Should you find yourself in genuine outdoor emergency, a survival knife is one of your most reliable lifelines. Survival knives will help you deal with everything from whittling deadfall for shelter and fires, to cleaning fish and game. The question then becomes what to look for when you’re purchasing a survival knife. Here are a few characteristics that are important as well as common differences between a survival knife and other types of knives.
Full Tang vs. Partial Tang
A knife’s “tang” is the back part of the blade that joins to the handle, often with a prong, tongue or other securing apparatus.
A full tang survival knife is the strongest kind, because the blade is one solid piece running the length and width of the handle, with the handle secured to the blade with pins, one on each side.
Partial-tang survival knives, often used for folding knives and other specialty survival knives, include the half tang, which goes all the way down the handle, but only halfway across. Skeletonized tangs are used to accommodate a handle with holes in it, for specialized gripping. A push tang is characterized by being attached to the handle with glue instead of more secure pins. Other types of partial tangs include the encapsulated tang, with the tang “stuffed inside” the handle, and the rat tail tang, which gets narrower toward the bottom of the handle, where it is secured by a bolt.
But while partial tang survival knives have all manner of designs for different situations, experts agree that the full tang is the best bet for survival situations. The sturdy design means that it is less likely to break under pressure. It also gives you more power for a variety of tasks.
Fixed-Blade Survival Knife vs. Folding Survival Knife
As their names suggests, a folding blade fits inside its own handle when not in use. A fixed blade does not have this function, and does not move from where it is jointed to the handle.
For those who prefer a folding blade survival knife, its portability makes up for the fact that it is less durable than a fixed-blade type. The tuck-away blade function has the obvious advantage of being safer and lighter to carry in your pants pocket or tackle box.
The folding survival knife’s disadvantages start with the fact that it’s more likely to break when sawing branches and splitting slender logs. If you’re determined to use a folding blade as your primary survival knife, invest in one with a strong locking mechanism to keep it fully extended when in use, and keep the interior section well-maintained to prevent rust build-up.
A subcategory of the folding survival knife, the pocket survival knife, differs from a “Swiss Army” type in that it has a much larger, more powerful blade. Like other folding knives, a survival pocket knife doesn’t weigh much and is portable. It is often constructed partially of plastic, in order to be more lightweight. Look for a survival pocket knife which you can open with one hand, that is well-made with a straight blade, that isn’t held together with glue, and that has a reliable locking mechanism.
The convenience of the folding survival knife aside, fixed-blade knives are generally preferred when you have room for only one survival knife. Fixed blade survival knives are simply stronger, more powerful, and able to handle a wider variety of tasks more easily than folding knives.
Hunting Knives vs. Survival Knives
All survival knives should be able to act as hunting knives — but not all hunting knives make good survival knives. In other words, a hunting knife only has the one job of processing freshly-killed animals.
Therefore, if you mostly need a knife for skinning and cutting up the meat, it’s better to look for a classic hunting knife, one that is not much longer than 4 inches, rather than an actual survival knife. Hunting knives often have extra features that basic survival types may lack, such as a gut hook, as well as a blade with one curved side, designed for preserving valuable skins.
If you’re looking for an all-purpose survival knife that can also handle basic hunting-related chores, however, look for one with a 5-inch blade — not too long for simple field dressing, but not too short to handle other wilderness survival tasks, like chopping wood and even digging holes.
Tactical Knives vs. Survival Knives
Officially, tactical knives — sometimes known interchangeably as combat or military knives — are fixed-blade, dagger-style knives with handles that provide a more powerful thrust for close-range combat situations.
It’s helpful to ask questions when someone refers to a tactical knife, however, because over the years many manufacturers added utility features to their military-style tactical design, often incorporating folding functions.
But while a tactical knife will do in a pinch — especially if it has fighting-plus-utility design, a tactical knife often doesn’t offer the versatility and durability of the classic fixed blade, full tang survival knife.
Specialty Survival Knives
A bushcraft knife is considered “a cut above” other survival knives, simply because it is meant to withstand long-term wilderness trips, as opposed to short-term emergencies. Therefore, the blades are engineered to stay sharper longer, with a sophisticated overall design that’s versatile enough to handle hunting and tactical situations, as well as frequent fire and shelter-making tasks.
Rescue survival knives are folding-types designed specifically to be able to free yourself or someone else from a trapped situation, whether it’s a post-crash seatbelt, a tangled climbing line or some fallen brush. Many rescue knives also come with extra features. These multi-tool survival knives not only provide different types of blades and cutters that fold out from inside a hollow handle, but also provide such tools as can openers, scissors, wire cutters, tweezers, saws and screwdrivers.