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Why Choosing the Right Survival Knife is Important
A good knife is priceless. Every survivalist or outdoorsman worth his/her salt knows that your knife is one of the most important tools when it comes to survival gear. Actually, we’ll go as far as saying a good knife is the most important tool in your pack, no matter what situation you find yourself in.
A good survival knife should be able to do a wide variety of jobs. From skinning to carving to batoning… whether you’re backcountry camping or hunting, in a genuine survival situation, or just doing some DIY work around the house, a sharp, well-made knife can (and will) make all the difference.
When you’re buying a survival knife, you’re going to come across a huge range of options, from inexpensive lock knives with skeleton handles to huge, almost machete-like knives that could replace a machete when you need to clear a trail through thick brush. There are options that are extremely affordable, and there are definitely more premium options as well, with prices that reflect a higher level of craftsmanship and care.
This article will help you cut your way the through the dense undergrowth of BS to find the best survival knives out there. We’ve compiled a list of the best knives that covers all the bases – so whether you’re on a tight budget or want the highest quality, you’ll find something on this list. There are larger and smaller knives on this list that work better for different kinds of applications. We cover knives that are better for bushcraft and other knives that are designed for self defense. Some knives weigh over a pound and others weigh only a few ounces. Whatever your reason for buying a survival knife, there’s a knife on this list that’s going to be perfect for you.
There’s a list of key features to keep in mind when choosing your survival knife. As I said, there’s a huge range of options out there, and knowing the key specifications of a survival knife will help you navigate the market. There’s also a handy Buyer’s Guide at the end of the article with a few questions to help you narrow down the choice.
Key features of a survival knife
The knife market is huge. There are literally thousands of survival knives out there in every color, style, material, and price. You’ll find knives for a few dollars all the way up to hundreds, and even thousands of dollars.
We’re not looking for a museum piece here, so I’ve kept all the knives on the list within a reasonable price range (nothing above 200 USD, which is a lot for a survival knife). There are some premium knives on the list, but nothing too extravagant. Check out the key specifications and features you’ll want to keep an eye on when deciding which knife is right for you.
Survival knives come in all sizes. Small survival knives tend to be between 6-8 inches total while large knives can be over a foot long and you’ll find knives of every length in between.
You’ll often see two different measurements in a knife’s list of features. The longer one is the overall length of the blade and the handle. The shorter length is the blade alone. Sometimes you’ll see three measurements when the cutting edge of the blade doesn’t extend the entire length of the blade – in this case, you might also see a measurement for the sharp edge alone as well.
Survival knife blades can measure anywhere between 3” long to almost a foot (we reckon that anything longer than a foot would reasonably be referred to as a machete). The longest blade on this list is ten inches, while the shortest is just over three.
The longer the knife, the heavier the jobs it can tackle. Longer, heftier more machete-like survival knives can even tackle chopping small logs, digging trenches, and cutting brush. Shorter, smaller, more compact knives can fit in your pocket and are good for finer work like carving or skinning.
You’ll see a couple of different blade styles on this list. Some survival knives have fixed blades that don’t fold up. These are also called sheath knives or fixed blade knives as most of them come with sheaths for storage and transport.
You can also get lock knives, also known as folding survival knives, where the blade folds into the handle. A lock mechanism, often a liner lock, keeps the blade in place when it’s extended for safety. Folding survival knives tend to be smaller and lighter than fixed-blade knives and therefore more compact and portable, though they are also weaker and more liable to break. In general, we have a preference for fixed blade knives due to their superior sturdiness – however, we understand the appeal of a lighter weight, “fits-in-your-pocket” knife as well so we have a few folding survival knives on this list as well.
When it comes to buying a survival knife, the tang is one of the most important characteristics of a fixed-blade knife. The tang is the bottom part of the blade that extends into the handle. One way to think of it is like the knife’s backbone.
The tang is what gives a knife its strength. There are a few different types of tang. The most common ones are full, skeletonized, partial, narrowing, and stick. As you can probably guess, full tang is the strongest as the blade and handle are comprised of the same single piece of metal that run through the entirety of the handle.
Small survival knives weigh as little as a few ounces and you’ll barely notice them in your pocket or backpack. Small, lightweight survival knives are perfect for hunting and camping, especially if weight or space are going to be an issue. They’re also great for pocket knives for DIY.
