A good survival knife is VERY different from any other knife type.
When you fight for survival against nature, function is way more important than style.
Knife strength, utility and reliability are what sets apart the survivor from the dead guy buried in the mud.
What makes a survival knife durable and useful?
Is it the beer opener, the hollow handle that hides your emergency food ration of gummi bears, or something entirely different?
Read on to find out.
#1 Fixed Blade
Anyone that mentions survival and folding blade in the same sentence should be shot dead.
Folding blades have, by definition, only a partial tang and are much weaker than fixed blade knives.
They have thinner blades and their hinges create weak spots that wait to break by the first time you try to really use your knife.
The folding mechanism can easily get jammed by dirt or rust and is a pain in the ass to keep clean and maintain properly.
Contrary, fixed blade knives can’t accidentally “fold back” on you and make a bloody mess out of your hand or your fingers.
My first survival knife had a folding blade and boy do I regret that purchase:
I only used the knife to cut fruits but after a few weeks the folding mechanism started to come loose and I had to screw it tight every single time I wanted to use it.
If you want to own a real survival knife and not an expensive toy that will break the first time you chop some wood, a fixed blade is the way to go.
Folding knives are made to stab people in the grocery store. Not for survival.
Why choose a fixed blade:
- Stronger blade, harder to break.
- Less maintenance.
- Less chance to injure yourself.
- Can be used for heavy-duty work (batoning, digging…) where a folding blade would break.
There are really no downsides to a fixed blade survival knife. Only morons run around with folding blade “survival knives”.
#2 Full Tang
There are full tang and partial tang knives:
In a full tang survival knife the blade’s metal extends all the way through the handle. While a partial tang blade is wedged only halfway (or less) in between the handle.
If you can see the metal of the blade protrude out of your knife’s rear end it’s a full tang knife.
Partial tang knives are much weaker and easily break or snap when you use your knife sideways or as leverage.
A full tang knife has superior strength and prevents the handle from breaking apart when you hammer your knife’s rear end or pry something loose.
Full tang knives are more expensive because they contain larger amounts of steel.
The investment is worth it though because with a partial tang knife the question is not if you knife will break apart but when.
Why choose a full tang knife:
- Sturdier knife, harder to break.
- Can be used to pry open or leverage things without breaking the handle apart.
- The solid strike surface in the knife’s rear makes it possible to use it like a chisel.
If you decide to go with a partial tang knife better buy them in bulk because they will break apart.
#3 Blade Length (4 To 6 Inches)
How long your blade should be depends on what you plan to do with it:
A small knife is less versatile. A too large knife becomes a hassle to carry around and work with.
Survival knives have evolved from even bigger blades like bowie knives and machetes for a good reason:
The larger your knife the easier you can perform heavy-duty actions like cutting wood, clearing bush, digging or beheading your neighbor.
If you’re in the jungle you’ll need a huge knife to cut bush, clear obstacles and fight off giant snakes.
But since most of us live in more temperate regions a slightly smaller knife is better suited for wilderness survival.
The best survival knife length lies somewhere between 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) which is large enough to fell a tree but still small enough to do precision work like wood carvings, tool making or skin game.
Why choose a 4 to 6 inch long knife blade:
- A larger knife is more durable.
- Best balance between bulkiness and versatility.
- 4 to 6 inch knives are suited for heavy-duty and precision work.
It’s important to customize your survival knife to your specific needs and location. A hunter might prefer a smaller knife to skin game while you want a bigger blade to build shelter or brave a dense forest.
Important: The 4 to 6 inches refers to the length of the knife’s blade (that is the part without the handle).
#4 Carbon Steel
Unless you’re rich and can afford a titanium blade your knife will be made from steel.
There are two types of steel used to make survival knives:
Stainless steel, which is forgiving, rarely rusts or corrodes, keeps it’s edge for a long time but is a pain in the ass to sharpen.
Carbon steel, which is has a very sharp edge, is easy to sharpen and to keep sharp, but rusts and corrodes fast when mistreated.
If you need a survival knife for a three day camping trip I’d say go with a stainless steel knife and throw it away afterwards.
But if you want to keep your knife (and keep it sharp) for a lifetime choose a carbon steel knife and add some blade oil and a good knife sharpener to your purchase.
You’ll notice the difference after one or two weeks of heavy use:
Your carbon steel knife cuts through wood like butter (and if it gets dull you only need two minutes to sharpen it) while your stainless blade starts to feel like a spoon.
Why choose a carbon steel survival knife:
- Your knife will have a sharper edge.
- Less time spent on maintenance if you want your blade’s edge super sharp.
When your life is at stake you don’t want to end up with a dull blade.
Imagine you had a car accident and need to cut the seat belt of your 3 year old loose fast or the car will explode and kill you both.
Suddenly a really sharp knife makes a HECK of a difference.
#5 Flat Top & Thick Blade
Knives have either a flat top (usually called a single or fine edge) or a double edge like a sword or a dagger.
Doubles edges are great if you intend to cut someone’s guts open (including your own).
Single edge knives on the other side are safer and more convenient for precision work because you can grip the top of your knife with your fingers or strike it with your palm.
Good survival knives have outstanding thick blades:
Thicker blades increase the strength and durability of your knife.
That’s a good thing because you don’t want to break your knife in a life threatening situation and have to make do without one.
How thick is thick enough?
It really depends on the material used and the anatomy of the knife. There is no “that many inches” measure for how thick your blade should be.
Instead look at your knife: Does it look fat (good) or thin and frail (bad)?
