There are literally hundreds and thousands of survival knives on the market with new ones be released all the time.
How can you possible separate the wheat from the chaff? And how do you choose the knife that’s right for you?
Well, today I am going to make it easy for you.
First, I will show you what to look for in a survival knife. And then I will walk you through three examples of excellent survival knives.
Why do you even need a survival knife?
Most people will agree that a survival knife is one of the most important tools in your arsenal.
And with good reason: A quality knife comes in handy for all kinds of chores. And I am not just talking about the obvious ones like splitting wood, dressing small and large game, and defending yourself.
No, a knife can be used for other things too.
Let me give you a few examples.
Example #1: Starting a fire.
While you can start a fire with matches or lighters, you can also use your survival knife.
To do this you will need three things: A ferro-rod, a few cotton balls, and some Petroleum Jelly (also known as Vaseline).
When you have gathered all the materials, soak the cotton balls in Petroleum Jelly (these little balls will acts as tinder) and strike the blade of your knife against the ferro-rod until it catches the spark.
You should be able to ignite the cotton balls fairly quickly. But if not, be patient and give it a few tries.
Example #2: Signaling for help.
If the knife has a shiny surface – which it should have – you can use it as an improvised signaling device.
Here is how it works:
First, hold up the knife close to your face with one hand and form a v-sign with the other.
Then reflect the sunlight onto the v and align the rescue vehicle between your fingers while gently rubbing the knife back and forth.
Example #3: Find north and south
I first learned this trick from Bear Grylls, and it works like a charm (although it is not as accurate as a compass).
Here are the steps you need to follow:
See how that works? You simply stick your knife into the ground and place a pebble where the sun casts its shadows.
Then wait 15 minutes for the shadow to move and mark the new spot with a small object.
The imaginary line going through these two spots will be your east-west line. The first spot marks west, the second spot marks east.
Choosing the best survival knife – the big picture overview
As you can see, a survival knife is much more than just a cutting tool. If you think beyond the obvious uses, it will be one of the best, multi-purpose, survival items in your arsenal.
And that’s why it is important to choose the right survival knife – one that is both strong, robust, and versatile.
But how do you do that?
Well, in my experience there are 10 factors you need to consider when choosing a survival knife.
Let’s cover them in more detail.
Factor #1: Sharpness
It goes without saying that your knife should be razor sharp.
As Creek Stewart puts it:
A dull knife is difficult to use. Even simple tasks like whittling and slicing can be almost impossible to perform if the knife isn’t sharp.
On top of that, a dull knife is downright dangerous because you have to apply extra pressure. You are literally forced to use it improperly.
How to sharpen your knife
Here is a simple way to sharpen your knife using a whetstone.
Step #1: Submerge the stone in a container of water and let it sit until it stops bubbling.
Step #2: Grap your knife and place it flat on the stone with the cutting edge facing away from you.
Step #3: Tilt the knife slightly. Ideally, the blade should meet the stone at about a 23 degree angle.
Step #4: Next drag the knife across the stone 5-7 times. Apply a firm, constant pressure and make sure to maintain the 23 degree angle the whole time.
Step #5: Finally, flip the knife and repeat the process with the opposite side of the blade.
If you have multiple sharpening stones, start with the coarsest stone. And then proceed to the finer stones.
Factor #2: Length
When it comes to choosing the best survival knife, size does matter. However, bigger is not always better.
In fact, if the knife is too big, it will be difficult to use for smaller, more detail-oriented tasks such as making snare traps and skinning game.
Because it is harder to control, a big knife is also more likely to cause injury, and the heavy weight adds unnecessary pounds to your pack.
That said, the knife should not be too small either. A short knife does not perform well with more demanding tasks such as processing wood.
So how long should the knife be?
Well, through extensive research and testing, I have found the ideal, overall knife length to be 8-11 inches. The blade itself should make up 4-6 inches.
Bottom line: Avoid big rambo style knives. They may impress your friends, but they are not well-suited as a survival knife. In a disaster scenario, a medium sized knife wins the day.
Factor #3: Blade type
A study by KnifeCenter found that 6 out of 10 people prefer folding knives:
And there is a good reason for that: Folding knives are small, handy, and easy to carry.
However, you should never use a folder as your primary survival knife. Because folding knives have a joint, they can easily breake.
They also requires a lot of maintenance. In fact, folding knives need to be cleaned and oiled regularly to function properly.
As well, they can fold back on your hands and cause injuries – which is probably the last thing you need in a survival situation.
In short: Don’t use a folder as your primary survival knife. Get a fixed blade knife instead. It is strong, requires little maintenance, and won’t fold back on your hands.
If you absolutely must have a folding knife, carry one as a backup. But don’t let it replace your regular survival knife.
Factor #4: Tang style
The tang is the portion of the knife that extends into the handle:
Choosing the right tang can mean the difference between a knife that breaks after a couple of uses and a knife that lasts for a lifetime.
Question is: Which tang style is best suited for a survival knife?
Well, ask any survival expert and they will give you pretty much the same answer: Get a full tang knife.
In a full tang knife, the blade extends all the way into the handle and is made of one continuous piece of metal.
A full tang construction gives you a very strong and robust knife that can handle heavy-duty tasks with ease.
In fact, even if the handle breaks, you can still use the knife. Just wrap some paracord around the handle…
… and you are good to go.
The alternative to a full tang is a partial tang. In a partial tang knife the blade does not extend all the way into the handle. And for that reason it is not nearly as robust as a full tang knife.
Factor #5: The tip
I recently overheard a conversation that went something like this:
Guy #1: I am looking for a new survival knife. But I am not sure if I should go with a sharp-pointed tip or a blunt tip. What do you think?
Guy #2: Hmm… I recommend a blunt tip. You know, it is less likely to cause injury and won’t damage your gear. In my opinion, you don’t really need a sharp-pointed tip unless you plan to kill someone.
I disagree. In a survival situation, a sharp-pointed tip always has the upper hand. The tip comes in handy for all kinds of tasks – including drilling, carving, and prying.
The spear point tip also allows you to use the knife for self-defense. And believe me – in a disaster situation, you need to be able to defend yourself, as fear and desperation can bring out the worst in people.
A rounded, angled, or hooked tip is simply not suited for self-defense and should generally be avoided.
How to defend yourself with a knife – a 1 minute crash course
There are basically three things to keep in mind when using your knife for self-defense – the grip, the stance, and the strikes.
Let’s go over each element in more detail.
1. The grip.
While there are a plethora of knife grips you can use, I recommend sticking to the basics.
Use a simple forward grip, where the knife goes diagonally across the palm of your hands and your thumb wraps around the handle.
This grip creates the most distance between you and your opponent. And the more distance there is, the harder it is for your him/her to hit you.
2. The stance
Again, keep things simple. Turn your torso away from your opponent and keep one foot in front of the other.
By using this stance you protect vital organs from getting ripped – which essentially is what self-defense is all about.
Note: Some people recommend holding up an arm as a shield. If you use this strategy, make sure to turn the knuckles toward the attacker to protect the arteries and veins.
3. The strikes
Now that you have the right grip and stance in place, it is time to win the fight once and for all.
How? By using the eight angles of attack:
Simply stab and slice along these lines, starting from the outside and moving inwards.
While doing this, make sure to constantly move your feet and hands to make it harder for your opponent to strike you.
And finally, remember that a knife fight should always be your last resort. If at all possible, try to run or hide first.
Back to choosing the perfect knife…
Factor #6: The cutting edge
The edge of the blade comes in three flavors:
The question is: Which one should you choose?
In my opinion, a single-edged blade with a flat ground spine is superior to a double-edged blade.
The straight edge can be used for a number of tasks – including batoning, hammering, and striking a ferro-rod.
A single-edged blade also gives you more control because you can rest your thumb on the spine while whittling or carving – which is not possible with a double-edged blade.
Case in point: Unless you plan to use your knife primarily to cut through rope or seat belts, choose a single-edged blade.
Factor #7: Steel type
Survival knives are made from either carbon steel or stainless steel.
