I get a lot of questions from readers asking about survival knives. Whether you’re headed into the wilderness or simply preparing for the next apocalypse, a folding knife will serve you well but a good survival knife makes all the difference. In my own search for the best survival knife over the years I’ve had plenty of experience with the top sellers and wanted to share my opinions with you all.
In a hurry? We love all the knives recommended here but if you asked us to recommend one survival knife we usually lean towards the Ka-Bar BK-22. A well-priced all-round knife and deserving of our top pick.
When you’re caught out in the wild and things are getting serious, a quality survival knife is a crucial tool to have with you and can be used for a wide variety of survivalist tasks from building a shelter, skinning game, splitting firewood, cutting rope, opening cans, and much more. Now, before you shell out you’re hard earned coins it’s important to know what to look for. I discuss the general rules of buying a good survival knife below and then share my own list of the top survival knives currently on the market.
Rule #1: Fixed blade, not folding
My passion in life is folding knives but I stand by this statement when it comes to survival knives. A good folding knife is perfect for everyday carry, but in a survival situation you want a fixed blade. Part of the reason for this is that the joint (or pivot) of a folding knife is a weakness when it comes to the rough abuse your survival knife will endure.
In a survival knife, you want something that will be readily available for chopping, thrusting, prying, pounding, and rigorous cutting. Hence for survival, folding knives just don’t…well…cut it.
Yes, I know that there are folding knives advertised as survival knives and many of the best folding knives are damn solid, so why do I insist on a fixed blade? Look, many folders are indeed tough but they’ll never take a beating like a solid fixed blade. Another reason is speed of deployment. With a folding blade, you have to open the knife and ensure it is properly locked before you can use it. In an emergency situation, you want a knife that is ready to go the minute you pull it out of its sheath. When speed and safety are essential, a fixed blade knife is much better than a folder.
Rule #2: Full tang is the way to go
A “full tang” means that the blade extends the entire length of the knife, from the tip to the very end of the handle. It’s essential for the providing the strength you’ll need in many survival situations.
A partial tang is simply too flimsy in situations where you need to force the blade against a hard object, or use the knife as a prying tool. The full tang knife is going to be much more effective for prying or digging. Of course, this all comes at price in the weight of the knife but 9 times out of 10 I would stick with the full tang.
The other problem with partial tang knives is that the blades can loosen and develop “play” in the handle, which becomes quite dangerous. With a full tang knife, even if the handle becomes damaged or falls off, you can wrap the tang in parachute cord or rope and still have a fully usable tool. Not so with partial tang knives. Trust me.
Rule #3: A high carbon blade steel
If you’ve read my essential guide to knife steel you’ll know that there’s a boat load of different steels on the market today. When it comes to your survival knife you don’t want to cheap out on a $20 Chinese-made knife from eBay with soft steel that won’t hold its edge. This knife may one day be the difference between life and death so give it some respect.
You need to shop around and find a blade that uses a quality steel alloy. For EDC knives, I usually recommend to stick with stainless steel. This is because EDC knives are used far more frequently than my survival knife, so a low maintenance stainless steel is preferred.
Since my survival knives are used less frequently, but also subject to more heavy duty usage, I generally recommend a knife made with carbon steel over stainless. Carbon steel is tougher than your average stainless steel and will hold up to the abuse more. You just have to remember to take good care of these knives, or they’ll rust and stain. The most popular carbon steel often used in survival knives is called 1095, or slight variants thereof. It’s a great steel for your survival knife because it’s not only tough but easy to sharpen too.
If you insist on not having to lubricate your knife to keep it corrosion free, I’d recommend a blade made of AUS–8, 440C or 420HC stainless steel. Each of these alloys is different, but they’ll hold a decent edge while still staying easy to sharpen. If you have more to spend consider a higher end steel like S30V which will hold its edge for longer.
Rule #4: Blade length 4 – 7 inches
Size matters, as my wife always tells me, but bigger is not always better in the survival game. For example, just as a blade that is too thick can make it difficult to dress small game or carve precision snares, so can a blade that is too long. On the other hand, if your knife isn’t long enough, you won’t be able to use it effectively for chopping or batoning, which is striking the back of your knife blade with something like a rock or chunk of wood in order to drive the blade through a thick branch or stubborn piece of wood. You want a blade that’s long enough to do what you need it to do, but not so long that it gets in your way. Ahh, life’s little trade offs.
