What is a Survival Knife?

Knives have played a critical role in human survival since the dawn of time. As technology advanced the simple knife changed with it. Currently there are thousands of different knives out there, and this can be challenging for beginners to navigate around.

This is going to be a long article so try to stick with me, this is a pretty comprehensive guide.

This guide will focus on survival knives. I will take everyone through the expected functions of a survival knife, what features to look out for when buying one, what optional extras are there when it comes to survival knives, and finally how do you choose a knife for yourself. Hopefully by the end you’ll have a better understanding of what is a survival knife. 

This guide will focus exclusively on knives, if you’re interested in survival multitools, then you can learn more at my guide to multitools. 

If you’re interested in learning about other types of knives as well, then feel free to visit my guides to the different knives.

Functions of a survival knife


In the broad sense, a survival knife is designed to keep you alive during emergencies, whether you got lost going to a picnic, fell of a passenger plane, or got kicked out into the backyard by the wife. These knives must be reliable and versatile. They are also used by people who enjoy bushcrafting as a hobby.

But looking deeper, there are some very specific roles that you would generally expect the survival knife to perform. Keep these functions in mind when you are searching for a survival knife, make sure your knife can perform the following tasks.

Drilling

The ability to drill is surprisingly important, especially for starting a fire. And we all know from movies that the second you get stranded somewhere, it’s suddenly going to get extremely cold and a fire will be crucial.

Durable

Let’s be real here, this is a knife that MUST survive punishment and grueling conditions. You need a tool that will not fail you, make sure you keep this function at the top of your mind.

Hunting

This is kind of obvious but I thought I would add it in. Who wouldn’t want to harass a few rabbits while lost in the wild? There are even knives designed with holes in the handle, so you can use ropes to construct a spear.

I will also include skinning in this category, because while soft, the fur of a rabbit is surprisingly unappetizing.

A third component to hunting is setting traps. You need your knife to be handy enough for a small amount of wood working to set up at least a basic trap if your spear throwing skills are not up to scratch.A man using a black clip point survival knife to cut a medium sized tree branch.

Shelter making

Being undercover will be crucial to your survival. You need a knife that has the ability to chop and cut small branches. A knife that will assist you in digging will be good as well.

Having a knife that can be used for batoning will be extremely useful. It is a technique where you place your knife horizontally on top of a log and hit the spine so the blade splits it. This will allow you to access dry fire wood or material for your shelter.

Features of a survival knife


A Morakniv companion knife with black handle and sheath, showing what an entry level survival knife could look like.

This here is a Morakniv companion. This is a knife that I would consider to be a budget entry level knife that can be used for many purposes, including survival. You can read more about its review here. It will fulfil the required functions and features below. 

Overall size

Some people may tell you there is a perfect size for a survival knife but I personally don’t agree with that. The size really depends on a lot of factors, this is a knife that you will be relying on when something goes wrong (or when you decide to try out bushcrafting), so you must really feel comfortable using it.

The knife should be a good size for you to handle, and not only that it must be easy enough to carry around. We as humans come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, make sure you pick a knife that will fit on your belt or backpack comfortably.

A general rule of thumb is to look for a knife with a total length between 10 to 20cm (3.9 – 7.9 inches) from tip to butt. Also, try to make sure your knife isn’t too small that it can’t handle simple tasks, I would personally be inclined to go for a larger knife.

The blade

To start with we must choose a material. Most blades are made up of some type of steel.

  1. Carbon steel – very durable, holds up and edge well, but it rusts easily. You will need to look after it carefully, either coating it in oil or other compounds to prevent rust.
  2. Stainless steel – less durable but it resists rust. This is another common steel, it is recommended for most knives since it doesn’t require much maintenance.
  3. Tool/industrial steel – a sort of in-between of the above two, it has decent durability and decent resistance to rust. This material holds up very well under pressure.

There may other types of steel specific to various knives, it is important to do research on specific steels to find out the benefits and drawbacks.

The blade shape is important. You want a blade that is a generalist knife, you are out there to survive, not to fillet a fish. Shapes such as the single edged spear point, drop point, clip point or even reverse tanto could do very well. If you want more information on blade shapes you can visit my guide on the different common blade styles.

Some blades also have a serrated spine, their function is to saw through thicker branches. My suggestion would be to choose a blade with a straight spine. I have had very little success with serrated knives, I don’t find them very useful at all. I prefer to have a blade that I can baton and hammer on the spine to split logs. A straight spine can also be used to strike a rock or flint to start a fire.

