You can handle any knife-related survival tasks with one of the knives reviewed below. These are survival knives you can count on. Each of them is a classic intended to do one thing: help you stay alive.
If you actually find yourself out in the wilderness trying to survive…
…then you’ll want a knife made to handle those conditions — whether you’re lost in the mountains, stranded in the desert, bushwhacking out of a jungle, or marooned on a tropical island. The right knife can mean the difference between survival and a beat-down by the environment.
There are any number of knives touted as survival knives and many of them are pretty good. But if you have a choice, why not choose a knife that has stood the test of time? If your bush plane goes down in Alaska in the winter and it’s 40 below and you’re trying to stay alive in the woods, you don’t necessarily care how sexy or fashionable your survival knife is, you just want it to fucking do the job.
Three knives will be reviewed here that will fit the bill (plus a fourth knife that, though popular, might not). In addition to your wits — which are your single most important survival factor — these tools (plus a few other essential survival tools you might want to carry, such as a flint and steel and some cord or a survival strap) can help you execute a wide variety of survival-oriented tasks, including building a shelter, which is often the most important thing to accomplish first. Hacking up bushes and cutting limbs is a darn sight easier and more efficient if you’re not trying to do it with your bare hands.
And when it comes to how to use your knife to survive, I’ve included a list of three of the top survival books of all time. You’ll find these manuals listed at the end of this post, conveniently linked to for purchasing. You can also buy the knives reviewed here by clicking the links to reliable online knife dealers.
To review these top-rated survival knifes, we’ll start with the legendary icon of this class…
This is possibly the most famous knife in the world. It was created in 1942, when the U. S. Marine Corps needed a better combat/utility knife to issue to its personnel during WW II. The Ka-Bar company, in conjunction with military advisors, came up with this design, and it became one of the most popular knives ever, with more than a million manufactured by Ka-Bar during the war alone. It continues to be used by several branches of the US military today, including the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Underwater Demolition Teams, and remains the personal knife of choice for many Marines. The design has been upgraded as materials have improved in the 67 years since the knife was first issued.
The Ka-Bar Marine Corps Fighting/Utility Knife can perform any survival task a knife is required for. In the several wars in which it has been used, it has been used to dig trenches, pound tent stakes, drive nails, open ration cans, and for personal defense, while still remaining sharp enough for the occasional shave. It is presently in use by armed forces personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has become a favorite of outdoorsmen, adventurers, and survivalists. In its “How to Survive” issue in 2008, National Geographic Adventure magazine listed a knife as an indispensable survival tool and endorsed the Ka-Bar Fighting/Utility Knife as the only knife you would need.
Of the Ka-Bar, they wrote: “Drop someone naked in the middle of nowhere with nothing but this tool — and a survival school education — and they’ll be lounging fireside in rabbit fur by sundown.” This knife is durable, rugged, versatile, and a bargain when you consider its quality (and it comes with a sheath).
The 7-inch blade, legendary for its extreme sharpness, is constructed of 1095 carbon steel coated with epoxy powder . It has a Rockwell hardness rating of 56-58. The handle is stacked leather (ah, that leather aroma). The overall length is 11 and 7/8 inches and the weight comes in at just under 11 ounces, so you won’t mind carrying it around. The butt cap is powdered metal and the guard is carbon steel. It comes in both plain-edge and serrated versions. You can get the plain-edged version here for a good price (pictured at right). It comes with a leather sheath. It’s made in the USA. Online reviewers speak glowingly (even passionately) about this knife. Go ahead — split wood, gut a catfish, cut barbed wire: this solid knife can handle it and will keep coming back for more. Keep one in your glove compartment, tackle box, backpack, snowmobile tool compartment, survival pack, etc. Just remember, unless you’re in a survival situation, you might get in trouble if you carry it around naked.