Most survival knives fall in the range of six to 12 inches, but remember that you aren’t hunting elephants. Anything bigger than 10 or 11 inches runs towards being too long to really be useful in as many situations as possible. The knife becomes too big to handle and carry effectively, and can easily present itself as a hindrance to your survival instead of a tool to ensure it.
I recommend keeping the blade between 4 and 7 inches, with an overall length of around 10 to 11 inches. With that said, you’ll find several of my favorites run past 11 inches, but just barely. It all comes down to what you’re comfortable carrying and working with, and I’m a beefy enough guy that the knives running close to 12 inches are still effective for me to use. Anything longer is basically a machete.
Rule #5: Blade thickness 0.17 – 0.25 inches
When you’re shopping for a survival knife, you might be worried about keeping your encumbrance down. After all, you don’t want to be carrying any more weight than necessary, so you might be tempted to shop for a survival knife with a thin blade to cut down on the heaviness.
This is not always a good idea, for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is that you don’t just need a good blade, but you also need one that is going to be useful for as many jobs as possible. One minute, you might find yourself using the survival knife to skin a rabbit, but the next minute you’ll be batoning wood and that’s where the extra thickness is going to come in handy.
Bending is absolutely undesirable in a survival knife, so you need some girth to the blade’s thickness. At the same time, you don’t want the blade so thick that you can’t use it for delicate work like skinning game or carving snare sets. The sweet spot? Look for a thickness between 0.17 and 0.25 inches.
Rule #6: A solid, synthetic handle
It’s easy to focus on the blade and getting the most out of it, but remember that you have to hold and use the survival knife in inclement weather, more often than not. The handle will also take a bit of a beating when you’re using your knife for batoning wood or prying objects loose.
The most important things to look at in the survival knife’s handle are strength, durability, and grip.
Stay away from hollow, cheap plastic or metal handles in your survival knife. It might sound cool to be able to carry matches or fishing line and hooks inside your knife handle, but that lack of density seriously compromises the strength of the knife. If your survival knife is hard to hold or lacks strength and durability, it can quickly become a liability with the cost of you injuring yourself. Metal handles conduct heat and can make for an ice cold grip in the winter wilderness.
The best materials for a survival knife handle are typically made from your modern synthetics – Kraton (a synthetic rubber polymer), Micarta, G-10, GRN/FRN (glass/fiber reinforced nylon with brands like Zytel or Valox), or even just dense rubber. These materials are near indestructible and provide durability, and grip (read more in our guide to knife handle materials). Look for texturing and scales too, giving you plenty of comfortable grip. Don’t let the traditionalists talk you out of this – synthetics are the way to go. I also like to have a blunt end for hammering, and hopefully even a lanyard hole for keeping the knife readily accessible from around your wrist.
Considering one of those Commando knives with a built in compass and you can store stuff inside the handle? Stay well away, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
My favorite survival knives
Okay here’s my pick of the best survival knives on the market today. All of these knives are, of course, fixed blade and full-tang knives, so they meet the two most important criteria I look for in a survival knife.
KA-BAR BECKER BK22 CAMPANION
Perhaps my all-around favorite survival knife, the KA-BAR Becker BK22 Campanion has all of the features of an amazing tool for keeping me alive in the outdoors. Designed by Ethan Becker, who founded the Becker Knife and Tool Corporation in the early 1980s, the Becker BK22 Campanion is a superb survival knife from the reputable KA-BAR sold with a heavy-duty polyester sheath. Note it’s also available with a plastic sheath (model BK2).
The Becker BK22 Campanion is made in the USA from 1095 Cro-Van carbon steel which is basically standard 1095 steel with added Chromium and Vanadium for improved wear and corrosion resistance. Remember, 1095 steel is a solid choice for knives designed for hard use, but it isn’t stainless steel and it may rust if not properly cared for. It’s also worth noting that the sheath that accompanies the knife is made in China, not the USA.
The blade is 5.25″ long, the knife’s overall length is 10.5 inches, and the Campanion weighs in at exactly one pound. The BK22 is certainly on the heftier side with its 0.25 inch thick blade but you actually don’t feel it due to the excellent ergonomics. It’s a drop point design for ease of sharpening, with 20-degree edge angles on a flat grind. The blade holds an edge quite nicely, and it sharpens easily. The handle is constructed from Zytel, a Dupont-made glass-reinforced nylon which is damn-near indestructible.
