How to Choose a Survival Knife

bravo-1 Ever wonder how to choose the perfect survival knife? This article will show you how.

In my opinion, a survival knife is your most important tool when caught in a wilderness survival situation. While it’s true that you can improvise a knife out of stone or bone when out in the wilds, there’s nothing that compares with the steel blade for its strength, versatility, and usefulness. However, not every steel knife will do in a survival situation. Knowing what to look for when choosing a survival knife is just as important as having one. After reading this article, you will know what properties make up the perfect survival knife and you will be able to find one that is tailor made for your needs and situation.

Key Things to Avoid in a Survival Knife

narrow_tangWhile there are many attributes that are less than ideal in a survival blade, here’s a list the main things you should avoid when choosing a survival knife:

  • Narrow Tang: If you were to take off the handle of a knife, the tang would be the part that extends from the base of the blade onward. As you can see in the picture, this tang is relatively narrow. This is fine for the purposes of a kitchen knife, but when put it up to the rigors of survival/outdoor activities (chopping wood, pounding the blade for splitting small logs etc) it is susceptible to breakage.
  • Folding Knives (including multi-tools): While I always keep a folder on me at all times, which more than adequately covers most of the activities I do in a survival situation, it is still less than ideal. Remember, this article isn’t about how to choose just any knife that will do, but about how to choose the “perfect” survival knife.
  • Huge Knives: Hollywood is to blame for filling up our minds with pictures of survival knives being these huge monstrosities (Rambo, Crocodile Dundee etc). Although you could slay a crocodile with one mighty thrust, the larger the knife the more difficult it is to do the intricate work that a survival situation requires. And for that reason, I’d be more worried about getting fire going, making tools for hunting and trapping, and setting up camp than a crocodile attacking me — especially since I live in New England!
  • Hollow-Handled ‘Survival’ Knives: While there are exceptions to this (see some of Chris Reeve’s knives) most hollow-handled survival knives that house a small survival kit in the handle are two-pieced and more for gimmick than they are useful. Their two-piece design — like the narrow tang — can easily break when splitting wood or doing heavy work.

What to Look for in a Survival Knife

full_tangSimilar to the list of ‘dont’s’ above, here’s a list of core requirements that every survival knife should meet:

  • Full Tang: I consider this to be one of the most important attributes of a survival knife. A full-tang knife’s handle is the tang itself and is usually wrapped or covered with some material to make it more comfortable to carry and use. Since the handle and the blade is one integrated piece, the chances of it breaking are very minimal.
  • Fixed Blade: Although there are numerous folding knives which do an excellent job in a survival situation, if there were to be an ideal (and again, this article is about the ideal knife :)) you will want to have a fixed blade knife. That basically means that the entire knife is integrated with the handle and cannot be folded shut..
  • Reasonably Sized: I realize that ‘reasonably sized’ is a very relative term. What I mean here is that it should be small enough to do most intricate camp work (trap making, notches for fire boards etc) but large enough to do heavier tasks like splitting small logs. This ideal is obviously different for different people, but in general it falls between a blade that is 4-6 inches.

Now that the basics covered, if you want to go beyond them then you’ll want to be aware of the following:

Steel Type

For the rigors and requirements of survival knives, not all steel is equal. Steel quality determines the strength of the blade, its toughness (ability to take impact), how easy it is to sharpen, and how long it will hold that edge. While I could write pages and pages about the various differences of steel types, for the purposes of this article I’ll briefly cover the most important points.

Most knives are made from two broad classifications of steel: Carbon Steel and Stainless Steel. As a general rule stainless steel is more rust resistant than carbon steel but can be more brittle (less tough) and more difficult to sharpen compared to the average carbon steel. Carbon steel on the other hand can be made extremely sharp, is tougher when being used for splitting or chopping, is easier to sharpen, but if not maintained it will easily rust.

It’s important to know that most of these differences disappear as you go up in terms of price and quality of manufacture. Here is a list of steels that I recommend:

Recommended Stainless Steels

  • S60V
  • BG-42
  • S90V
  • CPM S30V
  • CPM 154 (this is my favorite stainless steel)

Recommended Carbon Steels

  • D2
  • A2 (this is my favorite carbon steel)
  • O1
  • Carbon V
  • CPM 154

Blade Geometry

blade_pointsThe way a knife blade is shaped determines its overall functionality. For example, a chef’s knife is shaped in such a way that it is perfect for slicing tomatoes or dicing garlic. That same knife however has no business out in the woods. The same holds true for the double-edged spear point and tanto-style knives. These knives are built for fighting and are perfect for thrusting and stabbing but do not hold out well in a survival situation.

Instead you’ll want to choose a clip point or a drop point style blade. These blades are suited well for the tasks required in a survival situation.

A clip-point blade’s tip is formed by a slight concave curve at the top. When slightly curved these tips are perfectly acceptable and strong. Clip points with exaggerated curves are susceptible to breakage if your pounding the spine while chopping wood.

