How to Choose a Survival Knife

In this article, I will be going over what makes a good survival knife, and what factors to consider when purchasing a survival knife.

Despite advances in medicine, technology, transport, and communication, millions of people around the world face catastrophes and their heinous repercussions every year. Furthermore, thousands of people are thrown into sudden and uncertain life-or-death circumstances in which survival is dependent on experience, expertise, and the resources available. What’s the point? It is prudent to keep critical survival equipment nearby — just in case. A good knife is one of the most valuable survival tools you can have.

The cutting blade has carved a top spot in the history of survival. For thousands of years, man has relied on some kind of cutting tool to help meet basic survival needs such as food, water, and shelter.

A “survival knife” is just what it sounds like: a knife that will assist you in surviving. It is a survival tool with literally hundreds of functions. Here’s a quick rundown:

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  • Slicing/Cutting
  • Splitting and Digging
  • First-aid kit
  • Shelter building
  • Creating fire
  • Weapon of hunting
  • Prying tool
  • Signaling
  • Pounding
  • Improvised screwdriver

Despite what you can see on TV, less is usually better when it comes to your survival knife. Often, function takes precedence over style. Your top priority will be results, which will be determined by a number of time-tested main features.

Understand the Types of Knives

Knives can be classified into a variety of categories. Set blades and folding blades are two simple classifications. Folders make excellent pocket knives, while fixed blade knives are usually heavier and better suited for hard work. 

Fixed blades are generally favored for desert survival knives and bushcraft equipment, while folders are a good option for everyday carry (EDC) pocket knives.

Further investigation reveals that knives can be classified according to their intended use, such as hunting, war, survival, bushcraft, and other activities. Other significant distinctions include blade content and hafting techniques. Is the blade made of stainless or high carbon steel? 

Is the tang (the back portion of the metal blade that reaches through the handle) skinny, like a rat-tail tang or through tang, or absolute tang?

If you want to break wood with your knife, you can get one with a complete tang. Many bushcrafters prefer small Mora steel woodcarving knives for camp chores and woodworking, despite the fact that they are usually made with weaker rat-tail tangs. 

Finally, think about the geometry of the knife-edge. A Scandi (Nordic) grind edge is ideal for carving, while a complete convex edge is ideal for chopping and hard work.

We all have different preferences when it comes to survival gear. There are also more survival knives on the market than there are environments in which to survive, so your favorite knife can vary from someone else’s. 

Survival knives are a must-have item in the woods and wild places, and they can be a lifesaver in an emergency situation. Whatever knife you use, make sure it meets the minimum requirements for usefulness and longevity. 

A knife with the most beautiful handle or the sharpest tip isn’t worth much if it can’t handle the job at hand. Look for a knife that possesses these three characteristics.

  • The knife is simple to sharpen—Look for a knife that is simple to sharpen with a basic whetstone.
  • The knife has a good grip—whether the handle is glass-reinforced nylon, Micarta, or a piece of deer antler. It must have a firm and secure grip, whether wet or dry.
  • The knife is right for the job—Choose your blade based on the jobs it needs to do. A knife worthy of being someone’s favorite must be capable of completing the survival tasks that your area necessitates. In the jungle, your preferred survival knife may resemble a machete or kukri, while in the woods, it may resemble a wood carving bushcraft knife.

What to Look For

Now that the basic details are out of the way, let’s dive right into what to look for in a survival knife. Not all of these details need to be met, but have some of these in your next knife purchase.

Size

Is size important? Yes, but bigger isn’t always better when it comes to your survival knife. If your blade is too big, you will lose the ability to use it effectively for precise tasks like dressing small game or carving precision snare sets.

A small blade, on the other hand, is inadequate for more demanding tasks such as batoning and chopping. Batoning is the practice of striking the back of a knife blade with a hard object in order to force the knife through dense or stubborn wood. This enables the blade to be used to break wood and hack through large branches and trees.

We’ve used a lot of survival knives, and we’ve discovered that 9-11 inches is the perfect length. The video below will show you a fixed blade guide.

