This isn’t just another article on how to choose a survival knife.
Most people focus too much on knives and their features, missing the function and possible scenarios.
Imagine a survival scenario and put things into context when choosing a survival knife.
The main variables to think about are:
Survival Approach (perspective and opinion on survival)
Gear (resources at hand)
Skill level (experience and training that you have)
Location (climate, area, and vegetation)
Time frame (72hrs, regular use, or long term use)
Obviously we can’t plan if we’ll be in a survival situation, but we can guess based on probability.
There are multiple approaches to survival. Hikers, preppers, primitive skills enthusiasts, bushcrafters, and survivalists all have their different ideas on what a survival knife should do.
This is why there is no perfect survival knife. It all depends on your own circumstances.
It helps a lot to know how you currently use or plan to use your knife.
I divide survival knives into two main categories: big and small. There are other variables, but size matters.
How to choose a survival knife based on your Survival Approach
Do you want your survival knife to function as your only survival tool?
Meaning do you see a probable scenario where the only thing you have on you is a survival knife?
Or could you see having other survival gear on you as well?
Would you use your survival knife regularly, or is it going to be stashed in a bug out bag?
A big survival knife can do everything, particularly if it’s the only thing you have in a survival situation. Obviously the downfall is that it won’t be ideal for every task.
If you generally go outdoors often and pack camping gear, cutting tools, fire starters, etc. you might find a small survival knife to be more useful and practical.
If your knife is part of an long term survival pack or a go-bag then you might want to consider a compact survival knife for portability.
How do you use a survival knife? What’s your skill level?
If you want your survival knife to excel at splitting wood, batoning, shelter building, digging, prying, and cutting through strong materials, then you should lean towards a bigger, heavier knife.
If you want your knife to excel at doing first aid tasks, wild food preparation, feather sticks, notching, skinning, and carving, then a smaller knife would be ideal.
It’s important to be honest and assess your skill level
Which survival knife for your location?
The next big thing when considering a survival knife is your environment, climate, and vegetation.
Do you live in an area that has subfreezing temperatures in winter? Because batoning, splitting and cutting wood might be a task that you want your knife to perform very well.
Do you live in a tropical rainforest, where you often need to cut through vegetation when bushwhacking? If you do then you might want a survival knife with a machete inspired shape.
If you live in an arid area with thin and sparse vegetation then your knife won’t need to be big and rugged; you can opt for a more comfortable, compact knife.
Pick a survival knife based on your Gear
Many people don’t think about what other gear they carry with their knife.
Now, I know about redundancy, but if I always carry a fire starter with me then I don’t need a survival knife that excels at making a friction fire.
If I’m going on a long wilderness excursion I will probably bring an axe, saw, and multi-tool as well.
In that case, I don’t need my survival knife for splitting wood, hammering, or batoning.
The survival knife can’t compete with an axe or a machete.
What size should a good survival knife be?
Big survival knife: 9 – 11 in (23 – 28 cm) Parang, kukri and ka-bar knives are outliers and measure around 13 in or more.
Small survival knife: 8 – 10 in (20 – 25 cm)
As you can see there’s not much difference in length between a small survival knife and a big survival knife, the difference is in the shape and weight.
Survival Knife: Steel Types
Don’t get to fixated on the types of steel.
To put it simply, knife blades are made of two main steel types: carbon steel and stainless steel. It’s a matter of personal choice. Carbon steel might cut better but need more maintenance than stainless steel.
Carbon steel: Harder steel, retains an edge better.
Stainless steel: More resistant to rust and chipping, but is slightly less sharp.
What to look for in a Survival knife?
More often than not people buy survival knives that are black or brown. Been there done that, that’s what knife manufacturers make and people buy.
Last year I lost my brown LMF II survival knife. I learned a few lessons from that.
One of them is having gear that really stands out if dropped on the ground. I still love having gear in natural colors, but small, critical items that are easy to get lost should be highly visible.
The sheath is as important as the knife, just because a bad sheath can be the cause of a lost knife.
A good sheath will keep the knife truly secure. You should be 100% confident that your knife won’t fall off if you move the sheath quickly or turn it upside down. Otherwise modify your sheath or buy another one.
You don’t want to lose your survival knife when you really need it
I tie bright marking tape to my knife so that if I ever drop it, I can find it even in deep snow.
Fixed blade or folding?
There is really no option, only fixed blade knives, or non-folding knives can be considered survival knives.
Folding knives are just not sturdy enough to be relied upon in a survival scenario.
Full tang makes the knife much stronger, but small survival knives don’t necessarily need a full tang.
It is a given that you have to handle a small survival knife more carefully. You just shouldn’t abuse a small survival knife.
If you want to use your knife as you would a hatchet and maybe abuse it by prying and splitting hard wood, you absolutely need a full tang knife.
Make sure the knife you choose has a sharp point that can be used for drilling and making notches.
Flat Ground Spine
This is crucial. A sharp, flat spine like the one above allows you to use your knife as a ferro rod striker. But it’ also makes carving much more comfortable; I often use the spine as a thumb rest for added pressure and control.
