4 Best Survival Knives [2019 Hands-On]: Fixed-Blade

What’s the most useful tool in the world?

If you answered “A fully charged smartphone with service” you’re probably right.

And if the question is “What is the best tool for surviving in the wilderness?” The answer is still a fully charged smartphone with service…

But a solid knife is a close second!

Group Pic
(left to right) Ka-Bar USMC Knife, Morakniv Garberg, Gerber StrongArm, ESEE-4

What makes a survival knife? What’s a survival knife for? What’s the best survival knife?

I’ll answer all of them so by the end you’ll know the best knife for your end-use and budget.

Table of Contents

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Survival Knife Tasks

A survival knife is expected to be able to handle a lot more jobs than your average knife. If it can’t handle these, it has no business calling itself a “survival knife”.

Here are a few everyday tasks your survival knife may be see:

Cutting and Chopping

Of course, there is some necessary cutting and chopping task your knife is going to be called to do. From trimming limbs off trees to clearing a place to sleep.

Chopping wood with a ESEE 6 Knife
Chopping wood with a ESEE 6 Knife

These essential tasks are the most common and simplest tasks out there.

Cleaning Game

You’re out in the wild, alone, maybe afraid, but you’re hungry. If you got the skills or the luck perhaps you catch a fish, snare a rabbit, or down a deer. What now?

Meat, it's whats for dinner.
Meat, it’s whats for dinner.

You have to skin that bad boy. A survival knife needs to be able to skin and dress an animal. You need a sharp knife with a good belly to make those precise cuts.

Batoning Wood

Batoning wood is a task where you use a knife and a hammer substitute to split wood. The hammer substitute is often another piece of wood being used to drive the blade through the limbs.

Batoning wood with a ESEE 6
Batoning wood with a ESEE 6

This means you need a rugged and sturdy knife that drives its way through a nice thick piece of wood. Batoning wood is a tough task and requires a sturdy knife.

Starting Fires

You can’t cut your way into a fire, but a knife can be used for striking ferous rods that start fires. These rods need a nice sharp spine to create the friction needed to create the sparks required to start a fire.

I find it easier to start a fire with a smaller knife, personally
Warmth, cooking, and signaling. You NEED fire.

With these tasks in mind, how do you find a knife to satisfy each one?

Folding or Fixed?

The debate between folding and fixed blades can rage all day, but when it comes to survival knives, there is only one choice. Fixed blades are the way to go for survival knives.

Modern folding blades from companies like Emerson  are powerful and durable, but they still aren’t the best for survival.

Scabbards
Scabbards make carrying your knife easier, safer, and often offer some storage options

Survival knives can’t sacrifice strength, not even an inch, for the sake of convenient carry. We’ll start with the first requirement being the knife is a fixed blade only.

With that said I also carry a pocket knife everywhere.  Check out our picks for Best Every Day Carry (EDC) Knives.

edc pocket knives
Best EDC Knives

In a survival situation, I’ll have two knives…hopefully.  

Tang

This is a straightforward one, full tang or go home. Those cute little knives with hollow handles to store fishing gear, flints, etc. are useless. They’ll break in half in about two minutes of heavy use.

Full tang
Full tangs like on this ESEE might not be lightweight, but they are strong!

A full tang means the blade extends all the way into the handle. Any fixed blade knife with a partial tang or no tang at all can typically be tossed.

Now, the only exception to this rule is the Gerber LMF 2. The LMF 2 has nearly a full tang, but it stops just before the butt plate to provided insulate protection against stray live wires.

A full tang is the second must have on our survival knives checklist.

Grips

Knives have tons of different grip materials and styles. There isn’t a significant requirement I’d give as a checklist for one type of grip or grip material. This is more of guidance on how to choose a good grip on a survival knife.

On a survival knife, you should want an excellent full grip. It needs to fill your hand. This will provide a very comfortable grip and help reduce fatigue when you are working for extended periods of time.

