There is a popular saying that “the best survival knife is the knife you have on you.” Whether the knife you have on you is a small folding pocket knife, a kitchen knife, a knapped piece of flint or a $400 custom bushcraft knife – that is true. In an emergency your ability to improvise and make the most of whatever tools and equipment you have or can improvise from around you will be vital. However if you could choose your survival knife, the one you will keep in your bug out bag or the one you will take with you on a hiking trip, what would it be?
Is a Knife the Best Tool?
Under most conditions a knife will be your most important survival tool, however do consider that there are certain climates or bio-regions where there are better options. In the Arctic forest for example, there is a strong argument for an ax being the more important tool (for a great discussion on axes by one of the leading wilderness and survival experts of his generation check out this presentation by Mors Kochanski). In the jungle a machete might take the top spot but generally a knife is going to be your most important tool and the one thing you would not ever want to be without.
Not only will a knife be a very important tool to have, it will potentially be in your hand an awful lot, maybe for several hours each day. You will need it for fashioning tools, preparing game, performing cooking tasks, preparing tinder and fuel for your fire and all sorts of other jobs, you really do need to pick a knife that will be comfortable and will perform all those tasks well.
Choosing a Knife
In this article I will help you decide what knife best suits your needs. Remember though your needs may not be the same as mine, so I will try and explain the things you should look for in a knife, and what the myriad options offer so that you can choose your knife.
There are specific knives I can recommend based on my experience, others that I would warn people to avoid and custom knife makers I could endorse as masters of their craft but I will not try to tell you which knife you should choose. Your specific needs and preferences will dictate the kind of knife you choose and as you could spend many hours with your knife in your hands in a survival situation, you will need to spend some time learning to use a knife and experimenting with them to get the one that will serve you best.
What to Look For in a Knife
Just as with any big decision, you need to consider the component parts of your knife before making a choice. You wouldn’t buy a car based on just looking at the interior would you? Nor should you choose a knife based just on the steel it is made from, or the material its handle is made of. We will consider three main factors when choosing a survival knife; the handle, the blade steel, and the shape of the blade both in terms of its overall shape and the profile of its edge.
Steel is the backbone of your knife. We have come a long way as a species since tools made of stone and bone allowed stone age man to claw their way out of the stone age, and into the age of bronze and eventually reach where we are today.
Steel has emerged as the material of choice for knives, while recent innovation has given us ceramic knives, which are almost impossible to blunt, and titanium, which is completely rust resistant. Steel though, still reigns supreme as the blade material of choice. Ceramic blades are too brittle, titanium is normally reserved for divers knives and is too expensive to make a cost effective survival knife and is very difficult to sharpen. Steel offers a huge variety of characteristics as well as offering the best compromise between toughness and ease of sharpening.
Because steel is an alloy though there is a lot of variety, and not all steels are made equal. Adding more or less of an additive such as chromium or molybdenum can change the characteristics of the steel entirely, production methods can also change the characteristics of the steel.
For example CPM (Crucible Particle Metallurgy) steels are powder steels made with fine carbide particles making a very strong, wear resistant steel which is highly corrosion resistant. Because of this huge variety and the technology and money invested in the improvement of steel some steels are proprietary to certain manufacturers and can be very expensive, while others are cheaper and more universally available. Here are a few common steels that you should at least be aware of as you make your choice of survival knife.
A more ‘high tech’ steel, very corrosion resistant and extremely strong offering fantastic edge retention.
A basic, affordable ‘stainless’ steel but far superior to the budget 440 series steels, this is very occasionally used by legendary knife brand TOPS as a stain resistant alternative to the high carbon 1095 steel that is the mainstay of their product line.
A Japanese steel often used by Spyderco, and by one of the most well known makers of survival knives, Swedish manufacturer Fallkniven. Fallkniven laminates their blades giving a strong wear resistant core and a more flexible and forgiving outer layer for strength. VG10 is used in their basic models but this is not a basic steel at all and offers fantastic value for money.
1095 High Carbon Steel
A high carbon content does make for a good, strong, sharp knife but is also more prone to rust. 1095 is the mainstay of the American bush craft and survival knife market and is used extensively by knife makers such as TOPS, CRKT as well as being popular amongst custom knife makers.
O1 and A2
High carbon alternatives to 1095, many of the semi-custom knives made by Bark River feature blades of A2 steel. This steel, while it doesn’t offer fantastic edge retention compared to say VG10, can be stropped to a razor sharp edge. Likewise 02, which was chosen by celebrity survival instructor Ray Mears as the blade steel of his classic Woodlore knife.