Serrated Edge or Not?
I prefer non serrated edges because they can be sharpened with a rock.
Serrated blades are very effective, but should be left for knives that will not be used regularly and are only expected to be used in a short term survival situation (if you’ll store it in a survival kit and won’t use it then go ahead and pick a serrated blade).
If you plan on using your knife long term, or for regular use, then buy a non-serrated survival knife for ease of sharpening.
Best Survival Knife under $100 (2018)
Big Survival Knives
Jack of all trades, master of none.
The BK22 survival knife is based on the BK2 but with a better sheath. It’s an extremely popular survival knife. This knife has almost all the features of a “perfect” survival knife except for a bright color.
Weight: 14.8 oz (422 g)
Length: 10 1/2″
Blade Length: 5.25″
Steel: 1095 Cro-Van carbon steel
Gerber LMF II
I lost my LMF II survival knife; I really liked it. The serrations are very effective, but hard to sharpen. The sheath is bomb proof, and versatile. The handle material can be easily damaged if you use a stick to hit the spine while splitting wood. It is a beast, and it’s weight makes it good for batoning. I think the grey color stands out a little better than the brown or black.
Weight: 11.67 oz
Length: 10.59 in
Blade Length: 4.84 in
Steel: 420HC Stainless
Bear Grylls Ultimate Pro Knife
I own an earlier version of the BG Ultimate Pro Knife. Even though Gerber’s Bear Grylls line of products is geared towards lower end gear. I found my knife to be dependable and effective. The sheath holds the knife securely, and bright orange color makes it harder to lose. The ferro rod is quite useful as well.
Weight w/ sheath: 13.7 oz. (388.4g)
Length: 10 in
Blade Length: 4.8 in
Steel: 9CR19MoV stainless steel
The Schrade SCHF9 knife is quite popular and very reasonably priced. It’s also one of the longer survival knives in this list.
Weight: 15.7 oz
Length: 12.1 in (30.7 cm)
Blade Length: 6.4 in (16.3 cm)
Steel: 1095 high carbon steel
Another Gerber product, the StrongArm survival knife is an improved , streamlined version of the LMF II (in my eyes). It’s mainly geared towards military users (the pommel or butt is sharp for example). This is a great knife that won’t break the bank.
Weight: 7.2 oz
Blade Length: 4.8″
Steel: 420HC stainless
Small Survival Knives
Great to have when you have other survival gear as well. They are more precise, and more likely to be at hand because of their compact size.
I bough the Morakniv companion knife for my 180 days in the wild. It is a great budget survival knife when paired with an axe or saw. I’ve used it extensively for filleting, skinning, notching and carving, and I really like it. It’s light and compact. The sheath needs improvement, but I’ve added a piece of bike tube to hold the knife securely. The bright colored options are a big plus.
Weight w/ sheath: 4.1 oz (116 g)
Length: 8.6 in (21.8 cm)
Blade Length: 4.1 in (10.4 cm)
Steel: 12C27 stainless steel or carbon steel
ESEE knives specialize in survival, and their knives are designed by survival experts. The ESEE 4 knife is their most popular knife; it is meant for precision tasks and although it should take some abuse, it is not as bomb-proof as a bigger knife.
Weight: 8 oz
Blade Length: 4.5″
Steel: 1095 Carbon Steel or 440C Stainless Steel
Specialized Survival Knives
Knives for specific environments
For me the BKR-7 is specialized because of its length; it’s also meant to be a combat utility knife. This knife would be suitable for environments where you expect to do lots of batoning, and use the knife as a hatchet or parang.
Weight: 12 oz
Length: 12-7/8 in
Blade Length: 7 in
Steel: 1095 Cro-Van carbon steel
Kukri knives, similar to parangs are designed for tropical rain forests where machetes are often used. The drawback of the Condor Kukri is that they are hard to control for tasks where precision might be needed, like carving, skinning or filleting.
Weight: 2.0 lbs
Length: 14-1/2 in
Blade Length: 10 in
Steel: 1075 high carbon steel
Best Survival Knives, Money is No Object
The ESEE 6 is an excellent survival knife. It has an ideal weight and length to be used for general purposes and is great. Because it’s a big knife it can do the job of a hatchet in a pinch, as well as carve wood.
Weight: 12 oz
Blade Length: 6.50″
Steel: 1095 Carbon
L.T. Wright Genesis
The L.T. Wright Genesis is useful and beautiful. It packs all the attributes of a survival knife in a compact shape. It’s also been a popular knife among Alone show contestants; both Carleigh Fairchild and Larry Roberts sell these knives with their signatures on them.
Weight: 15 ounces (425 g)
Blade Length: 4.25″
Steel: A2 Tool Steel
Who makes the best Survival knife?
I think the Morakniv Companion makes a great, inexpensive survival knife, and there are stronger models made by Morakniv if you want something sturdier. The ESEE 6 is one of the best, big survival knives in the market.