The drop point blade is the best all-around blade style. It is formed when the back or dull side of the knife slopes downward at a slight angle beginning at around the half-way point and meets the blade edge slightly above center. This blade geometry is best suited for the various tasks required out in the field.

Blade Edge

The edge or the sharp side of the blade should be from base to tip one continuous edge. In most cases you’ll want to stay away from serrated edges. While they do have their uses, they are difficult to sharpen out in the field and there is little functionality that they add out in the bush.

Spine

In general you’ll want the spine or back of the blade (opposite the blade edge) to be flat (no saw or sharpened edge). This allows it to make a good hitting platform when pounding it with a hard stick to aid in splitting wood. One exception to this rule is Tom Brown Jr.’s “Tracker” knife. Although the knife is a bit cumbersome for my tastes, it’s unique design is suited well for splitting and chopping wood.

Conclusion

Although I go into a lot of detail explaining the ‘ideals’ to look for in a wilderness survival knife, it ultimately comes down to your individual preferences. The most important thing, as I mention in many other threads, is to find what works for you. If you have some friends who have different knives, try them out and see if you tend to prefer a smaller or larger version. Take those attributes that I’ve told you to look for and put them to the test.

Resources

Here are some excellent resources for learning more about knives and their make up:

  • Steel Guide – This chart gives you a great overview of the various types of steel and their make up.
  • Steel Type Description Great summary of the various steels as well as their positives and negatives.
  • BladeForums.com This is a fantastic forum made up of many professional knife makers. They have great tips and a wealth of knowledge.
  • Equipped to Survive Knife Review In depth review into what makes up a good survival knife.

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37 Comments»

Comment by kevin
2011-09-26 13:24:48

while i must agree with MOST of what you wrote i have a question what about coldsteels bushmaster i bought one around 9 or ten years ago it came FROM THE BOX straight razor sharp i have used it for anything and everything i could think of ive done some wood carving with it ive used it to gut fish and chopped wood with it THIS THING FLAT OUT ROCKS

 
Comment by David O
2011-09-30 18:21:29

Good article. I’ve got a Cold Steel SRK that’s held up quite well in the field. I have several cold Steel knives and like Kevin’s they’ve all come out of the box razor sharp. The Mora knives are also excellent and quite affordable to boot.

 
2011-10-03 11:01:10

David and Kevin,

I’ve definitely heard good things about both the SRK as well as the bushmaster. I did own a similar knife (the Master Hunter) which I loved but unfortunately broke while out in the field (was chopping wood with it). Cold Steel make a number of great knives at affordable prices.

 
Comment by Nicholas
2011-10-22 17:04:41

So…what is MOST?

 
Comment by Beni
2011-11-26 00:50:57

I was looking at an SOG machete and was wondering if that would make a good survival knife.

 
Comment by Vernondo
2012-06-01 04:19:56

This seems like a no-brainer to me.

Simply ask yourself what knife has been in the most survival situations and returned to tell the tale.

It’s the legendary K-bar, ladies and germs. Available in various sizes………

 
Comment by Max Malone
2012-09-03 20:45:38

I choose the BK7 as my go to survival knife. A lot of heft to get the job done

 
Comment by Rob
2012-09-12 00:38:08

The best knife currently (and perhaps ever) manufactured is a Mora Companion SG in carbon steel, at $12.00 + shipping costs. It’s also the highest value knife available.

If you are in a humid environment or around water a lot, you may want to opt for the Sandvik 12c27 Stainless version. It’s comparable in edge retention and ease of sharpening, and needs no care whatsoever.

I trust my life to a Morakniv Companion MG every day without hesitation.

For anyone concerned about tactical use it’s camouflaged and a 4″ blade is plenty big enough to dispatch an enemy if you are specially trained. ;)

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2012-09-14 14:16:57

Rob,

I love the Mora knives. They are excellent.

 
 
Comment by Rob
2012-09-12 00:42:05

I meant MG (not SG!)… for Military Green. I was just playing my Gibson SG and had a brain fart. ;)

Still the best knife ever!

 
Comment by jazmine
2012-11-24 13:51:51

My knife has a small twist-on flashlight, a sharp decent sized knife, a small pair of scissors, a corkscrew, a screw driver, a normal bottle opener, a sharp bottle opener, a saw knife strong, a file for your finger nails i think, and another little thing but i dont know what it is. I just wanted to know if it is a good knife?

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2012-11-24 18:33:22

Jazmine,

It sounds like you have a folder (folding knife) not a fixed blade. It’s my recommendation for out-in-the-bush survival that you carry a fixed blade knife in accordance to the specs I detail in this post. If the folder is all you have though, by all means use that. It’s far better than nothing at all.

