Ask any number of preppers, outdoorsmen and other tough, gritty self-sufficient people to name one, and only one tool that they could bring with them if they were being dropped into an unknown survival situation for an unknown length of time and I’ll bet by bottom dollar that most if not all of them would name some kind of knife as that one tool to go with them into the dark unknown.
That’s with good cause, too. Since the ancient and mythic days of primitive man’s existence, a blade of some kind has been one of the most crucial of implements to help us make our way out in the harsh and unforgiving world.
Nature is indeed beautiful, but also terrible and too many “peace and love” types forget that nature herself has weapons all her own that will extinguish human life in the blink of an eye.
From cutting rope or string to carving, chopping, skinning and processing animal meat to the grisly, intimate business of deadly combat, a good tactical blade can be the true survival multi-purpose tool to get you out of a sticky situation.
Choosing this do-all knife takes some smarts, and you have to know what you are looking at when it comes to features and design to make sure your knife is capable of excelling when put to all kinds of work, but also strong enough to take the abuse that will invariably befall it.
In this article we’ll give you the info you need to pick the best possible survival knife that, if you take good care of, will last for years on end of heavy use.
Survival Knife Tasks
The term survival knife often conjures images of huge, stainless saw-backed monsters like the one Rambo used, complete with hidden compartment in the handle for all kinds of supplies. While that famous monster of a blade would get you through if it is all you had in a pinch, it would not be my first choice, and it shouldn’t be yours either.
Such huge blades are heavy, unwieldy, and may not be better suited to the work you are doing than a smaller, nimbler knife. The name of the game is indeed “knife,” not “short sword”!
What you should be looking at instead is a good fixed blade knife that is long enough to take care of most jobs you’ll expect of it and short enough to make it easy to carry on your body. Note I specified your body, not your pack; if there is one tool you definitely want to have, even if you lost everything else, I promise you it is that knife.
The reason why is simple: ounce for ounce, there is no tool that can help you do as much as a good knife can. With a little skill and your survival knife you can chop wood to make a frame shelter, cut branches and other leafy plant members to make a bed and roof, shave tinder, strike your ferro rod or flint to get a fire going, clean the game you caught with the trap you used your knife to make, and fend off human and animal predators using it in hand or fastened to a pole or branch as a spear. Quite the list of accomplishments for one tool.
All that woodland and wilderness survival is fine, but what about for urban dwellers? Fear not, a good knife is still among the top tools you should have in your survival plan.
A good knife will let you scrape paint and glue, pry open cans and other fastened materials, puncture containers, tanks and bladders, perform light hammering or pounding, break glass, strip wire and a lot more in addition to its obvious uses for fending off pillaging criminals and other malevolent people who has succumbed to their worse natures in the midst of a major survival situation.
It is not hard to see how much work a knife can do for you, and in such a small, convenient package. No matter if you are thinking deep country subsistence or urban center endurance, you need a good survival knife!
Survival Knife Attributes and Features
While purists and enthusiasts argue and discuss minutiae about knives down to the very literal molecular level, the rest of us need not be concerned with a mechanical or ideological ideal.
What we need is a knife that is very strong, can be made sharp and will either stay that way or is easy to sharpen, will resist or be impervious to harsh weather and subsequent corrosion, and is ergonomically agreeable for both safety and to help prevent injuries like blisters when we are really getting busy with it.
As secondary positive attributes the knife should have a tip that lends itself to some detail work like scribing and puncturing while not being too fragile and ideally a flat spine (the part of the blade opposite the edge) to allow one to pound or baton the knife for heavy chopping and splitting work.
The blade should be anywhere from 3” to 7”, with the preference being for longer as this allows one to chop wider material with less work and resetting, but leaner knives can still handle all kinds of heavy duty chores in the right hands.
The knife must be full tang for maximum strength, especially important during splitting, chopping and prying, and the handle materials made in such away to afford you a very secure grip in any conditions from wet and cold to hot and dry.
Acceptable materials could be anything from traditional leather washers to rubber, textured G-10 laminate, micarta or cord wrapped. All have their pros and cons, but so long as you buy a quality knife and stay away from anything with a slick or slippery finish you should be fine.
A good sheath is a must, as you must be able to carry the blade securely and safely with comfort. Ease of access is also vital if the knife is to be brought to bear for defense in a timely fashion.