Fixed Blade

A fixed blade knife outlasts a folding knife in terms of durability and dependability. Though I enjoy a good folder for Everyday Carry (EDC), a fixed blade has an advantage when it comes to meeting the demands of a survival situation.

A joint of some type is a flaw. Choose a knife that is best suited for punching, slicing, thrusting, prying, and vigorous cutting to reduce the chance of damaging or destroying your main survival resource.

Full Tang

Your survival knife should not only be a fixed blade, but it should also be FULL TANG. The term “full tang” refers to the fact that the blade and handle are made from a single piece of metal. For a more secure grip, scales or grips are usually attached to the handle part. A full tang knife is much more durable than a half tang, push tang, or rat-tail tang knife.

Partially tang knife blades can loosen and grow “play” in the handle over time, particularly when performing demanding tasks like batoning, prying, and chopping. When a partial tang blade separates from the handle, it can be difficult (and dangerous) to use effectively. 

A full tang knife blade, on the other hand, is still really functional even if the scales fall off. Cordage can be wrapped around it for improved support and grip.

There is no benefit of using a partial tang blade instead of a complete tang style for your survival knife. A solid piece of continuous metal is difficult to crack. Look for the metal tang sandwiched between the knife’s scales to identify a complete tang knife.

Sharp Edge and Pointed Tip

RAMBO knife different blades with a cutting blade and is a good idea with a hidden rat's tail

Although this might seem obvious, I’ve seen a lot of “survival knives” with pointed, rounded, hooked, or straight-cut flat tips. Regardless of any counter-arguments, there are several valid explanations why your survival knife should have a sharp pointed tip. 

The first is self-defense, which can be used against either man or beast. Anything less than a sharp tip impairs your ability to effectively thrust or stab your knife as a weapon, particularly through thick fur/hide or layered clothing.

Similarly, a spear point knife may be used as a hunting tool, either alone or in conjunction with a pole to make a longer-reaching spear. I still hold the Allen wrench that came with my knife in my knife sheath pocket. This helps me to cut the scales and almost effortlessly lash the full tang blade to a staff as a spear-point.

The following is a short list of tasks where a sharp pointed knife tip outperforms other styles:

  •  Drilling and notching
  • Precise prying and picking
  • Cleaning and dressing small game like fish
  • Clothing and equipment repairs
  • Splinters!
  • Some wild edibles, such as pine nuts, acorns, walnuts, and hickory nuts, are processed.
  • Self defense
  • Obtaining live bait in difficult-to-reach areas

Single-Edged Blade

Your survival knife does not have a dagger-style blade with two edges. A double-edged blade is simply not needed for the vast majority (if not all) of survival uses. In reality, it can be detrimental.

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Not only do I suggest a single-edged blade, but I also prefer a smooth 90-degree grind on the back side (spine) of my survival knife. A flat ground spine is suitable for hitting a Ferro rod to start a fire. This is almost impossible for rounded or beveled spines.

I sometimes baton through large pieces of wood with my survival knife. A sharpened back edge would make splitting firewood or building wooden shelters virtually impossible.

I also sometimes use the back edge of my knife as a thumb rest for extra leverage and power while carving feather sticks or notching triggers for traps and snare sets. With a double-edged sword, projects like this will be daunting and risky.

Solid Pommel

of the many steel types and regular use and a portion of the blade with the top survival knife picks

The “pommel” is the bottom of the knife handle, also known as the butt. I always pound and hammer with the pommel of my survival knife. It’s ideal for driving shelter stakes

I’ve even chipped out crude ice fishing holes with my knife point by banging the pommel with a hard stick to push the blade through the ice. When purchasing a knife, you want to make sure that it can withstand heavy use

Some knives have a rounded or hooked pommel that is not suitable for hammering. I believe in getting as many uses out of your knife as possible. A well-designed and substantial pommel only adds to your arsenal.

Blade Material

Although modern knives come in a variety of blade compositions like stainless steel, one, in particular, stands out: carbon steel.

Carbon is the hardest ingredient, and carbon steel blades outperform conventional stainless steel blades in hardness, sharpness, and edge retention. The disadvantage is that carbon is more susceptible to rust and must be cleaned after use when compared with stainless steel.

