Best Survival Knives
Get our recommendations for the best fixed-blade knives, folding knives, everyday carry knives, and more.
What’s the REAL Job of A Survival Knife?
You ever stop and ask yourself “Why carry a knife?”
Day after day, as we’re heading out the door, we grab our keys, wallets and our knives. For some reason we have this staunch devotion to them. God, country, and knife.
But when asked “why carry a knife”, a lot of people will answer “just in case.”
Just in case what?
Knives are cool. The just are.
Yes, they help you do a ton of stuff, but all functional value aside, there’s just something cool about knives. And in particular, survival knives. Lots of guys try to find the biggest, heaviest Rambo knife they can get their hands on, like it’s somehow inextricably related to increased testosterone levels.
But Hollywood aside, let’s be objective for a minute.
A knife is a tool, and the primary function of any tool is to help you get the job done, right?
So then, the question remains, what’s the purpose of a survival knife? What’s its core job? Or for that matter, what is the core job of any knife?
Over the years, I’ve had several conversations about this with different people. It’s an interesting conversation, because for many of us, knives just “feel right” on a primeval level, but it can be a little difficult to articulate why. I’ve used knives in the garden, in fire-making, in opening boxes, gutting animals, and everything in between. But none of those specific uses really represents the total reason that a knife is a valuable thing to carry.
And the waters can get a little muddier when you consider that modern knives take on a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles. There are “fighting knives”, “fishing knives”, “pen knives”, and more. There are Xacto knives that are mostly used for cutting open boxes, there are car knives that have seatbelt cutters and glass breaks, and then there are Swiss Army Knives that have a million functions. There are also a lot of products in our lives today which have replaced a specific function of knives (but which knives could still be used to do in a pinch). Think about things like shaving razors, tree pruners, potato peelers, nail clippers, scissors, saws and more.
Construction and Destruction
When you really get down to it however, a knife has 2 core functions: CONstruction, and DEstruction.
Construction: Since the dawn of time, knives have been used to make things. Shelter, clothing, and even other tools. The cutting ability of a knife has given man the ability to shape raw materials into usable things. The same is true today, only the “knives” have become more specialized, and we call them by different names–Skill saws, chisels, scissors, and more.
Destruction: The other major utility of knives has been as a weapon. They have been used to cut, slash, stab and kill–both man and beast. Swords are knives. Bayonets are knives. Spears are nothing more than a knife on the end of a pole. Even in the sophisticated world we live in, knives are still used in combat on the battlefield and in the streets everywhere.
All the individual little specific things that a knife does can be broken down into those 2 groups. A knife as a weapon? That’s destruction. Using it to help make a shelter? Construction.
You may be thinking, “Yeah, but I’ve never used my knife to stab somebody or build a house.” True, most of us might not have done either of those exact 2 things. But that is the promise of a knife. It can be used in a thousand different ways that are either constructing or destructing something. And like we already discussed, while there are a lot of specific gadgets nowadays that were invented to replace certain specific functions of knives, in a pinch, a knife can still do it.
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So the next time you slide that EDC in your pocket, or start talking blade steels with your buddies, remember that even though we use our beloved knives to open a package or trim a nail, we carry them because push come to shove, knives give us the ability to make things and defend ourselves.
Types of Survival Knives:
With that in mind, there are a few basic knife styles that you should consider:
Fixed Blade Knives
Surviving in the wilderness requires you to use the raw materials of the great outdoors around you to secure drinking water, shelter and food. It therefore falls upon the shoulders of your knife, to size kindling, baton through branches, create shelter, dig, pry and perhaps hunt. The full tang fixed blade could not be more perfectly suited to these tasks. It’s large cutting surface and heavy construction make it perfect for wilderness tasks and larger applications like these.
Fixed blade knives are without a doubt, the most sturdy type of knife. They are usually larger, and typically “full tang”, meaning the blade and the handle of the knife are one solid piece of metal. Of all the types, they look the most like a survival knife.
Because of their construction and their size, they can also be used with the greatest amount of force. These are the knives that are great for batoning wood and general pounding on. Fixed blade knives also lend themselves to being good combat knives. Good for slashing and stabbing.
The downside of these kinds of knives is that their size makes them a little too big for everyday carry (for most of us). For the way we dress, and the types of places we go, it would be a little out of place to carry a large fixed blade knife. One good exception to this is a neck knife, which is a smaller fixed blade knife that is specifically made to be carried in a sheath that hangs around your neck.
Another general downside of fixed blade knives is that because of their size, they are typically less suited to really fine detail work. A large fixed blade knife is probably not what you want to be doing any kind of carving with, for instance.
A folding knife is a great compliment to a fixed blade knife. Folding knives are usually smaller, and because they have a blade that can be folded away, they don’t need a sheath. These are the knives that most of us carry on a regular basis, either in our front or back pocket. They are easily accessed, which means they see a lot of action.
Most of them have a locking mechanism, so that when the blade is open, it is “locked” into place, to avoid it shutting on your fingers. There are a million locking and release mechanisms, and a cult following for each.