Sheathes are commonly heavy leather, kydex, plastic or a heavy fabric around a hard liner, and all can work well. Leather is traditional, but requires the most care; it can rot, crack and fall apart if not maintained.
Good kydex or plastic sheathes offer the best combination of performance and longevity for most. The older heavy fabric style sheathes are nearly relics of a bygone era but there are still a few floating around in use by various manufacturers today.
No matter what sheathe you choose or your knife comes with, make sure it comes with the appropriate attachments for hanging it the way you desire from your belt, or however you decide to mount it.
Consider a sheath that can hold small essential maintenance and survival items like sharpening stones, oil bottles, line, and perhaps a button compass nice perks, but not strictly essential.
Much Ado about Steel
Saunter into any serious discussion about knives in person or online and you will certainly encounter a spirited debate among the participants, and each of them will be vociferously defending or demeaning one kind of steel or another.
You’ll encounter a slew of acronyms and codes here, shorthand like 154CM, 420HC, D2 and many, many others. These denote types of steel, each with its own intrinsic qualities. A steel’s intrinsic qualities affect things like hardness, durability, corrosion resistance, edge holding capability and more.
The choice of steel is an important one, but metallurgy is a discipline that is highly complex and nuanced, and blade steel alone does not tell the whole story.
Most manufacturers of knives do not make their own steel, that is to say they do not smelt and alloy iron and a slew of other additive metals to produce their steel.
They buy it from other vendors, and then use it to manufacture their knives. What separates many quality manufacturers from lesser ones is what they do to their steel before they make a knife from it.
Heat treating and other proprietary processes can significantly change the characteristics of a given steel, making sometimes ho-hum steel perform admirably, or taking already good steel to a whole new level of performance.
Of all the varied kinds of steel out there, the two major “species” are stainless steels and carbon steels. Both can work just fine for a survival knife.
Stainless steels, contrary to the name, can stain (and corrode, for that matter) but their high chromium content makes them exceptionally resistant to both and a standby favorite for users who want a “weatherproof” knife. Stainless steel on the average can be a little harder to sharpen compared to carbon steel but the trade off is worth it for some.
Carbon steels on the other hand contain higher than average amounts of carbon, hence the name. Carbon steels are prized for taking excellent edges and the ability to temper it so it is harder or softer according to the desired characteristics of the knife.
The rub is that carbon steels require significantly more maintenance than stainless steels and will rust if neglected. If you are willing to put in some extra effort to keep your knife safe from rust, it is a classic and high-performance choice.
One tip: no matter what knife you are looking to buy, make sure you can ascertain what kind of steel the maker is using. Serious knife nuts care about the type of steel a blade is made with, and any conspicuous lack of that information is almost invariably a sign that you are dealing with a cheap or shoddy knife.
For my preference I like S90V for stainless, and good, old 1095 for carbon.
The Best Knives for Preppers
All of the following are knives I have enjoyed much experience with, and each of them exceeded my expectations. Note that even the smallest and leanest of these knives is a pretty good chunk of metal: if you want a compact or pocket knife, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
The classic Ka-Bar knife needs little introduction, but in case you are new to the knife scene, Ka-Bar has been providing the quintessential fighting and utility knife to U.S. armed services for decades, and also to anyone else who has need of a heavy-duty cutting tool, and their classic knives are made right in the U.S.
The Ka-Bar is instantly recognizable: round “stacked” rubber handle, bell shaped grip cap, conservative clip point, and long fullers on either side of the 7” 1095 carbon steel, epoxy coated blade.
While prone to wearing off under heavy use, the epoxy coating helps protect the blade from corrosion while it lasts and greatly eases maintenance. 1095 is an older carbon steel, but one that is very well rounded and very tough.
Paired with the beefy spine and generous guard, this Ka-Bar provides plenty of confidence in any wooly cutting or chopping chore, and is still very handy in a fight. If you want supreme durability and have the cash, you can get the classic Ka-Bar made with nearly invincible D2 tool steel.
The included kydex sheath is suitable for belt carry or lashing to any kind of gear. Inarguably a classic, this is one old-school knife that is certainly no museum piece. As far as all-around good large blades go, this is a tough one to beat. (check the KA-BAR out on Amazon)
The lean and racy Adamas from Benchmade takes its cues from tactical fighting knives, but is a hardcore survival tool from the ground up. The Adamas is made with extraordinarily tough D2 tool steel that can survive abuse that would make other steels whimper.
