How to Choose the Perfect Survival Knife

by A Manly Guest Contributor on November 29, 2011 · 150 comments

in Manly Skills, Survival

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Creek Stewart of Willow Haven Outdoor.

I don’t remember my first kiss or even who it was with. I can barely recollect getting my license to drive. I vaguely remember my high school graduation and my entire time spent at college is a blur. However, I remember exactly where I was, what I was wearing, and how I felt when I got my first survival knife over 20 years ago. Just thinking about it brings back some of my fondest childhood memories. It was the RAMBO knife with the hollow handle that housed a little fishing kit along with a few other miscellaneous items. My love affair with knives began at a young age, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Movies seem to always have the coolest survival knives, but does the survival knife really have a place in the “real world?”

That was a rhetorical question. Yes, it most certainly does.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 2010 marked the highest number of disasters in one year for the United States–totaling in at 91. The disaster tally in 1953 was only 13, and it has been gradually increasing ever since. Despite our advancements in medicine, technology, travel, and communications, millions of people across the globe face disaster and its merciless consequences each year. In addition, thousands of individuals are thrust into unexpected and unpredictable life or death situations where survival depends on experience, knowledge, and the resources on hand. My point? It is wise to keep important survival resources close by–just in case. One of your most important survival tools is a quality knife. The cutting blade has carved itself an indispensable place in survival history. For thousands of years, man has depended on a cutting tool of some kind to help meet basic survival needs: food, water, fire, and shelter. Now, in our modern society, we casually refer to this blade as the “survival knife.” It has certainly earned that name. However, not all survival knives are created equal.

I have the privilege of strapping a survival knife to my hip on almost a daily basis here at Willow Haven. I completely understand, though, that this isn’t practical for most. At a minimum, a survival knife should be kept accessible. You might be surprised how often you’ll use it–even if not in a survival situation. I never travel without my survival knife. I pack it in my checked baggage on the plane. I keep it on my hotel nightstand. It’s always in the console of my truck when road-tripping, and I never set off for an adventure without it. Whether fishing, backpacking, hunting, boating, skiing, hiking, or camping, my knife is a trusted companion. I’m rarely more than a stone’s throw away from it at any given moment.

A “survival knife” is just as it sounds–a knife that can help you survive. It is a tool with literally hundreds of survival-related functions. Below is a short list:

  • Cutting/Slicing
  • Digging
  • Splitting
  • Self-Defense
  • First Aid Tool
  • Food Prep
  • Shelter Building
  • Fire Making
  • Hunting Weapon
  • Prying Tool
  • Signaling
  • Hammering
  • Make-Shift Screwdriver

When it comes to your survival knife, less is typically more–despite what you may see on TV. Hang the cool movie prop knife on a wall and embrace the simplicity of a skillfully designed survival knife. Function trumps styling–always. Your first priority is performance and that will depend on a variety of time-tested key features.

6 Important Survival Knife Features

Survival Knife Feature #1: Size

Does size matter? Yes, but when it comes to your survival knife, bigger is not always better. If your blade is too big, you sacrifice the ability to effectively use it for detailed tasks such as dressing small game or carving precision snare sets.

On the flip-side, a small blade does not perform well with more rugged tasks such as batoning and chopping. Batoning is when you strike the back of your knife blade with a heavy object to drive the knife through thick or stubborn wood. This allows the blade to be used for splitting wood and cutting through large limbs and trees.

Having used many survival knives, I’ve found the ideal size to be around 9-11 inches in length. For example, my Blackbird SK-5 survival knife pictured below is 10” in OVERALL length with a 5” blade.

Survival Knife Feature #2: Fixed Blade

A fixed blade knife is more durable and reliable than a folding knife. While I love a good folder for Every Day Carry (EDC), a fixed blade has the upper hand when it comes to meeting the demands a survival situation might present.

A joint of any kind is a weakness. Minimize the risk of damaging or losing your key survival resource by choosing a knife that is better suited for pounding, chopping, thrusting, prying, and rigorous cutting.

Survival Knife Feature #3: Full Tang

Not only should your survival knife be a fixed blade, but it should also be FULL TANG. “Full tang” indicates that the blade and handle are constructed from one continuous piece of metal. Scales or grips are typically attached to the handle portion for a more comfortable grip. A full tang knife is much more robust than partial tang styles such as the half tang, push tang, or rat-tail tang. As you can see in the photo below, the profile of a full tang blade is much more substantial than its rat-tail friend.

Over time, partial tang knife blades can loosen and develop “play” in the handle–especially under demanding tasks such as batoning, prying, and chopping. If a partial tang blade comes loose from the handle it can be very difficult (and dangerous) to use effectively. In contrast, a full tang knife blade is still very functional even if the scales come off. It can be wrapped with cordage for added comfort and grip.

