The Best Survival Knives of 2021 Leave a comment


GearJunkie knows a thing or two about knives. We’ve sorted through dozens of blades to bring you the best survival knives of 2021.

In the world of outdoor gear, knives get slapped with the “survival” tag more than almost any other product. But with all the static out there, how do you determine which one deserves the title of “best survival knife”? That’s where we come in.

Despite what cheerful reviewers and YouTube personalities may lead you to believe, survival isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s not like bushcraft or camping, where you’re out enjoying yourself in the wilderness. Those pursuits are all well and good. But survival is just that — getting out of a precarious or life-threatening situation with nothing but your wits and the tools you have.

Whether you’re stranded in the woods with a wrecked vehicle or caught in the suburbs in the middle of a hurricane, you’ll want a tough, multi-role knife that can tackle a wide variety of tasks.

But there’s nothing wrong with having some fun along the way to making your final purchase. Check out the list below to see the tools we’re confident will see you through the baddest of bad days.

Scroll through to see all of our recommended buys, or jump to the category you’re looking for:

For more information about survival knives, check out our buyer’s guide and FAQ at the end of this article.

The Best Survival Knives of 2021

Best Overall: ESEE Laser Strike

best survival knife: esee laser strike

Few knives have a survival pedigree that can match the Laser Strike ($120). Originally manufactured by TOPS in 2000, this 1095 high-carbon bruiser has seen use all around the globe. With its powder-coated 4.75-inch blade measuring 0.188 inches across the shoulders, it’s a medium-size knife capable of outshining some fixed blades twice its size.

Beyond its outstanding edge, ESEE added several features to the classic iteration. First, the brand swapped in Micarta scales to cover its 5.25-inch handle. These include a bow drill divot, allowing the knife to act as the top half of a primitive kindling rig.

But if you’re in more desperate need of a fire, users can use the attached lanyard washer to remove the flathead screws holding the scales in place. Nestled against the interior steel are a ferrocerium flint and a pair of tinder tabs, perfect for sparking a flame in a variety of circumstances.

Now that we’ve covered the Laser portion of its name, let’s get to the Strike. Despite weighing in at just over half a pound (9.5 ounces), this ESEE is a devastating chopper. I’ve hacked and batoned logs that should have broken the Laser Strike in two. Then I’ve handed it to friends and asked them to give it a try.

Whatever we tasked it with, the knife came through unscathed. This is due to the thickness of its blade and the strength of its drop-point tip. It’s thick enough to handle drilling tasks while also coming to a fine point for detailed work or scraping.

But while some other knives are capable of performing the same tasks, what brings me back to the Laser Strike is its comfort. The Micarta handles are thick and grippy, and the lower swell fits naturally into my palm. The sculpted forward finger choil provides an excellent means of choking up on the blade, working in perfect combination with the thumb jimping on the spine.

On some knives, this kind of texture on the back of the handle can cause hot spots in your grip. But not with the Laser Strike. The rounded edges improve purchase while keeping blisters at bay.

In short, the ESEE Laser Strike is a terrific knife. While I’m not the biggest fan of the high ride of its otherwise sterling Kydex sheath, this is the perfect knife for your go-bag or survival gear kit. It cuts, it chops, it drills, and it sparks. And should your particular situation be enough to break this blade, ESEE will replace it free of charge once you’re back to civilization. But take it from me — this is a knife likely to outlast us all.

  • Steel: 1095 high-carbon
  • Blade length: 4.75”
Pros:
  • Bulletproof warranty
  • Great ergonomics
  • Sterling reputation
Cons:
  • Sheath rides high on the belt

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Best Budget: Gerber StrongArm

gerber strongarm

To label the Gerber StrongArm ($70) as the best budget survival knife is a little misleading. With nearly 5 inches of ceramic-coated 420HC steel, full-tang construction, and a rock-solid grip, this is one of the best survival knives available in any class or price point. But let’s back up before my exuberance gets the better of me.

The StrongArm is one of Gerber’s USA-made knives, forged with a proven 420HC steel. While this may seem like a basic choice for a survival blade, I’ve found its edge retention and toughness to be more than adequate for extended use.

