How to Choose the Right Survival Knife
10 tips to help you find the sharpest, strongest and most dependable blade
When you start a conversation about the best survival knife among a diverse population of today’s survival and outdoor enthusiasts, you’ll get an earful about some very different blades. Ask a U.S. Marine what his or her top survival knife is (after you thank them for their service), and you’ll likely hear something about the USMC’s beloved Ka-Bar knife. Ask a British bushcrafter the same question and he/she will gush on and on about Mora knives and Scandi grind blades.
When you boil it all down, you’ll find that most people like something different in a survival blade, and their preferences are based on experience and the tasks they anticipate in a wilderness emergency (in their neck of the woods). So if everyone likes something different, it’s tough to help someone choose a single knife that’s perfect for all of potential survival tasks—a one-blade-does-it-all solution? But that doesn’t mean you can’t zero in on a knife that comes close. To help, here are a few of my favorite survival knife features, some knife features that are undesirable, and finally, a look at my favorite knife for wilderness survival skills.
Know Your Knife Types
You can lump knives into many different groups. Two easy divisions are fixed blades and folding blades. Folders make great pocketknives, while fixed blade knives are typically stronger and better suited for hard work. Generally speaking, fixed blades are preferred for wilderness survival knives and bushcraft tools, while folders are a solid choice for every day carry (EDC) pocketknives.
Dig deeper, and you can separate knives into use categories like hunting, combat, survival, bushcraft and other tasks. Other major differences include blade material and hafting techniques. Is the blade stainless steel or high carbon steel? Does the tang (the back part of the metal blade that extends into the handle) skinny like a rat-tail tang or through tang, or is it a full tang knife?
If you plan to beat your knife with a baton to split wood, you’ll want a knife with a full tang. Many bushcrafters prefer small woodcarving knifes made from Mora steel for camp chores and woodworking, though they are typically made with weaker rat-tail tangs. Finally, you’ll want to consider the geometry of the knife-edge. The Scandi (Nordic) grind edge is excellent for carving, while a full convex edge is great for chopping and heavy work.
When it comes to survival gear, we all have different tastes. There are also more survival knives on the market than there are environments in which to survive, so your favorite knife may be different from someone else’s top choice. Survival knives are a necessary accoutrement in the woods and wild places, and they could be a lifesaver during an emergency situation anywhere. Whatever knife you are considering, make sure it satisfies the minimum standards for usefulness and longevity. The prettiest handle or the sharpest edge isn’t worth much if a knife won’t hold up to the tasks at hand. Look for a knife with these three traits.
- The knife is easy to sharpen—Find a knife that is easy to sharpen with a basic whetstone.
- The knife has a great grip—It doesn’t matter if your knife handle is glass-reinforced nylon, Micarta, or a chunk of deer antler. It needs to offer you a solid and comfortable grip, wet or dry.
- The knife suits the task—Select your blade according to the jobs it needs to perform. A knife worthy of being someone’s favorite must be able to accomplish the tasks of survival that your region requires. In the jungle, your favorite survival knife may be shaped more like a machete or kukri, and in the woodlands, it may be a wood carving bushcraft knife.
Get A Handle On Things
Survival knives have a tall order to fill, and each tool needs to be up to the task. We all know survival knives should be sharp, tough, versatile and easy to use. But what about the part of the knife you hold? What about the area that connects you to the blade? Here are two things I avoid in a survival knife.
Hollow Handles—Yep, hollow handles are a fun place to store survival gear, but this tubular handle creates one major flaw—the knife has no tang. This means the blade and the handle are two completely different pieces of metal, and this creates a weak point and the juncture. Survival knives should have a full tang, or at least a partial tang (like a rat-tail), so it doesn’t break in half when you need it the most. I know John Rambo made that hollow survival knife look cool back in the ’80s, but let’s leave it there with nylon parachute pants and the Flock of Seagulls haircut.
Lousy Grip—A poorly designed handle will either be a blister factory, or allow the knife to jump out of your hand. Select a knife with a grip that feels good in your hand, but also feels like something you can hold firmly. Seek out ergonomic shapes with a “grippy” texture. Avoid anything round that looks like a broom handle (because you can’t feel for the knife edge) or anything too square. Indexes are fine, but heavy use can tear up your hand.
There are hundreds of different types of steel used in the world today, but for simplicity’s sake, consider just carbon steel and stainless steel. Either type can make a good survival knife for different conditions. I prefer high carbon blades, but that’s a personal preference based on the way I do things. Since you generally get what you pay for, spend a little more for your survival knife (since it might just save your life) and pass on the cheapo knives that sound too good to be true. If you spot an amazing survival knife that costs $10, it’s likely a cheap chunk of pot metal (the primary exception to this rule is a Mora blade, which is alarmingly cheap).
Some companies are all too eager to add “cool” looking features to a survival knife, but do the features really help, or hurt, the knife’s performance?
Avoid Gizmos—I don’t mind if there’s a whistle associated with a knife set, but I don’t need bells and whistles on the knife itself. If your survival knife is also set of shears, screwdriver assortment and potato masher, chances are good each feature is worthless. When someone tries to cut and paste too many functions on a knife, all the knife’s functions seem to suffer. If you want a good screwdriver set or pair of scissors, get them. No one said they have to be tack welded onto your knife.
Check the Spine—You don’t need a saw on your knife—it only weakens the blade. If you think you’ll need a saw, then get a saw, especially if it does a good job at sawing. The spine of your survival knife should be thick, square and ready to take a beating. This lets you strike it with a baton to split firewood, carve bows and perform many other camp tasks. By cutting teeth into a knife spine, you’ve created a series of V-shaped notches, any one of which could be the start of a blade-breaking crack.
Are you worried you’ll have to fight to survive? A fighting blade (as the name indicates) is made primarily with hand-to-hand fighting in mind. A single-edged, high carbon steel straight blade with a clip point allows the holder to thrust and slash. On the large side, the Ka-Bar made famous by the United States Marine Corps is popular for its design and proven, field-tested effectiveness. But smaller knives, like folders, can also be designed for self-defense. These blades are often used as backup for secondary (or even tertiary) firearms. Whether big or small, a self-defense blade should be rugged, razor sharp and have a penetrating blade tip. The Tanto style point is popular these days, though a classic drop point will get the job done too.
A Bowie-style knife, popularized by the Western hero Colonel James “Jim” Bowie, is the quintessential, heavy survival knife profile. Owners have used it for hunting, fighting, chopping, and all things survival for almost 200 years. Modern incarnations abound; but make sure you buy one that has a full tang (the blade metal extends all the way through the handle). Pick one that has some weight to it for chopping, but isn’t so heavy that you don’t want to carry it. Also, makers use many different types of steel for Bowies, so do your research. You’ll want a steel type and a heat treatment that helps keep an edge on the knife, without making it brittle.
Swedish wood carving blades, like Mora knives, have largely been popularized by the living legend of the north woods, Mors Kochanski, and his acolytes. In recent years, they have become one of the most popular wilderness blades on the market. They are rugged, easy to sharpen and dirt-cheap. The entry level on these knives is around $12 to $15. You could buy ten of these knives for the price of one name-brand survival knife. “Why a wood carver?” you may ask. It’s simple. Many survival tasks revolve around woodworking. From cutting sticks to making traps and other gear, to carving a friction fire set—you’ll need a dependable wood carver that is easy to field sharpen, and this is the best one for the price.
Keep It Working
Keeping your blade clean and wiping it with some occasional oil can go a long way toward extending the life of your knife. And you’ll need to keep that edge keen if you expect the knife to perform throughout its lifespan. Sharpening your blades should be a normal part of your maintenance. In fact, I’d even go as far to say that being able to restore a sharp edge to your knife is almost as important as carrying the knife in the first place. As we all know, a dull knife won’t cut very much. So if you don’t have a sharpening kit, don’t worry. Once you have the right techniques down, you can literally sharpen your knife on a rock, just like our ancestors did. Whether you are using a store bought sharpening stone, or a smooth rock from the local creek, here’s how you can make a shaving-sharp edge.
Step 1. Look for a fine-grained round stone in a nearby river. Select one that has a smooth section, and seems similar in texture to your sharpening stones. Or if you want to plan ahead, buy a set of coarse, medium and smooth sharpening stones.
Step 2. Survey the knife to see just how dull it really is. Look for nicks in the edge, and try cutting a piece of paper or rope to test the edge. If the knife won’t cut well, or it has deep nicks in the edge, you have a lot of sharpening ahead of you.
Step 3. Apply some water to the stone, and sharpen you knife with little circular strokes—equal numbers for each side of the blade. You’ll want to hold the blade at the correct angle. For the easiest visual, hold the knife at a 45-degree angle, and then lower it by half. In a perfect world, this would be 22.5 degrees, but for our purposes, close enough is good enough. For a 4-inch blade, I usually make about 30 little sharpening circles on each side, maintaining the described edge angle as best as I can. Rinse your stone often to keep its pores open so it keeps cutting steel. Make several rounds of sharpening to each side of the blade.
Step 4. Once you feel you’ve sharpened enough, remove burs and polish the edge by stropping the blade against a leather belt or log (or your pants if you’re careful). Test the edge with a small carving or slicing task. If you’re not satisfied, sharpen and strop again. Remember, you can perform all of these steps with modern store-bought sharpening supplies as well.
Tim’s Favorite Survival Knife
I’m expecting pushback on my favorite survival knife, but that’s okay. There are certainly bigger, tougher and meaner looking knives available. I own dozens of knives and use many of them on a regular basis when I conduct my survival classes or hone my skills. Honestly, if I were stranded in the middle of nowhere and only had one knife, I’d want the Light My Fire Swedish FireKnife. It combines the Light My Fire spark rod and a Mora blade, but this petite yet sturdy knife is razor sharp and it has an excellent built-in fire starter.
The knife blade is crafted from Sandvik 12C27 stainless steel. The 3 3/4-inch blade sits in a rubberized handle, which contains the hidden fire starter rod. The Scandi grind edge cuts like a champ, plowing through leather pieces, woodcarving and one inch webbing like it was paper. The choice to go with stainless steel on this knife blade has eliminated the most common complaint about Mora steel (how easy it rusts).
The Swedish FireSteel fire starter is one of the best quality ferrocerium rods on the market today. It’s easy to strike and the cascade of 5,400 degree (F.) sparks is makes it great for everyday campfire starting and survival purposes alike. The FireSteel works equally well if dry or wet, and at all altitudes. This spark rod needs to be twisted to unlock it from the handle, which is a great feature to keep your fire starter safely in place until you need it. Altogether, the knife, spark rod and sturdy plastic sheath weigh a little over 4 ounces and are available in several color choices (I recommend a bright color for safety and visibility), and it retails around $35.
Scoff if you like, but even though this knife has a skinny little rattail tang stuck in a plastic handle, the quality of the blade and the spark rod are top notch. I’ll even do a little baton work with it.