With the recent glut of survival knife niche websites that have popped up, I thought it wise to write my own guide to choosing the best survival knife in order to dispel some of the misinformation out there. That said, you are here because you want a knife, and presumably one that you can use to survive in the event of a life or death situation.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that since you are reading this, you are likely an outdoorsman (or outdoorswoman as it may be), or at least a person who appreciates the outdoors. Chances are you venture far away from home to take part in high adventure activities. While these types of activities are fun, the farther away you get from civilization, the harder it is to get help and the more you have to be able to fend for yourself should something go wrong. Some of the last places you want to be without a usable knife are camping in the woods, on a hunting trip, backpacking through the mountains, halfway up a cliff face on a rock climbing trip, or on a long hike where help is not nearby.
How Useful is a Quality Survival Knife?
While we never want anything to go wrong, sometimes something just unexpectedly does. If this happens, one of the first tools that you are going to reach for is your knife. To give you an idea of just how useful your survival knife is going to be, let’s talk about some of the things you will use it for in a survival situation. The following isn’t an exhaustive list, but moreso designed to just get you thinking so feel free to add to it in the comments if you feel so inclined.
Use Your Knife to Make Fire
In a survival situation, particularly in cold climate, having the ability to create fire is absolutely crucial and a knife is an absolutely integral tool when it comes to making fire. A knife is the single best tool for making tinder and kindling, which are two of the basic building blocks for firemaking. In addition, the knife makes an excellent tool for batoning through wood which allows you to create adequately sized fuel wood for your fire as well as gives you access to dry wood that may be in the middle of otherwise wet wood in a pinch.
In addition to preparing fuel for firemaking, a knife can also serve as a component of a source of ignition. Knives are typically made of steel, and accordingly can serve well as the steel part of the flint and steel equation.
Build Shelter Using A Knife
Building a basic shelter, such as a lean-to is essential to surviving in harsh environments. You can cut tree branches to size if needed, cut vines or rope to join branches, or even just hammer the knife into the side of the tree to use as a step to get you off the ground for the night.
Using A Knife to Hunt and Prepare Food
From a foraging aspect, a knife can grant you access that you otherwise wouldn’t have when searching for food in a survival situation. For instance, grubs like to hide in tree bark, and a knife make an excellent tool to get them out. Additionally, often times the edible portion of a plant is surrounded by an inedible portion that must be removed. A survival knife is great for uncovering this as well.
From a game hunting perspective, a knife can be used to create hunting tools. For instance, you can whittle the end of a stick down to a point, creating a makeshift spear. Or, you could even tie your knife off to a stick and use your knife itself as a spear point. You can also prepare materials to make snares, create fishing lures, and a myriad of other things. If you do indeed kill game, you can use your knife to dress your kill. You can also use it for gutting and boning fish.
What Makes a Good Survival Knife
Now that you have an idea of the types of uses there are for your knife and what kind of abuse it is likely to endure should it ever come down to the wire, it is time to discuss the attributes that the best survival knives possess.
Reliability is of paramount importance, and this is the number one priority. A broken knife is far less usable than a knife that is in good condition. This includes every aspect of the knife, from the edge on the blade all the way back to the handle. Any part of your knife that fails to perform compromises your chances of making it out alive if it ever comes down to it.
So what qualities do you look for in a reliable survival knife? First, a knife is only as good as the engineer who designed it and the toolmaker who made it. For this reason, it is best to stick with companies that are well known who have made knives that have withstood the test of time. While something new and shiny may look appealing, stick with old standbys. They are old standbys for a reason!
Another important component to reliability is spine thickness. You are looking for a knife that can withstand unimaginable abuse, and a knife with a thin spine will not accomplish this for the most part. Stick to knives with thick spines, as you will avoid seeing your knife bend or break under extreme conditions. A thick spine typically will add a little bit of extra drag when cutting, but this is a worthy compromise in order to make sure that your knife won’t fail.