Carbon steel knives are easy to sharpen, can withstand incredible abuse from demanding tasks such as batoning and prying, and hold their edge for a long time.
The blade can also be made extremely sharp, but if not maintained properly, carbon steel blades can quickly rust.
The rust will weaken the steel and make the knife more prone to breakage. And that’s why carbon steel knives are best suited for warm and dry climates.
Stainless steel blades, on the other hand, are less susceptible to rust and are better suited for wet and humid environments.
On the flip side, stainless steel blades are not as sharp and do not hold their edge as long as carbon steel knives.
They are also difficult to sharpen, and because the steel is relatively soft, it does not perform as well with heavier, more demanding tasks such as splitting wood.
Bottom line: If your plan to use the knife primarily in dry climates, choose a carbon steel blade. If you will be using the knife mostly in humid conditions, go with a stainless steel blade.
Factor #8: The handle
Knife handles come in all kinds of materials, but can generally be divided into natural and synthetic materials.
Natural materials – such as bone, ivory, horn, and mother of pearl – are visually appealing, but often lack strength and durability.
Some of them are also quite slippery – especially bone and mother of pearl.
If you decide to go with a natural handle material, your best bet is hardwood. Not only is it strong and durable, it also provides a comfortable grip.
Synthetic materials, on the other hand, usually provide everything that the natural materials don’t. They are strong, lightweight, and easy to maintain.
However, they may not have the same visual appeal as organic materials. But I don’t see that as an issue. When it comes to choosing a good survival knife, utility is more important than aesthetics.
If you decide to go with a synthetic material, the best options are G10, Kraton, Micarta, and carbon fiber (with Kraton being my favorite).
But whether you choose a natural or synthetic material, make sure that the handle feels comfortable in your hands and doesn’t slip through your fingers when wet.
I recommend you try the knife before you buy it. Hold it in your hands and notice how it feels. Is the grip large enough to fit your hands? Does it feel grippy?
You should also make sure that the handle has a hard pommel that can be used for hammering and pounding.
You will likely be using this feature a lot – for example when driving in shelter stakes, crushing ice, or splitting logs.
Some handles have a hollow for storing things. Steer away from these. They are probably not full tang knives. Not only that, but if you accidently lose the knife, you also lose the items that you stored in the handle.
Occasionally, you will also find knives with a built-in compass. Again, it may seem like a nice feature to have, but the compass is usually not very accurate and may get in the way when using the pommel for hammering.
Bottom line: Gimmicks are almost always a sign of a low quality knife and should be avoided.
Factor #9: Blade shape
Knife blades come in all kinds of shapes. Some are great for self-defense; others excel in more demanding tasks such as chopping and batoning.
Here is an overview of the different blade shapes and their pros and cons.
Spear point blade
If you plan to use your knife primarily for self-defense and hunting, a spear-point blade is an excellent choice because it has an extremely sharp tip.
On the flip side, spear point blades typically have a double-edged blade. This is a disadvantage, especially with demanding tasks such as batoning, but also with more detail oriented tasks such as carving and whittling.
You should choose a tanto blade if you want to use the knife primarily for piercing, stabbing, and prying.
That’s because the tanto blade has an extremely strong and thick tip that can withstand incredible abuse.
However, a tanto blade lacks a curved edge. And for that reason, it doesn’t perform well with many everyday survival tasks such as slicing and skinning animals.
Clip point blade
A clip point blade is ideal for stabbing, piercing, and skinning game because it has a curvy tip.
Some clip point blades, however, are extremely curvy and prone to breaking. That’s why they are usually not suited for heavy tasks such as drilling, prying, and batoning.
Bottom line: If you decide that a clip point blade is right for you, make sure that the tip isn’t too curved.
Drop point blade
This is often considered to be the best, all-around blade shape. And with good reason. It has a sharp tip, a flat spine, and the thick back of the knife extends all the way up to the tip of the blade, which results in a very strong and robust knife.
Simply put, a drop point blade comes in handy for all kinds of chores – including stabbing, prying, and piercing.
Factor #10: The sheath
I thought that this guide wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the sheath. After all, the sheath is what protects the knife from water, dirt, and moisture.
There are four things you should look for in a quality sheath:
- A strong and durable material. I recommend either leather or Kydex, but nylon is fine too (although not my preferred option).
- The right size. The knife should not fall out when the sheath is turned upside down. Yet it should not be so tight that it is hard to put in and take out.
- A crossover strap that holds the knife in place safely and snugly and prevents it from sliding out.
- Belt and lanyard attachment, so you can strap the knife to your hips or backpack, wear it as a necklace, or wrap the cordage around your arm.
3 excellent survival knives
Even when you know what to look for in a survival knife, picking the right one can be a difficult and time-consuming process.
A quick Google search returns almost 1.600.000 results for the term “best survival knife”, and the number of outdoor and camping stores is growing each month.
So I decided to do all the hard work for you. I tested, analyzed, and compared the most popular knives on the market. Then narrowed the choices down to just three.
Below you will find a review of the winners – including my explanation of why I have chosen each knife.
Knife #1: Blackbird SK-5
The Blackbird SK-5 performs incredible well with any kind of survival task – whether it is self-defense and hunting or batoning and chopping.
What I really like about the Blackbird is the grip. Not only does it feel great in your hands. It also has an ergonomic design that prevents blisters and hot spots.
As an added bonus, you can remove the handle and use the knife as an improvised
spear (either by itself or attached to a pole).
The blade is made of high grade 154CM stainless steel – which is known for its superior toughness and sharpness.
It is also easy to maintain and holds a good edge for a long time. I would, however, have prefered a carbon steel blade. But that’s just my personal preference.
Although the knife features a spear point blade, it is not double-edged. This is an advantage as it allows you to use the knife for batoning and other demanding tasks.
Overall, the Blackbird SK-5 is an excellent choice – especially for people who plan to use their knife in wet and humid conditions.
It also happens to be the knife that my friend Josh ended up with for his bug out bag when we set out to build the ultimate lightweight survival kit (see how that went here).
Knife #2: Fallkniven A1
The Fallkniven A1 is in a class of its own.
The blade has passed 500 pound load tests and is made of VG-10 – a so called “super steel” that exceeds the international standards for strength and durability.
VG-10 is also known for its excellent corrosion resistance. This is a plus, especially in tropical environments where other steel types might quickly rust.
I also like the kraton handle. While it is fairly small and doesn’t have the visual appeal of bone and other organic materials, it feels surprisingly comfortable – almost as if it is part of your hands.
Bottom line: You can’t go wrong with the Fallkniven A1. Not only is it well suited for heavy tasks like chopping and batoning. It also excels in both, warm, cold, and humid conditions.
The upgraded version has a thicker blade that can take even more abuse. The blade is made of laminated cobalt steel – which offers a better edge retention than VG-10.
On top of that, the knife comes with a more durable sheath and a waterproof, shock-resistant box that can be used to store the knife and other survival items.
Knife #3: KA-BAR Becker 22 Companion
I was a little hesitant about including the BK 22 at first because it clocks in at around one pound.
But don’t let the weight scare you off. The BK 22 is an excellent, all-around survival knife that meets all the criteria listed in this article.
What I like most about the knife is the drop point blade which is almost indestructable and can be used for all kinds of chores – including demanding tasks such as batoning and chopping, and fine, detailed work such as whittling and skinning animals.
The knife is razor sharp right out of the box, and the removable handle feels great in your hands. It also features a hard pommel that you can use for hammering and pounding.
All in all, the BK 22 is an indcredible strong and robust, multi-purpose survival knife that will serve you for years. Highly recommended.
Here is the next step…
We have covered a lot in this post. And I know that all this new information can feel a bit intimidating.
And that’s why I created a checklist that outlines all the steps listed in this post, so you can easily choose the knife that is right for you.
The checklist even includes three bonus factors that I didn’t have room to cover in this article.
You can download the checklist below.
Download a free checklist that summarizes this guide
- Includes all 10 factors from this post (plus 3 bonus factors)
- No more guessing: With this checklist in hand you will quickly be able to determine if a particular knife is worth buying or not
- Easily safe as a PDF or use as a reference guide when buying your next survival knife