What I really love about the Becker 22 Campanion is that it balances right at your index finger when you’re holding it right, making the knife feel lighter in your hand. Very few problems with fatigue or hot spots during longer periods of use here, except when you’re trying to perform very intricate carving.
The weight of the knife combined with the thickness of the blade make precise carving tasks somewhat more fatiguing than they would be with a thinner knife blade but it’s worth it for the extra durability. A lanyard hole in the handle makes it easy to attach a rope to this knife for added security in use.
Where the KA-BAR Becker BK22 Campanion really shines is in processing wood. The blade is thick enough that you can baton or pry with confidence, and the flat metal edge at the bottom of the tang is perfect for those times when you might need to drive the knife point-first into a branch or log. The final stroke of genius in this knife is that even after a full day of chopping wood, carving out containers for boiling water, and batoning logs for firewood, the blade was still sharp enough for use in the camp kitchen.
Speaking of the camp kitchen, this knife is brilliant for slicing and dicing onions and potatoes. The thick blade made it a bit more challenging for doing thin slices of spam, unfortunately, but it’s still quite usable for the average camp chef caught without his or her usual cutlery. It just tends to tear through softer meat and other food items, instead of slicing them.
In closing, I can say that the KA-BAR Becker BK22 Campanion is an outstanding utility knife for survival. It’s got its weaknesses, sure, but it’s virtually bombproof in terms of durability and longevity. If you are looking for a solid survival knife that will serve its purpose for many years, you won’t be disappointed with it. Arguably the best fixed blade knife for survival – I’ve had one since it first came out, and it’s pretty much my “go-to” for those deep wilderness treks.
ESEE’s 6P is a plain edge survival knife made from high carbon 1095 steel. This full tang knife is a beauty, and I’ve used it almost as much as my KA-BAR Becker 22. ESEE makes plenty of fine knives, and the 6P is an example of the best they have to offer. The knife itself is available in a variety of appearances, such as a venom green blade with orange handles or the standard black powdered blade with a gray handle.
ESEE has built the 6P to be a beast of a knife at 11.75 inches long, so a little on the longer side, with a blade length of 6.5 inches. The cutting edge is 5.75 inches, the blade is relatively slim at 0.19 inches, and the tang is provided with an excellent finger hole just above the handle for those times that you want to choke up a bit on the knife but still be safe. The total weight of the 6P is a mere 12 ounces, so the knife feels great in your hand but is still heavy enough to really take some use and abuse.
The drop point blade is flat-ground, easy to sharpen, and the black powder finish holds quite well. Again, the one thing to remember about 1095 steel is that it is not stainless, and can rust and stain if you don’t care for it properly (I use a dry film rust inhibitor).
The blade comes razor sharp straight out of the box, and holds its edge remarkably well. The heat treatment ESEE uses on its 1095 steel is among the best in the industry, so while you do need to properly lubricate the knife to prevent rust, you don’t have to go overboard about it. When it comes time to resharpen the blade, you’ll find it pretty easy to do.
The handle of the ESEE 6P is made from gray linen Micarta, a resin handle that is very durable and strong. The rounded pommel includes a lanyard hole, which is almost a must-have in any survival knife. Micarta is an amazing material, since it tends to get even easier to grip when wet, rather than the opposite. This means that when you’re working in inclement weather or sweating heavily, you won’t need to worry about the ESEE 6P slipping out of your hand.
I’ve used ESEE’s 6P knife for just about every imaginable use. Whether I’m splitting firewood or even chopping down wood, the 6P performs flawlessly. Even for kitchen tasks like slicing and chopping meat, fruits, or vegetables, the ESEE 6P is a great tool. The only drawback I’ve found with this survival knife is the type of sheath used. I prefer nylon sheaths that I can attach easily to my belt, but ESEE has chosen instead to include a molded sheath with a clip plate. The sheath is MOLLE-compatible, but it can be a little too complicated for some. On top of that, the material makes quite a bit of noise when removing the knife, which isn’t ideal for you tactical junkies out there. Give me a simple nylon or even leather sheath, please.