Good grip
A Marine gripping a Ka-Bar, like nature intended

Material wise can be nearly anything. You’ll see leather, G10, different polymers, and rubbers. You generally want it to be textured too. You need a sure grip, so the knife doesn’t slip.

When blades slip, people get hurt.

You want to be able to hold the knife with a good grip with wet and sweaty hands, or when you might be wearing gloves. Anything too aggressively textured may give you hot spots while you are working.

If you find your grip is too strongly textured, some sandpaper or a file can generally fix that.

It’s a fine line to walk. For example, I like my Emerson PUK. It’s a great knife, but the grip isn’t excellent for a survival knife. The grip is thin and very aggressively textured, and after a while, it starts to grind into the hand.

Blade Features

Defining what your blade should be is another thing that’s never going to be set in stone. With so many different knives out there it’s hard to say that one is better than the other. Let’s talk the pros and cons of various features you’ll find on a survival knife’s blade.

How long should it be? Why do we always get obsessed with size? Come on guys, quit being immature.

For a survival knife, I’d say go between 3.5 to 7 inches for the blade. Anything shorter is a little rougher for heavy work, and anything longer than 7 inches can become unwieldy.

Blade style
(top) Ka-Bar USMC featuring a clip point and serrated blade (bottom) ESEE-4 with its Drop Point straight blade

The blade style can range greatly. I prefer a clip or drop point, and they are a bit more versatile. Tanto blades and spear points are okay, but better suited for tactical knives than survival knives.

Should your blade be serrated or straight? Straight edges are a bit easier to sharpen for sure and offer the maximum blade length for making slices and cutting deeply.

Kinfe types

Serrated blades can make chewing through thicker brush much more manageable. However, the edges are a little more challenging to sharpen, and you loose straight blade cutting space.

The Spine is the back of the blade and can be quite crucial for survival tasks. For a survival blade, I like a nice square spine. The square spine makes it easy to strike ferrous rods and sends sparks flying outward.

A square spine is also great for batoning wood since the flat top gives you a better surface for hammering down on.

Steel (Does it Matter?)

Does the blade steel matter? Of course, it does, however, there are so many metals used for making knives it’s challenging to say use one over another.

Blade steel is critical, and you should always research what that steel is and its strengths and weaknesses.

Staby!
Stabby!

Blade companies use so many different types of steel, and each has different steel that can be only a little different from the next in its composition.

The differences between them are important, but often a little overrated for the average user or even for the survival planer, as long as they are good quality knives.

However, just because you see some random letters and numbers – doesn’t mean that is good steel. If you’re not sure what steel you’re looking at, Google it! You’ll find loads of information out there.

Here are a few types of steel that are common and well made that you can trust at a glance.

  • AUS-8
  • 420HC
  • 154CM
  • S30V
  • 1095
  • 440c

Stainless Versus Carbon

A good argument to have is the stainless steel versus carbon steel debate. Both have their merits, and I like both, but let’s talk a little about each.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel knives rock when it comes to overall strength and corrosion resistance. They won’t rust, chip, or bend very easily. Stainless steel also looks a little sexier.

KA-BAR
USMC Ka-Bar and its carbon steel blade

The downside is that while its easier to sharpen it won’t hold an edge as long as high carbon steel.

High Carbon Steel

High carbon steel can be extremely sharp, nearly surgical. They are a little tougher to hone, but they hold a great edge over long and hard work. They are perfect for precise cutting.

The downside is that they will rust faster than stainless steel.

Best Survival Knives

1. Gerber StrongArm

The Gerber StrongArm and I go way back. I’ve nearly worn the finish off of one of them, so I gladly grabbed another. A full tang knife that comes with partial serration or a straight blade.

Also, sporting a stainless steel blade made from 420HC steel.

Best Budget Survival Knife
53 at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

The blade is also coated with a Cerakote finish that is pretty resistant to wear. However, after years and years of heavy use I’ve worn mine down significantly.

One of the reasons I love this knife is the handle, it is a glass filled nylon with a rubberized grip. The grip is textured with a series of small diamonds and is soft and comfortable.

