“Survival knife.” What do you think of when I say those words?
The first thing most people think of when they think of survival knives is the Rambo movies, which put the survival knife on the map during the 1980s.
These movies were the first exposure many viewers had to the survival concept (although it had been around for a long time).
Movies are often drivers of popular culture, and for many, the survival knife concept was first brought to them by these movies.
Even Smart “Knife People” Choose The Wrong Survival Knives
Since the Rambo movies put the fixed blade “survival knife” at the forefront of popular consciousness, most people associate prepping and survival with survival or fixed blade bushcraft knives.
The field of bushcraft, and the task of survival, is obviously one that benefits from having the right tools.
For many years now, the survival community has taken for granted that the fixed blade “survival knife” was the idea package for a do-it-all wilderness and bushcraft survival tool.
Whether this is true can be debated.
A machete, combined with a small cutting tool for fine work, can handle almost every bushcraft task, and often better than a traditional fixed blade survival knife.
This is because a machete gives you greater leverage and more reach for a wider variety of survival tasks, while also allowing you to do most of the work a small- to medium-sized knife does.
Survival knives, however, are not going anywhere; they are as popular as ever, and there are more fixed blade survival and bushcraft knives on the market than ever before.
If you’re going to select a fixed blade survival knife, therefore, then you need to consider the following…
The first thing to look for in a survival knife or bushcraft knife is the steel.
A high-carbon steel or tool steel is a better choice than stainless steel.
Many survivalists and preppers choose stainless steel because, honestly, they don’t use their knives much.
While those knives sit it doesn’t do to have them rusting, does it?
A knife that is used regularly, however, will not suffer from a little surface rust.
Stainless steel is steel to which things like chromium and vanadium have been added.
This weakens the metal. In a large survival knife, this difference will lead to quicker failure under extreme conditions (conditions which would really constitute abuse of a knife, but which may be necessary for survival, such as batoning).
Carbon steel is therefore the better choice because of its greater strength.
A handle that is irregular or that has “hot spots” will lead to fatigue and even injury in the field. Handles must be ergonomic and comfortable.
They must also afford good traction; a handle that is too smooth will become slippery when wet or soaked in blood (human or animal).
Hot spots are a bigger issue with larger blades, as these will see duty as choppers and brush clearing tools.
Your survival knife, however, should have a handle that is not completely cylindrical, or it will slip and roll in the hand when attempting difficult jobs.
Look for a handle that is more oval in cross-section, and preferably one that has “grippy” traction.
Sheaths can be leather, Nylon, Kydex, or whatever the user prefers, but all have advantages and disadvantages.
Leather suffers most in storage and can crack, split, and even promote corrosion.
It is usually stronger than Nylon, though.
Nylon is cheap and strong enough if it has a plastic liner to protect this material from the blade cutting through it. Kydex is stronger than both, but its low melting point means that it is unsuitable for warmer climates.
(A Kydex sheath left on the dashboard of a car in the hot sun will actually deform enough to affect the fit of the blade in the sheath.
The size of your survival knife is really a matter of user preference.
A bushcraft knife is generally under a foot in overall length, but some are longer.
Smaller bushcraft knives, like the Mora survival knives, are also extremely popular.
There is a fuzzy line between a large knife and a small sword or machete, one that nobody has properly defined.
Size is therefore the least critical of factors when choosing a knife.
Just remember that a mid-sized knife is probably just as good as a very large survival knife, and may be better suited to some chores for which the mammoth Rambo short-sword is awkward.
Fixed Blade Versus Folding Knife
Hollow-handle survival knives are very popular, but by definition, they have no blade tang to speak of.
This makes them weak where the blade joins the handle.
Full-tang knives are far better for bushcraft and survival knives.
Other construction issues to look for are fit and finish, as well as whether the construction of the knife might actually promote injury.
(For example, a knife that is too roughly made could cut up your hands in extended use.)
A survival knife can indeed be a do-it-all bushcraft and survival companion.
To perform at its best, though, it must be chosen for what it can do.
Form always follows function.
Choosing a knife that “looks cool,” that was made popular by a movie or television show, or that is impractical in design or execution will lead to failure in the field.
When the stakes are survival, failure is death… which makes your choice that much more important.