can come in handy if you need to lash your knife to a pole and use it like a spear.
High-end collector’s knives can easily cost more than $500. Unless you are a knife aficionado, you shouldn’t spend a ton of money on a survival knife. A true survival knife needs all the qualities we discussed in this article, but you wouldn’t want to break the bank if your knife broke or got lost in the wilderness.
For less than 10 cents you make your own survival knife, but you get what you pay for. Serious outdoors adventurers in search of a quality blade, but on a budget, should consider the Glock Model 78 Field Knife or similar options. The ESEE 4 is a great choice if you’ve got the cash and want a knife that you can trust in every circumstance.
When you’re in dire straits, you may not have access to a survival knife that you’ve purchased. You can still get by.
Make your own knife with river rock and a hammer stone, a hacksaw blade, a reciprocating saw blade, or even a flat file. These knives are great for the tough moments when a purchased survival knife is out of reach – but they aren’t ideal. Learn the skills to make them, but don’t bet your life on them when you have the chance to buy a quality knife you know you can trust.
That’s what it all comes down to in the end – trust. Unless you’re a steelsmith, you probably can’t put as much faith in a homemade blade as you can place in one you know that years of research, experience, and testing have crafted.
There you have it. The basics of the perfect survival knife’s construction are a balanced, non-slip grip on a solid handle, a tang and blade type that you are comfortable with. Blade thickness varies by your needs, but should range from 5/32” to ¼”. The length of your survival knife’s blade also depends on personal preference, but most survival knife owners prefer a blade in the 4-7,” range for maximum utility. Longer blades provide some significant advantages, so if you’re comfortable with a slightly longer blade length (5-8”), go for it.
The material and grind you choose will have a lasting impact on your knife’s wear and the blade’s life span. Don’t opt for cheap construction – a knife that breaks in the field is useless. And because even the best blades can fail, learn how to make your own survival knife in case of emergency.
No matter what EDC or survival knife you choose, you need to make sure that it can be easily replaced if damaged or lost, and that it fits your needs. We provided links to a few of the top choices on the market, as well as budget options. No survival knife is worth it if you don’t carry it with you at all times, so choose a blade that matches local and state regulations, too.
The first step to survival in the wild is choosing the right knife.
What blade are you carrying? Comment below!