Selecting a Survival Knife

Selecting a Survival Knife
Selecting a Survival Knife

When I first gained interested in becoming a survival writer, I dove in head first. Every night I spent hours reading articles, watching videos, and talking to experts. I had already gained a great deal of knowledge through my hunting, fishing, camping, and scouting experiences. However, I wanted to take it to the next level. I ran across a rather arrogant “survival expert” in one of the forums I frequented. He claimed that all he would ever need to survive any scenario is a good knife. I thought he was nuts at the time.

First and foremost, as a survival writer I did not want to encourage inexperienced survivalists to venture into the wilderness with nothing but a knife. That has to be suicide, right? I had just completed my first survival challenge with a small pack full of gear, and felt like I was barely able to complete that challenge. After a while, I forgot about the ‘knife-only guy’ and proceeded to complete several more survival challenges.

As I became more proficient with my skills, I noticed something interesting. I needed less gear. It seemed like my pack got lighter on every challenge as I discarded the items that I did not need. Do not misunderstand me. Your bug out bag should still have as much gear as you can comfortably carry. However, the transformation was amazing. Before I knew it, I had a strange thought. Could I actually survive with just a good knife?

If I was going to attempt this, I would need the perfect blade for the job. I started my research by asking some experienced friends and by doing some reading. I found a large camp knife that I felt was perfect for the job. For this challenge I would spend three days in the wettest conditions of the year. There were downpours consistently the whole time, and absolutely no way to start a fire. I used my knife to build a solid lean-to shelter to block the wind and rain. I gathered wild edibles for food and used plastic bottles to gather rainwater from indentations in rock faces. I made it through my challenge cold and wet, but alive. I had a whole new appreciation for a good knife. In this article I will cover the importance of a knife, along with all of the variables you must consider when selecting the perfect blade.

Why a Knife?

The four pillars of survival are food, water, fire, and shelter. You might think a water filter, fire-starter, or emergency blanket would be your most important survival item. You may consider MRE meals, paracord, or a backpacking tent to be vital. However, the one tool that transcends all of these areas as well as several others is a knife. A good knife can be used to strike your ferro rod to start a fire, to chop wood, to build a bow drill kit, and to prepare tinder. It can be used to build traps and to trim poles for a shelter. A solid knife can be used for self-defense, and also for medical emergencies. You can even use a knife to build a ground to air signal or to build a DIY compass.

In addition, no other tool is more difficult to recreate with natural materials than a knife. The closest you can come is typically using stone or glass and flintknapping an edge. In addition to this process being incredibly difficult and time consuming, the finished product is not very strong compared to steel. It takes years of practice to create a sharp edge through flintknapping. Then after hours of perfecting your product, the edge could break the first time it is used. There is just no replacing a good knife.

obsidian knife knapping

Image credit: Travis S. Obsidian Knife with Antler Handle (CC license)

Knife Size and Design

The size of the blade you should select is primarily based on its intended use. I have well over a dozen different knives and each size is ideal for a different purpose. Smaller knives are easier to control for tasks like cleaning small game or carving wood. Larger blades are ideal for processing firewood or for self-defense. I have used three-foot machetes in survival scenarios and have also used tiny two inch blades. I find that something in between is ideal if you will only have one knife with you. My ideal blade is about 10 inches long and thick enough to chop wood.

When considering the basic design of the knife, always go with dependability. Many people prefer the convenience of a folding blade knife. However, you should never use a folding blade for your primary knife. It is too easy to start having issues with the joint in a folding blade, so always stick with a fixed blade knife. It is also easier to have the blade close on your fingers with a folding blade. You want to find a knife with a full tang meaning that the blade extends all the way to the end of the handle. This ensures that the handle will not break in your hand. Partial tang knives are less expensive, but spend the extra money on the full tang.

Ergonomics

How a knife fits in your hand is vital to its functionality. If the handle is too small, it will likely slip out of your hand. If the handle is too round, it will roll in your hand. The wrong shaping will leave blisters after only a few minutes of heavy use. These issues are most noticeable when you are cutting on tough materials like chopping wood or skinning a deer. The material used for the handle is important, but mainly for durability. You want a material that you know will not crack under pressure. Outside of that, any material is fine once it has the right shape.

