Your survival knife will basically do everything it needs to do to keep you alive.
For me, if I had to choose only one item to bring with me on a survival trip, it wouldn’t be an axe, a tent, or canned food. It would be my survival knife.
You wouldn’t need the axe since a good knife can do basic wood chopping and wood cutting, and is enough for you to get a fire going.
You wouldn’t need a tent, since your knife is the one tool that will help you build your shelter, to protect yourself from rain, wind or snow.
And you wouldn’t need canned food since your knife will enable you to hunt animals, build snares, and collect food.
The versatile nature of the survival knife makes it the most essential tool that you can bring with you on any outdoors expedition.
What are the general features of a Survival Knife?
A survival knife is not just a normal everyday item. It has a very complex anatomy and structure. Here are the most common features of a survival knife:
Handle body: this is the part that you hold the knife with. It is usually made of wood, steel or plastic, and may be coated with leather or other materials to give it extra grip.
Pommel: also know as the ‘butt’, this is the tip of the handle opposite to the blade. It is usually denser than the rest of the blade and can be used as a hammer on many knives.
Lanyard hole: a hole in the handle, close to the pommel, through which a lanyard or string can be threaded to create a loop and make it easier to carry the knife around or take it out of its sheath.
Guard: this is the part that joins the handle and the blade. It usually has some sort of concave shape on the ventral (down) side to prevent your index finger from slipping onto the blade.
Blade body: the actual metal part that makes up most of the knife and runs all the way through the handle in full tang knives.
Edge: the sharp, cutting part of the blade. This is the most important feature of the knife as most of its functions rely on it. Thus, it is important to ensure that the edge is always sharp.
Spine: the border of the blade opposite to the cutting edge. The spine in absent in double-edged blades. In single-edged blades, the spine is usually the thickest part of the blade.
Tip: the far end of the blade body.
Point: the end point of the blade where the spine and edge meet. The point is usually sharp in survival knives.
Cheek: the side of the blade where the cutting edge is found. The cheek usually slopes down slighly towards the edge.
Belly: the part of the edge that is closest to the point. The belly usually tends to have a convex shape and to be more curved than the rest of the edge.
Grind: the grind refers to the shape of the edge when you hold the knife directly in front of you, the point facing you. In many knives, the grind is triangular, sloping diagonally on one side of the blade and vertically on the other. In other knives, the shapes might be more convex or concave depending on the brand, design and function of the knife.
Quillon: the quillon is a feature that is prevent in most cases when there is no thumb or finger guard on the handle. The quillon is a concave curvature on the ventral side of the blade where the edge is not sharp, providing some sort of safety guard if your finger were to slip onto the blade.
Ricasso: the space on the edge between the quillon and serrations if these are present.
Serrations: saw-like, sharp teeth on the closer half of the blade. These allow one to cut rope or use the knife as a saw to cut branches.
How important is the choice of a Survival Knife?
Having a survival knife is already awesome. But having a GOOD survival knife is even awesomer. Hence, it is necessary to make sure that you have the perfect survival knife, adapted both to its activities and to its user (you, in this case).
You want your knife to be adapted to what it will undergo. It needs to be big and strong enough for tough survival activities, but you don’t want a machete, since it would mean neglecting the small tasks that can be performed with a survival knife.
You also want your survival knife to be adapted to you. Not just the handle color or the lanyard material, but you have to make sure that it is the right weight for you, that it gives your hand a strong, stable and safe grip, and that it allows you to do what you need to do easily and safely.
So how do I choose a good survival knife?
Here are the 12 things you should look out for when choosing your survival knife. Making sure that your knife has these 12 things will ensure that it is suitable for outdoor use, can be used in all survival scenarios, and will always perform at its best to keep you alive.
FEATURE #1: FIXED BLADE
This is one of the main points here. In 99% of cases, a fixed-blade knife will always serve you better as a survival knife than a folding knife. While I also enjoy the advantages of a simple folder for Everyday Carry (EDC), it is evident that a fixed blade knife will always do a better job at keeping you alive than a folding pocket knife.
Fixed blades are generally much more reliable and durable than folding blades. This is because any kind of joint creates a weak point. On a folder knife, the joint between your hande and your blade might easily come loose, and is much less secure when performing hardcore bushcrafting or outdoor activities, like batoning, pounding, or even just woodcarving.
There are some folding knives that are amazing. Don’t get me wrong here. It’s just that a fixed blade knife will always be a safer and stronger alternative to face any demands that a survival situation might present.
