While many survival tools can be deemed essential, there is one absolute must that any seasoned prepper has: the survival knife.
You can lose the rifle, the camping gear, the Dutch oven, heck, you can even lose most every article of clothing you’re wearing, but as a prepper you should never be without your trusty survival knife.
As you’ve seen with issues of American Survival Guide, there are hundreds of different survival knives that have been featured and reviewed. So with all knives of different shapes, sizes, bells and whistles (some literally come with whistles!), which survival knife should you get?
While we can’t single out and endorse any one knife we’ve ever featured now or will feature in the future, we can provide you with a handy guide on how to choose a survival knife that’ll serve you best. As you formulate your idea of the right knife for you, keep in mind your specific situation, including strength, hand size and other variables that should be taken into consideration when choosing your knife.
Parts of the Survival Knife
Before getting to the point of the story, it’s useful to know the parts. The main parts of a survival knife are actually just two: the blade and the handle. That said, they can be divided into seven important specific aspects of the knife. Knowing about each part will help you make an informed decision.
While the other parts you see in the illustration below may not be present in all survival knives, these 7 basic parts should be considered with when choosing a survival knife:
- Spine (Back)
- Pommel (Butt)
There’s a list of key features that your survival knife must have. We recommend as much as possible that all these features listed below be found in your survival knife, as some features can seriously impact your knife’s performance.
Ideally, your survival knife should measure from 9 to 11 inches in overall length, from the point of the blade to the bottom of the handle or pommel, meaning the blade itself should measure at least 7 inches. This is considered the “ideal” length, since a larger blade can be difficult to use for more precise tasks, like gutting small game or carving snare sets. A smaller blade, on the other hand, will make it hard for you to do heavy-duty tasks like chopping or even using it for hunting or self-defense. Keep your survival knife choice in the 9 to 11-inch range of overall length to maximize its usefulness and ease of carry.
A survival knife’s blade should always be fixed. While the advantage of a folding knife allows you to conceal or carry it without needing a sheath, the joint in the folding knife will make the blade less effective in doing certain tasks and make it less durable. You’ll need your survival knife to be sturdy and resist wear and tear. Fixed-blade construction will allow you to perform important tasks like prying, chopping, splitting and rigorous carving or cutting.
The back, or spine, of the blade should be square and finished at a right angle to the side of the blade so you can use it with a ferrocerium rod firestarter. Saw teeth on the spine are not always as useful as they may appear, so it’s okay to leave that option off your list.
The tang of a knife is the part that connects the blade with the handle. Basically, it’s the “tail” or “butt” of the knife that joins up with and is usually covered by or encased within the handle.
The only tang you should concern yourself with when choosing a survival knife is a full tang. This means that the blade extends from the point to the back of the handle in one solid and full-width piece. The handle is usually two separate pieces that are attached to the tang using glue, pins, rivets, bolts or any combination of these attachment methods. The handle may also be molded onto the tang. A full tang provides the greatest strength and durability. Anything less and you can risk breaking the handle or the blade and injuring yourself while cutting or chopping.
We’ll stress it again: for the highest level of durability, reliability and for your safety, choose a knife that has a full tang.
4. Blade Thickness
A sufficiently thick, robust blade will guarantee years of rough use and ensure that it won’t easily bend or break from prying, cutting, chopping or performing other demanding tasks. Choose a knife that has a blade thickness, or spine/back ranging from 5/32 (0.156) to 1/4 (0.25) of an inch.
5. Blade Material
While modern knives come in a variety of blade compositions, one such material stands out among the rest: carbon steel.
Carbon is the hardest element, and blades made of carbon steel offer unmatched hardness, sharpness and improved edge retention over traditional stainless steel blades. The downside is that carbon is more prone to rust and requires cleaning after use.
Find a reputable seller of survival knives and ask for a knife that’s made of carbon steel that won’t easily rust and is hard enough to last and stand up to the rigors of outdoor use. If the steel of the blade is too hard, it may be brittle; a broken blade is not something you’d want to deal with when you’re already trying to survive in the wilderness. Common carbon steels are D2, 1095.
Stainless steel is also an option, since it’s even more rust-resistant, but may lose its edge quicker than carbon steel. Base your choice of material on how much moisture and how much “torture” your survival knife will be subjected to. More moisture? Go stainless. More demanding tasks? Go carbon steel. Choose from these four options, and NEVER buy a ceramic or titanium knife to use as your survival knife. Popular and dependable stainless steels include 440C, 154 CM and S30V.
