How to Choose a Survival Knife
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
While 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
Similar 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:
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
- CPM S30V
- CPM 154 (this is my favorite stainless steel)
Recommended Carbon Steels
- A2 (this is my favorite carbon steel)
- Carbon V
- CPM 154
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.