Metal Type

When I was younger and buying my first few knives, I had zero consideration for the type of steel. When you are just learning to use a knife and whittling on sticks, the type of steel is not all that important. However, as you start to use your knives for bigger jobs you will notice a huge difference. I bought a smaller skinning knife that I used for survival purposes, and it seemed to be okay. Then came the fall, and I was able to harvest three deer between bow season and gun season. As I started skinning and quartering my deer, I was forced to re-sharpen the blade every few minutes. It was irritating and really slowed down the process.I did some reading and found out that my knife was made from a steel that would be considered average at best for edge retention. I then found several steel types that are designed to maintain an edge for a longer period of time. These steel types are more difficult to locate and are more expensive, but I spent the money and bought a new knife for the following deer season. The difference was huge. I was able to complete all of my skinning and quartering without re-sharpening my blade a single time.

Here are some high-quality steel types to look for:

  • 5160 STEEL – Known as spring steel. The metal is flexible which makes the blade durable and difficult to break. It should be hardened for high performance
  • 13C26 SANDVIK – This material provides optimal edge retention and hardness. The downside is that it can be difficult to sharpen. It should be hardened
  • 420HC STEEL – This steel is a common middle of the road material. It has the edge retention of high carbon alloys, but provides the corrosion resistance of chromium stainless materials. This blade has an average durability, but will not rust and is easy to re-sharpen
  • S30V STEEL – This is the top of the line for blade materials, and it is made in America. S30V contains carbon as well as Chromium, Molybdenum and Vanadium. The blade gives you incredible edge retention, durability, and corrosion resistance. It is a bit hard to re-sharpen, but is a blade that will last a lifetime
  • List Element154CM STEEL - This steel is good for edge retention, has decent corrosion resistance, and is ideal for those tough jobs where other blades might break

Blade Shapes

The shape of the blade you select should again be based on its intended use. Some blade shapes are better for detailed work, while others are better for chopping. Some work better for cutting down poles while others are better for trimming off the bark. Here are a few designs to consider that might work well for you:

Kukuri

This knife design was created in Nepal and was used for centuries by their armies. The kukuri has a long, thick blade similar to a small machete, but veers towards the edge of the blade about half way up from the handle. It has a unique look and is great for hacking and chopping brush as the angle of the blade catches brush instead of letting it slide down the blade. It has a full tang and typically a wooden handle. The blade is usually about one to two feet long and a few inches thick, so it is still difficult to use for detailed work. Many survivalists prefer this knife as their primary blade

Kukri blade

Machete

The machete is traditionally used in thick brush areas like jungles to cut a path through the bush. The blade is normally two to three feet long and between two and three inches thick. It has a full tang and a wooden or rubber handle with the blade having a curved, thick end. Machetes are ideal for chopping and slashing anything up to about three inches thick, especially green wood like bamboo. Most machetes have a hard time with detailed work because of the size of the blade. They are also long enough that they often will not fit in a smaller pack, so you may want a sheath for your waist

Bowie Knife

You may have seen this knife first popularized in the movies Rambo or Crocodile Dundee. They are considered combat and survival knifes, but work fine for many projects. The Bowie knife was first made famous by Jim Bowie who was known to carry a huge blade for combat. He died at the Alamo. This blade has a drop point with a thick blade and a guard above the handle. There are times it has a serrated edge on the spine of the blade. The length of the blade is typically six to ten inches long making it good for chopping and for finer work

 Skinner with Gut Hook

This blade is ideal for the hunter or fisherman. It has a thick, rounded blade that is about three inches long with a gut hook on the spine. The blade is full tang and the handle is wooden. The wide, rounded blade is ideal for skinning small game or larger animals, and the gut hook is great for opening up the chest cavity and removing the internal organs. It is great for small work, but not great for chopping or batoning wood

Camp Knife/ Chopper

This blade is hard to find as the metal is thick and often must be hand crafted. The blade is a full tang with a curved point at the spine, and is normally between eight and twelve inches long. This makes it good for chopping, batoning, and finer work. The thickness of the blade makes it tough and durable for the hardest job. It is small enough to fit in your pack or on in a sheath on your belt. This is another survivalist favorite.

In Conclusion

Any of these knives could be a good fit for survival. The choice of any blade is very personal. Different blades work better for different people in different circumstances. However, I find the chopper/camp knife to be the best bet for me. It straddles the line between an oversized blade and a smaller knife. The camp knife is good for every task that survival might ask of it. This is the blade that I choose to keep in my bug out bag, and I feel that it fits the bill for most people. Hopefully this guide has given you the information you need to choose the best option for yourself.

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