Why do I like the ESEE 6P vs the 5P? Simply because the 6P is much lighter than the 5P (11.8 oz vs 15.9 oz). You see, the 5P has a 1/4″ inch thick blade that’s really designed for far more heavy duty tasks. Unless you’re going to be chopping down trees or sculpting your own log cabin it’s really not worth the extra weight gain in my opinion. The 5P being so heavy is far less useful in regular use. The ESEE 6P is very well balanced.
Fallkniven’s A1 is the next in my list of the best survival knives out there. This Swedish-made knife is a drop point design with a generous sweeping belly and swedge, giving it terrific tip strength and the ability to swiftly penetrate game when you’re using it as a spear-tip. This medium-sized survival knife measures 11 inches overall, with a 6.3 inch blade and a weight of just 12 ounces.
The blade is partially flat ground terminating in a convex ground edge, 0.24 inches thick.
The cutting performance of this knife is absolutely fantastic, making quick work of just about any material you might need to slice or chop through. With that said, the knife is not really designed or balanced for chopping use, but it works adequately for that and perfectly for batoning wood. Whether you’re using it to cut through hardwoods or even treated lumber, the Fallkniven A1 is up to the task.
Let’s talk steel. Most of the survival knives I own are made from a single type of steel, but that’s not the case with Fallkniven’s fixed blade outdoor knives. The A1 uses a laminate featuring 420J outer cladding with a VG-10 core. The VG-10 core is hardened to 59 HRC, and the geometry of the knife makes this normally brittle steel hold up beautifully under even the heaviest of uses.
VG-10 is a higher end stainless steel that takes a very sharp edge and holds it reasonably well. It’s a little more brittle compared to the 1095 carbon steel so you have to be careful with subjecting it to heavy abuse. Still, it sharpens easily and did not show any signs of nicking or chipping when I used it to baton wood.
Fallkniven has constructed the handle on the A1 of Kraton, a semi-rubbery high density polymer that holds up well to use and abuse. The scaling and texturing on the knife is wonderful, but I wish the finger notches were just a bit more pronounced and some way of choking up on the blade was provided. The lanyard hole near the pommel rounds out this simple, but effective handle.
Nice to see you get a choice of sheaths with the A1. You can choose a standard leather sheath, a lefty sheath, or a Zytel sheath. I opted for the leather sheath, which worked very well and held the knife beautifully. Some people prefer composites or polymers for their sheaths, but I’m a fan of leather or nylon for durability and the quietness of drawing the knife. In a tactical situation, you don’t want your knife to make a sliding or grinding sound when you deploy it, so leather or nylon are perfect, in my opinion.
Despite its minor shortcomings, the Fallkniven A1 is one of my favorites, because it is easily sharpened using just a gentle stropping and it meets almost all of the needs you might have in a survival situation. It cuts exceedingly well, and batons through wood like nobody’s business. It also works beautifully for carving, slicing, or skinning game.
TOM BROWN TRACKER T-3
Featured in the movie “The Hunted,” the Tom Brown Tracker T–3 is widely accepted as one of the best survival knives today, but it ain’t cheap. Designed by Tom Brown, Jr., and manufactured by TOPS Knives, the Tracker T–3 is made in the USA and performs admirably. The blade is a clip point design, flat ground, and the back edge of the blade is serrated for extra-tough chopping needs.
The Tracker T–3 is 10.75 inches long overall, with a blade length of 5.5 inches. The cutting edge is 5.125“ long, and the blade is 0.21” thick, almost perfect for just about any type of use. Now this knife is a bit on the heavy side, but still under a pound at 13.26 ounces.
The blade is made from ATS–34 stainless steel, an imported Hibachi chrome-molybdenum alloy with a very small grain size and fantastic edge retention. Consider it a Japanese version of the popular and excellent US steel 154CM, favored by top names like Benchmade.
Also, this steel has more corrosion resistance than the 1095 carbon steel used by KA-BAR’s Becker 22 or ESEE’s 6P so you’ll be less worried about rust but you do sacrifice some toughness.
The Tracker T–3’s handle is gray and made from a linen Micarta like the ESEE 6P, with a very sharp, attractive grain design molded in. The handle provides excellent finger grips, and has the perfect texture and scaling to ensure you can always keep a solid hold on the knife, even in the worst weather conditions.