Of course, fixed blade knives also present some inconvenients. These include, for example, carry: You need a strong, sturdy sheath to carry a fixed-blader, and it’s not as easy to conceal it in your pocket as a small swiss army knife.
However, I’d personally always choose a fixed-blade knife over a folding knife, for an outdoors trip. This is mainly because of the reliability and versatility of fixed blades, which, in my opinion, make it a much better alternative in any survival situation.
Read more about the pros and cons of fixed blade and folding blade knives here.
FEATURE #2: FULL TANG
This is also a big one. A good survival knife is always full tang. This indicates that the solid piece of metal that constitutes the blade runs down the handle as well. A full tang knife relies in its entirety on a solid, continuous piece of metal.
The opposite of this is partial tang, where the blade only extends partially (usually very thinly) through the handle. As you can see in the images below, a full tang knife could just as well be used without a handle, and has a much more substantial profile than a partial-tang blade.
The main reason why full tang is a better option is that partial tang knife tend to come very loose with time. This is especially true when performing hardcore outdoor activities that put the blade under a lot of pressure.
Full tang knives are much more robust and will always be a better option for all outdoor activities, including batoning, chopping, and levering, where a partial tang knife becomes a hazard.
For me, there is absolutely no advantage to choosing a partial tang over a full tang, except that it might be lighter. If you want to invest in a survival knife, whether it be for serious purposes or just for fun, make sure that you knife is full tang.
In many full tang knives, you can actually see the outline of the solid metal part around the blade. However, not seeing this does not mean that the tang is not full!
Follow this link to learn more about the advantages of full tang knives.
FEATURE #3: SIZE
The size of a survival knife is also quite an important determining factor. The problem is that there is not one set size for a survival knife. The size has to be adapted to you, and what you are most comfortable with. A good survival knife can have a blade length ranging anywhere between 4 inches and 8 inches long. Smaller sizes are more for survival knives, and more than that gets closer to a machete (You don’t want that).
Personally, I am more comfortable with a 5-6 inch blade. This is generally the right size for an all-purpose utility camp knife. You can pretty much do everything with it. Of course, smaller blades have their advantages. So do larger blades. However, if I had to choose only one knife, the 5-6 inch blade range is probably what I would go and aim for.
You must make sure that your knife is adapted to you, and is neither to big, nor too small, nor too heavy for you. It is important that it suits you personally since it is what will keep you alive in possibly extreme survival situations.
I’ll be honest with you, I hate serrations. I find that they really ruin the knife that has them. They are the biggest evolutionary flaw that has come about in the history of knives. Okay, you might thing I’m going a bit far here, but it’s true! Although serrations can present some advantages like cutting ropes or sawing branches, the advantages of straight-edged blades far outweight them!
A fixed blade knife is generally much better than a serrated blade, since:
A straight edge can be more easily sharpened, which becomes very important in a survival situation.
A straight edge is more useful for batoning, carving, and generally just cutting stuff.
A serrated blade won’t actually help you saw wood properly, since the serrations are often too small or too dull.
A straight edge will end up being much more versatile than a serrated blade.
Also, the serrations on the knife tend to be closer to the handle. This makes it impossible to use the straigth part of the blade, if there is one. Some knives have managed to adapt their design to incorporate both, such as the Gerber LMF II. However, I would always choose a straight edge over a serrated one.
FEATURE #5: SHARP POINT
This might seem weird, but I’ve seen many survival knives with strangely shaped points. Rounded, straight, curved, and many other fancy things. However, I truly believe that a sharp point is a decisive factor when choosing your survival knife. For myself, I’d never think of choosing a rounded survival knife.
Here are the advantages of having a sharp point:
Self-defense: against man or animal. Your knife is a survival tool, and, as such, must be able to keep you alive. Having a rounded pocket knife when you need to face a 2-ton grizzly bear won’t be of much use.
Hunting: the sharp point here is a must for any hunting-related activities. You can even attach your knife to the end of a stick and… you’ve made a spear!
Processing of animal food (skinning, gutting) or of small edibles: walnuts, pine nuts, acorns…
Gear repair: you’ll be happy to have a sharp tip when you need to repair your backpack or your tent!
Drilling, notching and other things you need a sharp tip for.
FEATURE #6: SOLID POMMEL
The pommel of the knife, or the “butt”, is the tip of the handle. It comes in a variety of shapes, including hooked, rounded and angular. However, a flat, solid pommel is what I consider the best for an all-round, ultimate survival tool.