Larger, heavy-duty survival knives can weigh over a pound. With a foot of steel and hard plastic grip, large survival knives take up plenty of space either in a pack or on your belt. Heavier survival knives are (obviously) better for heavier jobs. Just be careful if you’re going to be carrying it long distances. An extra pound here and there quickly adds up. Plus, sometimes heavier knives can be redundant if you’re also carrying a heftier cutting tool to begin with (like a survival hatchet or machete). We like knives that fall somewhere in the middle – not so big that they weight you down, not so small that they can’t be used for slightly heavier duty tasks in a pinch. For us, our favorite knives have blades that are roughly 5 or 6 inches.
While the blade seems like the most important part of a knife, the handle or grip are almost as important. It’s essential that you’re able to keep hold of the knife no matter what job you’re doing. Slipping can lead to severe injuries, so make sure you take a look at the knife’s grip.
Some of the knives on this list have plastic grips. They’re often textured to add extra grip, and you’ll see contoured grips to prevent slipping. You’ll also see words like quilling, jimping, and choil. These are just fancy words to describe the safety features on the handle.
There are also some knives with nylon grips. There’s no real consensus over which type of material offers a better grip, and it really comes down to personal preference. One advantage of plastic is it tends to last longer then nylon, especially on the premium knives.
It’s also important that the grip is comfortable in your hand and feels natural to hold and use. In survival situations, it’s entirely possible that you’ll be using your knife for multiple hours a day if you’re improvising shelter, cutting up food, skinning animals, batoning or feathering wood, etc. There are a lot of survival tasks that rely on your knife. That means that not only does your knife have to hold up in terms of durability, it also has to be super comfortable to use so that your hand doesn’t get chafed raw or injured.
Most of the survival knives on this list come with a sheath of some kind. There’s nylon, plastic, and leather sheaths to help you attach your knife to your belt or strap it onto your pack. Sheaths also help protect the blade while you’re transporting the knife and keep it dry in the rain.
The sheath isn’t the most important part of the knife, but a good sheath will keep the knife in good condition over time. With relatively careful use and occasional maintenance, and a bit of care, a good survival knife should last you for years, if not decades.
The 11 Best Survival Knives for Every Situation
Here are the eleven best survival knives on the market today. You’ll find a good range of options from budget to value to premium. There are fixed-blade, full-tang Bowie knives and 4-ounce locking pocket knives – and everything in between. Whatever your specific needs and use-cases are, there’s a knife on this list that will make sense for you.
The Best Survival Knife: A Buyer’s Guide To Making the Right Choice
Take a look at these key points to keep in mind when you’re buying a survival knife. Whether it’s for camping, hunting, DIY, or emergencies, a survival knife should be a all-around knife that can do everything from being your companion for small jobs around the house to saving your life by allowing you to start a fire or stake some tent poles. That’s why it’s essential you get the right one for your needs.
The following questions should help you narrow down your choice to the right survival knife for you.
What’s your survival knife for?
One of the best ways to narrow down the options is to ask yourself what your survival knife is for. It’s easy to think you want a good all-rounder but think about the jobs you’ll actually use the survival knife for.
Are you going to be splitting firewood at camp, digging holes or trenches, skinning a deer, feathering wood, screwing screws (use a survival multitool), or sharpening pencils (use a pencil sharpener!)? A knife designed for heavier-duty use isn’t much good at fine detail work, and vice versa. Figuring out what you’re going to do with your survival knife and finding the right balance point between heavy duty and intricate work is a great way to narrow down the choice.
What length blade do you need?
Similarly, the length of the blade should be determined by what you’re going to do with the knife. Long knives are better for chopping and clearing bush, while shorter knives are better at cutting, scoring, and carving. If you figure out what length blade you need, you’ll be able to isolate a few knives on the list and help make the decision.
What’s your budget?
Is this your primary knife? If so, then you might want to splash out a little and buy a premium knife that will stand up to a whole range of jobs and last you for years. If this is a backup knife to throw in your glove compartment, you probably don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars.
Deciding on a budget will help you whittle down the options as I’ve grouped the list into a few different price pools. The inexpensive knives tend to be made from cheaper materials by big, well-known outdoor companies.
On the other end of the price spectrum are premium, high-quality knives designed and fabricated by some of the leading knife manufacturers in the world. There’s no upper limit to knives, but I’ve tried to keep them to less than two hundred dollars maximum.
The factors that will help you decide how much you want to spend are:
- How often you’ll be using it – how often do you go out into the wilderness? How often do you actually require the use of a knife when you are in the wild?
- What type of environment you’re going in: the mountains, the plains, etc.
- How long your trips usually are.
- What you’re planning to do with the knife.
ESEE, Ka-Bar, and Fallkniven are all well-established and trustworthy brands on the market, which is why their knives cost a little bit more than some of the other brands in this list. That’s because they’re made from great materials, they’re comfortable, easy to handle, resistant to tough conditions, and have superior warranty programs.