Here is a video review of the Ka-Bar Marine Corps Survival Knife:
Next we have a knife named after a fish — the Roach Belly Knife by Cold Steel. This knife is an excellent value — a tough, utilitarian, light-weight survival knife for an affordable price. It’s a multi-tasking fixed-blade knife that you can use in a variety of outdoor (and indoor) situations, especially where lightness, compactness, and toughness are prerequisites. The Roach Belly design has a long history behind it, having originated in 17th-century Britain. It was used extensively in the American colonies, particularly in the Hudson Bay region, and was believed to have been named after the roach fish, which had a similar curve to its body as the blade. The design has stood the test of time, with its pronounced up-curve and versatile piercing tip. One online reviewer of the Cold Steel Roach Belly Knife wrote that: “I was able to drill a tiny hole completely through a green piece of sapling [with the tip] and make a broiler. No doubt it would be great in making notches to start your bow drill as well. And trap trigger carving would be a breeze. The fine point held up very well despite the blatant abuse I subjected it to while trying to open up a rotten log to check out a marbled salamander. I was very pleased with the rigidity and durability of the point… Speaking of rigidity, despite my anti-baton preaching, I did conduct such a practice with this knife… I was able to baton [i.e., hammer] this lightweight knife through an extra tough piece of wood with no handle cracking and no abuse to the edge. Needless to say, I was very impressed. No white marks on the black handle to show off inner wear, warping or twisting of the polymer handle, and no rattling or clicking either, it held up far beyond that of many knives in its price range, especially in handle rigidity aspect. The edge grind held up extremely well, too, with no nicks or dings or imperfections to the edge.”
The Cold Steel Roach Belly Knife has an overall length of 8½ inches and a blade length of 4½ inches. It weighs 2.6 ounces, so you’ll hardly know it’s there when carrying it — making it especially good for climbers, ultra-light backpackers, and kayakers. The hollow-ground blade is made of 4116 Krupp Stainless Steel, with a hardness of Rc 56-57; the edge is finely-honed and easy to re-sharpen. It comes with a Cordura sheath. Some online reviewers were not impressed with the stock sheath and suggested having a Kydex sheath made for this knife. Various companies will custom-make one for you. I don’t have personal experience with the following companies, but you can check out a couple here and here. (If you happen to have dealt with these companies, or you do try them, please leave a comment below regarding your experience.)
At around $15, this knife would complement the Ka-Bar Fighting/Utility Knife or the Cold Steel San Mai Trail Master Bowie (described below). Or you could buy several to stash in various locations, as well as to carry during outings. It would make an excellent stocking-stuffer for the outdoor people on your gift list or for anyone who would like a versatile, fixed-blade knife. In addition, it also makes a good kitchen or barbecue knife. Use it to cut a hunky chunk of squash, slice salami and cheese, carve up celery sticks, prune a flower arrangement…
The Ka-Bar and Cold Steel knives will fit the bill for most situations. However, they are not necessarily the creme de la creme of survival knives. If you want the BMW of survival knives, then read on for a review of a really kick-ass knife. It is the…
At some time, most men want a bowie knife. There is no more badass knife available.
Admit it…if you’re in a hardware store or outdoor gear store and you wander by the glass case with the knives and there’s a bowie knife there, doesn’t your gaze linger? Don’t you feel some knife lust? Yeah, well, you’re supposed to feel like that. As Crocodile Dundee said, “That’s a knife.” There are a number of bowie designs around and the Cold Steel San Mai Trail Master is one of the best. It’s 14½ inches long overall with a 9½-inch blade made of stainless San Mai III steel. The weight is 17.5 ounces.
Cold Steel describes the San Mai III blade fabrication process by comparing it to a “sandwich” with three parts: the “meat center” is hard, high-carbon steel and the two “pieces of bread” on either side are the lower-carbon protective sides.
The edge of a blade needs to be hard to maximize edge-holding while the body of the blade must be able to resist impact and lateral stresses. Otherwise, a knife could be damaged during rigorous use. Counterintuitively, the softer and more flexible a steel is, the “tougher” it is, but a steel of such consistency won’t hold a superior edge. So, two different kinds of steel are combined to provide the best sharpness and hardiness. Is the San Mai Trail Master tough? You bet. Is it sharp? It will shave your arm hair.
Cold Steel claims that this knife will outperform “by a wide margin” any factory-made knife and 99% of all hand-forged blades. If you spend your hard-earned money on this knife, you’ll know you’re getting one of the best. It is possibly the most knife for the money ever commercially built. The blade and the non-slip Kraton grip are virtually immune to water, salt, and the humidity of a jungle environment so that also makes it a good survival knife.
You may not believe some of the things this knife will do. Seeing is believing, however, so check out the following video to see this knife in action.
While it is expensive, the Cold Steel San Mai Trail Master Bowie is worth it if you should find yourself in the kind of situation where a good knife can mean the difference between surviving and dying. And really, why be satisfied with lusting for a bowie knife when you can actually possess one of the best ever made?
In addition to the preceding links to Knife Center, you can also find this knife and a complete selection of Cold Steel Knives at Knife Depot by clicking here. They have a large selection of other survival knives, too. If for some reason you choose a different knife than those reviewed here, try to prioritize survival knives that have a carbon steel blade.
The San Mai Trail Master Bowie might be the knife Jim Bridger would carry if he was alive today. I don’t doubt that there’s at least a little bit of Jim Bridger in you…
You can’t go wrong with the knives reviewed above when it comes to a survival knife you can rely on when the chips are down or to keep around “just in case.” They will outperform many others on the market and your kids will be pleased to inherit them (after you die in bed peacefully at a ripe old age, having survived many adventures). However, before we leave the topic of survival knives, I should mention, for the sake of thoroughness, one more thing…
And now for something completely different — a survival knife you actually might not want: the Tom Brown Tracker Knife
A lot of us have heard of the Tom Brown Tracker Knife due to the movie (which I really like) The Hunted. (If you haven’t seen the movie, get on over to this site and remedy that immediately by purchasing it. It’ll be a good addition to your collection of man-films.)
Now, I have nothing but admiration for Tom Brown, Jr., who is a preeminent tracker, survival teacher, and author. He is the modern-day equivalent of an Apache scout. He once lived in the wilderness for a year with nothing but his bare hands. And his Tracker School is probably the best-known tracking and survival school in the nation, if not the world. Knifewise, he was a consultant on the movie The Hunted (check out the interesting material about Tom on the featurettes included on the DVD). So it stands to reason that he would choose to feature a knife in that movie that he had a hand in designing. In fact, the movie is kind of an extended commercial for the knife, as well as knife skills in general. But does the blade actually live up to the hype? And the high price?
Some say no. The knife is relatively heavy to lug around (28 ounces), for one thing. (A Ka-Bar knife and a Gerber Back Paxe together would weigh only 2 ounces more and you’d have money left over to buy fishing tackle.) Despite the weight, the “multi-purpose” blade is only 4¼ inches long. Some say it tries to offer too many functions in too short a space. It looks cool, at least, and it has that Tommy Lee Jones/Benicio Del Torro cachet, but is it worth over $200? You can decide for yourself. Some people seem to love it more or less for the idea of it. But would you want it over other knives in a survival situation?
Check out the following video from Nutnfancy for a thought-provoking review.
If you still want the burly Tom Brown Tracker Knife you can find it here. Sometimes an item will speak to you, regardless of its comparative utility.
That’s why there isn’t just one of everything.
May all your challenges be survivable — and, if not survivable, a hell of a lot of fun.
More Essential Info Relating to Edged Implements and Surviving
How do you get that “survival school education”? In addition to schools such as the Tom Brown Tracker School, check out the following outstanding books. They’ll tell you how to put your knife to good use, among a lot of other things:
This is the revised edition of a classic on survival — SAS Survival Handbook: For Any Climate in Any Situation, by John “Lofty” Wiseman.
Wilderness Survival (2nd. ed.), by Gregory Davenport, a former USAF Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) instructor, covers most survival basics.
The Ultimate Guide to U.S. Army Survival Skills, Tactics, and Techniques, by the Department of the Army (Jay McCullough, ed.) covers not only multiple survival scenarios in depth but combat contingencies as well. Quite thorough.
I’m a fan of multiple sources when it comes to learning how to do something. Of course, it takes more than reading books to learn how to survive. Then again, as mentioned at the top of this post, your most important survival tool is your brain. Add some hands-on practice, and you’ll be fine.
To explore a huge variety of survival knives and find more in-depth info, check the sources below:
Field & Stream is the classic outdoor/adventure magazine. There’s a reason it’s been around for 100 years…
Blade is the godfather of knife magazines…