And when it does come time to sharpen, the blade pops back to life with surprising eagerness. There’s a premium model available in BDZ-1 steel, which slightly boosts the knife’s overall performance. I’m happy with my 420HC version, but it’s nice to know the upgrade is out there.

Let’s talk handles because the StrongArm has a great one. This Gerber features a rubberized diamond-pattern that manages to be both grippy and incredibly comfortable. The knife ends with a slightly spiked pommel and lanyard hole, adding an option for some light hammering or striking.

Speaking of options, the StrongArm’s sheath is loaded with them. Per Gerber’s website, “The multi-mount, snap-together sheath is easy to use and can be mounted vertically on MOLLE, horizontally on a belt, or in traditional drop-leg fashion.” Retention is good, and the knife is generally comfortable on the hip. That said, the plastic does feel a bit cheap.

I’ve used a lot of superlatives here, but it’s because the Gerber StrongArm really is that good. I’ve used it for camping, cooking, carving, and general chores more than almost any blade in my collection. And the best part? You’ll probably be paying less than $70. Pick one up now and see for yourself.

  • Steel: 420HC or BDZ-1
  • Blade length: 4.875”
Pros:
  • Outstanding comfort
  • Versatility
  • Durability
Cons:

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Best Fixed Blade: Fallkniven A1

survival knife: fallkniven a1

You may be thinking. “Wait, how is the Fallkniven A1 different than the ESEE Laser Strike?” Here’s how I’m making the distinction: If price is a consideration, then the ESEE’s your pick. But if you remove cost from the equation, then the Fallkniven A1 ($315) is definitely the better knife.

On the most basic level, there’s simply more of it. You’re looking at 6 inches of sharpened edge, with a total span of around 11. You’ll also see an upgrade in steel — laminated VG-10 stainless instead of 1095 high-carbon. This makes for a longer-lasting edge while still maintaining some of the softness and shatter resistance found in softer steels.

The A1 is also broader across the shoulders, with 0.24 inches of blade width versus the Laser Strike’s 0.19 inches. The biggest difference here is the grind. Fallkniven’s signature convex edge is in play, boosting edge retention and cutting performance against natural materials like wood. It’s a little trickier to sharpen than a Scandi or saber, but the harder nature of VG-10 means you’ll have to worry about it less often.

Another upgrade worth noting is the Kraton handle. While I’m a big fan of Micarta, the rubberized grip of the A1 is a bit grippier in wet or cold conditions. The forward finger guard adds to the handle’s security and comfort, as does the slight flair at the rear. The full tang protrudes slightly from the back of the handle, adding another option for striking or hammering.

The weakest point here is the sheath. While certainly functional, the Zytel model feels a little basic for a knife with so many premium features. This is a minor complaint, however. The included model rides nicely and keeps the blade securely fastened in place. Overall, the A1 is a beast of a knife that should see you through the stickiest of survival situations.

  • Steel: Laminated VG-10
  • Blade length: 6.3”
Pros:
  • Premium materials
  • Versatile shape
  • Maximum comfort
Cons:
  • Basic sheath
  • Non-standard grind

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Best Folding Survival Knife: Cold Steel 4-Max Scout

cold steel 4-max scout

The Scout ($130) is the budget-friendly model of Cold Steel’s critically acclaimed (and premium-priced) 4-Max. But don’t call it a downgrade! This wallet-friendly knife has more features than some blades at twice the cost.

The 4-inch blade incorporates a drop-point style over its stonewashed surface. When deployed, this beast measures a full 10 inches, tipping the scale at 10.19 ounces.

The calling card here is the legendary Tri-Ad lock. Cold Steel has produced many, many videos showcasing the hardiness of this proprietary mechanism. It withstood countless torture tests by the manufacturer, so you can be sure it’ll hold up in whatever survival pickle you find yourself in. The only downside here is the deployment.

Unlike some folders that tend to be snappy and fidget-friendly, the Tri-Ad moves like an iron door. As long as the pivots are greased, the movement will be smooth. But all that strength means you’re moving something profound, not a thin strip of a lock bar.

