You’re not John Rambo, moving swiftly and silently through the jungle wearing battle dress uniform pants, a pec-framing tank top and a headband, ready to pounce on unsuspecting Viet Cong soldiers. You don’t have a serrated blade, a hollow-handled broadsword of a knife to filet soldiers from top to toe. You’re just an average Joe with some outdoor experience, lost in the woods after getting separated from your trekking buddy, and it’s getting cold and dark. You’ve got some safety matches, a water bottle, a thin down jacket, a daypack and a bag of jerky and, thankfully, a fixed-blade knife.
In a survival situation, a good fixed-blade knife is the most important tool you can have. A well-made fixed-blade knife is vital for making shelters, obtaining firewood, cutting rope, batoning/splitting wood and skinning game. Seriously, what are you supposed to use, your hands?
Additional contribution by AJ Powell.
What to Know Before You Buy
Tips and advice to help you pick the best blade.
You can’t just buy a Chinese-made knife for $10 at the flea market and expect it to take serious punishment in the field. Cheaper 400 series steel is used in abundance in these “bargain” knives because they sharpen easily — but they can’t hold the edge and have very weak blade strength. These may look like the real deal with aggressive designs, but the blade will undoubtedly break when you put it to task — potentially injuring yourself and leaving you very, very stranded.
A double-edge looks cool but compromises blade strength, and it can’t be used for tasks like prying and batoning wood. Contrary to what you might think, a good survival knife is used far more like a tool than a weapon. Plus, there will be times when you’ll have to hold the spine of the knife to execute finer tasks. The blade itself shouldn’t be thin, since that way it won’t take much abuse. Look for a drop-point knife blade — one that slopes along the spine of the blade from the handle to the tip of the blade. Also, a “belly” or curved edge is preferred, as it makes skinning and finer chores easier. Avoid the tanto-style blade, even though they tend to be thicker (and therefore stronger) at the tip; the lack of a belly makes slicing a chore.
Full-tang construction means the blade extends the full length of the knife, all the way to the end of the handle. A full tang lends structural strength to the knife, allowing for better leverage when forcing the blade against a hard object; the whole thing is one unit. Partial tangs, meanwhile, lack strength when serious force is applied, relying more on the strength of the bond between the handle and the blade — think one long steel beam versus two attached at a midpoint.
You’re not in a knife fight with Steven Seagal, so your survival knife doesn’t have to look like a war machine with a giant handle and chainsaw teeth. Sure, a serrated edge looks tough, but it’s less practical in the field than you think. A plain (or smooth) blade is far more versatile since it can perform the same field tasks as serrated, like cutting rope, better than its toothed brother. Of course, you can always go with a combination edge (plain and serrated) if you just have to have your sawtooth.
The grind is best explained by looking straight at the knife tip, as if it’s being thrust at you. The shape of the cross section of blade where the spine is at the top and the edge is at the bottom is the grind. A knife’s grind depends on its intended use. A flat grind, where each side of the knife tapers flat from the spine to the edge, is probably the most utilitarian and versatile — great for chopping, splitting wood and batoning. It can also be easily sharpened in the field. Check the knife’s grind and make sure it suits your primary tasks best.
A knife that’s near machete size might seem impressive, but if a fixed blade knife is too large, it gets unwieldy. You’re more apt to need it for regular tasks like splaying a branch for kindling than whacking through rainforest vines on your archaeological adventures, Indy. A knife must be controllable. On the other hand, if it’s too small, then you’ll be screwed when you need to do the heavier jobs. A good rule is to keep blade size between 4 and 7 inches. Overall knife length should ideally stay around 11 inches.
Grip, feel and handle materials are almost as important as the blade, itself. Steer clear of hollow and/or plastic handles. Kraton (synthetic rubber polymer), Micarta (resin-impregnated linen composite), G10 (resin-impregnated fiberglass), glass-reinforced nylon, dense wood or rubber are the best for strength, durability and grip. If a knife is hard to hold well under stress, you could lose it or seriously injure yourself. Also, look for beneficial features like a blunt end (for hammering) and/or a lanyard hole to thread rope through to keep the knife around your wrist. Steer clear of the compartment handle with the compass on the end.
The best of the best.
The Morakniv has a cult following for its sheer versatility. The carbon steel blade is so razor sharp you can shave with it (before your quad espresso, not after), and it still maintains serious corrosion resistance. Its slightly smaller size does make it very manageable in the field, and it works incredibly well for skinning and slicing. For the price, you don’t have to freak out about losing it — unless you’re actually in the throes of danger when that happens.
Blade: 4.1-inch 12C27 Sandvik steel, near-full tang, plain edge, drop point
Overall length: 8.6 inches
Kershaw LoneRock Small Fixed
Yes, the LoneRock’s blade is shorter than four inches, but sometimes great things do come in small packages. Part of Kershaw’s hunting line, the LoneRock features heavy jimping on the spine to allow for plenty of grip options. It also features a K-Texture rubberized coating on the handle that makes it easy to hang onto in wet conditions, or if your hands is getting sweaty.
Blade: 3.2-inch 8Cr13MoV, titanium carbo-nitride coating
Handle: Glass-filled nylon
Overall length: 8.25 inches
Features: K-Texture rubberized grip
Cold Steel Leatherneck SF
The Leatherneck SF’s long blade is made from German 4116 stainless steel and finished with a black non-reflective coating. Though it’s razor sharp, the fact that carbon isn’t used in the blade means it will likely have to be sharpened more often, despite its high corrosion resistance. Double quillons protect your hand, while the deep checkered Kraton handle ensures good gripping during all tasks. The unique steel butt cap is great for pounding tasks or breaking glass, and the Secure-Ex sheath holds the Leatherneck in place without the need for the added snap closure.