I have used my knife’s pommel countless times, and it just adds to your list of capabilities. I have used my knife’s pommel to pound stakes into the ground to hold up my shelter, or even to break a small layer of ice to create a fishing hole. It really comes in handy in a variety of situations, and can only extend the limits of your knife’s versatility.
FEATURE #7: FLAT GROUND SPINE
The spine of a knife is the side of the blade that is not sharp. Of course this does not apply to double-sided blades. So first of all, I recommend a single-edged knife. You don’t really need a double blade since you’ll never be able to cut with both sides at the same time. I personally prefer a flat 90-degree grind.
Knife blades come in all shapes and sizes. However, I strongly recommend a knife with a flat, thick spine. This will come in very useful for batoning, for example. It can also be a thumbrest when carving wood or making feather sticks to light a fire. Another great advantage of a flat spine is its efficiency in stroking a flint or a fire-starting ferro-rod.
The flat spine really just extends the list of what you can use your knife for, and is really a feature to look out for.
FEATURE #8: SHEATH
We’ve already established that a good fixed-blader is, in the vast majority of cases, your go-to option for a survival knife. This also means that you’ll need a case to carry it around.
Cases are more important than you may think. I know of a friend who had bought a very poor quality sheath in a local store for his Ka-Bar, and fell forward one day while carrying it attached to his belt. He ended up in hospital with a large gash in his thigh. So sheathes are not just a random thing.
You need to make sure, first of all, that your sheath is strong and sturdy. It is quite nice when you have a sheath that comes with the knife when you purchase it. However, in many cases, the sheath is of poor quality and the end breaks quite easily. Of course, there are some knives that come with amazing sheaths. A good example is the mora garberg, which comes with a fantastic MOLLE multi-mount system. But most of the time, you must make sure that you test the quality of your sheath beforehand.
Generally, a strong, sturdy leather sheath will do the job, especially if the knife has a finger guard on the handle (an additional safety feature in case the bottom of the sheath breaks).
You also need to ensure that the sheath fits the size of your knife. It won’t fit well if the sheath is too small, and the knife might slip out or even break the sheath. On the other hand, if the sheath is too big, the knife will not be secured enough and will be an additional hazard.
FEATURE #9: BLADE MATERIAL
The most common blade materials out there are Stainless Steel and Carbon Steel.
Stainless Steel blades are stronger on the Rockwell Scale (which determines the hardness of a blade), and therefore are harder to sharpen. However, when sharpened properly, Stainless Steel blade will keep their sharpness much longer than other blades.
Carbon steel blades are easier to sharpen, but are prone to corrosion and their sharpness has a short lifespan. Carbon Steel blades require much more care and maintenance than Stainless Steel.
However, due to their usefulness in the field, I would recommend carbon-steel blades, provided that you know how to care for it and maintain it in good condition.
You really have to look out for this one. It will be more obvious if your survival knife is full tang (which it should be – see #2), since your handle will be build around the blade. Generally, a good handle is either made out of wood, steel, titanium or a solid synthetic material, such as G-10 or Micarta. This way, your get a strong, strudy handgrip, and retain full control of where your blade is going.
Handles some with various options. Such options include adding a leather or rubber grip to the surfaace of the handle. This increases the grip of your hand on the knife and improves the general safety of the tool since it makes your hand much less likely to slip onto the blade.
Generally, I would opt for a solid titanium or G-10 handle with some sort of grip. These are the ones that I find give me more control of the knife and the ones I feel safer and more comfortable with using.
FEATURE #11: GRIND TYPE
The grind of a knife refers to the shape of the edge when you hold the knife directly in front of you, the point facing you. The shape of the grind determines different things, including the sharpness of the blade and the need for regular sharpening.
1) Hollow Grind: The two concave sides of the blade form a very sharp edge. However, this is very difficult to sharpen with a sharpening stone, will damage quickly, and will require extensive stropping to be maintained.
2) Flat Grind: The blade tapers down as the two sides the blade are ground at an angle of about 10°. This is more common and much easier to sharpen than the hollow grind, while still providing a very sharp edge.
3) Sabre Grind: This is relatively similar to the flat grind, except that the two sides of the blade only start to angle down at about the middle of the blade, not the spine. This is one of the most common grinds on survival knives, and is relatively easy to sharpen.
4) Chisel Grind: Like on a chisel, only one side of the blade is ground, while the other remains flat. Knives with chisel grinds come in right-handed and left-handed varieties.