 
 
Comment by Norman
2013-02-14 16:32:47

I was in the Royal Navy for many years and managed to ‘Borrow’ The MOD survival knife, it’s a bloody corker and can be viewed on the net. I’ve built a raft and skinned coneys with it, it holds an edge, full tanged and is very heavy for it’s size. I ‘acquired’ a Golock machette but the older ones weren’t very good. The new designs however are excellent, Sheffield steel and there’s a short version which I have as jungle clearance is not a priority in Blighty!! It also fits in the scabbard cover of the SA 80 bayonet. Multi tools and folding knives have a weekness the hinges. Always go for the best you can afford even if you have to save up!!! I have a Leatherman which comes to pieces using an Allen Key so you can replace parts that break. Be careful of all singing all dancing knives, a good carbon steel butcher’s knife is good, they rust like hell but are easy to sharpen and hold the edge

 
Comment by Dave
2013-02-20 15:54:47

I agree that Ka-Bar does have very good knives. My favorite is the USMC.

 
Comment by Pat
2013-03-21 16:35:42

Take a knife with a full spine, remove the wood, plastic grip and replace with paracord using the same technique to make a bracelet. Just use the spine as the center cord. Comfortable and convenient.

 
Comment by Tim | Camping Knife
2013-04-10 03:00:17

I always avoid a narrow tang, or half tang, they’re just not worth throwing away your money. When it comes to a good outdoor knife, I prefer a drop point or a tanto. You don’t really see the clip point on new knives anymore.

 
2013-06-11 23:44:09

Hi there! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a group of volunteers and starting a new project in a
community in the same niche. Your blog provided us beneficial information to work on.
You have done a wonderful job!

 
Comment by Matthew
2013-06-12 02:03:47

Nice article. While steel is important I find consumers tend to get too hung up on all the technical details. What’s more important in my opinion is the overall design of the knife and particularly the ergonomics. Give me a well balanced knife with 420HC than a poorly designed one with S30V anyday.

 
2013-07-04 04:47:15

Yeah! I love Mora knives also, those spanish guys made a really good job with that knives.

 
Comment by Brett
2013-07-11 14:04:28

Good pointers. I prefer the full tang, tanto point, and anything made by Benchmade.

 
Comment by roger
2013-07-22 16:24:50

@Brett, I second anything made by benchmade.

 
2013-09-17 11:15:20

Thanks for this guide! I know a lot about pocket knives but I’m still learning about survival knives. There’s so much information and varying opinions out there, thanks for presenting the facts and helping me to get a clear understanding of what I should be thinking about and considering for my first survival knife purchase. Take care and keep the great articles coming!

 
Comment by Rock Cowles
2013-10-16 16:56:45

The article itself was well written and informative. However many of the comments are frightening. I am not a knife snob, but firmly believe in buying quality. As the old adage goes, “Don’t buy a five dollar knife unless you have five dollar fingers.” Blade steels, lock, and handles can and do fail, especially on cheaper knives. You get what you pay for. Cold Steel makes good affordable knives. The Bark River Knives as seen in the articles photos are excellent, but being carbon steel require regular cleaning and maintenance. Do the research. A knife could save or cost you your life.

 
Comment by Tyson
2013-10-18 03:38:43

Have youu ever thought about including a little bbit more than just your articles?
I mean, wnat you say iss fundamental and everything.
Nevertheless think about if yyou added some great graohics oor videos
to give your posts more, “pop”! Yourr cojtent is excellent but wwith images and clips, this website couldd definitelpy be
one of the berst in its field. Awesome blog!

 
2013-10-20 11:35:55

In my opinion, the best survival knife is the Bravo-1 from Bark River. It`s just my personal thought, but I`m talking from experience. This knife has helped in some really tough situations. I don`t live camping or hunting without him.

 
2013-11-07 10:19:25

Very well written article regarding the survival knife, I personally Spyderco knife.

 
Comment by Andre Raul
2013-12-16 04:18:22

nice post, survival knife is very useful tool.. for our self defense. thank you for sharing nice post with us..

 
Comment by Robbie
2014-03-28 16:06:14

Great article. I really appreciate the fact that you not only outlined the things to look for when buying a survival knife, but what to avoid like the plague. Most reviewers don’t do that–I think they assume that the omission of what to avoid is implication enough that you need to avoid it. So thanks very much.

I’ve also heard a lot of praise for the Tom Brown Jr’s Tracker knife for chopping wood, making kindling, etc. Looks like I’ll have to venture out into the world and try a few of these knives out myself.

 
Comment by David
2014-04-21 22:43:25

I would love to hear you expand on why the tanto-type blade should be nixed as a survival knife? What is the weakness that would make them less ideal?

 
Comment by Muscoe
2014-04-22 20:15:40

Very good article. In my opinion, the best general do all survival knife is an AK bayonet. Cheap, usually find used around $30, sturdy, and has been used by the Russian and Eastern Europe countries for 60 plus decades. I like the K-Bars but these are cheaper and more durable. Best $25-35 bucks you will ever spend.

 
Comment by James @ Knife Den
2014-06-29 13:01:40

Great guide. Picking a survival knife isn’t an easy task, after all it’s your one knife to use in a survival situation. Having the wrong one can be a fatal mistake.

 
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