According to survival legend John “Lofty” Wiseman and countless other survivalists; a reliable survival knife is the single most important tool in your survival kit.
There are many tasks you can perform in the wild to survive using ONLY a knife, so it stands to reason that choosing the right survival knife is probably the biggest decision you have to make regarding your survival gear.
Your knife is an amazing multi-tool and in a survival situation will be used to:
- Cut/Shape/Split/Chop Wood
- Build a Shelter
- Start a Fire
- Hunt/Skin an Animal
- Prepare Food
- Hammer (if big enough)
- Pry (not advisable, but if you might need to in a survival situation)
- Signal (with a polished blade)
You want to make sure you have a knife that can perform the above tasks and that you can rely on and stake your life on if necessary. This guide was written to help point out what you need to consider when choosing your survival knife.
While not listed as one of the seven, it’s almost universally accepted that a folding knife makes a poor choice as a survival knife. Even the strongest, well-built folding knife will be weak at the joint and far easier to damage than a fixed-blade survival knife. Folding knives are great backup knives or for fine work where you don’t need a larger blade.
However, seeing as a folding knife is very easy to carry, the principle of “the knife you have on you is the best survival knife” becomes clear.
Feature #1 Tang
The Tang of a knife is the part of the blade that extends into the handle. The tang and the blade are one piece of steel. A Full Tang, or tang that goes all the way to the base of the handle, is regarded as the best choice for a survival knife. A full tang gives strength to the knife and eliminates the chance of the blade breaking off (as can happen with some cheaper knives).
Feature #2 Size
Most survival knives are between 5 and 12 inches. Any less and it might not be big enough to do the things you will have to get done in a survival situation, like chopping wood.
But, any larger than 10 inches and you are moving into parang/machete territory; unless you need to chop a lot of thick wood, you shouldn’t need a blade this long. After 10 inches a knife becomes too unwieldy and is hard to use for fine work. If you need a blade this long, get a parang, such as the Chris Caine Survival Tool.
Feature #3 Blade Design
Knife design is also hotly debated. As with blade metal, it purely depends on how you will use the knife.
One of the biggest debate is with straight vs. serrated blades. A straight blade knife will work better for chopping wood and fine work and is much easier to sharpen. Any smooth stone can even be used to sharpen a straight blade, so if you’ve lost your sharpening stone, you’ll be OK.
For most scenarios, you’ll want to stay away from serrated edges. While they do have their uses, a serrated edge almost always needs a special sharpener and serrations are difficult to sharpen out in the field. Unless you are cutting a lot of rope, the serrations are rarely necessary.
Spine of the Blade:
Feature #4 Blade Shape
The geometry of the blade will ultimately determine its functionality. For example, a meat cleaver is shaped and weighted in such a way that it is perfect for chopping through thick slabs of meat and bone. The same knife however would have very limited use in the field.
The same holds true for the double-edged spear point and tanto knives. Such knives are designed for combat and military use. They are perfect for thrusting and stabbing but don’t perform very well with standard survival tasks (splitting wood, making feather sticks etc.)
For survival tasks, drop point or clip point blades are ideal.
A clip-point blade is like a normal blade with the back concavely formed to make the tip thinner and sharper. The back edge of the clip is sometimes sharpened to make a double edge. If the false edge is sharpened it increases the knife’s effectiveness in piercing, so is useful for skinning. The sharp tip is useful as a pick, or for cutting in tight places.
However clip-point blades do have their downsides. Some clip points with exaggerated points are prone to breaking when splitting wood with a baton.
The drop point blade shape is the best all-around blade style.
A drop point blade has a spine which gently slopes downwards (from half-way point) and meet the curved up blade edge slightly above the centre of the knife. Almost every reputable survival knife has this blade shape as it is perfectly suited for the various activates that would be required of it in a survival situation.
Feature #5 Blade Grind
The grind used on your knife will say a lot about how the knife was designed to be used.
Scandi: Similar to a flat grind blade except that the bevel starts at about the middle of the blade, not the spine. It produces a long lasting edge at the expense of some cutting ability and is most popular grind for bushcraft and survival knives.
Hollow: A knife blade which has been ground to create a characteristic concave, bevelled cutting edge along. This is characteristic of straight razors, used for shaving, and yields a very sharp but weak edge which requires stropping for maintenance. It is highly unlikely you will find this grind on a survival knife, though they are more common on skinning knives
High Flat: Very similar to a Full Flat grind except the flat grind doesn’t go all the way up to the spine. These knives have a secondary bevel at the edge of the knife (can be scandi or convex). A true flat ground knife having only a single bevel is very rare.
Full Flat: The blade tapers all the way from the spine to the edge from both sides. A lot of metal is removed from the blade and is thus more difficult to grind, one factor that limits its commercial use. It sacrifices edge durability in favour of sharpness. The Finnish puuko is an example of a flat ground knife.
Full Convex: Instead of tapering with straight lines to the edge, the taper is curved, though in the opposite manner to a hollow grind. Such a shape keeps a lot of metal behind the edge making for a stronger edge while still allowing a good degree of sharpness. This grind can be used on axes and is sometimes called an axe grind. As the angle of the taper is constantly changing this type of grind requires some degree of skill to reproduce on a flat stone. Convex blades usually need to be made from thicker stock than other blades.
Feature #6 Blade Metal
Survival Knives really only come in two types of steel: stainless steel or high carbon steel. Each has its own advantages and it purely depends on your usage as to which you should go for.
Stainless Steel is fantastic when you are in a coastal town or using the knife around water. The steel will last a VERY long time without rusting and it can take quite a beating. However it is commonly accepted that stainless steel blades don’t hold an edge as long as carbon steel blades.
Carbon Steel knives are generally accepted to hold a really sharp edge for much longer than a stainless steel knife. Some people believe that they are also easier to sharpen. The downside is that unless you take good care of the blade, the knife can rust and become damaged when exposed to the elements.
Feature #7 Blade Thickness
A good general rule is about 4.5mm -6.5mm thickness is the best for survival knives. A knife of that thickness will be very solid and able withstand the abuses of survival tasks e.g. wood chopping and prying. You don’t want a survival knife with a thin or flexible blade.
Feature #8 Knife Handle
The handles on survival knives vary, some are hard rubber or plastic and others are solid wood or micarta canvas. Aside from comfort and handling the knife with wet or sweaty hands, one handle material is as good as another. One thing you should avoid at all costs though are knives with hollow handles for storing your survival kit.
If the knife has a hollow handle, then the blade and the handle are 2 separate pieces of metal. The knife will be weak at the joint and you could end up snapping the blade from the handle.
If you are storing anything in the handle and the handle breaks away, say goodbye to your survival kit! Not a good situation to be in.
Hollow handled knives tend to have a round handle; these are difficult to grip in some situations and in the long term are far from comfy.
Something else to note about this type of knife, is that many come with a button compass in the bottom. What if you need to use the pommel to hammer something? You’d break the compass and probably lose your survival kit in the process. It may also make holding and using the knife more difficult and increase the chance of injuring yourself or damaging the knife. If you really want a compass, buy a separate one, they’re not that expensive.
A good survival knife will have a solid handle made and often has a lightweight handle material such as micarta canvas.
If you live in the UK and you’re a little unsure about what you can legally own and carry, I’ve written a, hopefully, easy to follow guide – UK Knife Laws. Additionally, here’s a few UK Legal Folding Knives