Because of their smaller construction and folding mechanism however, these knives aren’t as great as fixed blade knives at taking abuse and being pounded on. Their job is to be easy to carry and serviceable in a lot of situations, not to be a bayonet or a machete.
Our urban environment is made up of buildings, computers, cars, electricity, plumbing, engines and more. These parts, in turn are made up of bolts, screws, cables, lamps, and a million other interchangeable parts (you know where I’m going with this one…).
Multi-tools offer urban utility that fixed blades can’t come close to touching. Additionally, unless you are in the middle of total and complete chaos, there are many situations within an urban environment where carrying a 10 inch fixed blade can attract negative attention that a multi-tool won’t.
For these reasons, as long as I’m the coach of team “Cutting Edge”, the multi-tool will definitely be starting on the urban side of the ball.
Over the last couple decades, multitools have become extremely popular. They are essentially the “big brother” to the Swiss Army Knife, and much like the Swiss Army Knife, they have several blades and gadgets that all fold into the handle.
The most pronounced difference between a multitool and the Swiss Army Knife (or any other folding knife for that matter), is that multitools have a hinged, 2-sided handle, that opens like a “V.” In most multitools, this hinged handle is usually used as a pliers.
Multitools are made to give you a lot of versatility, and in addition to pliers typically include: screwdrivers, scissors, saws, files, bottle openers, wire strippers, and tons of other stuff.
The downside of multitools is that the actual knife blade is not as large or strong as it is on other folding knives. The blades are usually a lot harder to pull out, and fold away. And multitools are HEAVY. They are not as convenient to carry as a small folding knife, and often are carried in a sheath on your belt.
Are Multitools Too Much of a Good thing?
On the quest for the multitool holy grail, there is definitely such a thing as too much. The Wenger Swiss Army Giant Multi-tool has 141 functions and looks like a portable blacksmith shop (And for the record, I’ll send you a cool grand if you can get that thing through airport security).
The Leatherman MUT is a multi-tool that was manufactured with tools specifically designed for clearing jams in an AR15 and crimping blasting cap wire.
Many of you aren’t in the military, and realistically wouldn’t use and don’t need those tools. You be the judge, but remember, every little thing you add to your gear is extra weight, space and mental inventory. Doing less with more is the name of the game. After all, MacGyver was way cooler than Inspector Gadget (IMHO of course…).
My Personal Recommendations For Survival Knives:
Best Survival Knife for Everyday Carry: Over the years I’ve carried a handful of different everyday carry knives. My favorite one by far, and the one that I’ve carried everyday since about 2013, is the Kershaw Cryo. I like the Cryo because it is really dense and compact. It is the thinnest, sturdiest feeling folding knife that I’ve ever come across. Note–it’s not the thinnest or the sturdiest, but the combination of the two. The carry clip is at the very top of the knife, so when it’s in your pocket, nothing sticks out. Great knife. Runs about $30.
Survival Kit: For my survival kits and outdoor fun (camping, hunting, etc), I like to have a fixed blade knife. ESEE makes some really good fixed blade knives (although they aren’t cheap). I like the ESEE-4 a lot. I also really like the Gerber Prodigy and have used it for years. The Becker BK-2 (by Ka-Bar) is also a really good one, but a little bit bigger. A good fixed blade knife can run $50-100 or more. The Cold Steel G.I. Tanto is a knife that I’ve had for a couple years, but truthfully have not used a ton. I ordered it because Cold Steel has a great reputation for making no nonsense, no frills knives. This was a larger knife, and I picked it up for about $20. The size and feel is as advertised. But again, can’t vouch for having carried and used it in the field like I can other knives.
Best Working Knife: A good “working knife” is priceless. These are the knives that I use in the garden, for making kindling for my wood stove, and just in general beating around. Sometimes I just don’t want to use a really nice fixed blade knife for that kind of stuff. Without a doubt, the best working knife I’ve ever seen is the Hultafors Heavy Duty Knife (might even be the best survival knife ever–that’s right, I said it). I have had one for the last few years, and used it heavily. I’ve split a ton of wood with it for campfires (pounding on it with rocks), used it with flint to start fires, trimmed plants in the garden, cut all kinds of food, and more. I’ve never cleaned or sharpened it (shame on me), and it is still awesome. For all this it’ll set you back about $12 or so. And it comes with a sheath! I would honestly buy 3-4 of them at a time.
If you’re looking for some more ideas, I recently found this survival knife guide, that I thought had some really great picks.
Knife Fan Boys
A lot of guys take knives to the extreme. They live and breathe knives. They have a lot of opinions and get in internet debates over steel types and manufacturers. This does not mean they have any more “real use” experience with knives. They are enthusiasts and collectors.
If self-sufficiency is your goal, it’s not necessary or productive to become a knife snob that knows everything about everything. Remember, nobody likes a douche bag–be it the knife variety or otherwise. Get some sturdy, high-quality knives and get on with life!