Yep, no folders here. Unlike folding knives, fixed blade knives have no moving parts which means there are less things that can go wrong. You can do things with a fixed blade that you simply cannot attempt with a folder without damaging it. For this reason, a fixed blade gives you the most options in terms of how you use your blade. Make sure it has a full tang as this type of knife is much stronger than a partial tang knife. Any handle type works including knife scales, a paracord wrapped handle (check out Stormdrane’s blog for some awesome tips on paracord wrapping knives), or a skeletonized handle.
Bigger isn’t always better. Remember that you have to carry your knife wherever you go and a huge knife will weigh on you, take more energy to use, and possibly become cumbersome. However, you most certainly don’t want to go too small, and if you aren’t sure bias towards a bigger knife. A typically recommend an absolute minimum of a 3.5″ cutting edge, as anything shorter will prevent you from being able to effectively baton through wood. My personal sweet spot is the 5″-6″ range, as it is long enough to perform all survival tasks without feeling like you are carrying a machete.
Steel For A Survival Knife
Steel choice is important. You will either want a stainless steel or a coated carbon steel. Stainless steel resists corrosion well, whereas carbon steel will rust more easily (hence the need for the coating). There are some great alloys out there in either variety. A personal favorite of mine is coated 1095, as its all around properties are superb and it is very affordable. The one downside is that you must be diligent about keeping it dry and lightly oiled when not in use.
An often overlooked aspect when choosing a knife is the sheath. There are tons of materials out there, from cordura nylon to leather to a variety of plastics such as kydex. My all around favorite is kydex, because it is lightweight and extremely durable. Many kydex sheaths have rivets in them which allow you to string some paracord through them, which never hurts to have. A good sheath will keep your knife from moving around and will prevent you from losing it.
While black, flat dark earth, and desert tan all may look really cool, unless you are trying to survive a wartime situation where you need to camouflauge yourself, they make your knife harder to keep track of. In a true survival situation, most people want to be seen. A brightly colored knife is great for this. In addition, should you lose it it’s easier for you, as well as a search and rescue team to spot.
It is important to note that not all knives can be had in bright colors. This shouldn’t necessarily be a deterrent from buying them. One great way to add some bright color to your tactical colored knife is to use a brightly colored paracord lanyard with yellows, oranges, reds, pinks, and other colors that stand out against earth tones.
Top 5 Survival Knife Reviews
Now that we have covered the basic properties, the following are some of my picks for what I consider to be some of the best survival knives on the market. You will see that each blade in the following list meets my above criteria, allowing you to rest assured that it will serve you well.
ESEE ESEE-5 – Hard Use Survival Knife
ESEE, formerly known as RAT Cutlery makes some absolutely superb fixed blade knives. In fact, at this time, this is pretty much the only type of blade they make. They are absolute experts when it comes to designing high end fixed blades, and for the money they are tough to beat.
The ESEE-5 has a 5.25″ long blade and is a whopping .25″ thick with a nice saber grind. The blade is available in both serrated and non-serrated form, and I recommend the non-serrated unless you know for a fact that you will need to cut a lot of fibrous material. It is 11″ total in length, which means it has a nice handle to blade ratio. As a bonus, it comes with a built in glass breaker and a bow drill divot, making it as ideal for urban survival as it is for wilderness. The scales are micarta with excellent texture which makes for easy gripping in the wet. The steel is a powder coated 1095 which makes for an extremely resilient edge. Do realize that you do need to maintain the knife with a thin coating of mineral oil if you leave it laying around or it will develop a slight patina over time.
As far as sheathing is concerned, ESEE provides a great kydex sheath that holds the knife securely. The sheaths are also available with various options such as MOLLE locks, a belt clip plate, a full MOLLE back, and an accessory pouch. The sheath is very well thought out with an adjustable screw that allows you to adjust the force required to withdraw the knife from the sheath.
Lastly, the knife is available in standard colors including black and olive drab, but ESEE also offers a bright green that they refer to as “venom green” with orange scales. If you can get over the zombie knife look, this is by far the most visible.
ESEE offers a lifetime, no questions asked warranty to give you an idea of how confident they are in their knives. I have personally used a number of ESEE knives, and have nothing but great things to say about their quality. You simply can’t go wrong with this knife. If there is one complaint I have, it is that the knife weighs a whopping 16 ounces, but that is the price you pay with a knife as robust as this one.