6. Blade Tip
For blade tips, just look for two things: sharp and pointed. Avoid the fancy, odd-shaped blades as they may not allow for a wide range of tasks that may not be suitable for your needs. A strong sharp point is your best bet, since it can even be used for hunting – lash it securely onto a long stick or pole and voila, you’ve got yourself a hunting spear.
7. Blade Grind
The “grind” of a blade refers to the shape and angle at which a knife’s cutting edge is created by grinding on a belt or grindstone. The most common grind is the flat grind or “V” grind, and that’s what you should look for due to its simplicity and ease of sharpening.
Out in the wild, your survival knife will lose its edge at some point, so you’ll need to sharpen it, likely without the benefit of an actual grindstone or the proper sharpening materials. If you’re new to owning a survival knife and don’t have expert knife-sharpening skills, go with a knife that has a flat grind.
To know more about common blade grinds and their advantages and drawbacks, you can watch the video below:
The second main part of the survival knife is the handle, and this is just as important as the blade itself. Pick a knife with a no-frills handle. Avoid survival knives with hollow handles as these will not have a full tang; you also risk losing more survival items stored in the knife if you lose it. Don’t choose a knife that has anything unnecessary that interferes with your grip, such as a compass.
When choosing the right survival knife with the right handle, consider its most important characteristics:
- The handle must remain attached to the tang and never wobble or have any “play”.
- It must be durable.
- It must provide you with a secure, comfortable grip.
Today’s knife handles come in more material choices than ever before. You can choose from Kraton (synthetic rubber), plastic, leather, nylon polymer, wood, Micarta, nylon resin, epoxy resin, G 10, or even the full tang, with or without a paracord wrap, can serve as the handle itself. As long as the handle can take the punishment and you can grip it comfortably despite it being wet, covered in sweat or blood, iced over or dirty, then you’ve got a good survival knife with a good handle.
The handle should be contoured to allow it to conform to your grip. A simple tubular shape is likely to become uncomfortable with hard use. Some materials, like Kraton, are durable yet provide some shock absorption when using the knife to strike or hack objects. A well-defined guard can help prevent your hand from slipping forward onto the edge of the blade.
A lanyard is sometimes preferable, but only if you’re going to use it in an area where you risk dropping the knife, such as high up in the mountains or at sea. Remember that a lanyard can be just another annoyance that can get entangled.
Even the best knife is worthless if you don’t have it with you when you need it. Most fixed blades come with a sheath so, when considering your knife purchase, remember to look at the sheath as well. It should hold the knife securely and not rattle when you’re moving. The sheath should have a fixed or adjustable loop that allows it to be mounted to a belt. Some attachment methods also allow you to affix the sheath to MOLLE webbing on a pack or vest. Longer sheaths should have a suspension design that allows the sheath to rotate forward and backward to allow easier access to the knife when you’re not standing upright.
There are numerous materials sheaths are made with and each has positive and negative aspects. Leather is durable and quiet but not as resistant to moisture and weather extremes as synthetic materials, especially if proper care isn’t given to it, and its moisture retention can promote corrosion of your blade. Polymer (Kydex) sheaths are tough and will prevent the tip or edge from accidently poking or slicing you but they can be noisy, stiff and uncomfortable. Hybrid sheathes offer a protective internal sleeve constructed inside a fabric carrier. These often feature external pouches that can be used for a sharpening stone, ferro rod or other small items. They are typically ambidextrous while the others are generally found only in right-hand models.
Retention methods vary so opt for a design that includes a retention strap that either extends over the guard or wraps around the handle. Many polymer sheaths are form-fit for the knife they come with and the knife simply “clicks” into the sheath. This can be good for indicating that the knife is properly stowed but this type of retention can wear over time, reducing its grip on the knife.
When choosing your first survival knife, any knife, for that matter, you can expect to be deluged with a dizzying array of choices. The trick to finding the “right” survival knife for you is to make your choice based on its practicality, durability, how it feels in your hand, ease of use and ease of maintenance. Don’t let yourself be blinded by fancy marketing jargon and flashy materials or designs.
Seek out the opinion of experts or experienced friends who’ve used a lot of knives, don’t simply take any manufacturer’s word for their product. While the characteristics we’ve described for a good survival knife aren’t necessarily listed by importance, the cost of the survival knife should be low on your list priorities. Ultimately, pick the knife that has all the important attributes, suits your needs, feels comfortable, and won’t make you weep should you ever lose it. Never let price be the sole determinant for your choice, but take into account that the cost of a knife can give you a hint as to the sort of quality you can expect.
All that said, you should purchase the best survival knife you can afford. Remember, this will be a tool that you must be able to rely on to save your life when SHTF.