How to Pick a Survival Knife

It's all about asking the right questions.

Source: Flickr via stephendann

Source: Flickr via stephendann

The topic of the perfect survival knife has been beaten to death on forums since the dawn of the Internet. Yet on any given outdoors-oriented forum, you can still find a relatively recent version of this question. There are two reasons why this question keeps coming up. It’s vitally important since your knife is your second most important survival tool (after your brain), and new knives and steels are always coming out.

This article is not aimed at telling you what the ultimate survival knife is. My hope is that it will help you think through the issues in an organized fashion so that you can arrive at a choice that works for you.

What Are You Trying to Survive?

The first fundamental question that you must answer before you can proceed with selecting the optimal knife is: what kind of scenario am I hoping to survive? We can break this general question into the two more specific questions:

  1. How long am I likely to be in a survival situation? The answers here are everything from “forever” (i.e. Armageddon) to being lost in the woods for a night.
  2. Where am I? If you’re in an urban environment, you’ll want a specific kind of tool. The hardwoods of the Pacific northwest will suggest another option, and the swamps of the Gulf Coast yet another.

Now let’s look at knife considerations for a few combinations of answers to the above two questions.

What: Temporarily Lost. Where: Northern Hardwood Forests.

Whether you’re a Scandinavian hunter or a Davy Crockett-era American fur trapper, if you’re stuck in a forest that resembles the boreal forests of the far north or the coniferous forests of Yosemite, you’re probably going to want to go with a combo of a small knife and a hatchet or tomahawk. You’ll use the hatchet for all your chopping and fire prep chores, and the small knife for everything else.

Blade length: You’re looking for a blade between 3.5″ and 5.5″. With anything shorter you’ll have a really tough time batoning wood, and with anything longer you’re carrying weight that you don’t really need. Besides, you have a hatchet with you for the big stuff.

Construction: The conventional wisdom is that you always want your survival knife to be a full-tang fixed blade. (If you’re curious as to why this is, read any survival knife discussion on the Internet and they’ll recap it for you. There’s no need to go into that here.) However, if you’re carrying a good hatchet, you can go ahead and use a multi-tool for your small knife. I know plenty of guides from Canada to Maine for whom the hatchet + multi-tool combo is their standard load-out. (On a personal note, as a teenager I was actually pretty disappointed the first time I encountered this particular load-out and learned that it’s popular with the pros. I was really hoping to see some large Bowie knives or something “cooler”, but alas, no.)

Steel: You’re only trying to survive a few days, so you can go ahead and use that exotic, ultra-hard blade steel that’s impossible to sharpen without a diamond hone. You may not even manage to dull it before you get rescued. Also, you probably have a diamond hone on you somewhere, anyway, tucked in a pouch or pocket.

What: Temporarily Lost. Where: In the Southeast.

While hatchets and ‘hawks are great for sparser woods, if you’re cutting your way through thicket and brush or trying to build shelter and fire in the dense woods and swamps of the American Southeast, you’ll probably find yourself wishing for a very large fixed blade or a machete. And the further south you go, the more machete-like you’ll wish your knife was.

Blade length: As I said above, a machete or large chopper can really shine in certain types of woods. There’s a reason that the Bowie knife, with its 10-inch to 13-inch blade, was popular in the South.

Construction: You definitely want a full-tang fixed blade for durability reasons.

Steel: Same as above. Go as hard as you like because it’ll probably hold a good enough edge for few days until you’re rescued.

What: TEOTWAWKI. What: The Woods.

So the world has ended, and you’ve bugged out to the forest (any forest, as long as it’s not the desert). In this situation, you want to have two knives on you: a multi-tool or Swiss Army Knife, and a very large fixed blade with a swedge or spear point.

Blade length: You may have to fight off a two-legged predator at some point after you’ve run out of ammo, and in such situations longer is better. Take as long of a knife as you can carry and reasonably use, and by this I mean ideally a 10″ blade or longer. (It’s essentially a short sword.) But also have a shorter knife, preferably a multi-tool, for regular cutting chores. You’ll clear brush, do fire prep, and make war with the big fixed blade (again, the Bowie is the classic prototype here), and do everything else with the multi-tool.

