Survival Knives
Tim MacWelch

When it comes to survival gear, we all have different tastes. And even though we may agree on some issues, we’ll likely disagree about many more. Take survival knives as an example. There are more survival knives on the market than there are environments in which to survive, and your favorite knife may be very different from someone else’s top choice (though I’ll wager that these tools still share some of the same qualities). A knife worthy of being someone’s favorite must be durable, able to hold an edge, feel good in your hand, and be able to accomplish the tasks your region demands in order to survive. So 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-style knife. When the editors at Outdoor Life asked me to profile my ten favorite survival knives, I was happy to oblige since this topic is one that I am passionate about. So read on, and see if any of your favorites are also mine.

CRKT Ultima
The Ultima has excellent serrations and and firm grip style. Tim MacWelch

10. CRKT Ultima

While all of the knives in the CRKT Ultima series are meant to resemble the first Bronze Age daggers of 4000 years ago, the Martinez Ultima is the farthest thing from a relic. Michael Martinez packed some very modern features and technology into his tanto pointed version of this knife. The Martinez Ultima features a 4.95 inch full-tang blade made of 1.4116 stainless steel with a slick, black titanium nitride coating. It also bears CRKT’s exclusive and patented Veff™ serrations (can you say “shark teeth”?). The black, glass filled nylon handle scales feature over 70 triangular grip segments for a phenomenal hold whether wet or dry, muddy or bloody. Martinez’s Ultima comes with an amazing custom sheath with two separate snaps to secure the knife, and it even has an exterior pocket that buckles closed to carry extra gear. This knife weighs 8.4 ounces by itself and it’s made in Taiwan.


Ontario RD6

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The RD6 is great for chores around camp, and splitting wood if you need it to

9. Ontario RD-6

I’m a fan of design, in little knives and big ones. And on the bigger side, the Ontario Knife Company’s line of Ranger knives are essentially pocket-sized machetes. My favorite among them is the RD-6. This solid and beefy knife has a 6.5 inch blade shaped from 5160 steel with 53-55 Rockwell C hardness. An impressive piece of steel, the knife’s profile has a thickness of .26 inches; and it has the same powder coating as other Ontario knives. To complete the rugged tool, you’ll find black Micarta handle scales and a black, M.O.L.L.E. compatible nylon & Kydex sheath with a generous utility pouch. My favorite aspect of this mighty knife is the balance between its weight and its handling. The 18 ounce knife has the mass behind it for chopping, but it still remains nimble. If this knife was a person, it would be a linebacker who can also line dance. This fine knife is made in the U.S.A.


SOG Seal Pup Elite

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A tried and true design, SOG makes a fine knife

8. SOG Seal Pup Elite

Not every survival knife needs to be super-sized, and this mid-sized knife bears many of the fine features we’ve come to expect and rely upon in a SOG. The best feature of this knife is the longevity of its sharpness. I know that even if I use this knife for some daily tasks, it will still be sharp if I have to use it in an emergency. This long-lasting edge is due to the hardness of the AUS-8 steel blade, and the manner in which it is hardened. SOG uses a cryogenic (cold) hardening process, which gradually drops the heated blades to -300°F. I’m also a big fan of SOG’s injection-molded, glass-reinforced nylon handle. The tiny diamonds molded into this handle offer an outstanding grip, in wet or dry conditions. Other nice features include the blade’s hard case black TiNi finish, a lightweight (only 5.4 ounces), and a blade spine rasp for notching, filing and thumb placement. The overall knife length is 9.5 inches, while the blade length is 4.85 inches. The low profile nylon sheath has a pocket for gear, eyelets for tie down; and it is modular compatible. The SOG Seal Pup Elite is made in Taiwan.


CRKT M16-02Z

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The M16-02Z makes a great E.D.C. or survival knife

7. CRKT M16-02Z

Who says that survival knives have to be fixed blades? For years, one of my favorite everyday carry knives has been a folder, the CRKT M16. They’re light, sharp, streamlined and they do a great job cutting all sorts of materials. They also stay sharp for a very long time. Out of the CRKT family of knives, the Kit Carson’s M16 designs have been the most popular series. The M16-02Z has all of the durability you’d expect from the brand, and a 3 inch blade that is carefully designed for self-defense. The overall open length of this knife is 7.375 inches. The closed length is 4.25 inches, and it weighs 3.6 ounces. The pocket clip has just one position, but this is the position the vast majority of buyers prefer. The hollow grind blade material is AUS 4 steel with a hardness of 55-57 Rockwell C hardness. The handle material is glass-filled nylon. This knife locks with a liner lock and CRKT’s proprietary AutoLAWKS Safety System (the little red secondary lock). This top quality knife is made in Taiwan.


CRKT Ken Onion Shenanigan

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A tanto edge and aggressive grip makes the Shenanigan very utilitarian

6. CRKT Ken Onion Shenanigan

Survival isn’t always about the woods and the backcountry, sometimes it’s about the urban jungle. The Shenanigan folder takes CRKT quality and Ken Onion’s wicked designs to give us a lifelong friend that’s ready to protect yourself and all that is dear to you. For those who don’t know Ken Onion, he is a Hawaiian inventor and custom knife designer who has made it into the Blade Magazine Hall of Fame. This knife shows why. The curves of the handle create a very natural hold, which is augmented by the grippy diamond texture of the handle, the finger grooves and the thumb grip. The tanto point, slight scoop to the back of the blade and the partial serrations give this knife a vicious look. Adding to the overall attitude of the knife, it opens very easily by flicking your in index finger across the spine button. If you do it quickly enough, this knife looks and feels like an assisted open. The Shenanigan model I have weighs 3.8 ounces, and has a hollow-ground tanto point blade with a hardness of 55-57 Rockwell C. The handle material is glass filled nylon. This knife locks with a reliable liner lock. This knife is low profile and high design. The Shenanigan shown is made in Taiwan and has an MSRP of $70.


Schrade SCHF 14

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For a reasonable cost, the SCHF 14 would make an awesome bargain bug-out blade

5. Schrade SCHF 14

Looking for a bargain? Taylor Brands series of Schrade knives delivers solid quality at a pleasantly low price. The Schrade SCHF 14 fixed blade is made from 8Cr13 high carbon stainless steel with a very unusual “stone wash” finish. This mottled, glare-free finish makes this knife almost look like a blacksmith’s handiwork. The drop point blade is full tang with a lanyard slot. The scalloped and notched G-10 overlay handles create a premium grip at a bargain price. The molded belt sheath both holds the blade well and releases it with just the right amount of pull. The overall length of this knife is 7.9 inches, while the blade length is 3.4 inches, and the SCHF 14 weighs in at 5.6 ounces. My favorite thing about this knife is the price. These retail around $50, but I have found them online for as low as $32. At that price, you could buy a case of them. My only gripe is that it is shipped out fairly dull. Be prepared to sharpen it before you need it.


Buck Hoodlum

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The Hoodlum blends a machete and a detailed work knife, for a very interesting feel

4. Buck Hoodlum

This blade falls somewhere between a short machete and a long survival knife. It was designed by the late Ron Hood, a beloved figure in the survival community. This long knife offers us great leverage and it can be used for a great many camp tasks. Its weight and length make chopping and baton work easy, and the large forward finger choil produces surprising results for small carving projects like friction fire notches and trap parts. The blade on the Hoodlum is a full 10 inches of 5160 steel with a powder coat finish for corrosion resistance. Its overall length is 15 ½ inches, and it weighs 14.6 ounces. The handle consists of removable black linen Micarta handle scales over an open cavity tang, which absorbs shock and assists in lashing the knife to a pole for a spear. The sheath is made of heavy-duty nylon, and it’s M.O.L.L.E. compatible with leg strap cord and a roomy front storage carry pouch. The well-balanced Hoodlum retails for $179. In short, this long knife acts like a machete when doing chopping work, while feeling like a smaller knife when doing detailed work.


Vulture Cholera

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U.S.A. made, and rugged to boot.

3. Vulture Cholera

A few years back, Vulture Equipment Works debuted their Cholera fixed-blade knife at SHOT Show (it was declared the People’s Choice Knife at the 2014 show). I was lucky enough to get an early sample of this bushcraft knife, and it really impressed me as I put it through the paces in my survival classes. The steel is heat treated 1095 high carbon alloy steel with a Scandi grind profile, which I believe to be the best profile for wood carving. The blade is made even more durable with a clear Cerakote finish. You can also drill and pierce with this knife, thanks to the false edge at the tip of the knife’s 5.5-inch spine. Dark linen Micarta handle scales give you a good grip on the knife, wet or dry. And this blade even supports fire making. There is a recess in the blade with a tapered notch for striking the firesteel included in this set. This firesteel fits snugly in the Kydex sheath, and it has one ferrocerium rod and two 3/16-inch magnesium rods to create an even hotter ignition. The knife weighs 9.5 ounces and it’s made in the U.S.A. If you’re planning on getting dropped off on a deserted island anytime soon, this blade would make a good companion, although you’ll have to pay for the privilege.


Light My Fire MORA

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Made of legendary laminated steel, the MORA will cut through a hide with ease

2. Light My Fire MORA

I have long been a fanatic of Mora laminated steel for their wood carving knives. The knives that use this laminated steel are strong, long wearing, and razor-sharp right out of the package. I didn’t think things could get any better, that is, until somebody added a top quality spark rod to one of these knives. The Light My Fire Swedish FireKnife is the result of a collaboration between Light My Fire and Mora of Sweden. Together they have created a sharp and sturdy knife with a built-in fire starter. The knife is crafted from Sandvik 12C27 stainless-steel. The 3.5 inch blade sits in a rubberized handle, which contains the hidden fire starter rod. The double beveled blade cuts like a champ, plowing through leather pieces, wood carving and cutting one inch webbing like it was paper. Opt for the stainless steel, which has eliminated the most common complaint about Mora steel: how easily it rusts. Swedish FireSteel firestarter is one of the best quality ferrocerrium rods on the market today. The cascade of 5,400°F sparks is plentiful and easy to strike, making 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 only weigh a little over 4 ounces. They are available in several color choices (I recommend the orange color for safety and visibility), and retail around $35. Scoff if you like, but even though this knife has a skinny little rat tail tang stuck in a plastic handle, the quality of the blade and the spark rod leave this knife is sitting solid in my number two position.


SOG Force

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Finally, the champion of bushcraft blades

1. SOG Force

My favorite survival knife comes from SOG. The Force fixed blade knife has slight resemblance to the classic Ka-Bar, but is a separate knife unto its own. The 6-inch blade on the SOG Force is a thick AUS 8 steel, which is razor sharp right out of the box and virtually unbreakable. The handle of the SOG Force is made of glass-reinforced nylon, through which the tang of the blade extends out the back into a glass breaking point. The glass-reinforced nylon is incredibly lightweight, making the Force easy to carry, leaving its 10.5 ounce weight to be almost entirely blade. The handle has contoured shape covered in an aggressive checkering of small points to help the knife stay in your hand, where it belongs. The knife is made in Taiwan. I have chopped, carved, butchered, and sliced with my Force for years, and it’s showing no sign of abuse other than some wear on the blade coating. This knife is tough, sharp, and feels like an extension of my hand. I’d recommend this survival knife to anyone.


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