But the 4-Max scout has so much to offer beyond its lock. It features a textured Grivory handle on the outside, with full titanium liners within. This arrangement amplifies the knife’s rigidity, while also shedding the weight normally added by typical steel liners. The blade also includes something of addition by subtraction.

While the standard 4-Max utilizes CPM-20CV, the Scout employs AUS-10A. Although this is certainly a step down, it’s an upgrade from the 8CR13MoV and AUS-8 found in many of Cold Steel’s other offerings. This is a perfectly functional steel that, while unable to match the long-term cutting of the premium piece, is less likely to chip and shatter in a survival situation.

All in all, this Cold Steel is one of the beefiest folders on the market. Whether you’re after a robust daily driver or a backup to toss into your survival kit, the 4-Max Scout has you covered.

  • Steel: AUS-10A
  • Blade length: 4”
Pros:
  • Tri-Ad lock
  • Strong ergonomics
Cons:
  • Middling pocket clip
  • Stiff deployment

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Best Small Survival Knife: ESEE Izula-II

ESEE Izula II

I can hear the questions now: “What’s a knife with less than 3 inches of blade doing on a list of best survival knives?” But I’ve spent a lot of time with this particular knife, so hear me out.

Named after a particularly vicious South American insect, this is one ($130) of the most popular offerings in ESEE’s USA-made line. It’s a short, thick chunk of 1095 high-carbon steel, with a thickly coated blade and removable Micarta handle scales. The drop-point blade features a flat grind, with just over 2.5 inches of sharpened edge.

As the name would indicate, this is the second version of the Izula. The initial offering had the same blade but was shorter in the handle department. Both are still available, but I’d highly recommend the added length of the Izula-II. The grip is shockingly organic thanks to the thick handle and well-placed thumb jimping. Some users like to remove the scales and replace them with paracord, but I’ve found the Micarta to be exactly the right fit for my medium/large hand.

Speaking of options, I’d highly recommend grabbing ESEE’s sheath as part of the deal. It’s a solid plastic affair, with a strong metal clip and excellent blade retention. Normally, the Izula rides tip-up on the strap of my hiking pack. It’s comfortable, accessible, and incredibly secure. So secure, in fact, that you could probably strap it to your ankle and do your best Riverdance impression without worrying about it coming loose. But don’t do that — it would be weird.

If you’re around any actual rivers, keep an eye on the Izula-II’s edge. The powder coating does a great job of protecting the rest of the blade, but the sharpening part is necessarily bare. Be sure to give it a wipe and dry before snapping it back into the sheath if you want to keep that 1095 pristine.

Should something go wrong with your Izula-II, you can always fall back on ESEE’s legendary warranty. Mail in the pieces of your busted knife, and the brand will ship you a replacement, no questions asked. So while you may balk at paying a premium for a knife with less than 3 inches of edge, this is a truly “buy it for life” blade.

  • Steel: 1095 high-carbon
  • Blade length: 2.875”
Pros:
  • Versatile carry
  • Compact package
  • Legendary warranty
Cons:
  • Smaller blade
  • Not for firestarting

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Best Survival Knife for Water: Spyderco Waterway

spyderco waterway

Most of the blades we’ve covered here are designed for wilderness or even urban survival situations. But what if you find yourself stranded on the coast or marooned on a desert island? In that case, the Spyderco Waterway ($233) is the tool for you.

According to Spyderco’s website, “Waterway designer Lance Clinton is a lifelong knife enthusiast and professional kayak fisherman who has spent literally thousands of hours on the water … Clinton’s vision for the Waterway was to create an ultra-corrosion-resistant knife that would excel at fishing tasks while remaining well-suited to general utility and outdoor use.”

The secret ingredient here is LC200N: An intriguing, “high-nitrogen alloyed tool steel specifically formulated to offer superior corrosion resistance and extreme toughness, even at high levels of hardness.” What this means, essentially, is that the Waterway won’t rust. Like, ever. And where other corrosion-resistant steels such as H1 do exist, LC200N’s edge retention is in a league of its own.