Lightweight knife or heavy-duty?
If you’re going on a multi-day hike that’s most likely going to be safe and you’re following well known trails, you might not want a knife that weighs a pound because it’ll weigh you down. On the other hand, if you want a knife that will find utility if you’re living permanently in the woods, you’d definitely want something heavier duty. Lightweight knives aren’t necessarily weak, and there are some awesome lightweight premium knives that can stand up to the heavier knives.
If you want a knife to throw in the truck as a “just-in-case”, or you don’t plan to pack heavier survival tools like a machete or hatchet into your survival kit, then you can afford to have a heftier knife that weighs a little bit more. Deciding on the weight of your knife can help you narrow down the choice to just a few options, and whether or not you want a heavier knife will also depend on what other gear you might expect to have with you.
You want a strong sturdy knife that won’t break or get damaged while you’re stranded – that leaves you absolutely defenseless. Make sure the craftsmanship is good and that its parts are well joined together. Also, make sure to choose a reputable brand that has cache within the survival community (in particular, we recommend Fallkniven, ESEE, KA-BAR and Morakniv) that’s had consistently positive reviews.
Many good knives can be used in a plethora of ways. Check for the versatility of all your tools, because carrying a lot of equipment will add to its bulk as well as weight. A few of the best knives have extra stuff included like:
- Multipurpose tool
- Flint and tinder / ferro rod firestarter
- Belt clip
On the other hand, you don’t want a novelty knife that comes with a dozen additional features but can’t be reliably used to cut open a potato. Sometimes more features = a lower quality blade, so you’ll want to try and strike a balance between features and the quality of the main product.
Quality of materials
You can’t get a top grade item without considering the quality of its manufacturing and its materials. When it comes to knives, the best materials will accentuate its strength and durability, but will also render it relatively lightweight and easy to carry:
- Hard rubber and a sort of resistant polymer for the handle. Don’t go for hollow handles, because that indicates your knife doesn’t have a full tang, which means it can get damaged faster.
- Stainless steel or carbon steel for the blade are both amazing. Stainless steel is sturdy and long-lasting, but it’s not as sharp. Carbon steel is easier to sharpen and be kept that way but is less resistant to rust.
- Leather or a sort of polymer for the sheath. These materials are resistant, waterproof and can withstand many uses, in general we don’t like sheaths made out of cheap plastic.
Why Do You Even Need A Survival Knife?
If you’re not yet convinced about the many benefits of having a top notch knife while outdoors, this is where we’ll convince you. There are a lot of features you won’t benefit from if you choose a subpar knife, so just think about all these things you need to get done in the wild:
- Clearing a trail through brush: Durability is key here. Cutting through thick undergrowth requires skill, but it also requires a tough, sturdy knife.
- Food preparation: Beyond just chopping and slicing your food, if you’re in survival mode you might be hunting or trapping your own game. Animals need to be skinned and dressed. A knife is required for both.
- Building shelters: Cutting branches, carving, making holes, staking poles, notching tree limbs, cutting tarp – a knife is required for all these actions.
- Making fires: Apart from cutting firewood, did you know a survival knife can be used for making tinder out of inner bark by manually threshing it? Plus, you can use it on your Ferro rod to light it (depending on what kind of blade your survival knife has.).
- Hunting animals: Tie a knife to a longer stick and you have yourself a spear. But the knife has to be strong enough to penetrate through the game, which is why you need a sharp and sturdy knife.
- Signaling: Are you lost? Signal your presence by carving messages or signals into tree bark. If there’s a search party, they might come across it.
- Hammering: A high-quality knife is strong enough to be used as a hammer because it has a resistant handle. A well crafted, durable knife can also be hammered (which is basically what you need to do if you’re batoning)
- Improvising DIY tools: >You may not have a multi-tool with you, but you can use the knife’s tip as a screwdriver to fix stuff around camp if it’s sharp enough. You can also build other makeshift tools with a knife by carving wood.
- Self-defense: Animals, humans? Who can say what’s might happen in the wilderness? A knife is a pretty good last resort for self defense.
- First Aid tool: Use your knife to cut tourniquets. Heat a knife’s blade in the fire and you can cauterize your wounds.
The Various Types Of Survival Knives On The Market
Depending on these features, knives can be chosen by considering their elements independently and assessing their advantages and liabilities.
Blade Size – How Big Of A Blade Should You Get For A Survival Knife?
When you’re looking at a survival knife you have the obvious choice between big and small, and each can fulfill some specialized purposes.
