Ask any survival instructor what the single most important tool or piece of gear to have for survival is and you’ll get the same answer; a knife. The knife is the universal tool, able to be used for a wide variety of different purposes. If you have a knife, you can start a fire, build a snare, make a shelter or defend yourself from an attacker. You can use it to make other tools and weapons, such as a bow. There is no other single piece of gear which can do as much for you as a knife can.
In fact, the knife is so important that experienced survivalists usually have three of them on hand. They’ll have their primary knife, a folding pocket knife as a backup and a multi-tool which contains a knife blade as well. You might think that there’s a little overkill in that, but there really isn’t. It’s called redundancy and if there’s any place you want to be redundant, it’s in having a good survival knife.
So, with so many knives to choose from, how do you pick which one you want to have with you as your main survival knife? Do you do so based on price? On size? Or because it has a hollow handle with a survival kit inside?
Basic Requirements for a Good Survival Knife
There are so many different knives out there, that picking the right survival knife for your main knife can be extremely challenging. Why, there’s one store here in my area that must have at least 300 different knives on display. With so many, narrowing your choice down to one “best” knife can be a task worthy of Hercules on a good day.
Price isn’t much of a guide either. You want to avoid cheap knives, as they won’t have very good steel in them. But once you get out of the cheap range, price isn’t much of an indicator of quality. Some knives, like Damascus steel knives, are very high, because of the labor that goes into them. While Damascus steel makes for excellent knives, the higher price doesn’t really indicate that they are better for your needs.
The three most important characteristics for a knife are the quality of the steel, the tang and that it’s a sheath knife, rather than a folding knife.
The quality of the steel used in the knife determines the how sharp the knife can get, how well it will hold that edge and how brittle or flexible the knife is. Picking a steel to make knives out of is always a series of tradeoffs. Hard steels will hold a better edge, but are more brittle and likely to chip. Softer steels are more flexible and resilient, but at the cost of holding an edge, without having to sharpen it every five minutes.
The best knife blades are usually “high carbon steel.” That means just what it says; there’s a lot of carbon in it. The carbon is what helps to make the steel hard, so that it will hold an edge. However, few knife blades today are made of high carbon steel. Most are some sort of stainless steel, chosen to prevent rusting.
Some of the best steels are:
- 420HC – A high carbon stainless steel. This steel combines the excellent edge retention of high carbon with the rust resistance of stainless steel. Makes an excellent all-around knife.
- 440C – A stainless steel which is very common in modern knives. It’s high chromium level helps it to take a nice edge and maintain it, even though it isn’t high carbon.
- ATS-34 – This is one of the best knife steels around. It’s a high carbon and high chromium stainless. So, it offers excellent edge retention, with high rust resistance. The one problem with it is that it’s hard to sharpen.
- CPM S30V – This steel was specifically engineered for the knife industry. It combines uniform structure, corrosion resistance and edge retention. It is a tough steel, although still fairly easy to sharpen. One of the best knife steels around.
These are by no means the only good knife steels out there, but represents some of the best.
Any primary survival knife should be sheath knife. A folding blade knife is more susceptible to breakage, as well as closing on your fingers at the wrong time. Even a locking blade knife can close while you are using it.
Take a good look at the sheath while you are looking at the knife. You can always replace a sheath, but a good sheath can be a tie breaker when you’re comparing two knives that you like. You want a sheath that will work with the rest of your rig, will protect your knife well and protect you from any accidental cuts.
The tang is the part of the knife blade that goes through the handle. Not all knives are “full tang” knives. Those that aren’t are considerably weaker than the full tang ones. A knife with a half tang or partial tang will most likely break on you in the field, usually at a very inopportune moment.
For this reason, I’d avoid any knives which have a hollow handle, even if they do have a survival kit inside the handle. You can’t have a full tang and a hollow handle at the same time. While it might be nice to have those matches inside your knife handle, the full tang is much more important.
Once we get past the basics, the next thing to look at is the blade design. The basics are things you use to eliminate knives that aren’t going to be good enough. Blade design is where you find the knife that you like working with.
Some people like knives which are partially serrated. I’m not a big fan of them. Typically, the serration is short enough that you really can’t do much with it and it makes the rest of the blade shorter as well. If they made knives that were serrated on one side and straight on the other, I’d love it; but those are rare to non-existent.
A good knife is more likely to have a thicker blade. This increases the strength of the blade, helping prevent breakage under severe conditions. My main survival knife is a Gerber, with a blade that’s a touch over 3/16″ thick.
An easy mistake to make is to focus on blade length. Hey, you’re buying a knife, not a sword. Rarely will you use more than a few inches of that blade’s length. So, you don’t really need to be Crocodile Dundee and have a 14″ blade. A 4 to 6 inch blade will be enough for just about anything.
The other factor in blade design is the point. There are several common point designs. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. You have to decide which is best for you. Drop point knives are probably the most commonly used for survival, but I use a straight back, because it gives me a sharper point to use as an awl, if I need to.
A very popular point, which provide more strength, as the blade is thicker. However, it is not as good for piercing.
The cutout on the back of the blade offers a convenient place to rest a finger for guiding the blade. The narrower point is sharper, making it better for piercing.
The needle point (or dagger) is the most common form for a fighting knife. It is designed for thrusting or stabbing. However, the fine point is easier to break and the lack of curve in the edge gives it a shorter cutting length for slicing.
Spear points are typically asymmetrical, meaning that both sides may not be equally sharpened. Very common for throwing knives. The tip is stronger than a needle point. Used as a general purpose knife, is a bit limited by the shorter cutting length, compared to the clip point or drop point.
This blade design is mostly for cutting and slicing, where a sharp point is not needed. It is very controllable for times when you need accurate cuts.
The tanto is designed after the famous Japanese swords. The angled point provides for more strength than a narrower point would have. It is great for cutting and piercing hard materials.
The final thing to think about is the handle. Mostly, you want a knife handle that is going to be comfortable in your hand. That will reduce fatigue when using it, as well as give you a more secure grip. Traditional knife handle materials are hard, but some of the newer models have elastomeric handles, making them easier to hang onto when wet.