5) Compound Bevel Grind: A back bevel, similar to a sabre or flat grind, is put on the blade behind the edge bevel. This makes the edge very durable, while still allowing good cutting ability.
6) Convex Grind: Rather than tapering down in straight lines, the two sides of the blade taper in a convex slope, in an opposite manner to the hollow grind. This type of grind allows to keep a substantial amount of metal behind the grind, making the edge strong and durable, while still allowing an important degree of sharpness. This grind is more common on axe than on knives, and is sometimes referred to as the axe grind.
Usually, a sabre or convex grind is the best option for an all-purpose outdoors survival knife, since it is relatively easy to sharpen and more durable than other grinds. The compound bevel grind is also a good option as it is very durable. However, when time comes to sharpen it, it will be very hard to keep the original angle of the double bevel.
FEATURE #12: BLADE WIDTH
This one is also quite an important one. The typical survival knife has a blade width, or thickness, of about 2-3 millimeters. Below that, your blade will probably bend or snap if you try using it for hardcore outdoors chores like batoning. More than 3-4 millimeters, and your blade will really start to feel heavy. Generally, 2-3 millimeters is the sweet spot, and will be able to perform a variety of camp tasks all-round.
The success of a survival knife lies in its durability and all-round versatility. Choosing the right blade thickness will help you achieve this.
What additional features can I look for in a Survival Knife?
You will notice that there are many survival knives on the market that might fit all of these factors but still look completely different. This is because the range of styling and uses of survival knives is not limited to only these factors. There are countless other options on the market for survival knives. However, choosing between these comes down more to personal taste that utility in the field. Such features include:
The finish, or treatment of the blade: These techniques are used at the end of the knife-making process to strengthen the blade even more, or to add a more original style. These include methods such as Stonewash, DLC, Blackwash, Protective Paint and Etching. You can read more about these techniques in our article about the knife-making process.
The handle material: A wide variety of handle materials are available, including Kraton, Rubber, Wood, Micarta, Bone, Antler, etc.
The brand of the knife: Different people will prefer different knife brands. Popular knife brands include Buck, Spyderco, Case, Benchmade, Ontario Knifes, CRKT, SOG, Kershaw, Ka-Bar, Gerber, Emerson, Schrade, and Cold Steel. Here is my opinion and reviews of the Top 15 Knife Brands.
Additional features on the knife: These include blood grooves on the blade, finger guards on the handle, jimping, decorative miling, swedges, lanyard holes, etc.
Personal style features: color, handle design, blade design…
Read more about the features of a survival knife here.
You can see why you need a survival knife and why you need a survival knife that is suited to you and what you will do with it. It is essential to have the right tool that will keep you alive in outdoors survival situations.
However, having a great knife means nothing if its owner can’t use it. It is most important that you learn how to use your knife safely and properly, to get the best out of it. Working safely with your knife will ensure that it remains a tool, and doesn’t become a hazard. To learn more about knife safety, I recommend reading our Outdoorsman’s safety checklist for Knife Handling.
The Top 5 Survival Knives On The Market
Here is our selection of the top survival knives available on the market:
#5 – Benchmade Bushcrafter Knife
Blade Material: S30V stainless steel
Rockwell Blade Hardness: 59 HRC
Blade Length: 4.43″
Overall Length: 9.2″
Handle Material: sand G10
Weight: 7.72 oz.
Benchmade has been making quality knives of all kinds since 1979. The benchmade bushcrafter was a really important point of the brand’s history, being one of its most famous products.
The proportions of the knife are ideal for comfort. The 4.43″ blade makes up just less than half of the overall length of the knife (9.2″) which is what you usually want to look for in a survival knife. A blade that is too short will be of no use, and a blade that is disproportionately large will make you completely lose control of the knife’s action.
The ergonomic design of the bushcrafter ensure that anyone using it would be able to use it safely and reliably. The finger guards at each end of the handle prevent the user’s hand from sliding in either directions, allowing for a sturdy grip. The material used for the handle, G10 sand, makes it tougher than many other knives on this list.
The knife is completely full tang, and the blade does not lose any of its thickness as it runs down through the handle, which maximizes one;s steadiness while carving wood, batoning or striking a firesteel.
One possible feature that could have been improved is the pommel. I generally prefer a solid, straight pommel which I can use as a small hammer. However, the Benchmade Bushcrafter is still one of the best knives on this list, and I would definitely recommend it for any bushcraft enthusiast.
This knife, with its full tang and thick blade, is virtually unbreakable.