This knife looks thin and waifish, but the skeletonized handle is designed to be wrapped with paracord at the user’s preference. Don’t worry if you don’t know how, there are instructions for a “standard” configuration.
The Adamas cuts like a laser as all Benchmade knives do and features a nearly fully serrated spine. Aside from wicked looks, these serrations allow you to make short work of any fibrous material by simply flipping the knife over.
A ramp and jimping prevent your digits from riding over the toothy serrations and a truly generous half guard will help lock your grip in place no matter how frenzied you are cutting.
The Adamas has a couple of drawbacks, one being the top serrations make it a poor choice for batoning and D2, while invincibly tough, is an equally tough steel to sharpen.
But these concerns are mitigated somewhat by its incredible edge-holding capability once it is sharp. This razor sharp knife has only one thing more impressive than its good looks: its performance. (check the Adamas out on Amazon)
One of Gerber’s newer fixed blades, the Strongarm marries traditional design with smart ergonomics to produce an excellent knife for not a lot of cash. The Strongarm uses 420 HC stainless steel for its good cost-to-performance ratio, and this heavy-duty stainless blend does not disappoint. The steel is Cerakote’d for superb corrosion and wear resistance qualities.
An excellently designed rubber grip with palm swells and unidirectional diamond checkering assures a secure hold in all conditions while the nearly 5” partially serrated spear point blade is suited to all kinds of cutting tasks.
The knife also has a prominent swell right before its pointed pommel, useful for chipping and pounding tasks. A lanyard hole is integrated for use in times and conditions where loss is likely.
The included sheath is one of the best parts of the package. Made from plastic and nylon it can be worn horizontally or vertically on the belt or easily mated to any MOLLE or PALS webbing on your gear if you choose. Frankly as handy is this knife is, I would not want it anywhere but on my belt ready to get to work. (check the Gerber Strongarm on Amazon)
Originally designed by instructors of the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school instructors as a pilot’s survival knife, this badass blade has survival use written into its DNA.
All business, no flash is this blade’s design mantra. 5 ¼ “ spear point blade made from time-tested 1095 carbon steel is finished with rugged, low glare powder coating for weather resistance. This knife has serious heft; 16oz., and a ¼” thick at the spine means this knife is literally made to take a pounding.
Heavily textured linen micarta handles and generous finger choil keeps this knife in place no matter what extremes you find yourself in and its pointed pommel is suitable for breaking glass or crushing. Quarter length serrations are unobtrusive but functional for dealing with webbing and cord.
Of particular note, this knife features a recess in the grip that is designed to be used as a pivot a bow drill, a great aid for getting a fire started quickly using only primitive methods. A Kydex sheath rounds out the package and is upgradeable from ESEE to a cordura sheath or a sheath with accessory pouch.
The ESEE-5 is not the flashiest or sexiest knife on our list, but it is one with an undeniable survival oriented pedigree. (check the ESEE-5 on Amazon)
DPx Gear HEST II
Designed by legendary adventurer Robert Young Pelton, the HEST II is a thoroughly modern minimalist survival knife with an emphasis on advanced materials and multi-function capability. The HEST II is sharp, super-tough and built to last.
A 3” Niolox steel blade offers excellent hardness and durability and takes a wicked edge. G-10 handle scales furnish excellent grip and are impervious to anything in nature’s arsenal. The screws holding the handle together are themselves made from a hybrid stainless steel that is tough and extremely resistant to rusting.
Beyond its excellent cutting capability, this knife has more in store. A ¼ hex slot just ahead of the handle functions as a driver for use with common bits, and the aggressive jimping on the spine of the blade is sized for stripping different sizes of wire.
A notch in the spine of the blade is a bottle opener and the “bill” at the pommel is a scraper and pry bar. Hearkening back to the classic survival knives of yesteryear, the handle beneath the scales is hollowed, allowing you to stash a few small items inside while giving up nothing in terms of strength.
The HEST II is the smallest knife on our list, but arguable the one benefitting the most from intelligent design. No matter if you are planning on a rural escape or urban hideout, the HEST II has your back. (check out the H.E.S.T. II on Amazon)
To go without a quality blade in a survival situation is paramount to suicide. A good knife, sharp and tough, will let you deal with a host of challenges and craft the things you need to survive in almost any environment. Get a good survival knife from this list, keep it sharp and keep it close.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.