There is absolutely no advantage in choosing a partial tang blade over a full tang design for your survival knife. It’s difficult to break a solid piece of continuous metal. An easy way to spot a full tang knife is to look for the metal tang sandwiched between the knife’s scales. Below are a few examples. *Note: Not all full tang knife blades have an exposed tang as shown in these examples.

Survival Knife Feature #4: Sharp Pointed Tip

This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen many “survival knives” with angled, rounded, hooked, or straight cut flat tips. Despite any contrary argument, there are many compelling reasons why your survival knife should have a sharp pointed tip. The first is self-defense–against man or beast. Anything other than a sharp spear point tip compromises your ability to effectively thrust or stab your knife as a weapon–especially through thick fur/hide or layered clothing.

Similarly, a spear point knife can be used as a hunting weapon–either by itself or lashed to a pole to create a longer reach spear. I keep the allen wrench (which came with my knife) in my knife sheath pocket at all times. This allows me to remove the scales and lash the full tang blade almost seamlessly onto a staff as a spear-point.

On a more practical note, I find myself using the sharp knife point for all kinds of tasks while teaching survival classes and training in the field. Below is a short list of tasks in which a sharp pointed knife tip excels over other styles:

  • Detailed prying and picking
  • Cleaning/dressing small game such as fish
  • Drilling/Notching
  • Clothing/Gear Repairs
  • Splinters!
  • Processing some wild edibles such as pine nuts, acorns, walnuts, and hickory nuts
  • Accessing live bait in hard to get areas

Survival Knife Feature #5: Single-Edged Blade with Flat Ground Spine

Your survival knife should not have a double-edged dagger style blade. A double-edged blade is just not necessary for the vast majority of (if not all) survival uses. Actually, it can be a disadvantage.

Not only do I recommend a single-edged blade, but I prefer for the back side (spine) of my survival knife to have a flat 90 degree grind. A flat ground spine is ideal for striking a fire-starting ferro-rod. Rounded or beveled spines make this almost impossible.

I regularly use my survival knife to baton through large pieces of wood. Whether splitting firewood or constructing make-shift shelters, a sharpened back edge would make this function nearly impossible.

I also frequently use the back edge of my knife as a thumb rest for added leverage and control during tedious carving projects such as feather sticks or notching triggers for traps and snare sets. Projects like this would be difficult and dangerous with a double-edged blade.

Survival Knife Feature #6: Solid Pommel

The “pommel” is the bottom of the knife’s handle–also referred to as the butt. I regularly use the pommel on my survival knife for light duty pounding and hammering. It’s perfect for driving in shelter stakes. I’ve also used my knife point to chip out crude ice fishing holes by pounding the pommel with a heavy stick to drive the blade into the ice. Some knives are designed with a rounded or hooked pommel that is not ideal for hammering. I believe in getting the most uses possible from your knife. A well-designed and substantial pommel only adds to your list of capabilities.

Bottom Line

Use the above 6 criteria as a benchmark for choosing a potential survival knife. Only you can decide the features on which you are and are not willing to compromise. Beyond this, pretty much everything else comes down to personal taste.

There are many survival knives on the market that include these 6 survival features, yet look nothing like each other. There are countless styling options that come down to personal preference and have little bearing on survival functionality. Some of these features include:

  • Blade Steel (Carbon or Stainless – varying options with varying results)
  • Handle Material (Rubber, Micarta, Bone, Antler, etc…)
  • Color or Finish
  • Lanyard Holes
  • Decorative Milling
  • Jimping
  • Serrated or Non-serrated Blade
  • Sheath Design and Style
  • Knife Designer/Manufacturer/Brand
  • Blade Style
  • With or Without Finger Guards
  • Blood Groove

Conclusion

A survival knife is not a magic wand nor does it have inherent magical saving powers. The true value is in the skill of the one who wields it. Skill only comes from practice and repetition. You don’t buy a survival knife to decorate your man cave–it is a tool that’s meant to be used. Since the beginning of mankind, the cutting blade helped to shape how our ancestors hunted, fought, built, and survived. From cavemen with sharp rocks to a soldier in modern warfare, there will never be a relationship quite like that between a man and his blade. Choose yours wisely.

Remember, it’s not IF but WHEN,

Creek

______________________________________

Creek Stewart is a Senior Instructor at the Willow Haven Outdoor School for Survival, Preparedness & Bushcraft.  Creek’s passion is teaching, sharing, and preserving outdoor living and survival skills. Creek is also the author of the book Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag: Your 72-Hour Disaster Survival Kit. For more information, visit Willowhaven Outdoor.