Glass breaking pommel
Gerber StrongArm with glass breaking pommel

The pommel sports a glass breaker and the always important lanyard loop. The spine has a nice square edge for striking ferrous rods and creating sparks. The blade is a drop point design.

Over time I’ve found it to a rugged knife that’s very comfortable for extended use. That grip makes it enjoyable for extended use and balances comfort with a good texture.

The Gerber StrongArm also comes with an outstanding sheath system that gives a few options for carrying. There is the traditional vertical belt option. You also can carry the knife horizontally, or on a MOLLE platform.

Overall the StrongArm is an affordable and modern platform for all your survival knife needs. It’s perfect for cutting seat belts and breaking windows as well as starting fires and cleaning game.

2. The Original KA-BAR

I hope you guys like a substantial degree of bias because when it comes to the Ka-Bar, I am indeed biased. Why? Well, it is the legendary Marine issue combat knife, and I am a Marine.

When I was in, we got Ka-Bar bayonets issued over the standard Ka-Bar but at a machine gunner, I didn’t carry a bayonet very much. I did bring my favorite Ka-Bar, and this knife has been everywhere I have.

7-inch blade KA-BAR
7-inch blade KA-BAR

The Ka-Bar is on the large size of survival knives with a 7-inch blade and an 11.75-inch overall length.

Made from 1095 Cro-Van steel, this blade can achieve a very wicked edge and it stays sharp for a long time. It also comes in either partially serrated or straight edge.

The Ka-Bar has a pretty defined clip point that gives the knife a nice belly for deep slashes or skinning game.

Official Knife of the USMC
74 at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

It also uses a rat tail tang, meaning the steel in the handle is thinner than the blade. However, 1095 is hardened steel, and it seems to resist any breakage well.

Scabbards for the Ka-Bar come in plain leather that’s a bit old school, but effective. The Ka-Bar has been around so long you can find a variety of aftermarket options for it. This includes drop legs, cloth, and MOLLE sheaths.

The Ka-Bar is a rugged and sturdy knife that will give you years of service. If this model is a little big for you, they do make a variety of different size models that are a little more carry friendly.

3. Morakniv Garberg

The Garberg is Morakniv’s first full tang knife, and it’s made for the outdoors. The Garberg isn’t a tactical knife and doesn’t try to be. It’s just a simple knife designed to work hard.

The steel is a 14C28N Sandvik stainless steel. I’m not familiar with this steel, but in my days with Garberg it’s proven to be robust and reliable steel. It helps an edge pretty well for stainless and gets very sharp, but takes a little effort to get it there.

Mora Knives Garberg
Morakniv Garberg, simplistic looking but a workhorse of a knife

I will the square edged spine is a very sharp edge and has been the best knife I’ve ever used for striking ferrous rods. You can feel the difference with a stroke of your thumb.

The grip is very well rounded and feels very comfortable in hand. My only complaint is I wish it was textured a little more. However, it never slipped so maybe they are on to something.

74 at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

When it comes to cutting this thing drives through whatever material you put in front of it. The blade chews through wood and has no issues batoning, chopping, or carving wood.

The multi-mount sheath allows you to carry this knife is any way you see fit. From a backpack strap to a belt, or even attached to a vehicle. The multi-mount platform is outstanding and perfect for those looking for versatility.

My only complaint about the sheath is how far down the knife sits in it. It’s very low, and it can be hard to establish a good grip from the sheath.

4. Esee-4

The Esee 4 is the knife I’d take if you told me I was going into a survival situation. Even more than my beloved Ka-Bar (blasphemy, I know).

This is a simple, robust knife, designed by those who adventure for a living.

Designed by the same crew who run Randall’s Adventure and Training, a survival school that teaches a wide variety of different classes in land navigation, dirt medicine, bushcraft skills, field survival, and much more.

ESEE-4
My top pick for a survival knife

Rocking a full tang 4-inch blade made from 1095 high carbon steel. 1095 is renowned for its strength, and the Esee 4 is a durable knife. It can break through the ice, dig holes, cut through vines, wood, and more with absolute ease.