The design of the blade on the Tom Brown Tracker T–3 is fairly unique, featuring both a carving or slicing edge along with a chopping surface. The chopping portion of the blade is solid and heavy enough to split large pieces of timber for firewood, and it can even chop down small trees or cut off limbs. Smaller bushcraft tasks, like carving precision snare sets or putting a point on a spear or ground stake, are still easy to accomplish using the flatter section of the blade.
Unfortunately, trying to use this knife as a skinning knife is an exercise in futility, because the blade was simply not manufactured with this use in mind. This is something you need to keep in mind and is the main drawback of this otherwise perfect survival knife.
The blade holds an edge very well, but when the time comes to resharpen it, you’ll spend a little more time than you would with 1095 steel. Also, the shape of the blade just makes sharpening more tedious, since you have to work around the edges and curves while you are putting the edge back on the blade. It can be done, sure, but be prepared for this chore.
Finally, TOPS has chosen a molded Kydex sheath, which is very loose-fitting and a bit noisy when you remove the knife. Again, this might not be to everyone’s liking.
GERBER LMF II
Former military man and now knife designer Jeff Freeman led the charge with Gerber’s team to design the LMF II. The knife was inspired by such scenarios as being caught down behind enemy lines or otherwise left to fend for yourself, so survival was definitely at the forefront of the design process for this knife.
The Gerber LMF II features a drop point serrated blade, which I’m usually weary of in survival knives because of how difficult such blades are to sharpen. This one is the smallest and lightest of my top picks, running at an overall length of 10.59 inches and 11.67 ounces in weight. The blade is both relatively short at 4.84 inches and thin at 0.1875 inches, but both are still within the acceptable ranges for a decent survival knife. I hear some users have noticed chipping and nicks in their blade after batoning through softwood but I certainly haven’t noticed that with mine over weeks of use.
The blade is made from 420HC stainless steel, a lower end steel by today’s standards but formidable at rust resistance and extremely tough, so it can take a beating. I’ve used the LMF II to baton through treated lumber, thick hardwood branches, and just about anything else you can image. Then I’ve gone on to finely slice tomatoes and onions in the campfire kitchen. As it’s easy to sharpen you’ll be able to keep it razor sharp with little effort.
When you’re out in the bush, making sure your survival knife stays sharp is a vital part of your craft. Gerber has made that easy, by including a built-in sharpener in the sheath of the knife. You also get a safety knife, and the sheath features two leg straps and full MOLLE compatibility. It also works beautifully strapped to your belt, which is how I normally carry my survival knife.
The tang and butt cap of the LMF II have complete separation, so the knife can absorb the shocks from hammering and also prevent electrical shock. Grooves and lashing holes allow you to convert the LMF II into a spear when you need to hunt game, and the blade is perfectly designed for field-dressing those animals once you’ve bagged them. Talk about a feature packed knife.
My biggest complaint about the LMF II is the butt cap covering the pommel. The pointed skull-crusher shape might be great for conking someone over the head, but that’s not what I look for in a survival knife. Instead, I look for a flat surface that I can hammer against when I need to drive the blade point-first into an object. You simply can’t do that easily with the LMF II.
Even so, Gerber’s LMF II is a great affordable survival knife to make it into my top picks, because it’s useful in just about any situation other than the aforementioned hammering tip-first. It holds an edge reasonably well, sharpens easily, and is just large enough to be quite useful for survival, bushcraft, or regular camping and hiking usage.
Other notable contenders that I trust
I have used so many survival knives over the years that it was a challenge to single out only five that were my favorites. Here’s another handful of survival knives that I also consider to be fine choices.
SOG SE38-N FORCE
The SOG Force is another great choice, and it’s pretty lightweight at just 10.5 ounces. Even though it isn’t heavy, this knife is definitely stout and durable. It features a clip point straight edge at a hefty 0.24 inches thick. The blade length is six inches, and the overall length of the knife is 11.25 inches. Made from AUS–8 stainless steel, the Force holds a decent edge but also sharpens easily.
The Force’s handle is crafted from glass-reinforced nylon (GFN), and it is ergonomically contoured with a texture that provides an excellent grip without any hot spots or abrasion. It works great for chopping, batoning, slicing, carving, and prying. The butt end of the tang can be used for breaking glass, but it does not work well as a hammering spot because of its angled edges.
