The knife is the tool that’s most used in the survival classes I teach, and is considered the number one tool piece of survival gear. There’s good logic for this, but it might not be what you first think. A knife is certainly a means of self defense, but more importantly it’s a tool that can help create more tools, which is what the best survival knives must do. Those tools we make will provide for our basic needs, and ultimately allow us to survive long enough to be rescued.
A good knife for survival will excel at carving wood for traps and making feather sticks for fires, processing plant material for consumption, and cutting animal hide and flesh. It will hold its edge well with minimal upkeep. It must allow you to grip it several different ways to complete these tasks. It should also have a comfortable handle that’s free of “hot spots” or areas that cause pain and blister after use. A knife with all those qualities is no easy feat. For example, if you have two identical looking knives, but they have different heat treats, they will perform completely different. That’s why it’s crucial to select the right knife from a reputable maker as part of your survival equipment.
As a survival instructor, I’ve been able put the best survival knives on the market through hard use. The blades in this list are capable blades that have stood up to years of use.
- Easy investment
- The Companion is available in either carbon or stainless, and inexpensive enough for you to buy a backup
- 4.1-inch blade
- Scandi grind
- 1095 steel
Morakniv has a reputation for building high-quality knives at a very reasonable price. They offer many models, but the Companion series offers the most versatility. The Morakniv Companion is available in both easy-to-sharpen carbon steel and rust-resistant stainless steel. A knife’s grip is just as critical as the blade, and the Companion’s grip is comfortable when using many grip techniques and won’t leave your hand blistered after hours of carving. It features a scandi grind that excels at wood carving, but is also works well for tasks like processing game. Typically, a survival knife of this quality would run at least $100. But, the Companion is so reasonably priced that you won’t be reluctant to use it, and you could even buy several of them for the price of many other knives on the market.
Best Stainless Steel Survival Knife: Helle Utvaer
- Top wood cutter
- Scandi grind and full tang makes this durable and strong
- 4-inch blade
- Scandi grind
- 12C27 steel
Helle of Norway is a family company that’s been making high-quality knives for three generations. They excel at creating knives with razor-sharp scandi grinds, which are excellent for carving wood. While they make several capable models, I prefer the durability of the full-tang Utvaer. Its curly birch handle is functional and fits very well in medium sized hands. The stainless Sandvik 12C27 steel is thin, which makes for a very good slicing knife, while still durable. All that adds up to a survival knife with a good handle, rust resistance, and great blade performance.
- Ideal neck knife
- It fits under a jacket, keeping your backpack’s hip belt clear
- 2.2-inch blade
- Scandi grind
- 1075 carbon steel
Just because a knife is small doesn’t mean that it isn’t very capable of being one of the best survival knives. The Woods Wise is a great example of just such a knife. The 1075 carbon steel blade comes in at just 2.2 inches, but is a whittler’s dream and is capable of much bigger tasks. The leather sheath is designed to be worn as a neck knife, fitting perfectly under a jacket. I find this Condor knife a great option for hiking and backpacking because it doesn’t get in the way of the pack’s hip belt. If you’re a gear minimalist, you’ll appreciate this small blade that punches above its weight. If you believe two is one and one is none, then the Woods Wise is a great secondary blade to back up your primary.
- Blade with brawn
- Will stand up to tough treatment and is available with a sheath-mounted survival kit.
- Scandi grind
- 4.3-inch blade
The Garberg was designed from the bottom up to be a hard-use field survival knife. It fits super solid in the hand, even those with larger hands. The Garberg is available with a blackened blade that protects the carbon steel blade from corrosion. It’s also available with a survival kit that includes a fire steel, paracord, and knife sharpener. I’ve found the Garberg to be reliable and multi-functional. It handles tough work like chopping and batoning with no problem. If you are looking for something to drag through the roughest places and back, the Garberg can handle it all. It’s also worth noting that the Garberg is also one of the best bushcraft knives.
- Classic designs
- The hand-forged knives are designed for work
- 4.25-inch blade
- 1095 steel
- Flat grind
Matt Lesniewski of ML knives is a craftsman who hammers out his knives one at a time on an anvil, and he builds some of the finest workhorse knives I have ever handled. Many of his designs look as though they belong in the hands of the Hudson Bay fur traders and mountain men. (It’s no accident that the ML Kephart and Nessmuk are classic wilderness designs named after 19th century woodsmen.)
No two ML knives are alike, and while they are also great to look at, they are made for work. I have used Matt’s knives for over 10 years and I can say, without hesitation, that they are exceptional.
Best Basic Survival Knife: Sacha Puukko
- Strong and simple
- The Puukko can be worn on the hip or around the neck and is an excellent camp knife
- O1 tool steel
- Scandi grind
- 2.9-inch blade
It’s been said that the best knife is an exercise in simplicity, and the Sacha Puukko embodies that philosophy. The Sacha Puukko is stripped of everything that is not essential and you are left with a refined O1 tool steel blade for survival and bushcraft. There are a few handle options to choose from, and I’m partial to the canvas micarta.
With this versatile knife, I’ve skinned and quartered a bull elk, carved countless friction fire sets, and built primitive shelters. It’s a great camp knife, and has done just about every camp chore. As a bonus, the Sacha Puukko works equally well as a neck or belt knife.