Construction: You want a full-tang fixed blade with a stabbing-friendly point on it. This means a drop point at the very least, but a spear point, regular swedge, or Bowie-style swedge are ideal. A tanto is an option as well, but I’d personally rather have a swedge. Please, don’t get anything with saw teeth on the back of it; that stuff is really just for the movies. Besides, you’ve got a great saw on your multitool or Swiss Army Knife.

I like a choil for extra control and flexibility on my large fixed blades, but that’s because I really, really, really don’t ever actually plan to fight anyone with them. If I was pretty sure I might have to use one on a human, I’d go choilless because the choil can hang up on a cut and cause you major problems.

Blade steel: You can go ahead and use that uber-hard, ultra-advanced exotic steel on your large fixed blade, but take care that you don’t ever find yourself without a diamond stone or a proper hone. I personally would go with something a little less exotic, like good-old D2 or O1, for a long-term survival knife. You can sharpen a good carbon tool steel on a suitable rock if you have to. It’s not going to hold an edge for nearly as long as one of the exotics, but even if civilization never recovers and you’re still living in a cave 40 years from now, you’ll never ever find yourself unable to put a good edge on it because you lack the right equipment.

What: Short-Term Grid Down. Where: The City.

When the lights go out and you’re stuck in the dark for a few days (or even a week or more) then what you need most out of a knife is utility and flexibility. You also need to not scare your neighbors or the police by toting around something too large and tactical looking.

My suggestion for such scenarios is a multi-tool, a Swiss Army Knife, or another good folding knife.

Blade length: Anything below 5.5 inches is fine. In fact, in some states it’s illegal to carry anything over that length. Be sure to check your local laws, because the last thing you want in an emergency is to get picked up by law enforcement and locked away.

Construction: As I said, go with something that packs a lot of utility into a small package and that looks like a tool, not a weapon. For me, this means a Leatherman multitool (I like the Charge TTi), but other folks like SOGs, Gerbers, or even Swiss Army Knives. I really think you do need a multi-tool, and not just a folder, because you’re probably going to find yourself needing to do more than just cut at some point.

Blade steel: This factor isn’t going to make much of a difference for you in this scenario, so get whatever works for you.

What: Long-Term Grid-Down. Where: The City.

First off, if the lights aren’t coming back on for a month or more, why are you still in the city? Okay, maybe you’re a looter, or you’ve joined a post-apocalyptic gang of thugs and hoodlums. That’s fine. Who am I to judge your life choices? We’re all just trying to make the best of a really bad situation, right?

Moving on, you’re going to need the most options and flexibility in the smallest and lightest package. This is one instance where I’ll be pretty specific and tell you exactly what this looks like:

1. Leatherman Surge: Yes, it’s very large and heavy, but it has one killer feature for urban survival: interchangeable saw blades. The Surge’s saw can accept standard t-shank jig saw blades from Bosch and others, so you can grab a kit like this and go to town. You can saw metal, wood, or anything in between with just a few dollars worth of these extremely ubiquitous blades.

2. 30-piece saw blade set: Like I said above, you can cut your way into or out of anything with enough time and this box of blades.

3. Leatherman bit driver extension: This is a must-have accessory for your Leatherman. It’ll get your bits into places that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to fit because of the bulk of the tool.

4. 40-bit assortment for Leatherman bit drivers: This 40-bit set is a ton of functionality packed into a very small and light package. If you have to take it apart or put it back together, the odds are very good that you can do it with this bit set.

5. Bolt cutters: I don’t have a brand recommendation for you here, but I can tell you that if you’re planning to survive a long-term grid-down scenario in or near a town, you’ll want to have some of these on you.

Conclusions

Obviously, this short guide is not comprehensive in the least. Some people will nitpick my choices, and that’s fine. But hopefully this has at least gotten you thinking and asking the right questions so that you can determine what kind or combination of survival tools will work for you.

I know this has definitely got me thinking. It wasn’t until I wrote this and then went back over it that I realized that I’ve basically made the case for a very large (10 inches or more) fixed blade fighter plus multi-tool combo as the most flexible arrangement for any kind of long-term survival. Something like the TSD Systems Classic Bowie plus the Leatherman Surge load-out described above would be a pretty killer combo for either an urban or forest type of long-term scenario.

I’d be very interested to hear feedback on the logic and recommendations presented here. Drop into the comments and let me know what tweaks you’d make to the recommendations above.

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