{ 150 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Benjamin December 13, 2011 at 2:28 pm

@Martin: You could split would by starting a notch using the saw on the multi-tool, then use the knife to fashion a wooden wedge to drive into the slit and force it apart.

@Peter: The ESEE-5 was designed for Air Force SERE instructors and is extremely overbuilt for most survival situations. I personally recommend the ESEE-6 instead. The blade may be a lot thinner, but I’ve split some pretty big hunks of gnarly wood with mine and it’s none the worse for wear. And it’s a MUCH better slicer.

@Jameson: I suggest a Tramontina machete for a cheapie. It’ll need a little minor edge and handle work to get it in working shape, but they’re very high grade tools, made in Brazil by folks who know machetes, and only about $6 in stock condition. I sell ones that are ready to go out of the box (sharpened, handle sanded, etc) for $12-$15, and even that isn’t too much pocket change for a high quality tool.

102 jameson December 13, 2011 at 5:34 pm

cool thanks for the advice. never know when you’re gonna need a machete, or a survival knife for that matter (duh). cheap is important to a poor college kid

103 Peter December 14, 2011 at 5:14 pm

@Benjamin I live in a urban area so for me I feel the Glass Breaker pummel and being overbuild is perfect for me, but your point is perfectly valid.

104 Peter December 14, 2011 at 5:17 pm

and to those whose asked the knife shown was designed by the owner of hedgehog leather works, and is manufactured by Ontario. The leather sheath is awesome but cost $$

105 Nick Garner December 15, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Nice article, well thought out and very well written.

For me picking a survival knife is simple, a fixed blade knife in your preferred size made by one of the Busse family of knife companies. Busse Combat, Swamprat,or Scrapyard.

106 ddoige December 16, 2011 at 11:12 am

I always carry my K-Bar with me. None better as far as I’m concerned

107 AB December 20, 2011 at 7:07 pm

What sheath is that, it is fantastic.

108 AB December 20, 2011 at 7:10 pm

My mistake, I should have read on. Here is a repost of the link.
http://www.hedgehogleatherworks.com/

109 pat October 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm

@ nick garner totally agree gerry busse has perfected the heat treating process his knives are to become things of legend. i did destructive testing on several of his knives all of which came out unscathed

110 Joshua January 9, 2013 at 8:23 pm

In this article, it seems to lack an evaluation of serrated vs. non-serrated blade types. Is there a reason for that? Otherwise, this is an excellent article!

111 Gregg January 21, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Nice article. Lot’s of good info on survival knifes. I have a few videos on low cost, high value survival knifes @ http://www.youtube.com/equip4survival if anyone is interested

112 Greg March 18, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Please stop perpetuating the Batoning Cult how to destroy their only survival tool. You must make them understand it is not to forge an entire rick of wood but rather to purpose kindling.

113 zaini March 19, 2013 at 12:57 am

enjoyed reading your post . I am from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and am interested in the knife featured. How can I obtain/buy one and how much is it? Fyi , I am retired and am 55 yrs old. Thanks in advance.

114 Dan May 22, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Where did you get the sheath for your Ontario Blackbird SK5?

115 Carlos May 23, 2013 at 8:07 am

Guys, there`s a brazilian brand of military stuff and i found this knife today, while I was reading this article. What do you think about it?

http://www.imbel.gov.br/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=124&Itemid=151&lang=pt

I`m looking for thie AMZ model.

A video of it:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OP42UHczjJI

116 JJames June 5, 2013 at 8:37 am

Just a comment, great article, but t i highly discourage pounding stakes with the butt of any knife. Reason being, there are usually perfectly functional fist-sized rocks nearby or a chunk of wood/limb that can do the job as-or more- effectivly, WHITHOUT the risk of missing the stake and deeply cutting your stake-holding hand or nearby knee.

The knife is an excellent tool, and one which no real man should be without, but lets not overextend it’s uses needlessly and invite an unecessary accident.

117 BigIronPT July 19, 2013 at 1:37 am

The best survival knife… is a small axe. Think about the immediate and realistic needs of survival in a typical 72-hour scenario. Shelter, fire, water, calorific conservation, signaling rescue. A small, sharp axe is more efficient at meeting most of these needs.

118 Preuss August 2, 2013 at 3:13 pm

I have a question, I noticed on the picture of the Sk-5 that showed the metal part of the handle, there was some discolouration/rust on the handle part. I recently got the knife and It came with the handle part of the tang completely discoloured with a little bit of rust not once, but twice. Is this normal for full tang blades? Does it really damage it or affect its performance, or is it a problem unique to the Sk-5?