Wrapped around this full-tang piece of miracle steel are a pair of contoured G-10 scales. These feature a precision, textured finish ideal for maintaining grip in wet environments. There’s also a generous front finger guard, which should keep users from slipping up onto the blade.

And while we’ve talked about the steel, let’s take a second to consider the blade itself. At just under 4.5 inches long and 0.12 inches wide, this is a precision tool reminiscent of a fillet knife. Its fine edge and nimble nature make it perfect for cutting up fish.

Bottom line: The Spyderco Waterway is a great light- to medium-duty blade, with a technological and design pedigree far ahead of your standard fishing knife. And while it may not be the best for Schwarzenegger-style survival, it would make a great addition to Tom Hanks’ kit from “Castaway.”

  • Steel: LC200N
  • Blade length: 4.44”
Pros:
  • Solid grip
  • Essentially rustproof
Cons:
  • Light to moderate duty only

Check Price at Knife Center

Best for Beginners: Schrade SCHF52 Frontier

schrade schf52 frontier

When it comes to bang for your buck, few survival knives offer as much as the Schrade SCHF52 Frontier ($65). This 13-inch monster has helped me dress firewood, hack the limbs from downed trees, and generally demolish a myriad of backyard chores.

Much of the credit here goes to the simplicity of Schrade’s design. The entire knife is composed of a single piece of 1095 high-carbon steel, with 7 inches dedicated to the blade. The thermoplastic elastomer handle is beautifully textured, with a hooked pommel and finger guard keeping your hand in place. There’s also a nice patch of thumb jimping up top, and a generous forward finger choil. All of these features result in a wealth of possible grips, making the SCHF52 a surprisingly versatile tool.

And if plain old smashing is your thing, this knife has the heft to get the job done. It weighs in at a neat one pound, allowing users to put some force behind their cuts. The only caveat here comes on the part of the black powder coating. While it’s held up reasonably well on my knife, it can be prone to flaking off after extended use.

Still, you’re getting a lot of value for your dollar here. Beyond the knife itself, the SCHF52 comes with a comfortable sheath, complete with a pouch containing a ferro rod, striker, and sharpening stone. That essentially makes this a complete survival knife kit for less than half of the price of some of the more premium models on this list.

Whether you’re looking for a knife to tackle backyard chores or to keep in your wilderness pack, don’t sleep on this low-cost, high-value offering from Schrade.

  • Steel: 1095 high-carbon
  • Blade length: 7”
Pros:
  • Affordable
  • Durable
  • Fire/sharpening kit included
Cons:
  • Blade coating can chip off

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Best Serrated Survival Knife: KA-BAR BK3 Tac Tool

ka-bar bk3 tac tool

Normally, I’d recommend against picking a survival knife with serrations. They’re hard to sharpen, not suited for use on wood, and generally break up a nice cutting edge. But if we’re going to get crazy, let’s get really ridiculous with the KA-BAR Becker BK3 Tac Tool ($169).

Weighing 1.3 pounds and stretching a half-inch longer than your grade school ruler, this matte-black blade looks like something straight out of a video game. Its quarter-inch-thick blade features a sharpened snub-nose design, ideal for scraping and prying. There’s even a cord-cutting hook up front, making this an incredibly versatile survival tool. The serrations are found at the base of the 1095 Cro-Van blade, just ahead of the finger guard.

The handle is nearly identical to that found on the classic Becker BK2. Its thick Zytel grip ends in a flared pommel, keeping the user’s hand in place during high-stress tasks. The blade tang protrudes from the back, adding another edge to the Tac Tool’s arsenal. While most survival knives allow for at least some form of hammering or hacking, the BK3 is built to chop, slice, and generally destroy all kinds of natural and manufactured materials. It’s all edge, all the time.

Fortunately, KA-BAR includes a solid polymer sheath to help wrangle this beast of a blade. Its low-ish ride lets you carry the Tac Tool at or below your beltline, which keeps the exposed tang from poking you in the ribs. There are also the ubiquitous MOLLE attachment points, as well as a snap to hold the handle in place.