The tang

You want a knife with a full tang. Full tang knives are able to distribute the shock and force of any impact throughout the entire length of the blade, creating no specific weakspots. Full tang also allows you to leverage more force without worrying about the knife breaking. These knives are stronger and more durable.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then you can read about the different parts of the knife here.

The handle

The handle material of a survival knife can be quite important. They each have pros and cons and it’s generally up to the user to pick out their favourite kind.

  • Metals – can be quite stylish and durable, but will be slippery when wet and cold in winter.
  • Plastic (or other polymers) – generally inbetween rubber and metals. More durable than rubber but less than metal. More grip than metals but less than rubber.
  • Rubber – a lot of grip in any condition, but may be affected by hot sun and deteriorate. They may not be very durable.
  • Wood – traditional and very eye-catching, decent grip. But they could be affected by water and become damaged.

The handle design is generally up to personal preference.

The ESEE 3 fixed blade pocket knife, demonstrating a polymer handle Fixed blade knife

You have two options when it comes to outdoor knives, folding knives or fixed blades. For survival purposes you want a fixed blade knife. They require the least maintenance and are very sturdy, less mechanical parts to break and malfunction. This doesn’t mean folding knives are bad. They are great space savers, but there is an increased risk of malfunction.

It is generally up to the user to choose their favorite design, but I would suggest fixed blades over folding.

 

 

 

 

Optional extras


Compass

Some blades are designed with a compass placed on the butt of the handle. These small compasses could prove valuable in survival situations.

Like all things in life if you have one you have to sacrifice another, in this case you would sacrifice some versatility. The butt of the knife is commonly used for hammering purposes. I don’t think anyone is crazy enough to use a compass as a hammer.

Hollow handle

The handle can make up a large proportion of the survival knife, so some manufacturers have decided to make it hollow and store some emergency equipment in there.

Sure, this can be useful. However, you would be sacrificing the structural soundness of the knife. By making the handle hollow we would be getting rid of the tang. The knife will have an increased likelihood to break.

I’m not saying the hollow handle is bad but keep in the back of your mind about the drawbacks when you pick up a hollow handled knife.

a ESEE Izula knife showing what a paracord knife handle is on a survival knife.
Photo by Adam Meek (https://www.flickr.com/people/adammeek/)

 

Paracord handle

No one can deny that ropes and paracord are extremely helpful in survival situations. So these knives have a slightly thicker tang and a handle made of paracord.

These handles can be great in a pinch, but the only issue is once you take the paracord off, the underlying handle of the knife can feel much thinner and the grip may not be as comfortable

 

Serrated blade

Serrated sections can appear either on the spine or on the cutting edge. These serrations are designed for you to saw through thicker branches.

A fixed blade black tactical knife demonstrating what serration is on the spine of the blade.

I do not particularly find them very useful. The ones on the cutting edge sacrifice cutting area and are generally quite short, making them difficult to use. Having them on the spine would mean you won’t be able to use the knife for batoning.

 

How to choose your survival knife


There are thousands of options out there and it can be very daunting choosing your very own survival knife. I will try to make this easy with 2 simple steps.

 

1. Do you like the knife?

Firstly, look for a knife that you like. You should find the design appealing and it must be a knife that you feel comfortable using. If you like the knife you’re much more likely to keep it on you and it will be there with you if something was to go wrong.

I also find that if you have a knife that you like, you’ll be less inclined to continue to shop around and you’ll save money in the long run.

2. Does the knife suit your needs?

Refer back to the expected function of survival knives. You must make sure you knife can perform the expected tasks. It is no use buying a really beautiful and fancy knife if it is not able to fulfil the requirements. Remember, you must choose a knife that is reliable yet durable.

Conclusion


I hope everyone was able to get something out of this guide and you now have a clearer idea in your mind about what a survival knife is. If you’re having trouble deciding which knives you like or where you should get your knives, then keep your eyes peeled on this website. I will be rolling out knife reviews and various recommendations.

Always remember that knives are useful tools, but they’re not miracles. Try to keep your wits about you and not put yourself into any dangerous situations. 

A really good place to start is fiddleback forge, they produce high quality handmade knives designed for survival and bushcrafting, click here to check out what’s in stock.

If you need any help please comment below and I will get back to you as soon as I can.

Happy adventuring.

James

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