I have friends who are radical knife enthusiasts. There are parts of their homes that look more like torture chambers than a place to relax. There is such a wide variety of knives on the market and these guys love it! From punch daggers to karambits to knife rings. Knife rings, yea. They love it all.
When you step into the woods you should have a durable, reliable, and functional survival knife. It would not be wise to take any kind of pocket knife out into the woods. These knives can fail when you need them most. Though there is a wide variety of knives, the survival knife is unique amongst them.
So, how do you find the best survival knife?
What Makes the Best Survival Knife
There is a pretty well-defined criterion when it comes to choosing a survival knife. It was popularized by the Pathfinder School and I think it is a great way to choose your own survival knife.
90 Degree Spine
While there are many shapes and knife designs out there, you are looking for a flat spined knife with sharp 90 degree angles on either side. In a survival situation, you can use this 90-degree spine to strike a ferrocerium rod.
Without a 90 degree spine, you will be striking the Ferro rod with your blade and this will radically affect the edge when you need it most.
High Carbon Steel
Most hunting knives and tactical knives are forged from high carbon steel. It’s a good steel for knife making and holds your sharpened edge really well. Carbon steel blades are important for a reason beyond just being a good metal for making a durable knife.
The spine of a high carbon steel knife can be used the same way that a steel striker in a flint and steel fire starter is used. It’s wild to think of but it works in exactly the same way. When you strike a piece of steel with flint, chert, quartz, or glass it produces a spark. That is because the friction shaves a tiny piece of that high carbon steel off and it oxidizes and sparks.
If you have a high carbon steel knife, it’s the same exact reaction.
So, along with being nearly indestructible high carbon steel is also great for throwing small sparks.
5-6 Inches in Length
I realize that blade length is a very particular thing and it can be different for different people. However, the ideal length for a bushcraft knife or survival knife is between 5-6 inches. This is a great length for doing things like batoning wood but also small enough that you can do detailed carving for things like making traps.
If you wanna wield a Bowie knife then be my guest. There are capabilities and limitations in everything.
I would add to this that you should look for a blade that is at least two inches in width. A nice wide drop point blade is about as good as it gets.
This is one of the most important criteria for a true survival knife. Full tang means that the knife is made from one solid piece of steel that runs the length of the blade and the handle. The other options are knives with partial tangs. These are blades that are forged with a “tail” that is secured within the handle of the knife.
You need a full-tang knife. This will assure your knife has the strength necessary to be a tool as much as a knife. If the partial tang pops out of the handle then you have some real problems. You have lost your comfortable grip.
When you buy your knife it may come with a sheath or it may not. The perfect survival knife does not have to come with the perfect sheath. The best sheath can be made for your knife. There are a number of different sheath materials.
Leather sheaths are very effective. I like a nylon sheath or a Kydex locking sheath because I know that my knife is stuck in place and is not going anywhere. I could roll down a hill and into a lake and swim to shore without ever worrying about losing my knife.
What Can a Survival Knife Do?
So, now that you have gone over the rigorous criteria, what are you gonna do with this survival knife. What should you expect from this knife blade?
The process of making tinder is all about making little dry fibers. The more little dry fibers your tinder bundle has the more effective it will be. When you have a proper survival knife with a 90-degree spine you can use that edge breakdown plants and barks so they become fibrous.
As we mentioned you can get a fire started by using your high carbon steel knife. These knives will throw sparks when struck with a sharp rock or glass. I would recommend using charcloth if you are going to use your knife to start a fire. Also, strike the spine of the knife and not the blade.
Whether you are trimming branches or splitting wood with your knife it can be a tool for processing. I would not recommend batoning wood with your survival knife be your first option as that kind of abuse adds up over time. Bring an ax for splitting wood.
However, in a survival situation where you have gotten lost and all you have is a survival knife and a small kit, your knife will be able to process wood so that you can get a fire started and maybe even a shelter built!
Though wilderness adventures rarely end in violent altercations, it is good to look at your knife as a weapon, too. While you may not approach a violent group of people deep in the woods you could run into a pack of rowdy coyotes or some other wildlife threat.
Your knife will give you the ability to strike or defend while keeping your distance. It’s definitely a lot better than not having a weapon to defend yourself.
You probably think that chasing down a deer with a hunting knife would be near impossible. You are right. Broaden what you think of when you think of hunting. In an emergency situation, you can affix your knife to a long sturdy stake and create a devastating spear that can be used to spear a fish, frog, or maybe some other food source you happen upon.
The Best Survival Knife
My Top 5 Picks
Here are 5 of my favorite bushcraft knives that are on the market today. They vary in price but they all meet the majority of the criteria we mentioned above. Any one of these knives would be the right pick for an outdoor survival situation.
If you are a big person with big hands then you should give the Becker a look. It’s got a nice meaty blade on it and a nice meaty handle.