If all of this sounds like fun to you, check it out. This is a kind of a ridiculous knife, but it’s also incredibly well-built and an absolute blast to use.

  • Steel: 1095 Cro-Van
  • Blade length: 7”
Pros:
  • Rugged
  • Multi-role
  • Built to last
Cons:
  • Heavy
  • Huge
  • Definitely not subtle

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Best Bushcraft-and-Survival Knife Combo: KA-BAR Becker BK2

ka-bar becker bk2

Remember this one? KA-BAR’s Becker BK2 ($133) is a repeat performer on GearJunkie’s “Best Of” lists. Last time, it was the bushcraft-and-tactical combo pick on our list of “The Best Bushcraft Knives of 2021.” And here it shows its hybrid toughness once again as one of the best survival knives on the market.

The Becker BK2 is a one-pound, 10.75-inch stick of 1095 Cro-Van steel, with a black-coated blade ground flat to 5.25 inches’ worth of edge. Its quarter-inch thickness tapers out to a rugged drop point, making it well-suited for stabbing and even light prying tasks.

The thick handle comprises two pieces of Zytel, held fast against the full tang by a trio of thick screws. And the knife features an exposed bit of steel at the pommel, which can be used as a hammer or scraping implement.

But as impressive as the specs are, they don’t do justice to the BK2’s ethos. In hand, this is one of the most rugged, ready, and unbreakable blades in the survival market. It has a broad-shouldered heft that instills confidence in the user, allowing you to power through tasks that would cause hesitation with other knives. Just pull up YouTube and watch what some people put these knives through, and you’ll have a good sense of what I mean.

But all that bravado would fall short if the Becker was a pain to carry. Thankfully, the included polymer sheath is just as rugged. It rides comfortably at your side and includes lashing points for alternative carry methods. It’s a basic, no-frills affair, which fits the BK2’s attitude.

While it may not be the most delicate slicer or readiest firestarter, the KA-BAR Becker BK2 is as rugged as they come. If you’re looking for something that can smash through bricks and pry open a car door between trips to the woodpile, this is the knife for you.

  • Steel: 1095 Cro-Van
  • Blade length: 5.25”
Pros:
  • Thick
  • Rugged
  • Capable
  • Durable
Cons:
  • Not a great slicer or firestarter

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Best Survival Knife With Firestarter: Morakniv Spark

survival knife: morakniv spark

How do you improve on a blade as legendary as the Mora Companion? Simple — add a fire steel to the handle. That’s exactly what you’ll find with the Mora Spark ($35), a budget-minded knife with a classic survival pedigree.

Let’s start with the blade. At just under 4 inches, this 12C27N stainless model comes with Mora’s trademark Scandi grind, perfect for carving and kindling prep. But where the Companion models have a smooth and rounded spine, the Spark leaves its upper edge angled and unpolished. Used in combination with the included fire steel, this is where the knife gets its name. It’s an impressive all-in-one system, especially for a knife in the budget category.

No discussion of Morakniv would be complete without a few words on their handles. Like the Companion, the Spark employs a rubberized friction grip, with a gentle swell for the palm. These knives are renowned for their comfort and stability in the hand. Its rounded shape and subtle finger guard make for a secure experience, even when wearing winter gloves.

If you’re looking for downsides, the only real dings come from the basic (but comfortable) plastic sheath and the partial-tang construction. The polymer sheath attaches to the belt via a standard belt clip, riding comfortably and low on the hip. It’s essentially molded plastic, but at least it’s high-quality molded plastic.

And as far as the partial tang goes, Mora’s been making them this way for decades. It’s not a knife you’ll want to hammer through a car door or tree, but it’s going to last through just about any other sticky situation you want to throw at it. And at this price, what’s to stop you from buying a whole batch? Throw them in your car, in your camping bag, or anywhere else you want a proven, versatile tool.

  • Steel: 12C27N Sandvik stainless
  • Blade length: 3.9”
Pros:
  • Included fire steel
  • Solid materials
  • Low cost
Cons:
  • Partial-tang construction
  • Basic sheath

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Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Survival Knife

Dependability

Those all-in-one knives they sell at the big-box store may seem like a good idea, with their partially serrated blades and survival kits tucked inside the handle. But wait — if you can store something inside the grip, that means the entire back half of the knife is hollow. How long do you think it would hold up if you needed to clear brush or pry open a can of beans?

