A top quality Survival Knife is one of the most important tools for those leaving the confines of the Concrete Jungle. A butterfly knife may be “cool”, but when you need a knife to function as a life-saving tool, nothing should be left to chance. The following crash course will give you an edge when purchasing a survival knife.
Every knife has a blade and a tang. The visible blade end is sharpened for cutting, while the invisible tang is firmly attached inside the handle. A survival knife must endure a lot, and a tang that extends fully into the handle will reduce the possibility of blade breakage. Strong kitchen knives often have a visible tang, with the handle actually attached on either side of the tang. Anything shorter than a full tang will compromise the survival knife’s strength and usefulness when you need it most.
2. Blade length and thickness
Your survival knife should be between six and ten inches. Carrying a sword may be cool, but this isn’t the time to play Samurai. A survival knife shorter than six inches isn’t big enough to get the job done, while anything longer than ten or eleven inches will probably be too heavy or bulky for carrying frequently.
Do not buy a survival knife that is too thin! The minimum thickness should be 3/16”, and while 1/4” isn’t “better”, it will hold up in the most demanding situations. If 1/4” is just too heavy for you, 3/16” is still good.
Note: Some survival knives are slightly wider on one edge to aid in chopping using a stone or other makeshift hammer. You can also use your thumb (or any other finger) to gain leverage and fine control of your survival knife by pressing against this side. Get a knife like this. DO NOT get a double-edged blade.
3. Blade material
Two popular materials used in survival knife blades are carbon steel and stainless steel.
Stainless steel contains chromium, so these knives resist corrosion much better than carbon steel. However, stainless steel is more difficult to sharpen than carbon steel.
Carbon steel is a mix of iron and carbon. It can be made extremely sharp and is naturally easy to sharpen. It will corrode quicker than stainless steel.
Note: Do not be fooled by “stain-proof steel” claims. There are extensive varieties of steel out there, and stainless steel / stain-proof steel is not impervious to all types of damage. A knife is never actually “stain-proof”. Knives for marine applications are wonderful, but should not be relied upon simply because metallurgists have spent a long time in the lab toiling away to make them highly resistant to corrosion.
4. Blade design
Straight or serrated, that is the question. Straight blades tend to be more popular for practical use, although survival knives are sold with either type of blade. A straight blade is easy to sharpen and versatile for different types of cutting. Serrated blades are good for cutting rope, but they require a special sharpener. Even if you don’t sharpen your knife routinely, out in the wilderness a smooth stone can sharpen straight blades in a pinch.
Bottom line? Straight blades are probably the best choice, but a partially-serrated blade is also acceptable.
Note: Get a knife with a sharp tip. This will allow your survival knife to be used as a hunting tool as well as self-defense. Lighter survival knives will more easily be able to tie onto a straight branch or other pole and create a spear.
Handles are constructed from a variety of materials, with designs to suit the most fashion-conscious adventurer. Avoid wooden and plastic handles, because these materials will not withstand the elements. Stainless steel or aluminum handles are slippery when wet, and conduct heat and cold all too well. Injection molded or rubber handles are the best balance of durability, usability, and functionality. If you come across a knife handle that consists of a special compound not covered here, do a quick online search to learn more about it. It may be just the right thing for you. But the most important thing about the handle is that it should feel comfortable in your hand.
So how are you going to carry your survival knife? In a sheath! Your sheath should match the shape of your knife, as well as be very comfortable to wear and use. Make sure the belt loop fits your most hefty belt properly. This sounds obvious, but without actually wearing the sheath and inserting/removing the survival knife in this manner, you won’t know how they function together. You should be able to strap your knife to the sheath around its handle. Make sure the lanyard (if present) doesn’t conflict with the straps or cause your fingers to do acrobatics just to use the sheath.
Final note: You’re purchasing a survival knife, not a survival compass or survival lanyard. Don’t get caught up in the accessories. Make sure the survival knife and sheath work for you. Don’t compromise on acquiring a functional tool.