Whether you’re an amateur outdoorsman or an expert survivalist, everyone needs a handy blade at their side when venturing out into the great unknown. Smaller than a hatchet or ax but larger than the standard everyday carry blade, a good, solid survival knife is both durable and versatile, with no need for insane whistles and bells like the overloaded Swiss Army Knives that some civilians throw their money at. Indeed, a good knife can get you out of any jam — and you don’t have to be a Boy Scout to be prepared.
Here’s a brief overview of some of the best outdoor survival knives that won’t break the bank. And trust us, they’re worth every penny.
Ontario Knife Company’s Air Force Survival Knife is a blade with a whole lot of history. Developed as the Aircrew Survival Egress Knife (ASKE) in 1958 for the U.S. Army, it’s been the standard survival knife of the service’s aviation branch for decades, and thousands remain in circulation despite the Army’s attempts to develop a new one. Forged from 1095 carbon steel and measuring 9.5 inches with a 5-inch blade, the multipurpose knife is designed for sawing through aircraft skin, breaking windows, hammering, and cutting, beyond the usual defensive applications. Hey, if it’s worked for Army aviators for decades, then it works for us — we’re just not sure why Ontario bills it as an ‘Air Force’ blade.
Sometimes, the best things are those that are tested through generations. Look no further than the classic U.S. Marine Corps KA-BAR: Adopted by the service in 1962 as the USMC Mark 2 combat knife and subsequently embraced by the U.S. Navy, the modern-day KA-BAR is a 7-inch straight-edge blade forged from 1095 Cro-Van steel with a 4.875-inch leather handle designed to perform in any fight. While it’s maybe not the most sophisticated survival knife of the bunch, it’s versatility has made it among the most tried-and-true combat knives on the planet.
Bear Grylls has a renowned survival brand for good reason, and his Gerber-made survival knife does not disappoint. Measuring 13 inches long and weighing just under a pound, the serrated Gerber Bear Grylls Ultimate Knife is among the most useful and effective on the market, from its high carbon stainless steel drop point blade to its rubber handle for a firm grip. More importantly, it’s not just a blade: designed for camping, it comes with a whistle, a sharpening cube, a ferrocerium rod, and also a (very) basic survival manual.
Handmade in Spain, the JEO-TEC Nº29 Bushcraft Survival Hunting Camping Knife was designed for hunters, campers, and wildlife enthusiasts, and can be used in rough conditions and hard outdoor environments. The blade, forged from MOVA-58 stainless steel, measures just under 5 inches before tapering into a wooden handle, and the knife’s leather sheath also includes a Ferro rod for easy fire starting in the wilderness. It’s far from the cheapest or more versatile knife on the list, but it’s certainly an elegant, sleek alternative to industrialized outdoor blades.
The Schrade SCHF 36 Frontier is a good deal of knife for the purchase price. This full-tang 5-inch blade, forged from 1095 powder coated high carbon steel, tapers into a thermoplastic elastomer handle for a total length of 14 inches, offering a significant amount of control for tough cut jobs. It also comes with a sharpening stone, a ferrocerium rod and striker, as well as a convenient polyester belt sheath to hold all of it. It isn’t the most sophisticated knife, but it’s a great relatively-inexpensive blade for everyday carry.
This Morakniv Companion Fixed Blade outdoor knife is defined by its versatile Sandvik 12C27 stainless steel blade, which is ideal for carving, food prep, and cutting tinder. The high-quality Swedish steel is razor-sharp and exceptionally tough, and the 4.1-inch hardened blade both stays sharp longer than carbon steel and is less prone to rust. Measuring 6.6 inches overall with a patterned, high-friction grip, the Morakniv sits comfortably in the hand, for greater control, safety, and performance, especially in wet and cold conditions.
The SOG Survival Knife, developed as a tribute to the legendary U.S. MACV-SOG special operations units of the Vietnam war, is an ideal outdoor blade for any tactical buff. The full-tang field knife that measures 8.5 inches overall, the SOG Survival Knife’s 4-inch stainless steel blade is guaranteed to resist rust and yield excellent edge retention. With a thermoplastic rubber handle a glass-reinforced nylon (GRN) sheath, SOG bills this blade as “no moving parts, no-frills and no-nonsense” — and with good reason.
Measuring 7.9 inches long with a 3.7-inch blade, the BPS Knives Bushcraft Knife is a bit smaller than the other knives on this list, but it certainly packs a wallop. Forged from durable;e high-carbon steel, the full tang knife is the best kind of fixed blade knife for camping and survival and perfectly suitable for drilling, cutting, and piercing, and other bushcraft functions. Set in a walnut wood handle, this blade comes with a leather sheath with a belt loop that makes it the perfect everyday carry for your outdoor needs, an elegant alternative to the standard industrialized hunting knife.
