How To Choose A Survival Knife

An essential part of outdoor activities is survival; one can never know when or how things will go wrong and survival will become a priority. Something that can make a difference between failure or success on survival grounds is a reliable knife; which is also the number one thing that should be added to anyone’s outdoor checklist. When considering buying a new knife, there are several factors that need to be taken into account before making the purchase, although, you must know – a good knife doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. However, knives are intricate tools that can serve several different purposes, so before choosing a knife you must first learn the features and parts of a knife.

What is a survival knife

“A well-trained person needs only a knife to survive.”

Mors Kochanski 

If knives are new for you, you must first know that there is no such thing as the ideal survival knife for every situation. However, it is possible to obtain the perfect all-in-one tool that could make a difference between life and death in a survival situation. While a survival knife may not excel in every single situation, it will be sufficient to perform well enough to fit your needs. Not only could a knife help you with basic survival functions and to build shelter, but it can also help you build tools, make fires, and even find, purify, and contain water. In order to know what to look for in your next survival knife, you must first learn its parts. Below, you will find an image that displays a visual description of a survival knife to learn more about the parts of a knife. To learn more about the part of a knife, hover the mouse over the text and click to see the part highlighted on the display.

Mind the law

Before buying a knife, it is necessary to check with local authorities what the law allows you to carry and how so that you may abide by the law without complications.  Some countries allow for folding knives to be carried in a concealed manner, while fixed blades may be required to be open-carried in a sheath, however, every country has its own laws and rules for the handling of white arms.  It’s important to check the law before carrying or traveling with any kind of knife to avoid the risk of getting some jail time or a significant fine.

Features of a survival knife

The blade

There are different types of blades that serve different purposes, making your tasks easier or more difficult to achieve.

Fixed blade vs foldable blade

When your life depends on a tool, you want it to be sturdy and reliable. In a life-threatening situation, a survival knife may be the only tool you have to help you do some vital tasks such as batoning, chopping, splitting, cutting, prying, and carving. These tasks apply stress to your knife, which can shorten its lifetime. As you find yourself in the selection process of acquiring a new knife, you must consider the tasks that it is suitable for and that you buy a blade that will resist the tear and wear you will put to it. Foldable blades exist to serve the purpose of being practical. As they are folded, the size shortens by half, which in turn allows you to conceal the blade. However, the foldable feature that makes this type of knife practical, is the same thing that weakens it. The more moving parts, the weaker the knife.  It is recommended to use a foldable knife as a secondary knife, rather than as a prime survival tool.

Straight vs Serrated blade edge

Serrated blades are specifically designed to cut rope, hunt and butcher animals. Although serrated knives are sharp, due to the shape of the blade, it’s difficult to sharpen and carve with them. Not sharpening your knife would cause a dull blade, which is dangerous. Even the dullest blade is still sufficiently sharp to hurt you and cause a wound. You can find fully serrated blades and partially serrated ones as well, however fully serrated blades do not perform certain tasks well. Straight edge blades, however, are more versatile and can work in almost any situation. They can easily be sharpened even with a smooth stone.
These blades are better fitted to perform as carving and batoning knives.

TasksSerrated Blade EdgeStraight Blade Edge
BatoningOkayBetter
Cutting RopesEasierHarder
Cutting TinsEasierHarder
Cutting WoodOkayOkay
SkinningEasierHarder
ButcheringEasierHarder
GuttingEasierHarder
ChoppingHarderEasier
SplittingHarderEasier
CarvingHarderEasier
PryingOkayOkay
SharpeningHarderEasier

Short or long knife?

Image of a long knife.
Credit: FT Knives

Talking about short or long knives can be very subjective, as there are many different factors to be taken into consideration, including the law in your region and the fact that we are talking about using a knife as a survival tool. The length of a blade is directly related to what you can or cannot easily do.
The longer the blade is, the easier it will be to perform certain tasks and the harder it could be to perform others. For example, in the case of a task that requires precision, smaller blades would be better suited. However, if you find yourself in the jungle or around wild terrain, it would be better to have a longer knife at hand, such as a machete, in order to chop vegetation as you move. If your environment is the woods, a shorter blade would be sufficient as there would not be such a need to clear foliage like in the jungle. To perform most of the necessary tasks mentioned, a blade measuring between 4” and 6” (10 -15 cm) would be long enough to perform heavy-duty tasks and short enough to serve for more precise movements.

A survival knife’s tang

Image of a knife's tang
Credit: Gabriele Lodi

The tang of a knife, more commonly known as a shank, is the back portion of a blade  that connects to a handle. Tangs are invisible as they are hidden inside of the handle and are important because they determine a knife’s resistance. In total, there are five different types of tang:

  1. Full Tang image of a full tang of a knife.
  2. Skeletonized Tang image of a skeletonized tang.
  3. Partial Tang Image of a partial tang.
  4. Narrowing Tang Image of a narrowing tang.
  5. Stick Tang Image of a stick tang.

