Ultimate Survival Knives Guide

You’re asking yourself–do I really need survival knives? When would I use one? No one expects to end up in a survival situation. But being prepared can change an emergency from life-threatening to an inconvenience or adventure. 

Imagine you’re on a day hike with your family. Someone twists their ankle or gets sick, and your pace slows down. It’s getting dark, and you’ve become disoriented in the woods.

Or, there’s been an extreme weather event in your area. Your neighborhood evacuates, with just minutes to grab the essentials.

How about, you’re trying to make it home in time for the holidays, but the blizzard you hoped to beat has shut down the interstate, and the snow straps you in your car for an unknown amount of time.

In all these situations, you may need to build a shelter, make a fire, and find food. Survival knives are the tool that helps you not only survive an emergency but thrive under pressure. 

What Is a Survival Knife?

A survival knife is a valued tool in the wilderness along with map, compass, and rope.
A survival knife is an essential piece of gear for wilderness exploration and emergency preparation.

Knives designed for the wilderness and emergencies are survival knives. While you may use them for making tools, cooking, and even hunting, they’re different from kitchen knives, wood carving knives, and hunters blades. They excel in all areas while withstanding vigorous daily uses. You can pound on a survival knife to split wood, carve delicate fish hooks, and cut thread and bandages in your first aid kid. They’re sturdy, easy to sharpen, and an essential part of your survival pack.

Essential Survival Knife Features

Size

Forget aesthetics when picking out the right survival knife for your needs.
The right size knife is the difference between help and hindrance in an emergency.

There’s a Goldilocks situation when picking out survival knives for your needs. The blade length needs to be big enough to do rugged work, but not so big that you lose the ability to make detailed cuts.

  • Big: you want a durable survival knife that will hold up even if you’re splitting tree limbs for firewood.
  • Small: a small blade can make precision cuts, like whittling parts for snares.
  • Just right: a knife around nine to 11-inches is the right balance, with a blade about half the total length.

Fixed Blade or Folding Knife

A survival knife has applications while camping, around the house, and in emergencies.
Most outdoors people opt for two knives–a folding knife in their pocket and and fixed blade in their pack.

You may feel more comfortable with one knife style over the other, but in terms of survival knives for life or death situations–picked a fixed blade. No matter how indestructible a folding knife is, the joint between the blade and handle is an undeniable weak spot.

With strenuous daily use, you’ll weaken and break the joint of a folding knife. You may be in a survival situation for weeks–using your knife to build shelter, split firewood, and even dress game. You want to know that you can rely on it for every job you do. If the blade breaks off your survival knife, as it might do with a folding knife, you will be in a lot more trouble.

That said, you may opt for carrying a folding knife in your pocket and a fixed blade in your bug out bag.

Full or Partial Tang

Survival knives should always have full tangs, skip the gimmicks with hollow handles and cheap partial tangs.
Don’t try to save money by opting for a partial tang, a full tang will last longer and serve you better.

The tang of the knife is the part of the blade that goes into the handle.

  • Full tang: the metal from the blade extends all the way through the entire handle. They’re heavier than partial tang, but also have better balance and better durability.
  • Partial tang: also called rat-tail or push tang, has a paltry amount of metal that extends into the handle. Sometimes, there’s a weld at the joint of the blade and the handle. They’re more affordable than full tang knives but less durable.

Invest the money in a full tang knife. They’re well worth the higher price, as it’s still safe to use the blade even if the handle’s loose or breaks. The blade of a partial tang knife will develop movement where it sits in the handle with repeated, vigorous use. Play in the blade is annoying and can be dangerous.

Avoid gimmicky survival knives with hollow handles for storing extra gear. Without the support of a tang, the blade might snap off when you need it.

Tip Shape

Survival knives should have versatility in their design, and do a lot of jobs well.
Tip shape is part personal preference, but always opt for greater versatility with the shape of your survival knives.

Survival knives come with all kinds of tip shapes meant to add functionality to the blade.

Three most common knife tip shapes:

  • Clip point: the top third of the blade looks clipped off, either in a straight or concave line. They have fine points for precision tasks.
  • Drop point: similar to a clip point, but with a convex line from the spine to the knifepoint. They’re ideal for slicing and preferred by hunters.
  • Spear point: the knifepoint is in the center of the blade between two symmetrical sides. They can have a spine and edge, or two sharpened edges.