The TOPS Fieldcraft 3.5 is a beautiful bushcraft knife with a balanced design. Even though it is made from very thick 1095 steel—4mm thick, in fact—the lean profile keeps this tool relatively lightweight (5.5 ounces). The blade length isn’t gargantuan. It’s only 3.75 inches long, with an overall length of 8.25 inches. Though it’s still long enough to do smaller baton work and thick enough to take the abuse. While the handle is on the small side too, the brownish-tan Micarta handle scales create a comfortable grip and they hold a bonus feature for primitive skills enthusiasts. There’s a socket on each side of the handle, which allows the knife to be used as a friction fire socket for bow and drill fire starting.
In the two years that I’ve been using this knife on a regular basis, it has held edges well, and been almost immune to damage. The combination of thick knife stock and the Scandi grind edge didn’t let me down. From batoning and chopping to delicate carving, it’s an excellent “all purpose” bushcraft knife. And while the black Kydex sheath isn’t exactly primitive looking, you’ve got to love the positive click when it locks into place. –Tim MacWelch
Things to Consider When Selecting Survival Knives
How do you ultimately decide which survival knife is best for your purposes? Here are some factors to consider.
Knife construction should not be overlooked when choosing a blade for survival. A full tang is the strongest way to construct a knife. This means the knife steel is continuous from the tip of the blade through the back of the handle. There may be times when a baton may be needed to drive a knife through thick material and, in this case, a full tang knife will hold up much better than folding knives or blades with less steel through the handle. The negative of a full tang is that the added steel means more weight.
Carbon vs. stainless steel is an endless topic of discussion among knife enthusiasts. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. There are many high-quality steels that can be a great choice for survival knives. Many carbon steels have excellent edge retention and can be honed to a razor edge but will require more maintenance to keep the blade from developing rust. Stainless offers an option that is more rust resistant but can be harder to sharpen to a keen edge. For my money it’s hard to beat classic O1 carbon steel and 1095 stainless steel.
The grind of the knife is another important feature worth careful consideration. Processing wood is a huge part of wilderness survival, and for wood carving, the Scandinavian grind or “scandi” is an excellent choice. In a scandi grind the steel is ground with a single bevel on each side that terminates at the cutting edge.
This design can yield a razor-sharp edge and bites very well into wood. It allows a good amount of steel to be kept behind the edge making it durable and suitable for splitting wood as well. Another advantage to the scandi grind is that the bevel acts as a natural angle guide for sharpening. Oftentimes people have trouble maintaining the proper sharpening angle on knives with secondary bevels because they cannot see or feel the angle.
The scandi grind solves this issue by allowing the user to easily see and feel the correct angle against the sharpening stone, and can be easily sharpened without special equipment.
Convex grinds are also a good option. This is the type of grind that most axes have and also keep a lot of steel behind the edge. They can work very well but can be more difficult to sharpen.
A square spine is another overlooked feature that is important to maximize the functionality of a good survival knife. While the blade is the business side of the tool, the spine can be prepared with a hard 90-degree edge and even left with a burr. This not only allows the back of the knife to be used for striking a fire steel but also allows the processing of tinder material yielding very fine shavings that can really help when starting a campfire.
Survival knife size is often specific to the individual and to the tasks and terrain. Open your hand flat and look at the width of your hand. A good starting point is to have a blade approximately as long as the width of your hand. The handle should typically be a bit longer, and have enough palm swell to provide a solid grip. A smaller knife offers increased control for fine work, while a larger blade often excels at chopping and heavy use. I have found that a sharp 3.5-inch blade will handle 95 percent of the survival related tasks I need a knife for, and allows me to travel light and efficiently.
Here are the best questions to ask when shopping for a survival knife.
Q: What is the best knife for the money?
You don’t need to break the bank to own a great survival knife. Condor and Morakiv both offer many high-quality knives that many professionals use. The late Mors Kochanski is considered one of the most knowledgeable bushcraft instructors of all time, and he wore a simple Mora knife around his neck. Kochanski proved that in capable hands, such a knife is all you need.
Q: What is the best steel for a survival knife?
Many experienced survivalists prefer carbon steel for its good edge retention, ease of sharpening and classic patina that develops on the blade. Stainless options can be great as well, especially in environments with saltwater. Consider where you spend most of your time and if you’ll have a sharpener with you, and go with a quality steel that fits that niche.
Q: What knives do survival experts use?
Ask 10 outdoor professionals what knife they use, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. Many professionals who operate in woodland environments like small to medium sized knives. Those that spend more time in a jungle may prefer a larger blade or even a machete so the tool matches the needs of the environment.
Q: What is the best way to sharpen a survival knife?
Frequent maintenance is part of taking care of your tools, and it’s much better to hone a knife often than to wait for it to become dull, which will require a lot of time and work to get it back to its original edge. A 3- to 4-inch sharpening stone is ideal. The Fallkniven DC4 stone is a great example, and has a diamond coated steel on one side and ceramic fine grain side on the other. This type of stone can be used often to keep a knife sharp and in good working order.
A Final Word About Suvival Knives
In a survival situation, we need multifunctional tools like survival knives that help us maximize our skills and creativity to solve problems and look after ourselves. The tools you carry are up to you, but practicing and building experience is very important. It’s well worth taking the time to become familiar with your gear before you really need it, and a survival knife is no exception. The knives listed above are some of the best survival knives on the market today, and are the top options for me and for many other outdoor professionals. However, there is no one size fits all—and no substitute for dirt time, when you’ll develop your own skills and self-reliance. Simply put, use your gear before it becomes a life-or-death situation, and never forget that your own brain is your most valuable survival tool.