Knives for Survival and Emergencies

Another item it would be wise to have with you at all times is a knife.  Unfortunately, this can present problems, but it is still a good idea to have an appropriate knife whenever practical (i.e., not prohibited by law, clothing, or rules).

For survival or emergency use, there are 5 classes of knives to consider.  This does NOT include those designed for ‘knife fighting’ since our focus is on being rescued by others, not avoiding them.  So the 5 classes to choose from are:  Machete, Field (large), Bush (medium), Folding and Other.

A ‘machete’ is a long, wide, thin blade used to clear a path through a jungle or equivalent.  Often they are relatively cheap in both the cost and quality sense.  Unless ‘jungle’ path clearing is a possibility, these are usually too big for most kits.  And due to the size and possibly quality, using it for other survival purposes is generally not particularly successful.

So what is the ‘best’ knife for survival?  The answer to this question is somewhat of a controversy between ‘big’ and ‘medium’.   Some experts say that the chopping ability of the big knife is the most important, and others state that big knives are too big and heavy for survival kits, or are ‘too dangerous’ for a novice under stress, or that a medium sized knife is more suited to many survival tasks.  And frankly, they both have valid points.  If you can only have one knife, a big knife can do most any task, although it will be unwieldy for some of them.  A medium knife is not very effective at chopping but more convenient for many other tasks.   It seems obvious then, that if practical, one of each would be the best choice.  If having both is not an option, then go with what will fit your kit or what will best perform the tasks you think will be most likely.  And hope you guess right.

So what is a ‘Field’ or ‘big’ knife?  As might be expected by its primary task, chopping, the blade is long, usually 9 to 12 inches, and thick (3/16″ to 1/4″), with a lot of weight forward.    The edge, at least in the chopping area, should be optimized for chopping; that is, a fairly wide angle grind like you might see on a hatchet.  For optimum versatility, the front and back couple inches of the edge could be optimized for slicing; that is, a more narrow angle grind.  Serrations should be avoided.  In order to get that ‘concentrated weight’ over the chopping edge, a big ‘belly’ (the curve between tip and straight edge) is optimal.  The Kukri style blade may be particularly well suited to chopping tasks.  Otherwise, a drop point, spear point or short, straight clip point blade would probably be best, as most other types of points tend to be less versatile and/or too thin (fragile) for general survival use.

An example of a proven Field knife is the Becker ‘Brute’ (BK-1), which was very reasonably priced, but now discontinued (Becker is out of business but some of his designs live on through Ka-Bar).  A reasonable alternative was the Kershaw Outcast, also now discontinued.  Some modern Kukri knives, particularly those from Cold Steel in Stainless, Carbon or San Mai, or made by Ontario would serve well.  The original Gurka Kukris have a great blade, but lousy grip and sheath; they can be modified to be quite usable for a very small price.  If the Kukri style is not to your liking, the Cold Steel Trailmaster or Ontario RTAK are worth a look.


From top to bottom, Cold Steel Kukri, Cold Steel Trailmaster, and Kershaw Outcast

A ‘Bush’ or ‘medium’ knife, then, has a shorter, thinner blade, 4 to 6 inches long and 1/8″ to 3/16″ thick.  For maximum versatility it should have bit of belly, but a constant angle grind optimized for its primary tasks, which involve slicing.  Drop point is the most versatile tip, while a spear point or short, straight clip point is usually entirely adequate as far as versatility and point strength (thickness) are concerned.  Again, serrations, although they do have their uses, are not as useful in a survival knife.  If you really want serrations, a combination blade which has mostly a standard edge with serrations near the grip would be an acceptable compromise, although a separate serrated knife would be better.

Good Bush knife choices abound, including Doug Ritter RSK 2 or RSK 3, Cold Steel Master Hunter or SRK, Becker  Crewman or Companion, Benchmade Rant 515 DPT (now discontinued), Fallkniven S1 and Ontario RAT 5.


Cold Steel SRK (top) and Master Hunter

In either case, you must have a ‘full tang’; that is, the blade material extends all the way through the grip.  Anything else provides you the possibility of the blade breaking off of the grip during use when the connection between blade and grip fails.  This particularly means no hollow handle ‘survival’ knives unless it is one made out of a single billet of steel like those from Chris Reeve.  A ‘narrow’ (internal) tang, or ‘skeleton’ (slotted) tang would generally be acceptable.

Saw teeth on the back edge are popular for ‘survival’ knives, but they should be avoided.  Not only are many of them fairly useless as a saw, but they prevent use of the knife for ‘batoning’, an important survival task.  That is, using a club on the back edge to split a branch to get at the dry interior for fire starting.

There are 2 types of steel generally found in knife blades, stainless steel or carbon steel.  Many people are of the opinion that carbon steel takes and holds an edge the best and is the easiest to sharpen.  On the other hand, it rusts easily and thus requires a fair amount of care, which may not be practical for a survival blade.  Stainless steel requires much less care, but is often thought to not take as sharp an edge or be as durable, and to be difficult to resharpen.  There are some ‘high carbon’ stainless blades which can be quite acceptable, though.  Once you choose between these two options, then there is the question of which of the many choices in that class of steel to go for.  It seems each knife maker has their own version which is the ‘best’.  I suspect that the production process they use is in the end more important than the chemical composition of the metal; in other words, choose the maker over the material.

If carbon steel appeals to you, there are some ways to reduce the rust problem.  One is to coat the blade with an anti-rust coating.  This is fine, until it is scratched or worn away.  However, if you have such a blade in your kit which does not have any scratches or wear, it should be adequately protected from rust (except for the edge) until you need it.  It might be worthwhile to ‘vacu-pack’ the knife to waterproof it for storage, which would eliminate storage rust as a concern.  Once you need it, even if the coating is breached, it is unlikely that the survival situation will last long enough for rust to be a significant problem.  Just be sure to replace or repair the blade after the situation is over with so the kit will be ready to go again in the future.  Another option is layered steel, particularly ‘San Mai’ as used by Cold Steel.  This is a central layer of carbon steel for the edge, with a slab of stainless on each side for protection from rust.  This may be the optimum compromise for a survival blade.

Note that stainless steel CAN rust, it just resists it better than other steels.

Other things to look for in a survival knife are:

– A lanyard hole in the grip

– A half guard or other way to keep your hand from sliding forward

– Grooves (“jimping”) at the rear of the back edge to anchor your thumb for some tasks

– A small ‘choil’ (open area) at the end of the blade edge to facilitate sharpening the whole edge

– A comfortable, non-slip, durable, grip shape and material

– A pommel (end of grip) suitable for hammering

– A durable sheath (kydex is often best, but quality leather or a heavy plastic liner in nylon will do)

– A sheath with versatile attachment methods.

Note that an inappropriate sheath is not a ‘deal breaker’ for any knife.  If the knife is what you want, you can make the desired sheath or have it made for you.

We have discussed the ‘best’ classes of survival knives, but there are kits and times when having the ‘best’ knife is not practical.  In a following article, we will discuss the remaining two classes of knives; those which are ‘better than nothing’.


Filed under Emergency preparedness

2 responses to “Knives for Survival and Emergencies

  1. Pingback: Alternative Knives for Survival and Emergencies | equippedcat

  2. UPDATE: In testing a modern Cold Steel San Mai blade, I found that it now uses VG-1 for the center layer. This is a high-carbon stainless steel, so is moderately resistant to rust, and is specifically designed to take a very sharp edge. However, in my testing, I found it got dull very quickly, so is not, in my opinion, currently a good choice for a survival knife. It can be quite useful in non-survival situations as long as a good sharpening system is available.

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