Smith & Wesson may be known for its firearms, but the companies been producing fixed-blade, Bowie-style knives for decades to significant acclaim. Measuring 10.5 inches with a 6-inch high carbon black oxide stainless steel blade, the Smith & Wesson S.S. Fixed Blade Knife comes set in a black, deep grooved, rubber-wrapped aluminum handle for maximum power and control. Additionally, the knife’s convenient ballistic polyester sheath comes with a removable storage pouch and sharpening steel that allows quick and easy access in all situations. It may not be the most compact blade on the list, but it’s certainly the most reliable — and a great deal for the cost.
Types of survival knives
A survival knife generally refers to any knife designed to assist with outdoorsmanship or bushcraft, whether it’s hunting, camping, or simply persevering in the wilderness. The average survival knife has a blade between 4 and 6 inches, with an overall size of between 9 and 11 inches and a relatively reduced weight load for easy handling.
- The boot knife: A small, fixed-blade knife that’s usually carried in a boot, intended to be tucked away in a belt or under the pant leg. Boot knives are primarily intended for base survival — making wound dressings, cutting rope, etc — and self-defense purposes.
- The military knife: Larger than a boot knife, these fixed-blades are designed specifically for military applications. As most U.S. service members know, a military survival knife can be used for virtually anything on the battlefield, from digging a hole to food preparation.
- The hunting knife: Also called a buck knife, these fixed-blade knives are designed for skinning game. While originally intended for hunting, a buck knife features a slightly thicker blade than other knives for an assortment of potential outdoor tasks.
- The tactical knife: Designed for when you have to complete household chores at 6 but parachute into a thick jungle behind enemy lines at 12, a tactical knife is designed to operate as both a reliable tool and a reliable weapon.
Key features of survival knives
These are the key features of each survival knife that are worth evaluating before making a purchase:
- The blade: A fixed blade knife is the best choice for a survival knife: Folding knives are not as durable or reliable as a fixed blade, and the hinge on the blade of a folding knife can break under the stress put on the blade. Folding knives or pocket knives are just not built for the type of tasks you are going to be performing with your survival knife.
- The size: A survival knife’s blade length usually ranges between 4 and 8 inches. Small blades are lighter, easier to carry, and ideal for tasks that require precision — like dressing wild game or carving. Larger blades are better options for hammering or cutting tree limbs, but they’re often heavier and more difficult to carry. The best survival knife should have an overall length between 9-11 inches.
- The tang: A knife’s tang refers to the unexposed, unsharpened part of the blade that extends down into the handle. The tang can be full or partial: a knife with a full tang has a blade material that extends down the handle and is sturdier and safer to use. A knife with a half tang may loosen over time as you’re chopping, prying, or batoning, making it more difficult and more dangerous to use. Most reliable survival knives are full tang.
- The tip: A survival knife’s tip can be sharp, rounded, angled, or hooked. A sharp-tipped survival knife is multifunctional and can be used for hunting, self-defense, picking locks, preparing food, or prying open jammed doors. A rounded tip carves well because it makes very precise cuts. It can also thresh bark to start fires. A bigger, angled tip is more durable and can pierce through thicker materials. A hooked tip is ideal for dressing, skinning, and slicing game.
- The shape: Survival knife blades can either have a drop point or a clip point design. A drop point blade is thicker, especially at the tip, and can handle different tasks like carving, cutting, and skinning. A clip point blade has a traditional design and is ideal for piercing and stabbing (self-defense). It can be a useful fighting knife for battling an animal like a bear.
Benefits of survival knives
The best survival knives are versatile enough to be used for many purposes. In the wilderness, a good survival knife can be used to remove thorns and splinters from wounds or to cut bandages; you can also heat the blade in fire and cauterize wounds if a first aid kit is missing. You can use the knife to disembowel game you caught; when you don’t have eating utensils, it can serve as a knife, spoon, or fork. Finally, when you’re in the wild, defending yourself can determine whether you survive or not. A survival knife can help protect you against animals and humans. It can slow down or fend off an attacker. Even if you don’t use it, having it ensures you are prepared.
Survival knife pricing
The majority of survival knives under $50 are folding pocket knives with basic features, some of which are half tang — not necessarily ideal for survival purposes. Once you get over $50, multipurpose survival knives tend to be strong, durable, and well-designed, most of which feature a full tang and fixed blades. Knives in this category are made by top brands like Kershaw, ESEE, Ka-Bar, Gerber, Bushcraft, Condor, Morakniv, and Micarta.
Task & Purpose and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.