SOG packs a well-designed sheath with the Force, made of nylon with a hook and loop closure and a MOLLE attachment. The knife features a lanyard hole in the handle, and SOG even includes a lanyard in the box.
SPYDERCO BUSHCRAFT G-10
Spyderco is well known for their folding tactical knives, but they’ve made a solid entry into survival knives that is worth mentioning. The Spyderco BushCraft G–10 is on the smaller side with an overall length of 8.75 inches and a blade length of 4.1 inches. The 0.140-inch-thick blade is made of O–1 steel, a tool steel with a high carbon content along with manganese, silicon, chromium, vanadium, and tungsten. This type of steel is not commonly used in survival knives, but it does have good wear resistance in a low alloy, and in fact has better wear resistance than carbon steels. Just remember that O–1 steel isn’t stainless, so it will rust if you don’t take care of it.
The black fiberglass-based laminate G–10 handle of the BushCraft is contoured and incorporates a backup lanyard hole. The pattern in the G–10 looks like wood grain, giving the knife a distinctive and beautiful look. A minor drawback to this knife is the sheath, which has a plastic insert that makes it difficult to find the “sweet” spot for inserting the knife. Still, the BushCraft is effective for all possible uses of a survival knife.
KA-BAR USMC KNIFE
This is the design that inspired all survival knives, and it is still doing its job 70 years after it first debuted. This 0.165 inch thick flat grind blade has a length of seven whopping inches, and the overall length of the knife is 11.875 inches. The knife weighs in at 11.2 ounces, a terrific weight for a survival knife. The handle comes in kraton or leather, with a powdered metal butt cap.
The clip point of the 1095 Cro-Van carbon steel blade is just thick enough to be useful for prying and penetrating, but not so thick that it hinders your ability to slice and dice. The KA-BAR USMC Utility Knife is great in the field, there are just better choices as far as designs go.
GERBER BEAR GRYLLS ULTIMATE PRO
Finally, we have Gerber’s Bear Grylls Ultimate Fixed Blade Knife, dubbed the pinnacle of Gerber’s Bear Grylls Survival Series. The knife was designed by Gerber and TV action-man Bear Grylls, and is packed with innovative features that few other survival knives have. Like everyone, I was skeptical of anything with the name Bear Grylls on it (there’s a lot of marketing involved here) but I’m happy to say I was pretty impressed.
The knife is made with 9Cr19MoV high carbon stainless steel in a drop point design with half of the 4.8 inch blade length serrated. Overall length of this knife is 10 inches, and the tool weighs 11.2 ounces. The handle is ergonomic textured rubber, maximizing comfort and helping you keep a firm grip on your knife. The handle includes a lanyard hole, and Gerber packs a lanyard with mini emergency whistle along with the knife.
The sheath features a fire starter, a ferrocerium rod that strikes against a notch integrated in the back of the knife blade. The nylon sheath includes a diamond sharpener integrated for on-the-go sharpening, and the knife comes with land to air rescue instructions along with Bear’s “Priorities of Survival.” This is a good backup survival knife, but it’s made in China so the build quality is a notch behind the US made knives.
Survival knives to avoid
Ugh, so much crap on the market today that I thought I’d leave you with some ones to steer clear of. I could go on for ever here but there are a few choices that I wouldn’t want you to waste your money on.
First, let me say that I do like Morakniv but I see too many so called ‘experts’ out there plugging the $20 Morakniv Companion as a survival knife. Sure it’s inexpensive but I struggle to recommend this as a primary survival knife. Poor quality, blade too thin, only partial tang, handle gets chewed up easily, sheath is flimsy… need I go on? Basically this knife looks great for about 5 minutes and then it just begins to fail at everything possible. Your experience may vary but I’m not impressed.
Swiss Army Knives
I love SAK’s as much as the next guy but they just don’t measure up as a serious survival knife contender. Great for the kids’ first scouting knife…not so good for keeping you alive in the wilderness when the SHTF.
Every “Rambo” Knife Ever
But it looks so damn cool and comes with a complete fire, fishing, sewing, and bear trapping kit right in the handle! Ha. Most of these knives are junk and not worth your time or money. Don’t be swayed by the Hollywood style Rambo knife please.
That’s it folks…feel free to shoot me any feedback using the contact form.