How to choose the best survival knife

When you're camping, backpacking, or caught in a survival situation, the right survival knife is one of the most valuable items to have in your possession. It can mean the difference between life and death, shelter and exposure, food and hunger.

A good survival knife is able to serve a variety of purposes, including:

  • Building a shelter
  • Dressing game / cleaning fish
  • Other food preparation
  • Opening cans
  • Cutting firewood
  • Creating a fire-making tool
  • Being lashed onto a pole and used as a spear
  • Building snares
  • Hammering (using the pommel end of the handle)
  • First Aid (cutting splints & bandages)

So how can you choose the best survival knife? There's no perfect knife for every person and every situation, but here are the main factors to consider when choosing a knife for yourself:

1. Fixed blade

While a folding knife is easier to carrier on a day-to-day basis, a fixed-blade knife is going to serve you much better in a survival situation as a versatile, reliable tool. Since a folding blade is necessarily made of two pieces joined by a hinge, the chances of it breaking are much higher than if you have a solid piece of metal.

Fixed Blade Survival Knife

A fixed blade knife is more difficult to carry with you, since it requires a sheath, so you may want to have a folding knife as a backup that you keep on you at all times. However, a fixed blade knife is a better tool to have around if at all possible.

2. Size

It's important to choose a knife that is the right size for you and your situation. Get one that's too big and heavy, and it will be cumbersome to carry, get in the way, and slow you down. Plus, a knife that's too big is difficult to use for more precise tasks like skinning small game or carving small snares and tools.

On the other hand, a knife that's too small won't be good for more demanding tasks like chopping or batoning wood.

Quick Tip: Batoning is a technique for cutting or splitting wood using a knife. It involves placing your knife against the wood, then striking the back of the knife with a baton (usually a wooden stick). This is a handy way to cut wood that would otherwise require a hatchet or axe.

All things considered, a good size for an all-around survival knife is approximately 10 inches (give or take an inch or so).

Survival Knife - Approximately 10 inches (Gerber 22-01400)

For example, this Gerber LMF II 22-01400 Survival Knife is a total of 10.6 inches, with a 4.8 inch blade. This is a nice medium-sized knife that will serve you well in a variety of situations.

3. Full Tang

The "tang" describes how far the blade extends into the handle of your knife. A partial tang blade may extend into only a half, quarter, or even less of your handle. A partial tang blade is inherently weaker than a full tang, since the handle may become loose and wiggle, or even break off of the blade.

Examples of partial tang blades:

A full tang allows you to exert greater force on the material being cut through the handle of your knife. It also can make the knife more balanced, since the weight of the metal extends through the handle of the knife.

Examples of full tang blades:

A full tang survival knife will be stronger and more reliable than a partial tang, since it's a solid piece of metal. This is especially important if you are going to be batoning or chopping with your knife, or doing anything else that exerts strain on your knife.

4. Straight Edge

There are different opinions on this, but I prefer a straight edge survival knife versus a serrated edge, and here's why:

  • A straight edge is better for batoning and carving
  • A straight edge can be more easily sharpened (this is especially important in a survival situation)
  • A straight edge is overall more versatile

A serrated edge blade is nice for cutting through rope or thin metal (say, to escape from a wrecked airplane), but I'd say that a straight edge blade is going to serve you better for the most part. Of course, some knives are partially serrated, but in my experience a half-serrated knife doesn't have enough serration to be useful, and it then simply reduces the amount of straight blade available to you.

For example, when you're using a knife to carve a piece of wood, it's common to use your thumb as leverage against the back edge of the blade. The sharp edge of the blade closest to the handle is doing the carving. This is difficult to do with a serrated blade, since the part of the blade closest to the handle is serrated and not good for carving.

5. Sheath

A good sheath will fit your knife closely, holding it securely so that you don't lose it. It should protect both you and the knife. A good versatile sheath will allow you to place it on your belt, pack, leg, vest, or wherever you find it most comfortable and convenient.

6. Sharp point

The best point for your blade is going to be a sharp, pointed tip (a drop point blade is my personal favorite). Avoid very curvy tips, as they hinder the knife's stabbing ability. This is an important feature to consider in case of the need to use this knife for self-defense against an animal, as a hunting weapon, or in a combat situation.

Click here to read my extensive page about different blade shapes.

7. Blade material

Survival knives are usually made of either carbon steel or stainless steel.

Carbon steel is generally stronger, making it more suitable for chopping and cutting wood. Also, it's easier to sharpen, and can be made extremely sharp. However, it rusts fairly easily, so it needs to be wiped down with mineral oil to avoid rust.

Stainless steel, on the other hand, is much more rust resistant, but it's also more difficult to sharpen and generally less tough than carbon steel. Because of stainless steel's rust resistance, if you are in a constantly wet environment (e.g., marine salt water environment, marshes, swamps), then you'll probably want a stainless steel blade.

All things considered, I'd prefer a carbon steel survival knife to a stainless steel survival knife for strength and ease of sharpening in the wild.

Click here to read my guide to the various survival knife steel types.

8. Flat-ground spine

The spine is the back edge of your blade--the non-sharp edge. A flat-ground (90-degree) spine is going to serve you better than a round or beveled spine, since a flat-ground spine is easier to use for batoning, and it's also better for starting a fire with a ferro-rod.

Of course, having a flat-ground spine means that a double-edged blade is not a good choice for a survival knife. Click here to read more about survival knife blade shapes.

Conclusion

Different survival situations bring different demands, and there is no single knife that will be perfect for all situations. It's important to have a knife that will be versatile and able to perform a variety of tasks in demanding environments.

When choosing the best survival knife for your situation, consider the environment you expect to be in, and what tasks you'll probably be performing.

Generally speaking, in my opinion, a versatile survival knife will be/have:

  • Fixed blade (not folding)
  • Approximately 10 inches or so (not so big that it's awkward, but not too small to be useful)
  • Full tang (a solid piece of metal from the blade through the handle)
  • Straight edge
  • A well-fitting sheath that can be attached in a variety of positions
  • A sharp, pointed (not very curvy) tip, like a drop point or spear point blade.
  • Carbon steel (my preference only--depends on your situation)

Thanks for reading, and feel free to contact us if you have any questions or comments!

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