The materials used on this product simply outline the quality of SOG knives. The AUS 8 Stainless Steel Blade is ideal for the outdoors, since the use of this type of steel provides hard, durable, tough blades.
The Black TiNi coated blade has undergone SOG’s proprietary Cryogenic Heat Treatment, which ensures the blade will stay sharp over the long haul. The steel is heated up and cooled down over 48 hours. This process strengthens the steel on an atomic level and increases the blade’s overall durability and edge retention.
The relatively simple design of the SOG SE38-N is the key to its success. The thick blade and minimal grinds combine to form one of the toughest blade shapes imaginable. The full tang runs along the back of the glass-reinforced handle. The handle itself, in its ergonomic design, provides a very sturdy grip and security when using the knife.
This knife is a real winner in many domains. It is not too expensive, compared to many other famous knives on this list. Its quality components make it suitable for most kinds of outdoor expeditions.
The mighty Fallkniven A1 set a world standard in the utility knife market. Attention to details, including technical design, ergonomics and economy, was carefully analysed in the design of this all-purpose, hardcore knife.
I personally find the dimensions of this knife ideal. The 6.3″ blade is all you’ll need to perform in any outdoor situation, and the 4.7″ handle, lined with Kraton, ensures that you get a stable, secure grip. This grip is made even better by the significant finger guard at the end of the handle, which lets you stay safe at all times while using the knife.
This knife is full tang, and has a significantly thick blade – about 1/4 in. However, it is not as heavy as it may seem (most knives of this size are above 12 oz. in mass).
The VG10 Stainless Steel blade is very resistant to corrosion and tough, although it might not keep its sharpness as well as some other steels. The blade is measured to a hardness of 59 HRC, placing it among the top of this list in terms of blade hardness.
Another great feature of this knife is the pommel. The pommel of the knife widens near the bottom of the handle. This makes the knife more suitable for hammer-like applications, including hammering stakes into the ground or to prune branches or sticks.
Blade Material: 1095 Carbon Steel with Black Powder Coat
Rockwell Blade Hardness: 55-57 HRC
Blade Length: 6.5″
Overall Length: 11.75″
Handle Material: Micarta
Weight: 12 oz.
This list wouldn’t have been complete without an ESEE knife. I am always amazed by the quality and reliability of this brand. However, I choose the 6P-B for the purpose of this article. I think that it is a great size for survival/bushcrafting.
Its 6.5″ 1095 Carbon Steel blade is perfect for any outdoor task, and its Black Powder Coat makes it even more durable. This is a knife that you can really abuse and brutalize in the field.
Of course, the knife has a full tang, is relatively heavy compared to other knives on this list (but not too heavy compared to other knives of the same size), and has a micarta handle with a secure finger guard.
The blade has a full flat grind. This makes the edge durable, sharp and also easy to sharpen.
The spine of the knife is very straight and thick, making it perfect for cross-batoning and fire-starting. By the way, I always recommend choosing a single-edged knife with a flat ground spine over a double-edged knife since it is much more secure. Also, although it might seem insignificant now, a flat ground spine comes in very useful for many activities out there.
This one is a winner. The Ka-Bar Becker BK-2, although having a relatively simple design, is the ultimate survival knife for the adventurous.
The dimensions of the knife are what I consider ideal for a survival knife. A 5.3″ blade length will be plenty for the many outdoor chores and situations you might encounter. The 5.2″ handle, made out of Zytel, gives the user a stable grip, and the 1.625″-wide blade makes the knife suitable for an unmeasurable variety of tasks.
The knife is really substantial – 1 lb in weight – one of the heaviest knives on this list. However, the opportunities offered here are priceless. The complete full tang of the knife and its 0.25″ thickness give it a very sturdy and reliable grip, making its user in control of the entirety of its movements.
This strength and durability allows one to perform the most extreme outdoors chores – batoning, levering, chopping… Although some other knives might be better in specific domains, the Companion excels as an all-purpose, ultimate survival tool.
Also, just to clarify any misconceptions… The sheath that comes with the knife used to be reinforced with glass on for added strength and security on the inside. However, this often caused the blade to become blunt very quickly. Fortunately, the Ka-Bar company has completely redesigned the sheath, and it is not a problem anymore.
I would definitely recommend the BK-2 for the ambitious, adventurous outdoorsman. It outperforms many other knives in a wide variety of tasks, due to its sturdiness and reliability. A truly reliable knife that will have your back for many outdoors situations.
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