Blade: 6.75-inch German 4116 stainless steel, full tang, plain edge, clip point
Handle: Grivory (nylon) and Kraton
Overall length: 11.75 inches
Features: Front and rear quillons, steel butt cap
SOG Seal Pup Elite
The SOG Seal Pup Elite is a menacing-looking knife. Its clip point gives a tactical lean compared to other knives on this list, but it also makes it more prone to breaking at the very tip. The Seal Pup features SOG’s cryogenic heat treatment, where the blade is slowly brought down in temperature to -300 degrees Fahrenheit, then brought back up to room temperature again. This process helps to increase toughness and provides heightened wear resistance.
Blade: 4.85-inch AUS-8, straight edge, clip point
Handle: Glass-reinforced nylon
Overall length: 9.5 inches
Features: Lanyard hole
Sheath: Kydex or Ballistic Nylon
KA-BAR Becker 22 Campanion
KA-BAR is legendary for creating the original Marine Corps Combat Knife way back in 1942. That knife has seen military duty in eight wars, which makes it a knife icon. The Becker 22 Campanion can take punishment like no other knife available and handles forceful batoning without flinching. Pry all day, skin game, cut bones, split kindling — then repeat. The 1095 Cro-Van Steel isn’t especially complex, but it’s as tough as nails, as is the near-indestructible Zytel handle.
Blade: 5.25-inch 1095 Cro-Van Steel, full tang, plain edge, drop point
Overall length: 10.5 inches
Features: Front and rear quillons, removable handle, lanyard hole, glass breaker
Sheath: Heavy-duty polyester
Buck 119BR Special Fixed Blade
The original 119BR was created half a century ago and still stands as Buck’s most popular fixed-blade knife. There’s good reason for that. The craftsmanship is flawless, making for a truly beautiful knife, but it’s no daisy — the big clip blade is great for both bigger tasks like chopping and detailed work like piercing and cutting. The knife feels perfect in hand because of the curvature of the cocobolo wood handle and the quillons in front and back — which don’t just keep your hand in place, but also lend a sophisticated, sculpted look to the knife.
Blade: 6-inch 420 High Carbon Stainless Steel, full tang, plain edge, clip point
Handle: Cocobolo Wood
Overall length: 10.5 inches
Features: Front and rear quillons
The LMFII’s 10 inches of toughness have been field tested by the military, given crazy tasks like cutting through the “skin of a fuselage” or punching through the “Plexiglas of a chopper”. As such, it makes mincemeat of, well, meat — as well as firewood, rope, bone, etc. The over-molded handle is grippy without beating up your hands and can even withstand electric shock. The ingenious sheath has a built-in sharpener, which means you can stay sharp without even trying.
Blade: 4.84-inch 420HC stainless steel, near full tang, combo edge, drop point
Handle: Glass-reinforced nylon with TPV overmold
Overall length: 10.59 inches
Features: Front and rear quillons, lashing and lanyard holes, glass breaker
Sheath: High-strength nylon with built-in sharpener
Handcrafted in Norway, the Helle GT is a gorgeous knife, worthy of being passed down for generations. The blade shape was designed in 1997 by Gunnar Lothe, one of Helle’s best blade designers. The GT also performs as well as it looks, with its drop point worthy of jobs from splitting wood to carving a spoon.
Blade: 4.8-inch triple-laminated stainless steel
Handle: Curly birch
Overall length: 9.7 inches
Features: Large guard
Benchmade Bushcrafter Family
As its name implies, the Bushcrafter is designed specifically as an all-around bushcraft knife by Shane Sibert. While it handles all outdoor duties handily, it has also been adopted as the knife of choice for explosive ordnance technicians who saw value in using it for cutting plastic explosives. As an added bonus, the Bushcrafter can also be custom laser etched with your choice of text as well as pre-set images.
Blade: 4.4-inch CPM-S30V, plain edge, drop point
Overall length: 9.15 inches
Features: Custom laser etching
One of ESEE’s best survival knives, the 6P-B can take the kind of outdoor punishment that would make other knives go flaccid. The carbon steel blade is sharp, durable and keeps its edge beautifully. The bombproof Micarta handle feels great in hand, and it’s removable as well; if you needed to use it for a spear or use a paracord-wound handle instead, this makes it easy.
Blade: 5.75-inch 1095 carbon steel, plain edge, drop point
Overall length: 11.75 inches
Features: Removable handle, lanyard hole
Sheath: Molded with clip plate
Fallkniven A1 Survival Knife
The largish 6.3-inch blade of the A1 is made of extremely hard and tough laminated VG-10 steel, which holds a good edge and can withstand high-stress use. VG-10 steel is a proprietary alloy made of carbon, chromium, cobalt, molybdenum and vanadium; in other words it’s a high-quality “super steel.” The robust blade is so tough, it’s passed 500-pound load tests. The large profile of the bellied blade is great for chopping, while the ergonomic grip with finger guard means you can go at it without tiring or slipping. It may not be cheap, but the construction is impeccable, and it will handle years of tough field use.
Blade: 6.3-inch laminated VG-10 steel, full tang, plain edge, drop point
Overall length: 11 inches
Features: Quillon, lanyard hole
Sheath: Zytel with snap closure
Bloodroot Blades 4.5-Inch Stag Drop Point
Bloodroot Blades is the brainchild of Luke Snyder and David Van Wyk. Based in Georgia, Bloodroot crafts a plethora of custom knives and can even make custom handles out of fabric that the customer holds dear (one customer even used part of a wedding dress). Their Stag Drop Point is a durable, heirloom-quality knife with rugged performance to back up its good looks.