A high carbon, semi-stainless tool steel featured in many European survival knives such as those produced by Viper and Fox. While potentially brittle in a knife with a very thin edge profile, it is a fantastic blade steel.
The steel of choice for high end tactical knife maker Extrema Ratio of Italy. This was my steel of choice for a survival knife for many years and offers high carbon combined with semi-stainless properties as well as moderately good edge retention and ease of sharpening.
A Swedish semi-stainless high carbon steel, it is featured in Mora knives as well as many others and is a great entry level steel that performs far above its price class.
Without listing too many steels or going down the ‘super steel’ rabbit hole, this list sums up some of the common steels. I can’t recommend any one more than the others, although I have used all of them to a greater or lesser extent.
You will have to make your choice based on your needs but I will say the following – every student who I have taught bush craft and survival skills will have borrowed a knife made of Sandvik steel from me. The survival knife I used on a daily basis for about four years was made from N690 and the custom bush craft knife which is now my knife of choice for most tasks is made of O2 but requires more maintenance than any of the others. Any of these steels will serve you well. For a great article comparing blade steels in more detail check this out from Blade HQ.
Probably more important than the blade steel is that it is correctly tempered and hardened to a Rockwell hardness of between 57 and 60. This gives a perfect middle ground between the knife being too hard to sharpen and not hard enough to retain an edge. A badly tempered knife in a good steel will need constant sharpening or will break because it has become too brittle. Yes there are knives on the market tempered well into the 60’s on the Rockwell scale, and if you have a workshop and bundle of sharpening stones you can get them razor sharp again. In the field with minimal kit, perhaps the contents of a bug out bag opt for something a bit more manageable.
Rockwell hardness doesn’t just apply to blade steels so to get to grips with it from an engineer’s point of view. Check out this excellent explanation by Dave Palmer of Design News regarding what Rockwell numbers really mean and how it is measured.
Debunking Urban Legends
Some of the influential outdoorsmen who are known today thanks to their knife designs, such as George Washington Sears and Horace Kephart, may not have had the option of stainless steels but because they advocated certain steels and blade shapes many people insist that their designs and preferences must be rigidly adhered to today.
Their designs do have merit and were clearly the result of a great deal of experience but technology moves on and there is no reason not to accept that. Clinging to carbon steel religiously just because someone in the 1880’s had a carbon steel knife isn’t necessarily the best survival strategy.
There have been a lot of strange arguments given from time to time as to why carbon steel is the only choice for a survival knife, including that stainless steels are too hard to sharpen and that they can’t strike sparks from a fire steel. Neither of these things are true, don’t worry about them. There are super hard carbon steels that are hard to sharpen and stainless steels such as N690 that can be sharpened quite easily with basic survival tools and a ceramic sharpening stone.
The myth about sparks comes most likely from the fact that you will need carbon steel to produce sparks from a genuine chunk of flint stone. Using a modern ferrocerium rod though you can strike sparks with your keys or a piece of broken glass. So the spine of a stainless steel knife will definitely do the trick.
Don’t get hung up on the carbon vs stainless argument, use what suits you best. In a wet, particularly salt water environment, don’t give yourself the nightmare of maintaining a carbon steel blade. Go for a stainless, but beware stainless is just that; it stains less, it doesn’t not stain at all so you still need to look after it.
Blade Shape and Size
I’ve mentioned influential outdoorsmen such as ‘Nessmuk’, the pen name of real life George Washington Sears, Horace Kephart and Ray Mears. Just as their preference for blade steel is often now taken as gospel the shape of their knives is often copied as well, sometimes badly.
The modern Nessmuk knife is a perfect example of this. Nessmuk himself used his belt knife solely for the skinning and preparation of game, it was a skinning and butchery knife and is reminiscent of modern butchers knives. It would have been made of thin steel with a flat or hollow grind to facilitate easy skinning and to allow it to be easily maintained to a razors edge.
Modern interpretations though give it a thick heavy blade with a Scandinavian grind more suited to wood working, because that is what most bush craft knives feature. As far as I’m concerned that ruins the knife in two respects – the grind makes it sub par for skinning while the blade shape makes it less than ideal for woodworking.
If you are going to seek inspiration from old wisdom make sure you apply it properly. The best advice and recommendations offered by any major survival expert on knife choice was given by Mors Kochanki. He suggests that a blade needs to be no longer than the width of your hand, probably less than four inches. He also advocates a strong point for piercing and carving tasks, perhaps the kind of central spear point on Kepharts knife, of a more Scandinavian feel. Perhaps a strait spine and curved belly such as the blade profile found on MORA knives.
Be aware though that Mors would always pair his knife with an ax in the boreal forest. In that environment, if I could only take one tool, it would be the ax so if you are planning to use your survival knife as a one tool option or press it to heavy chopping tasks, you may want something larger that Mors suggests. Don’t go too large though otherwise it will be impossible to control and use for finer tasks.
For survival a few grind styles are most appropriate.
This grind style features a single bevel, normally about a third up from the edge, which slopes directly to the cutting edge with an equal angle on either side. No secondary bevel at the edge and this is perfect for all manor of woodworking and carving tasks. A knife with this grind style will be great for carving other tools but the edge can be a little fragile, so pair it with an ax for chopping tasks.
This features a slightly higher grind than a typical Scandinavian style grind but also has a secondary bevel at the edge to add strength, this does make it a poorer carver than the Scandinavian grind but does mean it can be pressed to chopping and splitting without fear of damaging the edge.
The grind of Fallkniven and most Bark River knives, this is a grind which may seem complicated to maintain but with the proper use of a leather strop the grind angles, which curve gradually from either side of the blade to the edge, can be maintained. This style of blade is very robust and razor sharp. A great multi-purpose grind.
Knife handles are where you have the most options, and also where there is most room for personalization, everything from wood to bone and modern resin handles are options.
Your overriding concern though should be that the knife is comfortable in your hand as you work. Some popular materials are inherently uncomfortable – antler for example unless shaped very well can be incredibly uncomfortable if too much of the natural figuring of the antler is left intact. The wrinkles and patterns of the antler will rub and irritate your hand, perhaps offering superb grip but ultimately causing sores.
Heavy chequering and inconsistencies in handles can also cause this so choose wisely. A well shaped handle doesn’t need to be full of grip enhancing ‘jimping’ and will be secure if used properly.
You might consider plastic or rubber handles. These are particularly useful in cold climates and for avoiding contamination and the transfer of bacteria if you are processing a lot of game, but they aren’t as attractive as well figured wood. However, we are choosing a survival tool and not a ‘hobby’ knife for armchair bushcrafters so man made Micarta or G10 will take some beating as a handle material.
These materials are made of epoxy resin, which binds together tightly packed layers of material such as cotton, linen or in the case of G10 glass fiber. They are extremely strong, in fact practically indestructible. Wood can be stabilized using epoxy as well giving you the attractiveness of a nicely figured wood combined with the strength of modern material and I would highly recommend it as a knife handle.
Whatever your chosen handle material though you must make sure your knife handle is strongly attached to it with a well-made ‘tang’.
The tang of the knife is the metal part which extends from the blade into the handle. For a survival knife where strength is paramount, full tang or full length tapered tang are the only two options I would consider.
A true full tang is the full width and length of the handle with the handle material secured on both sides like a sandwich.
A tapered tang is thinner than the handle but should still reach the full length so it can be secured at the end providing maximum security. Some knives with shorter tangs are still of very good quality such as those made by Mora but for your primary survival knife something the full length of the handle is important.
A Winning Combination
Blade and handle combined complete your survival knife, choose a sheath that keeps the knife on your person and secure at all times and you will be prepared for anything. Whatever you choose though make sure you get out there and use it. While it may spend most of its time in a bug out bag ‘just in case’, if you never practice all the kit in the world won’t make the difference to your survival.
Honing your skills
Remember that however good your knife is, it will only perform as well as your skills allow it. A $400 custom knife won’t perform any better than a $10 Mora knife if you don’t practice so spend time working on your skills before splashing cash on a very expensive knife. Spend some time practicing, make feather sticks for fire lighting as described here by well known bush craft and survival instructor Paul Kirtley, try sticks are another great practice for your basic knife skills.
Try sticks were the idea of legendary survival instructor Mors Kochanski and used by him to train and assess the competence of his trainee instructors. Carving try sticks is a great way to practice and develop your skills as well as making sure a knife is up to the tasks you require of it.
This constant practice will help you learn what is most comfortable for you, what kind of steel you are happy with from a stain resistance perspective, and what kind of grind will be most useful to you. Your practice will help you learn how easy different steels are to sharpen and it will also help you choose which style and shape of blade and grind you need. The more you practice the clearer the differences between different blade shapes and grinds will become to you. Subtle differences in the knife can make a big difference to you as a user and getting used to these differences will help you choose the ONE survival knife you will trust your life with.
Your mastery of knife skills is what will save your life in a survival situation, because once you are a master even a scavenged kitchen knife, shard of flint or crudely improvised blade will do everything you need. When having a knife becomes a luxury not a necessity you know you have mastered survival skills and all this learning and practicing will not only help you choose the one survival knife you want but might quite literally save your life.