Why choose a flat top knife with a thick blade:
- A flat top makes your knife safer to use and more versatile for precision work.
- The thicker your blade the stronger and more durable your knife will be.
Doubles edges are only good for combat. If you don’t want to kill (or get killed) go with a flat top instead.
And don’t look for beauty here: A good survival knife looks and feels more like a hammer than a scalpel. The thicker the blade the better.
#6 A Great Handle
Nothing is worse than a handle that gives you bloody blisters hours before your work is done, or your shelter built.
And even the best survival knife is worthless if your grip slips and you accidentally stab yourself in the liver.
The knife’s handle has to fit tightly into your hand. Your grip should be firm but not strained.
Everyone has different hands both in size and shape and the only way to know if a knife’s handle is right for you is to try and feel it.
Your handle must have great grip, without ripping your skin apart. The handle’s texture should feel comfortable and even soft on your skin.
There’s no best material for a knife handle.
But hard rubber with dents and notches is often superior to a metal or wood handle because you’ll slip less often on a textured surface and rubber can absorb shocks better than other materials.
Look for finger grooves or a slightly bent handle but make sure the overall form of the handle is straight so you can use it to baton wood.
If your handle is a bit slippery you can wrap it tightly in cord to improve your grip and carry around some additional cord for fishing, sewing or snare traps.
What to look for in a great handle:
- Needs to fit tightly into your hand. Not too big or too small.
- Best material is textured rubber. Shouldn’t grate on your skin.
- Must have dents and notches for better grip.
If you’ve screamed “Yes!” for every feature listed above you’ve got yourself a decent survival knife.
Small things can have a big impact under the right circumstances.
That’s why I would like to show you five more gimmicks that knife newbies and veterans alike often forget about, but which will make your knife truly awesome.
If your knife misses any of the features below you’ll still be happy with it most of the time.
But you might find yourself in a situation where you wish that you’d chosen your knife more careful, lose your knife or even be unable to do certain things because it would harm your knife.
So what’s the difference between a good and a perfect survival knife?
#7 Flat End
Make sure the rear end of your survival knife is flat and provides a solid striking surface.
A rectangular or square hard rubber or metal end of at least half an inch (1.27 cm) in length and width works well.
When you use your knife for batoning (wood cutting) or as leverage to pry something open you’ll often have to hammer on your knife’s rear end with a heavy object like a stone or a piece of wood.
If your knife’s solid metal tang protrudes from the end of the knife that’s perfect because you can hammer directly on the metal of your blade.
Contrary, if your knife ends in a fragile plastic part or a pointed form, the force applied through the strike might destroy your handle.
#8 Lanyard Hole
Don’t know what a “lanyard hole” is? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
A lanyard hole is simply a small hole or opening at the back of your knife’s handle that you can stick cord through like you would stick a thread trough the eye of a needle.
It sucks, but if you’re like me, you only got two arms:
When you work with your fingers and your knife simultaneously you’ll often have to put your knife away for a moment.
Now you don’t want to throw your knife on the ground, where it’s easily lost and stained, or put the dull side of the blade into your mouth, which is a recipe for injury and disaster (remember the Joker from the Batman movies?).
A lanyard hole solves this problem.
You can wrap the cord around your arm like a wristband, put it on your belt strap or wear your knife like a necklace.
Say no to lost knives and yes to more convenience when you work in tight or uncomfortable spaces!
A lanyard hole is the most underrated feature of any survival knife.
If your knife doesn’t have a lanyard hole you can buy a sheath with one (which kind of defeats it’s whole purpose).
Or you could make your own lanyard hole:
Most knives won’t mind if you drill a small hole through the handle as long as you make sure it goes straight through the handle AND the blade and seal off the open surface with glue.
#9 Drop Point
On a drop point survival knife the thick back of the knife’s blade continues up to the point of the blade.
This greatly increases the structural strength of your blades point (the part you use to stab people).
Why would you care?
Only with a drop point blade can you drill holes into hard materials like wood, plastic, or even metal and tighten or loosen screws without risking to break your blade.
A clip point blade, the opposite of a drop point, will easily snap and lose it’s tip when you try to drill or pry something open with your blades point.
#10 The Right Sheath
You can’t always carry your knife in your hands and therefor you need a sheath.
The best sheaths are made from a material called Kydex.
Leather sheaths will make your knife rust faster and nylon just plain out sucks.
Make sure your sheath comes with a belt loop so you can carry it on your hip.
It’s important that the sheath strap goes vertical over the read end of your knife and not horizontal along the handle or your knife will slip out at an inopportune moment (and go right through your foot).
Bonus points if the sheath has an additional lanyard hole.
#11 Choils And Jimping
Two more words you’ve never heard before, yay!
Any decent survival knife comes with a finger guard. A finger guard is a barrier in between the handle and the knife’s blade so that when your grip slips you won’t slice your palm open.
Most survival knives are rather large though and for fine work like wood carving or skinning small game you will have to hold your knife with your fingers resting on it’s blade.
That’s where a choil and jimping comes in really handy.
Choils are dull bulges in between your knife’s finger guard and the blade that allow you to hold your knife at it’s center and prevent your fingers from slipping into your knife’s edge. It’s like a second finger guard half an inch (one or two centimeters) closer to your knife’s edge.
Jimping refers to small dots or indentations on the flat top of your blade so you can grip your knife closer to it’s point without slipping.
These are really useful when your knife is slippery from blood while you work on small game and a definitive must-have feature for every good hunting knife.