119 Ian ST John September 15, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Go with high carbon steel, U.S. manufacture and a track record of performance. This is why I favor the Becker BK-2.

120 Jim September 19, 2013 at 3:54 am

Enjoyable, thorough article! Nice overview of the various factors to consider when choosing a survival knife. What’s your opinion of a serrated vs non-serrated blade?

121 Bill November 14, 2013 at 6:36 am

Hey,

Awesome article. Just a quick question from my end.

I’ve been wanting to buy a sheath for my Ontario SK5 for sometime now. Can you tell me where you bought it from?

Regards,
Bill

122 James November 17, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Love it. Such an in depth guide to picking a good survival knife. The pictures are extremely helpful too.

123 William November 20, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Love this review. Since even before colonial periods, our ancestors relied on a GP (General Purpose) Implement for slicing, Cutting, Chopping, prying smashing, hammering and even fine detail cutting. The Bolo. It’s not exactly a knife, not a sword but everyone in our back country has one. Even a child carry one. Now days they’re mostly made from Automobile leafsprings. We use it as an Axe, Cleaver, Crowbar, Hammer, Can opener etc…

124 panch November 22, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Theres more than one way to skin a cat and
By the looks of it more than one tool to skin
It with.whatever one chooses though is not
Important as long as it gets the job done.i prefer
A knife personally,since i cant recall the last time
I saw one of our troops carrying a standard issue
Survival axe or whatever.

125 Tara November 25, 2013 at 1:02 pm

See that’s what I’m saying – survival ax would be much better to have than survival knife. Wish there was less focus placed on the knifes than the axes.

126 Tara November 25, 2013 at 1:16 pm

thank you so much for all of this advice -very cool.

127 Steve November 25, 2013 at 1:51 pm

I don’t leave pavement without my simple kukri for many of the same reasons stated by those in favor of a hatchet. And my Boy Scout knife hasn’t left my pocket for 30+ years (except when required by goofy laws.) The combo works great for me.

128 Clint November 25, 2013 at 2:07 pm
129 Dustin November 25, 2013 at 2:27 pm

My personal fav is this one: http://www.2hawks.net/knives/heavy-tactical-tanto/
Heavy.. but there’s a lighter version for practical carrying and would answer all the purposes above. Practical article, thanks!

130 devon November 25, 2013 at 3:13 pm

What about bevel/grind type? I didn’t see any mention of that here, despite probably being one of the more important aspects?

131 SC November 25, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Okay, good info, but lost me at what Jimping and Blood Groove, meant.

132 Jim Londos November 25, 2013 at 3:44 pm

K-Bar

133 MCM November 25, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Decent information, but nothing that hasn’t been stated a million times before on the old interwebs. Personally, I find the rat tail or stick tang knives get a bum wrap. Yes, a full tang is great and is definitely stronger, but myself and thousands of others have spent years in the bush with nothing more than a MORA and have fared just fine.
“Survival” is what you do when everything goes wrong. With that in mind, I’ve readied myself to “survive” with nothing more than my little Opinel 6 that always lives in my pocket.
“Bushcraft” (what is largely discussed in this article) is something a little more planned for. In which case I always carry a MORA Robust on my hip or in my pack. Slightly thicker blade than a traditional MORA but with all the best traits.

134 Thiago Firmo November 25, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I’m used to my pocket knife, but i’m thinking to get a new one, or a fixed blade for EDC.
Could you guys give some tips over good knife brands?

135 Wesley November 25, 2013 at 7:54 pm

One brief, important thing I feel was sort of left: STEEL QUALITY. With hand tools in general, one thing that shouldn’t be sacrificed for price is steel quality. This factor directly affects edge retention, blade maintenance, impact strength, durability in different climates and if the knife is even capable of tasks like batonning or carving.

My “survival knive” that I currently own is made of CPM-3V. The SK5 is made of 154CM and the Becker Companion (BK2) that some have mentioned is made of a popular carbon steel for knives called 1095 crovan. If a knife maker isn’t willing to brag about there steel choice, you may not want to invest in it.

If anyone is interested, here is a fledgling, but high quality knife company: https://surviveknives.com/

136 JR Moreau November 26, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Man, my gramps had a old-ass knife at our family cabin up on the coast of Maine and it was real simple like the one in the pictures here, but that knife lasted forever! It was wicked old too. I’m not sure if he still has it and I’ve wanted to buy him one like it brand new. Any suggestions on what the best kinds of knives, brand and make are?

137 Robert M. December 2, 2013 at 9:30 pm

I like all of your points (pun?) about choosing and using a survival knife except one.