Find a trustworthy seller of survival knives and request a knife made of carbon steel, which will not rust easily and is hard enough to last and withstand the rigors of outdoor use. 

If the blade’s steel is too strong, it can become brittle; a broken blade is not something you want to deal with when you’re still struggling to survive in the wilderness. D2, 1095 are common carbon steels.

Stainless steel is another choice since it is more rust-resistant, but it may lose its edge faster than carbon steel. 

Choose a material based on how much moisture and “torture” the survival knife would be exposed to. Do you want more moisture? Choose stainless steel. More difficult tasks? Choose carbon steel. 

Choose one of these four choices as your survival knife, and NEVER buy a ceramic or titanium knife. 440C, 154 CM, and S30V are common and dependable stainless steels.

Blade Grind

The shape and angle at which a knife’s cutting edge is formed by grinding on a belt or grindstone are referred to as the “grind” of a blade. 

The flat grind or “V” grind is the most popular and should be sought after due to its simplicity and ease of sharpening.

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Your survival knife will lose its edge in the wild at some stage, so you’ll need to sharpen it, most likely without the help of a grindstone or the necessary sharpening materials. 

If you’re new to owning a survival knife and lack expert knife-sharpening expertise, choose a knife with a flat grind.

Sheath

perfect survival knife with the Mora knives and flick knives that are an important tool

Even the strongest knife is useless if it is not with you when you need it. Most fixed blade knives come with a sheath, so keep the sheath in mind when shopping for a knife and survival gear. It should firmly hold the knife and not rattle as you move. 

The sheath should have a fixed or flexible loop for attaching to a belt. You may also tie the sheath to MOLLE webbing on a pack or vest using certain attachment methods. Longer sheaths should have a suspension feature that allows the sheath to rotate forward and backward for better access to the knife while not standing upright.

Sheaths are made from a variety of materials, each with advantages and disadvantages. Leather is durable and quiet, but it is not as resistant to moisture and weather extremes as synthetic materials, particularly if properly cared for, and its moisture retention can encourage blade corrosion

While polymer (Kydex) sheaths are durable and will keep the tip or edge from accidentally poking or slicing you, they can be noisy, rigid, and uncomfortable. Hybrid sheathes have a secure internal sleeve built into a fabric carrier. 

These also include external pouches for storing a sharpening hammer, Ferro rod, or other small objects. They are typically ambidextrous, while the others are only found in right-hand models.

Retention methods differ, so choose a template with a retention strap that either stretches over the guard or wraps around the handle. Many polymer sheaths are custom-made for the knife that comes with them, and the knife simply “clicks” into place. This can be useful for showing that the knife is properly stowed, but it can wear out over time, losing its grip on the knife.

What To Avoid

Now that you have learned what types of knives to buy, now I will be explaining which types of knives to avoid.

Hollow Handles

Yes, hollow handles are a fun way to store survival gear, but this tubular handle introduces a big flaw: the knife lacks a tang. This suggests that the blade and the handle are made of entirely different metals, resulting in a vulnerable point and a juncture

Survival knives should have a complete tang, or at the very least a partial tang (such as a rat-tail), so they don’t split in half when you need them the most. 

I know John Rambo made the hollow survival knife look great in the 1980s, but let’s leave it at that, along with the nylon parachute pants and the Flock of Seagulls haircut.

Awful Grip

A poorly crafted handle can either cause blisters or allow the knife to slip out of your grip. Choose a knife with a handle that not only feels comfortable in your palm but also that you can hold securely. Look for ergonomic forms that have a “grippy” feel. 

Avoid anything round that resembles a broom handle (because you won’t be able to feel for the knife-edge) or anything too square. Indexes are good, but excessive use can cause hand abrasion. Bad grips will not help when your knife goes through heavy use.

Avoid Bells and Whistles

I don’t mind if a knife package comes with a whistle, but I don’t need bells and whistles on the knife itself. If your survival knife also includes a pair of shears, a set of screwdrivers, and a potato masher, chances are each function is useless

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When someone attempts to cut and paste so many functions on a knife, it seems that all of the knife’s functions suffer. Get yourself a decent screwdriver kit and a pair of scissors. Nobody said they needed to be tack welded to your knife.

