by Larry Connelley
Updated - August, 2015.
There are many things to consider when choosing a survival knife. One of the keys to finding the best knife is to find one that works for you. What your best friend or the expert in the latest survival television series uses might not work for you. You need to consider the total package, how it will hold up under pressure, and how it feels in your hand.
Spend as much money as reasonable for a good knife. We have seen so many bad mass-market imported "survival" knives that simply suck, looking the part at first glance.
Do you need a $400-500 survival knife to make things work? No. Do you get what you pay for (with-in reason) when it comes to a knife; absolutely yes! A survival knife in the $150-350 range should provide you with a high quality steel, an extremely durable handle, outstanding heat treatment/blade geometry and finally it should provide a quality sheath or carry system. The quality steel ALONG with the blade grinds and heat treatment is where you will pick-up edge retention, toughness, cutting ability etc. Blade steel type alone doesn't mean you have the right knife.
A quality survival knife will provide you with a lifetime warranty and the peace of mind that your tool will not fail you. We like American-made, it gives the useer with a resource and location for repair work. A survival knife does not have to be a handmade work-of-art, unless you desire that.
Evaluate your current knives:
Evaluate your current knives, what purpose does each serve and what would you like for it to be able to do for you that it doesn't. Just imagine one knife that can do it all and even more. What does it feel like in your hand? It should be lightweight and the handle should fit without causing discomfort. Now decide what you dislike about your current knives. Maybe it gives you blisters or slips if you are sweating. Once you've evaluated your current knives you can move on to choosing the correct Survival Knife for you using the following guidelines.
Fixed Blade vs Folding Knife:
I prefer a fixed blade for the types of tasks that are required for survival. Fixed blades are stronger and generally larger than most folding knives. Dirt and mud will not impact the function of a fixed blade like it can a folding knife. That being said, I would take a folding knife over no knife in an emergency situation.
A drop point fixed blade is recommend as it provides a strong tip that will hold up under prying and provide a good cutting belly. It provides the best general purpose cutting edge. Another good blade shape is the spearpoint shape (a drop point blade where the tip comes down to the middle of the blade profile), it provides a thick wide angle tip that is less likely to break off.
Good quality steel that can hold up under extreme hard use such as chopping and still hold and edge is recommended. We recommend steels that have extreme toughness to prevent chipping or failure - when pushed beyond their normal cutting applications.
Particle Steel vs. Conventionally Made Steel - A steel that is created using a particle or powdered steel process will cost more but will provide you substantial performance improvements that a conventionally made steel with the same chemical alloy composition! (all other factors being the same). The particle metal process provides extremely even distribution of the carbides, the microstructure of the steel is extremely homogenous and will increase the toughness of the steel. You will know if the steel mentions made with PM (Particle/Powder Metallurgy) or CPM (Crucible Steel's PM steel).
Carbon Steel - For a high quality carbon tool steel we like CPM 3V for it's toughness and resistance to chipping. To improve the corrosion resistance of a carbon steel coatings can be used. Other carbon steels you may consider are CPM M4, 1095 and CPM D2. A downside to carbon steel is that it can quickly begin to rust.
Coatings - Coatings protect the blade from corrosion. They don't make the edge sharper increase performance. For a coating to work, it needs to stand up to some brutal use and cutting. That means the harder the coating and better it will stand up to abrasion. We like Diamond-Like coatings (DLC) as well as Physical Vapor Deposition coatings (PVD). These are extremely hard coatings that bond at the molecular level. Higher quality coatings will cost more but hold up much better with use. Coatings are completely optional.
Stainless Steel - For a durable blade that is strong and resists rust, then you want stainless steel. We like American-made CPM S35VN or S90V stainless steel, great edge retention and toughness, all while providing corrosion resistance. Other stainless steels you may consider are CPM S30V, CPM 154CM.
You may also want to select a blade that has a slightly lower hardness rating or Rockwell (RC) rating to increase the resistance to chipping or breakage. A RC range of 56-58 will provide greater toughness than a knife with an RC of 58-60. Edge holding is likely not be the primary focus of a survival knife - toughness under extreme hard use is what you need to get you through to rescue.
Thickness of the blade should also be considered. For the most durable blade that can withstand being hit, a thickness of 3/16 -4/16" is recommended. Blade thickness is a trade-off, generally the thicker the blade the thicker the edge and more difficult cutting can become. All things the same, a thinner blade will cut through material with greater ease but you may be more prone to chipping or breakage.
Avoid the latest gimmick handle to get the best survival knife. It may look cool and can serve a purpose but not as an overall sturdy handle for a true survival knife. Do not select a knife that has a handle that is made from molded plastic composition, similar to what you typically see used in kitchen knives.
The handle should be made of the strongest available materials, reinforced epoxy polymers for best performance and longevity; materials like g-10, micarta or carbon fiber provide impact resistance, strength and durability because of the multiple layers of lamination. The blade spine and butt of the handle should be wide enough so that you can use a hammer-like splitting technique called batoning or other object to assist with splitting wood. This is utilizing your knife edge as a wedge - a powerful mechanical force that allowing you to tackle bigger jobs than with the hand held knife alone. Keep in mind that whatever you choose it should be able to resist heat and cold, and be sturdy enough to take a beating.
We really like full tang construction when selecting a survival knife. It provides maximum strength for a fixed blade. The knife steel will extend all the way to the butt of the handle. Again, this makes the knife strong enough to withstand being hammered or used as a prying tool. Hidden-tang, partial tang or any of the other options can make a knife less reliable over time or under extreme circumstances. Even if you break or loose a handle on a full tang knife it can be a usable tool (or it can be wrapped with cordage) - less so with a hidden tang knife.
The blade spine could be squared off at a 90 degree angle OR not. The blade spine or the edge can be used to strike a sparklighter/firestick (ferrocerium rod or commonly called ferro rod) with maximum scraping impact and direct the sparks. An alternative to the squared off blade spine, could be a dedicated fire starting location on the knife. A squared off blade tang will be an area that comes under extreme stress with batoning, the back of the blade spine rounding the blade spine will reduce the stress at this location. Creating a properly rounded blade spine takes an extra step. When the blade spine is chamfered or rounded it is much more comfortable when using the knife with your fingers forward on the blade. It is important to note that you must strike a firestick at a non-coated location of the knife steel, a coating will prevent proper sparking.
Try the knife in your hand to see how it feels. Now switch hands! That's correct, try it out in both hands. Most people who are handling a knife to check for comfort only try it out in their dominant hand. Remember this is a survival knife, should an emergency occur you should feel comfortable using the knife with both hands. Make sure the size of the knife is such that you will be able to safely use it. Also consider how the grip feels, is it too slippery or too rough? All working knives need to be comfortable to hold in wet and dry conditions without creating excess friction or blisters under heavy use. We recommend grips with good ergonomics and with a matte (bead blasted) finish.
The average total length of the knife should be between 5-10 inches. It really depends on the size of your hand. For people with smaller hands a 10" blade could be too long and control is lost and the same goes for someone with larger hands using a smaller knife. Another thing to consider when selecting the length of your knife is where you plan on carrying the knife.
There are many more uses for your survival knife other than the ones mentioned above. Here is a list and some examples for you to consider when selecting a survival knife.
Starting a fire using a ferrous stick
Building game traps
Building shelter and pioneering
Use as screwdriver/tool
Cutting Cordage/Food Prep
Making or repairing clothing
Digging or carving
Make sure your sheath fits the knife and holds it securely in place without making it difficult to retrieve quickly. Once you've made your selection be sure to have a good knife sharpening and cleaning kit handy. Use your knife before you really need it. Try starting a fire, cleaning a fish or digging with it to be ready for any survival scenario.
We also recommend keeping other survival items with your knife, often times in the sheath. These additional items can really come in handy and provide you the best opportunity to be creative, adaptive and resilient in your quest to survive. You can wrap paracord on sheath or handle, mount a ferrus rod to the sheath, add a paracord lanyard to the handle, you can wrap the handle in duct tape, you can add bow drill holes to the handles etc. Your knife itself can become a survival kit
Just remember, your survival knife is an important part of your survival kit and that's why it should fit you. Choose carefully using the above recommendations and you will be more than satisfied with your new survival knife. The best part, you may never need to use it in an emergency but you may find uses for it every day. Always be prepared.
For additional information you may consider reading Best Pocket Knife Today’s guide on choosing the best survival knife. This guide has some good visuals and has some excellent 'rules' to follow when looking for a survival blade.