You should never tie your only means of survival to a stick and then toss it. Instead, sharpen the end of a stick to create a spear. It doesn’t matter how good you think your knot-tying skills are, if your knife gets stuck in a deer who runs away it is gone. If you miss the fish you’re trying to spear you’ll lose your knife in the mud.

If you lose your knife, it’s all downhill from there.

138 Ron Garritson December 13, 2013 at 9:51 pm

My favorite survival knife is the Becker 2 Companion.

139 Matt December 20, 2013 at 2:25 pm

That is cool how you took the full tang knife and put it on a stick. I never thought about doing that but it makes a good tool for fishing or if you needed protection against a raging bear.

140 Whyspr December 25, 2013 at 2:33 am

Excellent article. Good information for the newer survivalists out there.

My .02 – the best knife is the knife you are familiar and comfortable with. A tool is just that, a tool. Just because you have the latest and greatest, does not make you skilled enough to put the tool to proper use. Of course, quality and price are all factors, but it all comes down to preference in the end.

141 Anne Ominous December 25, 2013 at 3:54 pm

A minor correction to the article. Not to nitpick but it is important to those who are shopping for a knife:

Technically, “full tang” only means the tang runs the full LENGTH of the knife. It does NOT mean the tang has the same profile as the handle (though many do). The example shown is not a great example because the one shown as “not” full tang actually IS full tang, or very close to it.

The reason your advice is bad is because someone might buy a genuinely “full tang” knife, then be disappointed that it does not, as you describe, have the same profile as the handle. No, they’re not being ripped off; as long as it runs the full length the description was accurate.

142 Mina January 12, 2014 at 11:26 am

Excellent article. Good information for the newer survivalists out there.

My .02 – the best knife is the knife you are familiar and comfortable with. A tool is just that, a tool. Just because you have the latest and greatest, does not make you skilled enough to put the tool to proper use. Of course, quality and price are all factors, but it all comes down to preference in the end.

143 Jason January 17, 2014 at 9:59 pm

Great survival knife guide. I notice that in one of your pictures, you show a parachute cord handle. Any idea where to get this 550 cord? I found it once, and wish I’d bought more, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

144 Chad Kunego February 18, 2014 at 10:11 pm

In my opinion, a non serrated edge is better in a survival situation. If for no other reason, a plain edge is much easier to sharpen. You usually need a specially shaped stone/file to sharpen serrated blades correctly, but with a little trial and error, you can improvise a sharpening stone in the field with a rock.

As for bevel and grind of edge, it’s like trying to compare Fords and Chevy’s. The easiest way to look at it is the narrower the edge, the sharper you can get it, the the easier it is to dull. The wider the angle of the edge, the tougher the edge, but not going to have the best cutting ability.

Depending on what you’re primarily doing would depend on the edge. Preparing game, narrow edge. Chopping wood, broader edge.

Steel quality will allow you some wiggle room in the bevel edge. High quality steel will hold up better under rough usage with a narrow edge than poor steel.

Hope this helps.

145 Chad Kunego February 18, 2014 at 10:14 pm

Jason,
Do a search on Google for 550 cord. One site is paracordplanet.com

Another is paracordgalaxy.com

146 Chris February 23, 2014 at 3:29 am

Tell us where you got that goddamned sheath from! That thing is awesome!

147 Kenneth March 2, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Really nice guide and pictures. I will be using the criteria outlined in the article when I purchase my next survival knife. I’ve always been fascinated with many of the “military” survival knifes, but this article has made me reconsider some things.

148 Stef March 5, 2014 at 6:23 am

Hi,

Good article, very complete. Thank you. This Black bird SK5 by Paul Scheiter and Ontario is really a very good affordable knife.
Just one thing : the SK5 pommel is not made to be use like a hammer because the micarta near the lanyard hole is too thin to support substantial chocks. If you need a hammer into the field take a stone or a log, do not damage your good knife. See Paul Scheiter Interview by Equip 2 Endure on Youtube : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSws2XFCdYk

The Sk5 handle butt enables the user to drive the tip of the blade into an object using nothing more than the palm of the hand as the driving force.

Regards.

149 Steven March 10, 2014 at 12:12 am

Excellent article! I just started a store ( Knife-depot.net ) and i have been reading up on survival knives and tactical knives. Does anyone have a preferred brand for survival knives and how reliable are knives where the butt is an open cavity for matches, etc? Great community here!

150 Arjun March 21, 2014 at 2:51 pm

For people like us, a survival knife is just a toy. I do not expect to use it ever. I live in a city, hardly go for outdoor adventures but I still want to buy one of these knives! Anyone else feel the same?

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter