Top 5 Survival Knives (and How to Choose the One That's Right for You)

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One tool which can make or break you in a survival situation is a good knife. And although it’s said that the best knife is the one you have with you, and a lot can be done with the proper skills and any knife, there are features which make some survival knives better choices than others.

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The choice of which knife to carry in the backcountry is a highly personal one, and what’s right for one person with one skillset may be wrong for another person with different skills in the same situation. However, there are some general guidelines for choosing a good survival knife, and most of the more popular choices tend to conform to these standards:

  • Fixed blade: A folding knife is handy for fitting in your pocket, but because the blade and the handle are two separate pieces joined by a hinge, the chances for breakage are much higher than with a fixed blade design. Folding knives also tend to have shorter and thinner blades, which limits the ways they can be used, and they are can be much less durable  – the average pocketknife probably wouldn’t last very long cutting saplings or chopping kindling prying or being pounded on the butt with a rock.
  • Full tang: The blade of the knife should be a full tang design, which means that the steel of the blade continues all of the way to the end of the handle, in one piece. Knives with only partial tangs are weaker when subjected to unusual stress, which is what they might be exposed to in a survival situation. Many so-called survival knives tout their hollow handle, in which emergency items can be kept, but a hollow handle will be weaker than a solid one in most cases. Another plus to a good survival knife is a pommel on the butt end of the tang and handle, which can help the knife to stand up to being hammered on the end.
  • Comfortable, non-slip handle: The handle of a good survival knife doesn’t have to pass a beauty test, it just needs to be a comfortable size and shape for your hand, and be designed to be easy to keep a grip on. Other pluses for the handle are a lanyard hole and a slight bulge at the butt end, to keep the knife from slipping out of your hand, and a good finger guard between handle and blade (especially on the side with the edge).
  • Thick blade: The best survival knife blades look really fat compared to the average knife, but the added thickness of the blade means that it can stand up to hard wear and tear and unusual usage much better than other knives can. Suggested thicknesses range from 5/32″ to 1/4″.
  • Length of blade: Four to six inches is usually the recommended length for a survival knife blade. Knives which are much smaller or larger than this won’t have the same versatility, but the choice of length is a personal one.
  • Easy to sharpen and hone: Both the steel that the knife is made out of, as well as the profile of the edge (the style of grind, i.e. hollow, flat, compound), should be taken into account. The best choice of steel for a survival knife would be one which is not too hard as to be brittle or difficult to sharpen in the field, but hard enough to keep a decent edge on it. The edge profile is important to consider, as hollow-ground blades can be incredibly sharp, but extremely difficult to sharpen in the backcountry, whereas a compound grind holds a decent edge yet can be sharpened much easier on the go.

 

Five Top Picks for Survival Knives:

 

KA-BAR USMC Utility Knife:

This iconic American knife is one of the all-time favorites for military, survivalists, and outdoors sportsmen, and has been field tested by generations of Marines. The KA-BAR was originally produced during WWII for the United States Marine Corp, and the knife quickly became accepted as the standard for a soldier’s daily work knife. This knife is a no-frills workhorse with a classic look, and with its 7″ blade length, it’s also quite a long knife (11 7/8″). The KA-BAR has a stacked leather handle and a pretty generous finger guard, and the flat-ground edge is dead-simple to sharpen.

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Tom Brown Tracker:

On the other end of the spectrum is the Tracker, a knife designed by Tom Brown, Jr, a respected tracker and wilderness survival expert. The blade on the tracker is a shorter length (4 ¼”), but the overall length is the same as the KA-BAR. What really sets this knife apart is the design of the blade and edge, which is quite different from most. The mini saw blade on the back, the section on the edge for drawknife usage, and fact that the shape of the blade and handle lend itself easily to chopping, turn this from a survival knife into a survival tool.

SOG SEAL Team Knife:

SOG is one of the top fixed blade knife manufacturers in the world, and their SEAL Team knife is built with extreme abuse in mind. The knife was designed for optimum sharpness, edge retention, tip and blade breaking limits, torsion, salt water immersion, and gas and acetylene torch resistance, plus durability for chopping, hammering, prying, penetration and cutting applications. The blade is 7″ long and .24″ thick, with a partial serration on the edge, and the overall length of the knife is 12.3″. Fans of shorter blades, and non-serrated edges, may find the Field Pup to be more to their liking.

Cold Steel SRK:

Cold Steel is another high quality knife maker, and the company’s SRK model is no exception to that. SRK stands for Survival Rescue Knife, and the design speaks to discerning knife owners who desire a versatile knife which is capable of withstanding tons of abuse. The blade is 3/16″ thick and 6″ long, with the whole knife measuring in at 10 3/4″. The handle has a single finger guard and a heavily checkered grip, making for an easy-to-grip knife.

Fallkniven A1 Swedish Survival Knife:

One of the lesser known of manufacturers in this group is Fallkniven, of Sweden, but they have a great survival knife option in their model A1. The A1 is a full tang knife, and the 6.3″ long blade is made from .24″ thick laminated VG10 steel (overall length is 11″). The handle is checkered Kraton, and features both a lanyard hole and finger guard.

For more help with picking the top survival knife for you, see this piece on Instructables.

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