No, what you should be looking for is a single piece of high-quality steel, stretching from the tip of the blade to the base of the pommel. We cover a few of the well-known metals below, but you must be able to identify the type of steel used in your knife. If the maker doesn’t list a name, you don’t want it.

Comfort

You may be using this tool in extended, high-stress circumstances. So get something that won’t give you blisters after the first 5 minutes. Contoured grips — whether in rubber, hard plastic, or Micarta — can all provide a much warmer feeling than bare steel.

Use Case

Do you spend a lot of time on or near the water? Go with something rust-resistant. Live in the middle of the woods? You want something with some weight that can chew through downed limbs and prepare shelters or campfires. We’ve also included several great all-around blades for the weekend warrior crew. Take a look above, shop around, and pick the one that best suits your situation.

best survival knife
Photo credit: Amazon

FAQ

What Is a Survival Knife?

To paraphrase a common expression, the best survival knife is any knife you have with you in a survival situation. But that sounds a little trite, no? We can do better than that. After all, no one wants to be stranded with nothing but a box cutter or their keychain knife.

A true survival knife should be well-made, comfortable in the hand, and rugged enough to tackle chores that would split a more delicate blade in two. Best-in-class models generally feature full tangs and coated blades with thick edges and wide spines.

While personal taste does come into play with the exact size and shape for your personal use, a good survival knife needs to share your will and ability to work your way out of a difficult situation.

What Is the Best Steel for a Survival Knife?

When choosing a steel for your new survival knife, it’s important to be honest with yourself. Are you really going to use that blade every day? Not even Bear Grylls does that. In that case, you’ll be able to get away with something proven, softer, and generally easier to sharpen.

I’d recommend a well-coated 1095 high-carbon or even a lower-end stainless like 420HC. They may dull faster than your super-steels, but they’re also much less prone to shattering when called into action.

But say you’re a hardcore survivalist or some kind of forest ranger or secret agent. In that case, something like VG-10 or S35VN might be more up your alley. Their stainless edges will last notably longer than those of their high-carbon cousins.

Not stainless enough for you? Then check out something like LC200N. It’s nearly rustproof steel available from Spyderco and a few other makers, with edge retention somewhere between that of 420HC and S30V.

lc200n steel survival knife
Photo credit: Knife Center

Does KA-BAR Make a Good Survival Knife?

Yes! KA-BAR makes excellent survival knives, as evidenced by their military use. We’ve highlighted one of the brand’s models above, which also shares a spot in our list of “The Best Bushcraft Knives of 2021.”

While many people gravitate toward the classic Infantry Knife, the Becker BK2 is a more well-rounded tool for non-tactical situations. It’s rugged, durable, and more than capable of getting you out of a sticky wilderness survival situation.

How Do You Care for and Sharpen a Survival Knife?

Excellent question! Like all tools, survival knives need to be cared for to maintain their readiness for action. The biggest factors to consider are edge maintenance and rust prevention.

Many of the knives we’ve listed here are coated to prevent oxidization. But the cutting edge remains exposed, so you’ll need to wipe it down (carefully!) before returning the knife to its sheath. Once the edge shows signs of dulling, there are many ways to bring it back to life.

Sometimes, a simple stropping motion across a leather belt or edge of a cardboard box will straighten things out. Just angle the blade and pull the edge backward across the surface to see if it improves. But when it does come time to sharpen your survival knife, you can use anything from a guided system like the KME, angled rods from Spyderco or Lanksy, or traditional sharpening stones.

If you find yourself stuck in the backcountry, sometimes a flat rock or another piece of steel will do the trick. This is one of the reasons many people prefer softer steels like 420HC or 1095 in their survival knives. Super-steels are great in a controlled environment, but a true survival knife should be able to be sharpened in the field.

angle rod spyderco
Photo credit: Amazon

Have a favorite survival knife? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll check it out for future updates to this article.


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