Survival Knife Buying Guide


A good survival knife should be the centerpiece of your field equipment. A great, versatile survival knife can act as a wide range of tools in tough situations. It can be your axe, can-opener, self-defense weapon, and so much more. Therefore your survival knife must be able to perform a variety of tasks in the harshest conditions. It is vital that you find the perfect survival knife for your field use. This guide will help you find it.


Fixed Blade

Folding knives have their place and are convenient. They tend to be pocket knives as their design allows a nice sized knife to fit neatly in your pocket. However, folding knives have no place as survival knives. The folding joint is a structural weakness. For small tasks like whittling, this structural weakness doesn’t matter. However, when you are cutting down limbs and small trees to build fires and shelters any structural weakness is potentially catastrophic. A fixed blade doesn’t have this structural integrity issue and is therefore the only choice for your survival knife.

Length and Thickness

Survival knives are not machetes nor are they pocket knives. Any blade that measures over 10 inches from beginning of handle to point will be too unwieldy to use on more intricate actions in the field such as opening cans, carving snares, and skinning game. Yet if the blade is smaller than 4 inches, then you won’t be able to take on the more rugged tasks such as cutting limbs, defending yourself, and hunting prey. Remember versatility is key and a medium sized survival knife is the most versatile knife of all.

Also important to note, any survival knife that measures over 1 foot in length from butt to point will make accessing it more difficult. Survival knives are usually worn on the hip. They need to be readily accessible at a moments notice. Unfortunately, the larger the knife gets, the harder it is to wear in easily accessed areas. There’s no reason to have an oversized survival knife, but there are plenty of reasons to have a correctly sized one.

Length isn’t the only measurement you’ll need to examine. You will also have to take a look at the blade thickness. While not always a true measure of strength, blade thickness is an easy way to guess at the overall strength of the knife. You’ll want to look for a survival knife near a quarter of an inch thick. Any blade that is much thinner than this is liable to snap when you apply significant force. However, any blade much thicker than that is unnecessarily heavy and bulky.


Blade Metal

When searching for the perfect survival knife for you will want to be sure that the manufacturers provide information on the metals they used to craft their knives. Run away from any survival knife that leaves out metal details in the description. A lack of metal description is a red flag. It often signals that the manufacturer of the knife does not value good steel work. And if the steel is flawed, then the blade on your new survival knife is flawed.

Most survival knives fall into two metal categories: stainless steel and carbon steel. The metal type you ultimately choose will largely be a matter of personal taste as both metals have their pros and cons. Stainless steel survival knives will eventually rust, but they are harder to corrode than carbon steel. However, a committed oiling and honing routine will stave off the worst of the corrosion on your carbon steel blade. Your carbon steel survival knife will also keep an edge as better than your carbon steel knife. It is also harder to manually put a new edge on your stainless steel blade, which could be devastating in the field. Unless you find yourself in a highly corrosive environmental like a marine setting, then a well-maintained carbon steel blade will serve you just as well if not better than the more expensive stainless steel blades.

What really sets a great survival knife apart from a good one is the heat treatment the steel undergoes. It is the treatment process that really defines the quality of the metal. A shoddy treatment on a good metal will produce an inferior knife, while a great treatment on poor metal can still produce a decent blade. Unfortunately, treatment information is not usually available. However, those manufacturers who put their steel through superior treatments are easy to spot. Their survival knives will have a strong reputation of durability and often come with generous warranties.

Some manufacturers produce survival knives with a blade coating. Do not be fooled by these coatings. While a protective coating on a carbon steel survival knife might help slow corrosion, all coatings are eventually stripped by use and time.

Full Tang

The tang is the part of the blade that extends into the handle. A full tang fills out the handle completely. A full tang is more desirable than a partial tang as its solid metal construction allows you to put more force behind your cuts. If you bear down too hard on a survival knife made with a partial tang the handle can snap off and ruin your knife or even injure you. Also, because of the metal structure running throughout the knife, a survival knife with a full tang tends to be more balanced. Partial tang survival knives are relatively blade heavy as the handle is normally made from materials that are lighter than steel.


Handle Construction

There are a few things to consider when examining a survival knife’s handle. First thing you’ll want to look at is the overall shape of the handle. If you have any doubts about how comfortably you will be able to grip the handle do not buy that survival knife. You have to keep in mind that your survival knife is your go-to tool in the field. There may come a time when you have to hold on to that handle for hours at a time while cutting, prying, and hammering your way out of a tough situation. A clumsy or uncomfortable handle could be a serious issue.

Second, you will want to make sure that your new survival knife doesn’t have a storage compartment in the handle. At first glance this feature seems like a great idea. It’s a relatively dry place to store small items like matches. However, if your survival knife has the space for a hollow compartment then there are two issues: that knife does not have a full tang and it can’t be used for hammering. A great survival knife is more than a sharp blade. A well throughout survival knife also uses its handle as another tool. With a flat, solid butt, your survival knife is an ideal hammer.