Other common knife shapes:

  • Gut hook: a small hook in the spine of a knife blade, designed to let hunters skin animals without nicking the organs.
  • Hawkbill/talon: a knife blade that’s hooked at the end to look like the beak of a raptor. They’re most efficient when you pull towards the handle, ideal for cutting fabric and pruning.
  • Straight back: the spine of the knife is straight, with the edge curving up to meet it. They’re durable, sturdy blades, perfect for chopping and slicing.
  • Sheepsfoot: a straight edge with a spine that drops to form the tip. They’re ideal for slicing without accidentally piercing with the point.
  • Wharncliffe: similar to the sheepsfoot with a straight edge, but the spine has a gentle curve from the handle to tip.
  • Trailing point: the spine curves up, so the tip of the knife is above the handle with a long sweeping edge. The oversized belly is ideal for skinning and filleting.
  • Tanto: a straight spine, but instead of the edge sloping to meet it, there’s an angular transition that makes the tip strong, but the knife is less adept at slicing.
  • Spey point: the edge and spine are straight until the tip when the spine drops, and the edge curls up to meet it. It’s excellent at slicing without accidental puncturing.

You want your survival knife to have a sharp point and considerable versatility. When picking out knives for your survival pack, avoid dramatic shapes like the spey point and sheepsfoot. Look instead for a knife with a spear, drop, or clip point.

Single Edge or Double Edge

Your survival knives will last longer and get more use if they have a spine with a flat bevel rather than two edges.
A flat bevel spine is far more useful than a double edged knife.

Survival knives come with either a flat spine and a sharpened edge or two sharpened edges. You might think two edges equals double the knife, but it limits your capabilities in the wilderness or emergencies. When you have a spine, you have a spot on the blade to add extra force and control–such as with your thumb while carving. You can also use mallet against the spine while splitting wood and chopping.

A flat bevel spine is a secondary tool within the knife. You can scrape the flat bevel along a firestarter stick to generate significant, concentrated flames. This technique works best with a flat bevel spine, not a rounded or angle spine.

Added Pommel

Survival knives with a full tang often have a pommel at the butt, perfect to use with a mallet for chiseling, or for light hammering around the campsite.
A pommel adds extra tools to your survival knife, for hammering and chiseling.

A survival knife is about more than just the blade. Consider the shape of the handle, butt, and if there’s an added pommel. The pommel is an addition to the butt of the knife to reinforce it for hammering and striking. It may be an extension of the tang or an added feature to increase the handle’s durability.

Metal Type

Ease of sharpening for your blade is far more important than the metal's alloy.
Being able to sharpen your knife easily is far more important than the blade’s metal.

Everyone swears by a different kind of metal for their survival knife. In fact, it’s less important than the grip and balance of the blade. Some common metals used for survival knife blades:

  • Stainless steel: high-performance metal that resists corrosion. However, the added chromium in the alloy to prevent corrosion often compromises the knife’s toughness.
  • Carbon steel: standard place in survival knives because the added carbon increases durability. They hold a sharp edge and are easy to sharpen, but corrode more than stainless.
  • High carbon: steel with added carbon to make up for the lack of chromium. Knives from high carbon steel hold their edge for a long time, with more durability than stainless steel.

Some people will insist upon a specific alloy for their survival knife. Still, it’s less important than the other features. Don’t sacrifice comfort, blade shape, or balance to have a blade with a specific alloy.

How to Shop For a Survival Knife

Decide what features are the most important to you before you begin shopping for survival knives.
Once you know what features you’re looking for, shopping for a survival knife is easy.

Finding the right survival knife for your bug out bag and emergency readiness kit is, in large part, a matter of preference. The essential features survival knives should have are:

  • Easy to sharpen: if it’s impossible to sharpen, then it has a limited lifespan as a useful tool.
  • Comfortable handle: it needs to feel good in your hand, without causing unnecessary strain.
  • It works how you need it: shop for a knife that suits your needs, not because someone tells you it’s the best or looks the best.