- Amazing for cutting tree limbs or hammering, and batoning
- A large enough survival knife could be used in place of a machete or a hatchet
- Not good for finer, more intricate work like carving or skinning where more finesse is required
- Larger blade = more weight and less convenience when carrying in your pack or wearing on your belt
- Great for precision tasks like carving or dressing
- Lower weight and easier to carry
- You may need to have a larger sharp edged tool like a hatchet or a machete.
- Not great for rugged tasks
The common blade length for a survival knife varies between 4 and 10 inches, so if you’re considering a smaller one you should know it won’t do you much good in survival situations that require chopping and cutting. Keep in mind, even if you have a big knife it is not recommended for tougher tasks that might call for a hatchet, folding saw or machete.
At this point, the choice comes between:
- More control
- Harder to carry
- They generally feel better in the hand due to less moving parts
- More compact
- Easier to carry
- Often fit well in pockets or other tiny spaces
- Feels like they offer less control
- Generally not as good for rugged tasks
Blade Shape: What Kind Of Shape For Your Survival Knife?
The blade is the most important element of your knife, which is why we’re talking so much about it. Its shape can be:
- Better for chopping
- Can be sharpened fast with almost any sort of stone
- Better for slicing
- Requires a specific sharpener
We strongly prefer straight blades over serrated. Serrated knives are more useful only in very specific cases, whereas straight bladed knives are vastly more versatile.
Blade Edge: What Kind Of Edge For Your Survival Knife?
There are different survival knives when it comes to the edge of their blades too. Consider choosing between:
- Good for striking the Ferro rod and making fires
- Batoning wood
- Building shelters
- Resting your thumb on the flat side
- Providing more control
- Safer work
- Better for stabbing
- Amazing for self-defense, because your opponent can’t disarm you as easily if they don’t want to get themselves hurt
- More likely to hurt yourself with it, especially if your grip isn’t that good because of perspiration
- Not particularly good for most of the uses of a single-edged knife
The Tang: What Kind Of Tang For Your Survival Knife?
This refers to whether or not the blade and the handle are one piece or not, and on the market, you’ll find knives that are:
- • Full tang
- • Partial tang, like skeletonized, push or rat-tail
If you want something sturdy, you’ll be wanting a full tang survival knife which:
- Has a very strong grip because of the scales on its handle
- It can’t break in two since the blade and handle are welded together firmly
- Has a massive profile
- Doesn’t loosen over time if you’re constantly using it for rugged tasks like hammering or chopping
- It’s safer to use
However, if you’re not that interested in doing robust chores around camp, you can get a partial tang knife too. Those work just fine for precision tasks and they tend to occupy less space
The Tip: What Kind Of Tip For Your Survival Knife?
There are a large number of different designs for knife tips (and seemingly stranger and stranger ones appear every day). While many survival sites would focus in on specifically what kind of tips you should get, to us it’s not a priority.
Just get a knife that feels good in your hand and cut things and don’t get anything too wacky. The most common knife blades tend to be drop point, spear point, clip point and tanto. We generally gravitate towards drop point knives here as they are the “standard” (if you imagine a survival knife’s shape you’re probably imagining a drop point knife). We feel they offer the best versatility and adaptability. Unless you’re getting your knife specifically to accomplish a particular task over and over again in repetition (in which case you would want a more specialized tool), we’d say don’t worry too much about learning the different shapes of knives and just focus on whether it feels good (and looks good) to you.
The handle of your knife
You need to make sure that your handle:
- Has a strong grip
- Is rounded and comfortable to hold
- Ideally isn’t hollow
- Has an optional lanyard hole to insert a piece of cord and carry it easily
The pommel of your knife
While the handle must be tough enough and manufactured from good-quality materials, it’s not that hard picking a good one. That’s mainly because it doesn’t have too many uses apart from providing a strong and comfortable grip.
The most important part of a knife’s handle is its pommel, a.k.a its butt, in laymen terms.
Having a sturdy and flat pommel, not rounded or hooked, can help you with tasks like:
- Making repairs
- Building your shelter by fixing stakes into the ground
- Ice fishing: break the ice with the knife tip, by pounding its butt with a stone
The Final Selection
After you’ve considered all these characteristics and types, remember that the final choice is completely up to you. At the end of the day, your personal preferences and style count just as much as your purpose so choose a versatile knife that can be customized and improved constantly.
See More of Our Articles on Survival Gear and Supplies
Here on SoS we don’t just talk about survival knives – we’ve got recommendations for a range of the best survival gear as well as lists for what gear you should have in every situation. Check out some of our favorite articles below: