Andrew Martin is a New York-based outdoor enthusiast and history buff.
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. (Sorry Team Zombie Apocalypse Survivalists, no carbon steel machetes on this list.)
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.
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 best 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 would be a dumb idea. We’re also steering clear of most search results you’ll find on Amazon—if you ask me, the last thing I want to rely on in a survival situation is some bootleg blade from Bezos.
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 this way, there’s dozens of videos on YouTube and a ton of crabby knife sharpening "experts” on Reddit who would be more than happy to preach their gospel to you. For those of you that plan on being away from your home sharpening tools, there are some less cumbersome options but, as with everything else mentioned earlier, this requires planning. 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 9 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 inches
Overall Length: 9.8 inches
Blade Material: Sandvik 14C28N stainless steel
Weight: 9.5 ounces (272 grams)
Best Full Tang Survival Knife Under $75: Gerber Ultimate
The Gerber Ultimate is billed as a survival knife and has some add-ons including a fire starter, whistle, and sharpener, all of which nest in its included nylon sheath. But the Ultimate's bones are solid too: it has a partially serrated stainless steel blade and its grippy handle has an exaggerated guard to 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 inches
Overall Length: 10 inches
Blade Material: stainless steel
Weight: 11 ounces (312 grams)
Best Bushcraft Knife: Helle Didi Galgalu
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 wilds, and its curly birch handle will look better and better with age. Bonus: It comes with a leather sheath.
Blade Length: 5.79 inches
Overall Length: 11.18 inches
Blade Material: Sandvik 14C28N stainless steel
Weight: 13.4 ounces (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 sheaths by many) is a huge plus.
Blade Length: 3.5 inches
Overall Length: 7.8 inches
Blade Material: CPM-S30V steel
Weight: 3 ounces (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 $25. 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 inches
Overall Length: 8.6 inches
Blade Material: 12C27 stainless steel
Weight: 4.1 ounces (116 grams)
Best Folding Survival Knife: Helle Bleja
The Bleja is a chunker of a folder, and we mean that in a good way. 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 3.35-inch blade is made of Helle's triple-laminated 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. Available with or without leather sheath.
Blade Length: 3.4 inches
Overall Length: 7.9 inches
Blade Material: triple laminated Helle stainless steel
Weight: 5.4 ounces (153 grams)
Best Everyday Carry Knife: CRKT Parascale
CRKT's Parascale is another exception to the no-folder rule. It's a high-quality little knife with a classic 3.19-inch drop-point blade and the added bonus of a paracord handle, and it's small enough to work as an EDC option in addition to finding a home in your outdoor pack. This helps for grip, but you can also take the paracord wrapping out to provide you with some lashing, which is always handy in survival situations. You can also rethread the handle with paracord of your own (we recommend bright orange, of course).
Blade Length: 3.2 inches
Overall Length: 7.9 inches
Blade Material: D2 steel
Weight: 5 ounces (142 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 inches
Open Length: 6.75 inches
Blade Material: 420HC Stainless Steel
Weight: 7.5 ounces
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 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 inches
Overall Length: 12 inches
Blade Material: 1095 Cro-Van steel
Weight: 11.2 ounces (318 grams)