Author's Choice
99 at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

The handles are a thick, but lightweight Micarta and the whole package only weighs only 8 ounces.

Esee-4’s blade is solid and thick, and a square spine and a ridged thumb rest portion to extend your control over the knife for fine cuts.

It has a solid belly for deep slices and a rock solid point for deep stabs. The Esee 4 also has many aftermarket sheaths available from the standard leather to more modern polymers.

What’s your take on the Esee 4?

Readers' Ratings

4.94/5 (187)

Your Rating?

Runners-Ups and Honorable Mentions

Here a few knives that have solid reputations and while they didn’t make it into my top picks, they are still worth looking at. You won’t go wrong with any of these.

Gerber LMF 2 Infantry

70 at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Gerber is one of those names that you can just trust, almost everything in their product line is well made, well designed, and works when you need it too. The LMF II follows in those footsteps.

Benchmade Bushcrafter

Wallet Buster
200 at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

If you want to “buy once, cry once” then this is the knife for you. But…I disagree with that philosophy when it comes to knives. Knives wear out, period. Blades break, get dull, etc.

They also get lost, stolen, and traded away. Shelling out $200 bucks on a knife might not be the best investment when other amazing survival knives can be had for less than half the price.

Ka-Bar Mule

30 at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

I know what you’re thinking and yes this is a folding knife. While I wouldn’t call it a survival knife, it’s as close as I’ve ever seen a folding knife come. Built by Ka-Bar this is a beast of a knife, as you would expect.

It’s heavy also, over half a pound – for a folding knife that is crazy heavy and admittedly, weighs down a belt. But man, is it tuff.

I’ve split wood, gutted fish, skinned squirrel, and dropped it off a 50-foot cliff – this knife has made it through it all. For a folding knife, it has impressed me.

Conclusion

Before we depart, let’s go ahead and talk a minute about what to avoid. There is a lot to prevent, but mostly you want to avoid fantasy knives that put looks over function.

Fantasy Knife
Fantasy Knife by Rogue Armor

Don’t get me wrong…these kinds of knives are pretty cool…but they are not for survival.  

Shop with a focus on quality, and know you get what you pay for.

I want to turn it over to you…what’s your survival knife of choice? Let us know in the comments! Looking at folding EDC knives…check out our Best Picks for Under $50 and $100.

29 Leave a Reply

  • Bravo Tango

    I was also issued a Ka-Bar. It was hard work, but I got a pretty decent edge on it the first sharpening and then keeping the edge on it was pretty easy. That being said, I am looking for a good survival knife and am drawn towards the Ka-Bar Becker BK7. Do you have any experience with it? Does anyone out there have any experience with it? I'd love to hear about it. Bravo Tango

    9 months ago
  • Steve Riche

    I'm also a Marine and have had multiple K-bars for 30+ years and have loved them so much I have not sought out anything else. I'm sure the other knives are great but I will never know for sure. However I found it to take an edge fast and keep it even longer. I found cutting open sandbags to dull it faster than anything else. I love my K-bars, 5 stars.

    9 months ago
  • jp64

    Morakniv carbon. Cheap, easy to sharpen and holds an edge. Also very strong. Did i mention under $20 as in well under? I have one in every vehicle and at my hunting cabin

    9 months ago
  • GregBFL

    I think ESEE makes some of the best knives when it comes to function vs price. I know you have the ESEE 4 listed, but my choice would have been the ESEE 6. Fallkniven makes some very good knives as well especially if you are looking for Stainless blades. Their F1 in VG10 is equivalent to the ESEE 4 and the S1 (5 inch blade) or A1 (6 inch blade) would both work for a larger knife. If you are looking to get something a little more expensive (and higher quality), take a look at the Swamp Rat Knife Works - RatManDu. It's one of my favorites.

    9 months ago
  • Reid

    Recently I've been looking at the Boker Rold Scout and the UTKS-3 or UTKS-5 from Utica Cutlery Co. But I'm also told I have too many knives already, lol.

    9 months ago
    • Seumas59

      Uh...no such thing as too many knives. Also, there are lots of great choices out there but you can’t go wrong with ESEE.

      6 days ago
  • Roy

    Air Force Survival knife by Ontario and the new SP2 version are great options.

    9 months ago
  • Jay L

    I could think of 20 knives under $100 that I would choose before any of these.

    9 months ago
    • Survivor

      And yet you mention none of them...

      9 months ago
  • Zenon

    My made in Finland Hackman should be on the list

    9 months ago
  • barry

    any thoughts on the CIMA knives?

    9 months ago
  • Mike Dube"

    My heart beat w/ joy when my very own thoughts and experiences regarding the K-Bar where echo in your very informative article. I've a fixed blade full tang Scharde on my Tracking Kit and have found it to be another though competitor. Would be interested on your thoughts on this brand

    9 months ago
  • Krkn

    Cold Steel's SRK is my choice. Very simple, but crazy tough. There's a video somewhere of it being hammered point first straight through a log.

    9 months ago
  • Raymond Gatley

    I found kbar to be over priced, they were a 7.00$ when I was in the Corps, they are not full Tang, they usually bust at the blade, they are file blade,the new ones my be better,the Corps was issueing Ontario's in the 80, they seemed better, that's why I carried 2-3 knives, breakage,loss, Have to give one to another.CRKT,Cold steel, are good,even the Schrade is good, I'd rather have Aus 8 440a,-c,420hc Aus 6.check the steel on the inexpensive knives, sheath's usually suck on the real cheap ones, but u have seen $10.00 knives work as well or better

    9 months ago
  • Paul

    I have 4 knives i use often, case chestnut bone sodbuster jr for pocket carry , opinel#8 small animal skining ans outdoor citchen chores, condor bushlpre for most medium tasks , condor village parang for heavy chopping , ...all 4 hi carbon steel and all together >$300 combined and easy to keep razor sharp

    9 months ago
  • PANDAZ3

    I have a few, that I can use in a Survival situation. I bought a cheap Gerber Bear Grylls skeletonized handle wrapped in paracord, it is not great, but it can be sharpened and it would be a good spearpoint. I have a Cold Steel San Mai III Recon Tanto, 7.5 ". Nice razor sharp stainless steel knife like said before, 'more like a work of art' A Western W49 Bowie, a big knife that I bought new for my last tour in Vietnam. Ready to chop Redwoods down. I have a KABAR, several Army Pilot Survival knives (Similar, but shorter than a KABAR) and a Buck Model 124.

    9 months ago
  • B.

    No offense at all. you guys always do great reviews. but please, listen. every steel you listed is either a low grade or medium grade steel alloy. If you want something bad ass get CPM 3v, M4, or something forged. I use the piss out of my knife with a 3v blade and i only sharpen it once a month, maybe. knives made of these steels cost more, but once you start using a knife in a way that you life may depend on it, those low end steel alloys dont cut the cheese. there is a great app on playstore called knife steel composition that is a superb learning tool. even sb1 or niolox steels are better than some of those listed. I have a knife made of cpm 154. edge dont last a whole day of actual use and its very chippy, big chunk chippy.. if you just need to cut a piece of paracord here and there, any of those steels are good, but they are not workhorse steels. no steel alloy has a balance of edge retention, toughness, and corrosion resistance like cpm 3v. bark river bravo series, survive knives, theres a few good companies out there that use super steels. Knives are just like guns... buy once cry once is the way you want to go.... there are some decent knives on the list like kabar or i think esse is probably good but where i live they would rust so i never bought one. not trying to dog your review but there are way better options out there for survival. and honestly you need two knives. a slicer and a knife you can abuse a bit. If you are cool with low end steels check out TOPS BOB fire craft (or something like that). they got a bow drill divot already in the knife. Go on youtubes and watch edge retention tests of different steels as well as torture tests.. corrosion tests too. Guy fromsurvive has a video... 3v steel one week outside powder rust wipes off... one year outside steel wool to scrub off rust but no pitting.

