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The knife: A foundational tool of human civilization. In its simplest form, a knife is just a sharp edge with a place to safely hold it. Avid Field Mag readers know we tend to believe a less-is-more approach to outdoor gear design is often the best path to success, but when it comes to knives—particularly, survival knives—sometimes more is more.
When venturing into nature, carrying a trustworthy pocket knife is highly recommended—it is one of the 10 essentials, after all. A Swiss Army Knife will do for most lightweight backpacking needs. A multi-tool is great for car camping. Your dad’s old folding Buck knife oughta work well enough in most casual situations, too.
So what makes a knife a survival knife? Well, as unhelpful as it sounds, a survival knife is any knife you’ve suddenly become dependent on to survive. This could, in theory, be the simple pen knife you keep on a keychain if the situation is dire enough. For our purposes, let’s say you’re a little more prepared than that, and you’ve gotten a specific knife to help you survive, or practice surviving. Or rather, you're looking for one.
This is where we come in. Our list has been expertly curated to cover as many bases and survival scenarios as possible—including everyday surival—so read on for the full rundown of what to look for in a survival knife, our picks for the best survival knives, and more. (Sorry Team Zombie Apocalypse Survivalists, no carbon steel machetes on this list.)
Field Mag's Top Picks:
- Best Overall Survival Knife: Morakniv Garberg Carbon Steel
- Best Full Tang Survival Knife: Gerber Ultimate
- Best Bushcraft Knife: Helle Nord
- Best Hunting Knife: Benchmade Steep Country
- Best Budget Knife: Morakniv Companion
- Most Lightweight Full Knife: SOG Field Knife
- Best Folding Survival Knife: Helle Nipa
- Best Everyday Carry Knife: Gerber Assert
- Best Multi-Tool for Survival: Leatherman Signal
- Best Tactical Knife: Ka-Bar Straight Edge
- Best Survival Knife with Emergency Whistle: Opinel No.8 Outdoor
What should I look for in a survival knife?
The two most important elements in most survival situations are fire and shelter. You’ll need some ingenuity and know-how to achieve both, but a good knife will make the job a lot easier. The following are three key cutlery ingredients to keep in mind when hunting for the knife that's right for you.
Building a shelter and making fire both involve the manipulation of wood, so you’ll need a strong knife that will hold its edge. And because sturdiness is so important—a knife won't help you survive if it breaks during hard use—we generally recommend a fixed-blade (as in, not folding) survival knife with a full-tang construction, meaning the steel of the blade extends all the way through the handle. Full-tang knives are ideal for practicing bushcraft techniques, too. If you just want a reliable knife to keep in your glove box, purse, or pocket, then a folding knife will work fine.
For a dedicated survival knife, bigger is typically better. But not too big. A good and generally accepted size for the category is around nine inches, plus or minus a few. But again, the best survival knife is the one you have with you when disaster strikes—any blade is better than none at all, and there are exceptions to every rule.
There are some survival knife considerations that don't specifically pertain to pure function. First: I’m favorably predisposed toward bright orange for knives and outdoor tools when that’s an option. Survival situations can often involve low visibility, so having a camo knife could be a bad idea.
Second: Keeping your knife sharp is important. It is a blade after all. I sharpen all my knives (kitchen and outdoor) on a Japanese whetstone. This can be an involved but rewarding process that I won’t go into too much detail about. If you’re interested in learning about knife sharpening, head to YouTube, or if you dare, Reddit. For those looking for a sharpener to use on the move, a good mobile option is the Fallkniven DC4 whetstone. It is small enough to keep in a bugout bag or survival kit and could help in a pinch if you’ve dulled your blade after hours of surviving with it.
The 11 Best Survival Knives of 2023
Best Overall Survival Knife: Morakniv Garberg Carbon Steel
Morakniv's Garberg is a solid middle of the road survival knife. There’s no fat on this fixed blade knife—it’s all business, which is probably also why it's moderately priced for a high carbon steel full-tang knife. The Scandi Mora knife has a 90° angle on the spine so you can strike a ferro rod with it to start a fire or use it to strip bark, and the cutting edge of the carbon steel blade is durable and strong. And leather sheath and the all-black stylish look pretty sick, too. (This was the first knife I bought to practice bushcraft techniques so I have a soft spot for it.)