Fallkniven is a Swedish company that is well known for making some of the best fixed blade knives on the market. The blade is just a shade over 6″ long, with a thickness of .24″ which is comparable to the ESEE-5. This knife boasts a VG10 blade, which is a great all around stainless steel. The knife sports a full tang and has a molded Kraton rubber handle.
The knife is available in a variety of colors and sheathing options. The blade can be had coated in black or standard silver steel. You can buy the knife with a leather sheath or you can opt for a Zytel sheath, which is a type of plastic.
This knife is lighter than the ESEE-5 at 12 ounces, making it a more portable. Overall, this knife gets good reviews from users and has great all around build quality. It is just as functional serving as a military knife as it is serving as a camp knife. Ergonomics are good, and while it’s not cheap, it’s worth the coin. It’s a bombproof knife that will last forever.
Kabar Becker Campanion
The Kabar Becker Campanion is an extremely robust knife made by the company who has a long standing history of providing knives to the American military. The blade is made from 1095 steel, and coated in black. Due to the steel choice, you can expect excellent edge holding capability and toughness. The drop point blade measures a reasonable 5.25″ and is a full .25″ thick. Weight comes in at one pound, which is equivalent to the ESEE. The knife itself is made in the USA, however the sheath is made in Taiwan. Both knife and sheath have great build quality, regardless of country of manufacture. The knife scales are zytel and provide good grip and comfortable ergonomics.
Unfortunately there aren’t many color options, and you are pretty much stuck with black, so plan on tying some colored paracord through the lanyard hole. Two sheath options are available including heavy duty polyester or a hard plastic nylon. Both are good, so which one you get is left up to personal preference. The price on the Kabar Becker Campanion is substantially lower than both the ESEE and the A1, so this knife represents a solid but reasonably priced survival knife.
Cold Steel SRK
The Cold Steel SRK is a simple knife that has high value. If weight is important to you, this is your knife. It only weighs a mere 8.2 ounces, despite the 6″ blade. Cold Steel accomplishes this by thinning the blade down to 3/16″ which is thinner than all three aforementioned knives, but is still very capable of withstanding a ton of abuse. The blade steel is AUS8, which is a stainless steel. Cold Steel coats the blade for further protection against corrosion(on the black blade only).
The knife is available with a black blade or a standard silver, and comes with a well textured Kraton handle like the Fallkniven. The sheath is plastic with a nylon backing, so your knife is held securely and you can wear it comfortably. Ergonomics on the knife are good. The SRK gets good all around reviews and is touted for its build quality and value. Overall, there are few bad things to say about the SRK. It delivers similar performance in a lighter weight package to the Fallkniven A1, if you can live with a slightly lower performing steel and the thinner blade profile. Either way, the knife will serve you well in a survival situation.
I thought it best to provide a good cheap survival knife to round out the list. The Condor Rodan fits the bill perfectly. Compared to the other knives previously mentioned, you aren’t going to get the same quality of materials or build quality as the others, but the reviews speak for themselves considering a price point.
The Condor Rodan comes with a 1075 carbon steel blade, which has many similarities to 1095. The blade is coated in black, which is the only color option. The handle is polypropolene, and doesn’t feel as nice as zytel or Kraton but it works just fine. The blade is a very usable 5.25″ long, with a thickness of 3/16″ which is comparable to the Cold Steel SRK. The only sheath option is leather, which relies on friction to hold your knife in place so you don’t get the satisfying snap to let you know your knife is locked in that you would with kydex. However, again it works just fine.
Overall the ergonomics are good, and the steel is tough enough to handle a beating. It’s a no frills knife at a no frills price. You don’t get some of the perks of the more expensive competition, but you get all of the basic function and that’s what matters most. If you are on a budget, the Condor Rodan is a pretty decent option.
When all is said and done, they say that the best survival knife is the knife you have, and this is absolutely true. But, with a little bit of smart planning, you can control exactly which knife that is and give yourself the edge(excuse the knife pun). I hope that you have found this survival knife guide helpful. Please feel free to ask any questions you like in the comments, or make your own recommendations. Stay safe!