Where you live, and the disaster threats to that area, are the principal factors that should guide your knife shopping. Are you near a wooded wilderness, expecting to build a fire or shelter? Maybe you’re in a city and worried about self-defense? Is your bug-out plan to survive away from resources for an extended period where you must hunt, fish, and build snares? They all require distinct features in a knife. The best knife is one that works reasonably well, regardless of the situation. The best survival knife:

  • Sharp edge and flat spine: for slicing, hammering, and striking a firestarter.
  • Sharp tip: for piercing, with placement on the blade for maximum versatility.
  • Comfortable and durable handle: a full tang is less likely to develop slippage even with vigorous use.
  • Sturdy pommel: to use the knife as a chisel or a hammer.
  • Limited joints: a full tang, fixed blade knife has fewer places where it might break.

Use your personal experience and circumstances to guide your shopping.

The Best Survival Knife for 2020

You don't want to replace your survival knife every year–spending a little more ensure a more durable piece of gear in your pack.
Versatility and durability are the key features in the TOPS Brothers of Bushcraft Survival Knife.

Based on the features we’ve listed as the most important for any survival knife, we’ve selected the TOPS Brothers of Bushcraft Survival Knife. The Brothers of Bushcraft is a coalition of survival-enthusiasts dedicated to sharing necessary outdoor skills with as many people as possible. Their combined knowledge designed a knife filled with valuable features. We think it will be the last survival knife you buy.

  • Size: overall, ten inches long with a four-and-a-half inch blade.
  • Metal: High carbon steel.
  • Handle: ergonomic canvas micarta has high impact strength, heat resistance, and a divot for bow drill fire starting.
  • Drop point tip: suitable for slicing and precision cutting work.
  • Sheath: the Kydex sheath includes a firestarter, steel belt clip, and an emergency whistle.
  • Full tang: perfect for durability.
  • Pommel: the butt of the handle is the exposed tang, perfect for hammering.

We believe in the versatility and durability of the mid-priced B.O.B. Survival Knife You won’t need to or want to buy another knife as long as you have the B.O.B. However, there are adequate alternatives at a lower price-point. After all, the best survival knife is the one you have.

These knives will do the job you need them to, maybe without the additional bells and (literally) whistles. If you’re shopping on a budget, any survival knife with a majority of the vital features is better than none.

How to Use a Survival Knife

Your survival knives will mostly be used for woodworking, depending on the emergency situation you find yourself in.
Survival knives are mostly used for woodworking–like building shelter and making fires.

For the most part, you’ll use survival knives for woodworking. Unless you’re already an adept hunter, you won’t be carving spears and gutting and skinning prey from your snares. While these are essential survival skills, you don’t need to know them to get value from a survival knife. 

There are essential steps in a survival situation, but the order you do them is up to your best judgment. Your emergent needs will change depending on if you’re in an emergency evacuation, stranded in a blizzard, or lost and hurt in the wilderness. The following is in no particular order:

  • Build a fire: use your survival knife to make a feather stick, generate sparks with a fire starter, or drill out a divot for the bow drill method. You can also use your knife to split branches to build up a supply to get through the night or many nights.
  • Build a shelter: even if you’re only stranded for a night or two, it’s worth it to make a robust and wind-proof shelter. A survival knife can help you trim branches to fit your A-frame and notch branches together.
  • Cutting paracord: we explain how common knots can help you both in survival situations and while camping. They’re a lot easier to use when you can cut paracord or rope with your knife.
  • Finding food: making snares is a lot easier with a knife at the ready. So is skinning and dressing whatever animals you catch. You can carve fishing hooks, like the gorge, or fashion nets and baskets for catching fish.
  • First aid: cutting gauze and thread is a lot easier with a sharp knife.
  • Toolmaking: as we said before, your survival knife’s chief purpose is wood carving. You can carve essential equipment to make your survival camp more comfortable, which is also an ideal way to stay busy if you’re lost or stranded.

The situation dictates if you first make a shelter or fire, or find water. You can survive for up to three weeks without food, but only three hours without shelter and three days without water. In an emergency, take a moment to prioritize, develop a plan, and then act.

Preparation Makes The Difference

Getting good gear ahead of time and learning how to use it, can turn a life and death situation into a minor inconvenience or a new adventure.
Having good gear at the ready can turn a life and death situation into a minor inconvenience.

A little preparation can be the difference between life and death when emergency strikes. Instead of racing to survive, you can approach disaster with confidence secure in your knowledge and equipment. We recommend everyone have a survival pack ready-to-go for evacuation and emergencies. An excellent survival knife that you trust is an essential part of your gear.