This knife is forged from cro-van1095 steel and has a blade that is just over 5 inches. That meets our criteria for length. it is a beefy full tang knife with a beautiful drop point blade. The whole knife is black, as the Ka-Bar knives always are.
This is the kind of knife that will get the job done. Its built to take a lashing. Ka-Bar has long been a weapon taken into battle and that says something about the brand and its standards.
Finally, the Ka-Bar Becker comes with a hard plastic MOLLE compatible sheath. You can attach this thing almost anywhere if you decide that a knife on your belt is not what you are after, this kind of sheath gives you options.
This is my current bushcraft knife. This is my personal pick and the knife I take out in the field when I go hunting, camping, trapping, fishing, and just exploring. I really love the Arthos because the blade is built just the way I like it. It’s nice and wide, it has that great 90-degree spine, and is stout and powerful.
The G10 grips give it such a nice look and ergonomic grip. There is also a metal loop on the bottom of the full tang blade that you can use it to hammer or you can affix paracord to.
The folks at Arthos were really thinking about the bushcrafter or survivalist when they designed this knife. The Kydex sheath is secure but also comes with a leather loop for the included ferrocerium rod.
Unfortunately, Arthos knives no longer seem to be producing new knives, and the only place I can find them for sale is on Ebay. They are great knives but I would love to see them come back with something new.
This knife is born of 5160 high carbon steel. I love the design and shape of the blade. it’s similar to an old pioneering belt knife. The point is a little high for my taste but I am just being finicky really. This is a full tang blade that has a laminated hardwood handle attached to it.
This blade is 5 inches long and silver. It’s gonna get dinged up and that’s ok. It’s a nice wide blade and has that great 90-degree spine you are looking for.
Though they do a bad job at featuring it, this knife comes with a custom-made nylon sheath and Ferro rod with a striker. The sheath is long and slender and the Ferro rod and striker are on the inside of a button pocket. It’s a great little setup.
This knife is a winner and it meets all of our criteria for a top-quality survival knife.
These are great knives that were actually designed by an Army SERE instructor. I like to know where the design for the knife was born. That adds a level of validity. It was literally modeled to be a downed pilot’s hard use survival knife. We are talking about a blade that was made to stake a man’s life on it.
This knife is made of 1095 steel and ESEE makes it very clear on their site that you have to clean and lubricate your blades properly to assure a long life.
The ESEE-5 blade is a perfect example of a drop point blade. This blade runs into a micarta handle that is nice and grippy. The blade is 5.25 inches in length so it hits that magic mark between 5-6 inches.
This knife also comes with a Kydex sheath so that you can carry it and keep it on your person no matter the situation. ESEE makes some awesome knives.
This knife is an investment. There is no getting around that. However, it is also a thing of beauty. We are talking about a survival knife that was designed and created by some of the most notable bushcrafters in the world right now.
It’s important to understand that this knife was designed by the people who created the same criteria that we discussed earlier in the article so you know you are hitting all those high notes and many more.
This knife is born out of 1095 steel and has some really cool design features in the blade. The Bush Tool has a “fireROD scraper notch” that is cut into the spine of the knife. It does feature a 90-degree spine but they took it even further by creating this half-moon notch where a ferro rod can slip in easily. You will shower lots of sparks as the ferro rod is hit in several places.
The blade is 5.25 inches and you can actually order this by your desired thickness of 1.8″ or 3/16″ depending on what you like.
To top it all off the folks at Habilis Tools decided to go with my favorite fiberglass G10 handles. These are the same kind of handles on my Arthos. This knife is a beauty. It has a look and feel that reminds me of days long past and survival in much harsher environments.
The Importance of Preference
My personal preference is for a knife in the 5-inch range that has that beautiful wide-bladed drop point design. There is just something about that stout design that really meets my needs. While we have given you criteria and we have even introduced you to some knives, it is important to remember that you have your own preference, too!
Maybe you like a blade with a deep saber grind and Tanto blade. Maybe you just really like the Ka-Bar Becker and that is enough searching for you. No matter what the situation, you should consider your personal preference and experience above all.
Of course, there is always a price range to consider, too. You should not go into debt over a survival knife. There are lots of affordable blades out there.
Knowing what you do and what you need in the woods will help you choose the best survival knife for you. That should be what you are after.
Pack a Reliable Survival Knife
I started out as a chef so I always had a relationship with knives and blades. When I used knives over a cutting board I had no idea they could be used for so much in the wild.
There is nothing wrong with becoming something of a knife enthusiast. There are a lot of cool-looking knives out there and shiny decorative blades, too. Carry those kinds of blades during the week.
When you head out to the woods be sure you pack a reliable survival knife. This way if you are faced with an emergency or disaster then you have a legitimate survival tool that can help you when you need it most.