    9 months ago
  • Wesleylb

    The basic Mora can be had for less than $20 and will surpass all of these except the ESEE and then it would be a toss up in my opinion. I agree with Mark Wynn, where whatever was in the authors drawer magically became the best survival knives available. The Kabar, although Awesome, is not a survival knife. Neither is the Gerber. Someone mentioned the Becker series and I say, fine survival knives each and every one. It's a matter of design. The Beckers are designed for outdoor survival use and bushcraft and the Gerber and Kabar are not. Can they be used in a survival situation if needed? Absolutely, but they would never be mistaken as survival knives (Fighting knives yes). For my money I have been super impressed by everything from Tops Knives. Cold Steel's SRK is a beast when it comes to durability and I would rather have it that the Kabar. Better steel and smaller blade to make work easier. Don't get me wrong, I still have my Kabar from my military days and if I was going up against a two legged predator there is nothing I would rather have in my hand, BUT, if I had to choose something to carry into a survival situation, it would be my Tops Bushcraft. I would love my Kabar as a backup though...

    9 months ago
  • Steve

    I own both the Hoffman Richter "Reaper" & the "Talon" full tang knives for survival & defense, if needed. But out in public I carry either a Fox FX-599 Karambit or the Fox Doug Marcaida designed Dart, both with the Emerson wave for open blade deployment out of your pocket..

    9 months ago
  • Kyle

    Are you familiar with the SOG Seal Team Elite? Any thoughts, pros or cons on it? Thanks and great article!

    9 months ago
    • David

      I've always read and heard good things about SOG knives, but personally the 4 I've owned sucked. Hated all four of them almost from the first use.

      9 months ago
  • Mark Wynn

    Doncha' love when an outdoors writer, needing a story, sorts through his own drawer of knives and announces "these are the four best survival knives ...." That said, tongue in cheek considering the hundreds of quality "survival knives" out there, the general advice is useful and practical. Especially like the common-sense about not purchasing a $200+ knife for hard, daily use.. For example, I have a Cold Steel "military classic" a semi-handcrafted Randall copy with San Mai steel. When I got it, I thought it so beautiful I've never used it. Should be in the museum of industrial art. Conversely, I picked up, for $3 at a garage sale a "Forgecraft Hi Carbon butcher knive, full tang, with oak slabs and brass rivets. Have used the heck out of it. Clean it with SimiChrome frequently. Thanks

    9 months ago
    • TravisP

      As the author I could easily put a few 200+ knives up I have, but in all honesty, they really aren't great survival knives. The knives listed are the ones I've found myself using over and over and over and keeping for years. Mostly because they work, and if I lose them (Which is common) I'm not hundreds of dollars.

      9 months ago
      • Mark Wynn

        ... and in retrospect I was being a bit smarmy, regrets ...Alas, a personal agenda about "best of" lists. That said, I find your general advice, and your review of the four knives, solid. In fact, I've been thinking about getting a Gerber LMF II for its features vs. price, and your review clinched the deal for when I visit Offutt AFB this weekend.

        9 months ago
  • Stephen Brunner

    I like your choices, but maybe it should have been 5 knives with the addition of the Bark River Bravo 1.

    9 months ago
  • Pat

    Tops knives has a number of knives that fit the bill. I’m especially fond of the Tops Bob (brothers of bushcraft) fieldcraft knife.

    9 months ago
  • Craig ford

    I really like my bekker fixed blade, companion model as a general purpose hunting and skinning.. I think everyone should have other types of knives, like a thin blade for cleaning and skinning, and a general utility, which can be folding.

    9 months ago
    • choot'em

      I "carry" a BK9. Made by kabar after they bought all beckers designs. 1095CroVan, and 9 inches of Bowie badassery.

      9 months ago
  • Lorenzo

    I know it’s not a fixed blade, but I EDC my Cold Steel 4-MAX and I think it will hold up as a decent survival knife as well as a self defense knife. Like you said, you pay for what you get.

    9 months ago
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