The Spine

A saw on your knife is unnecessary; it just weakens the blade and will make the sharp edge dull. If you think you’ll need a saw, get one, particularly if it’s good at sawing. Your survival knife’s spine should be thick, square, and ready to take a beating. 

This allows you to cut firewood, carve bows, and perform a variety of other camp tasks by striking it with a baton. By cutting teeth into the spine of a knife, you’ve developed a sequence of V-shaped notches, one of which may be the beginning of a blade-breaking crack.

Keep Your Blade Alive

Clip point and a couple of good reasons top things and long term use with a single knife and a Survival Approach big survival knife

Keeping your blade clean and cleaning it with oil on a regular basis will help to prolong the life of your knife and keep it able to withstand heavy use

This way, you’ll need to keep the edge sharp if you want the knife to last a long time. Sharpening your blades should be part of your routine maintenance. In reality, I’d go so far as to say that being able to sharpen your knife is almost as important as carrying it in the first place. 

A dull knife, as we all know, will not cut very well. Don’t worry if you don’t have a sharpening kit. If you’ve mastered the proper techniques, you can sharpen your knife on a rock, just like our forefathers did.

Step 1. In a nearby river, look for a fine-grained round stone. Choose one with a smooth section and a texture similar to your sharpening stones. Alternatively, if you want to be prepared, purchase a selection of coarse, medium, and smooth sharpening stones.

Step 2. Examine the knife to determine how rusty it is. Examine the edge for nicks and try cutting a piece of paper or rope to measure the edge. If the knife does not cut well or has deep nicks in the tip, you may need to sharpen it.

Step 3. Apply some water to the sharpening stone and sharpen the knife with small circular strokes—equal numbers on either side of the blade. You’ll want to keep the blade at the proper angle. Keep the knife at a 45-degree angle and then lower it by half for the best visual. In an ideal world, this would be 22.5 degrees, but for our purposes, near enough will suffice. For a 4-inch blade, I typically make about 30 small sharpening circles on each side, attempting to preserve the defined edge angle as closely as possible. Rinse the stone frequently to keep its pores open so it can continue to cut steel. Sharpen the blade on both sides with many passes.

Step 4. Once you’re satisfied with the sharpness, remove burs and polish the edge by stropping the blade against a leather belt or log (or, if you’re careful, your pants). Try a small carving or slicing job to see if the edge holds up. If you’re not happy with the results, sharpen and strop again. Keep in mind that you can do all of these moves with modern store-bought sharpening tools as well.

Other Things to Consider

When it comes to selecting your first survival knife, or any knife for that matter, you can expect to be bombarded with a dizzying array of options including stainless steel knives, carbon knives, and the list goes on and on. There are also many different types of steel.

The key to selecting the “right” survival knife for you whether it is stainless steel or not, you need to base your decision on its functionality, reliability, how it feels in your hand, ease of use, self defense capabilities, and ease of maintenance. Don’t be fooled by fancy marketing jargon or shiny fabrics or designs.

Seek the advice of experts or seasoned friends who have used a variety of knives; don’t just take some manufacturer’s word for it. Although the characteristics we’ve mentioned for a good survival knife aren’t generally listed in order of importance, the price of the survival knife should be near the bottom of your priority list. 

Finally, choose the knife that has all of the important features, suits your needs, feels relaxed, and will not make you cry if you lose it. Never let price be the sole determinant of your decision, but keep in mind that the price of a knife will give you an idea of the quality you can expect.

All of this is to say that you should buy the best survival knife you can afford. Remember, you’ll need to be able to rely on this tool to save your life if SHTF.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have learned about what types of survival knives to buy and what types of steel to avoid,  you have just improved yourself, and you are now more improved. If you liked this article, you might be interested in checking out our Free Survival Gear article, our DIY Bushcraft Toothbrush and our 15 Edible Flowers List for Survival articles to learn more about survival and preparedness.

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