It would probably make sense for a lot of people if tangs were made to be the same length as the handle, however, due to the additional cost of material and weight of the knife, tangs are not always complete pieces. A full tang always makes a knife sturdier, and if the handle happens to break, it can easily be replaced with some paracord and you would still have a fully functioning knife. The smaller the tang is, however, the more fragile the knife will be; which busts the myth of the knife seen in the famous movie Rambo, where Rambo famously used a knife with a hollow handle that would actually break easily, rather than being the reliable tool displayed on the movie. As knives with hollow handles may break easily if used for survival tasks, you may want to find out how you can tell if a handle is hollow. A wobbling handle tells you almost certainly that the knife has a small tang. Small tangs could be dangerous in a survival situation, so it may be best to find a blade with a bigger tang if you need it as a survival tool. 

What is the best edge for a survival knife?

The edge of a knife refers to the part of the knife that grinds and cuts surfaces. The ideal edge of a knife is symmetrical and resembles a “V” shape, which is known precisely as a V-grind or a Scandinavian Grind. When it comes to survival knives, most knives you encounter will have a V-grind, which should make your selection process less difficult. Knives with these types of edges are easier to sharpen and control while cutting. Non-symmetrical grinds also called “chisel grinds” are not ideal as all-in-one survival knives as they are better suited to cut through soft surfaces. If a knife’s description doesn’t specify the type of grind, it will not matter as much as if the knife is straight or serrated. To see several types of grinds, you can consult the video below:

What point is best for a survival knife?

There are different shapes of points; and as none of them are perfect, it is a matter of preference and understanding what each point can do.

Examples of common survival knives points.

When it comes to survival knives, sharp blades with pointy tips are a must. There are three types of points, which are used for different small precision tasks:

  1. Digging
  2. Picking
  3. Hunting-related Purposes

The clip point is a solidly-built and long flat area that is useful for carving and batoning. The spear point is good for cutting and known as a durable point. The sheep point is a mix between the clip and the spear point. Out of the three points, the clip point provides the most versatility for an all-in-one type of survival knife, due to its flat back. While the spear point is useful to be turned into a spear, it has no flat back and does not allow for tasks that require a small tip to be performed, making it less versatile and dangerous if hand pressure is required. At the end of the day, all three types of points are useful as long as your knife is sharp with a pointed tip.

Blade material

There are several different types of steel used to make knives. Some blades are richer in carbon than others, which gives the material the name “carbon steel.” Most people tend to use carbon steel blades,
unless the environment in which they will be using their knife will expose the tool to water and salt. This is because water and salt cause corrosion and carbon steel blades are more prone to rusting than other types of blades. If you will be using your knife in this type of environment, it is recommended to consider getting a stainless steel blade instead, which is a material that is much more resistant to rust than carbon steel. Although stainless steel is better for this type of environment, it is still not immune to rust and must still receive some care and maintenance by sharpening it and spreading some grease along the blade. While stainless steel is more resistant, it is also significantly more difficult to sharpen. So, choose the material of your blade according to the environment in which you will be handling your survival knife the most.  

A Survival Knife’s Handle

You can find knives with handles made of different materials; the most common types are:

Micarta: this is easily one of the most common types of materials for a survival knife’s handle, as it offers a good strong grip. Micarta is a composite material made from synthetic resin and linen. It resists well to humidity, temperature changes, abrasion and it requires zero maintenance.
G10: made from fiberglass and synthetic resin, this is also one of the most common materials for knife handles. In terms of performance, this handle is quite similar to Micarta, however, Micarta excels from G10 in that it poses a better grip in humid climates.
Rubber: immune to humidity, rubber can provide a great grip depending on the texture, however this material is sensitive to heat.
Wood: wooden handles are the least recommended due to their tendency to crack over time. As this material comes from a living organism, it changes over time due to many environmental factors.

Does the color matter?

Surprisingly, yes! 
Although it may seem irrelevant, a knife that blends in the environment is at risk of getting lost. A survival knife is a working tool that you will need to be able to find easily. If you only have one knife, it’s best to play it safe and have some colorful handles.

Sheaths

Sheaths serve a single task: protecting you from your own knife.  There are different types of sheaths, which can hang from your belt or the buttons of your clothes. You can also find sheaths that can go on the left or right side of your belt or clothes and others that only go on one side, however, these are all subjective choices. While looking for a sheath, the most important things to consider are:

  1. That your sheath should lock the knife safely with no possibility of slipping out.
  2. That the blade of the knife cannot possibly perforate the sheath.

As you can see from the different components of a knife, not all knives are suited to be all-in-one tools, it’s important to consider the function of each part of a knife so that you can get the knife that will serve as the survival tool that you need. However,  if this will be your first survival knife, remember that it does not have to be expensive or necessarily possess all of the features. This will be the knife to help you learn and grow.

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