Blade Length: 4.3"
Overall Length: 9.8"
Blade Material: Sandvik 14C28N stainless steel
Sheath: 0.12" thick leather sheath
Weight: 9.5 oz (272 grams)
Best Full Tang Survival Knife Under $75: Gerber Ultimate
Though the Gerber Strongarm is beloved by many blade enthusiasts, the Ultimate earns our pick for its sleek, fortified design and added functionality—by way of an integrated fire starter, whistle, and sharpener, all of which nest in its included nylon sheath. Beyond the add-ons, the bones of Ultimate are solid too: a partially serrated stainless steel blade and grippy handle with an exaggerated guard minimize the risk of hurting yourself when you're trying to survive. It's also the cheapest full tang knife on this list.
Blade Length: 4.75"
Overall Length: 10"
Blade Material: stainless steel
Sheath: Clip-in sheath with ferro rod and strike point
Weight: 11 oz (312 grams)
Best Bushcraft Knife: Helle Nord
This is a husky knife. Not quite a bowie knife, but a real workhorse that's best for folks with larger hands. (If Rambo were Norwegian, this would've been his go-to.) With an overall length of over 11 inches, this full-tang knife is built to take a beating without fail—meaning it’s more than up to the task of batoning logs into kindling and pretty much any other bushcraft task you need to perform. Its Sandvik 14C28N stainless steel is easy to maintain, so don't worry about abusing it in the wild. And with curly birch as the handle material, this knife will look better and better with age and use. Bonus: It comes with a leather sheath.
Blade Length: 5.79"
Overall Length: 11.18"
Blade Material: Sandvik 14C28N stainless steel
Sheath: Traditional leather
Weight: 13.4 oz (380 grams) including sheath
Best Hunting Knife: Benchmade Steep Country
This is a very lightweight knife (the lightest of the bunch, at only 85 grams) and comes with a nice high-viz orange handle. Both of these features make the USA-made blade a good knife for a weight-weenie ultralight backpackers and hardcore hunters alike. The fixed blade knife’s razor sharp blade is 3.54 inches long and made of high-end CPM-S30V stainless steel, which will hold up to serious use over time with solid edge retention and corrosion resistance. The lightweight but heavy duty Boltaron sheath (considered superior to kydex polymer sheaths by many) is a huge plus.
Blade Length: 3.5 inches
Overall Length: 7.8 inches
Blade Material: CPM-S30V steel
Sheath: High visibility Boltaron sheath
Weight: 3 oz (85 grams)
Best Budget Knife: Morakniv Companion
This knife is dirt cheap and a Swedish classic. Buy a few and keep 'em all over—from your car's glovebox to your backpack, EDC bag, camping bin, etc—to ensure you're always prepared. It probably won’t survive a lot of batoning or chopping, but it punches way above its weight when you consider it only costs just $18. The Companion doesn't have a full-tang construction but it is definitely sturdy enough for serious use. (For a couple bucks more, get the Companion with integrated fire starter.)
Blade Length: 4"
Overall Length: 8.6"
Blade Material: 12C27 stainless steel
Sheath: Hard plastic poylmer sheath with belt clip
Weight: 4.1 oz (116 grams)
Best Lightweight Full Tang Knife: SOG Field Knife
Designed with outdoorsmen and backpackers in mind, this lightweight survival knife does a solid job of blending form and function at an accessible price point. The stainless steel blade is an appropriate size (though may need a sharpening after initial use) and the soft, thermoplastic rubber handle is comfortable in the hand and slip resistant. Though not exactly a premium knife, this SOG blade is a good survival knife nonetheless, and does come with a GRN sheath with belt clip and secondary attachment points.
Blade Length: 4"
Overall Length: 8.5"
Blade Material: 7Cr17MoV stainless steel
Sheath: Glass-reinforced nylon with belt clip
Weight: 3.8 oz (107 grams)
Best Folding Survival Knife: Helle Nipa
With the Helle Bleja sold out just about everywhere, our top folder pick goes to the chonky Nipa, called such with nothing but love. Again, true survival knives are almost always fixed blades, but this is a notable exception, mainly because its locking mechanism is so burly and the risk of it breaking is rather low. The camp knife’s 2.72” blade is made of Helle's triple-laminated stainless steel, formulated to hold up to years of backcountry use, and its handle is a curly birch that'll only wear in with age (the handle also includes a lanyard loop). If you want a survival knife but are still conscious of pack space, this folder is a good option.
Blade Length: 2.72"
Overall Length: 6.4"
Blade Material: Triple laminated Helle stainless steel
Sheath: Not included
Weight: 4.2 oz (120 grams)
Best Everyday Carry Knife: Gerber Assert
The new Gerber Assert is another exception to the no-folder rule. This ultralight yet robust little knife lands on our list thanks to expert recommendation from the very folks that coined the term EDC. "The Gerber Assert is my pick for the best EDC survival knife because it brings together the sensibilities of an outdoor knife with the practicality of a daily folder," says Everyday Carry Managing Editor Mikey Bautista. "The fact that it's ambidextrous, comes in a great size with solid specs, and is made in the USA gives it real crossover appeal for my daily commute and camp on the weekends."
Blade Length: 2.98"
Overall Length: 6.95"
Blade Material: S30V stainless steel
Weight: 1.87 oz (53 grams)
Best Multi-Tool for Survival: Leatherman Signal
The Signal is definitely more multi-tool than knife, and while its 2.7-inch blade is shorter than what we'd classify and recommend as a true survival blade, it's still a worthwhile choice for folks who want to carry lots of tools in a small package. The Signal has 19 tools total, including the typical Leatherman standbys like pliers and screwdrivers as well as survival-oriented implements like a whistle and Ferro rod for emergency fire starting. It also has a serrated blade that comes in handy for bushcrafting (and works pretty darn well considering its size).
Blade Length: 2.7"
Open Length: 6.75"
Blade Material: 420HC Stainless Steel
Sheath: Nylon sheath included
Weight: 7.5 oz (213 grams)
Best Tactical Knife: Ka-Bar Straight Edge
"This is my knife, there are many like it but this one is mine," so they say. There are some iconic silhouettes in this world, like the Coca-Cola bottle, the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, and, I’d argue, the American made Ka-Bar Straight Edge. I think there’s something to be said for owning a big knife just because you like it. This was a knife issued in WWII to soldiers for survival and self-defense but it can surely fill in as your survival knife with its seven-inch Cro-Van steel clip point blade, stacked leather handle (not a micarta handle), and included sheath. (It's also available with a serrated blade and leather sheath.)
Blade Length: 7"
Overall Length: 12"
Blade Material: 1095 Cro-Van steel
Sheath: Leather sheath with US Army insignia
Weight: 11.2 oz (318 grams)
Best Knife with Emergency Whistle: Opinel No.8 Outdoor
Opinel's beech wood handled No.08 is a true classic in the knife world, so it makes sense that the French knife maker would revamp the design with utilitarian materials and features for rigorous outdoor use. The No.08 Outdoor has the familiar collar lock but instead of a basic handle it has a non-slip synthetic one with a built-in whistle and lanyard. The 3.25-inch blade is partially serrated and has a cutout shackle that you can use for opening bottles and other tasks.
Blade Length: 3.25"
Overall Length: 7.5"
Blade Material: 12C27 Sandvik stainless steel
Weight: 1.5 oz (43 grams)
What is a survival knife?
While any knife can be a valuable tool in a survival situation, there does exist a category of knives specifically made for wilderness survival. These knives tend to be, but aren't always, fixed-blade knives with full-tang blades usually 6-10 inches in length. Survival knives typically use durable blade steel that holds an edge to stand up to survival-oriented tasks like building shelter, starting fires, and hunting. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and the survival knife category is wide and growing.
What is a fixed blade vs a folding blade?
A fixed blade is a a knife blade that is static and attached to its handle with no moving parts. Fixed blade knives typically come with a sheath made of leather or nylon to protect the blade. A folding blade is a knife that hinges where the blade meets the handle so that the blade can pivot and fold into a channel built into the handle.
What is the best length for a survival knife?
There's no definite best length for a survival knife, despite hot debates among aficionados. Many agree that the ideal blade length is around nine inches, though you'll definitely find survival-oriented knives below and above this number, including on this list.
Is there such thing as the "best knife"?
As always, one man's best is another's no way. Our list of the best survival knives is not comprehensive—it's based upon a combination of personal experience, hands-on testing, and advice from fellow knife experts.