Finally, you will want to select a handle made out of a sturdy material. From natural materials like wood and leather to synthetic materials like nylon polymers and plastic, there are a vast array of handle material choices. As long as these materials remain attached to the metal tang, there is no real advantage or disadvantage to differing types of materials. This really is all about what feels comfortable in your palm.

Edge Design

You have three choices for the type of edge you want. You can get a straight edge like a razor. You can get a serrated edge like a saw. You can even get a combination of straight and serrated. While some survivalists swear by the serrated edge, the straight edge is the safest bet. There’s very little a serrated edge can do that a straight edge can’t also do. On the other hand, serrated edges get snagged and blunted far more often than straight edges. Also, straight edges are a lot easier to maintain. Serrated edges often need special sharpening tools if you don’t want to ruin your edge. As far as the combination edge, it’s not really a useful compromise. The serrated portion of the blade still snags and is hard to sharpen, but now the sawing mechanism is harder to use as their are fewer teeth. For its versatility and relatively low maintenance, the straight edge is the better option for survival knives.

Whichever type of edge you eventually choose, you will want to make sure that your survival knife has only one-edge. Double-edged blades like the ones on must daggers can be interesting to look at, but they are a pain to wield in the field. A double-edge blade immediately limits the tasks you can perform with your survival knife. You can’t grip the spine for added control and leverage when performing precision cutting techniques. You also can’t effectively hammer the spine to help you cut through thick branches and smaller trees for fire and shelter materials. If you really want to have a double-edged blade, then you can look at a small spear-point survival knife. The spear-point blade is double-edge at the point and a small section along the forward part of the spine. The rest of the spine is not edged and can be hammered. It is more dangerous, however, to try and grip the spine as your hand might slip down to the edged section of the spine.

Point Type

There are a lot of different point types to choose from and many different point types make for acceptable survival knives. Generally what you want to look for in the point type is a point that is sharp enough to puncture a variety of materials. Blunted or awkwardly angled points can make working with certain materials like leather a nightmare. For this reason you should stay away from tanto-styled points.

While it’s uniquely shaped point makes tanto knives an especially useful tactical and combat knife, this strength becomes a weakness for the more mundane and precision puncturing tasks you will have to repeatedly preform in the field. You should also stay away from the pronounced hooks of clip-point or trail-point blades. While the hooked nature of the blade is useful for skinning and other slicing activities, it’s structural weakness becomes a liability for more brutal chopping motions and the overly-pronounced curve makes puncturing motions awkward. Go with the less exciting-looking drop-point or straight-back or–if you want a double-edge blade–a spear-point blades. The simple and classic curve of these blades in a straightforward point. These are the generalist blades in the survivalist catalog. While not as specialized for combat as the tanto or slicing like the clip and trail blades, drop-point and straight-back blades can adequately perform any task. This versatility is crucial in the field where you never really know what you’ll have to do to make it.


Spine Design

The spine is the backside of the blade. There are two things to look for in a spine: shape and thickness. Some survival knives have curved spines. These knives are designed for easy slicing movements, but they have serious drawbacks. It can be tricky to grip a curved spine and it is nearly impossible to correctly hammer the spine. If you want to get the most out of your blade you really want a simple flat spine. It provides you with the safest grip and the easiest angle to hammer. Although they aren’t as specialized for slicing, they can still skin game easy enough.

The thickness of the spine is arguably the most important aspect of the spine. An overly thin spine won’t have the strength to take a beating in the field. It’s called the spine because it provides the structural backbone of the blade. If the spine is too weak, then the entire knife fails. At the very least the spine should be 3/16th-inch. It is much more preferable that the spine be a quarter-inch thick. This thicker blade will keep your blade from chipping or snapping and allows for a larger margin of error when you have to hammer the back of the blade. The thicker spine also puts more mass behind chopping motions, which means less swings of the knife. Still you don’t want an overly thick knife. A knife with a spine thicker than a 3/8th-inch is unnecessary and can make carrying and wielding it awkward.


You should not overlook the sheath. If you can’t easily access you survival knife, then it’s not much good to you in the field. You need a sheath that comfortable sits on you hip or attaches to your belt. Additional compartments on the sheath are a nice feature, but you need to make sure that they won’t make the sheath uncomfortably heavy or cumbersome. Of course there will need to be some sort of latch mechanism on the sheath. Whether leather strap, velcro, or button release, you need to make sure that your knife can’t fall out the sheath while you are in the field. A lost knife helps no one.

Odds and Ends

Nowadays a lot of knife manufacturers have added bells and whistles galore to their survival knives. The truth is you really don’t need any of these additions, and, in fact, a lot of these additions actually compromise the structural integrity of the knife. It should be mentioned again that you need to stay away from knives with compartments in their handle. The hollowed out section weakens the blade. And don’t pay extra for special blade finishes. They do nothing for the knife, but make it look nice.