There are a lot of outdoor knives and survival blades out there to choose from, and the one you opt for will be based on your experience, preferences and the tasks you anticipate while out in the wilderness. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all knife, which is why you have to seriously consider your lifestyle and needs, not to mention your budget.
In order to narrow down your options, consider making a list of the tasks you anticipate.
In this article, we’re going to start by comparing basic kitchen knives to outdoor knives in order to remove any confusion. Then, we’re going to talk about the different types of outdoor knives you’re bound to come across during the buying process.
We’ll then break down the types of steel commonly used in outdoor knives, followed by other features to consider when shopping, such as grip and sheath style.
After that, we have a section on choosing a Swiss army knife, followed by brief sections on price and maintaining your knife.
Kitchen Knives vs Outdoor Knives
If you’re not yet experienced when it comes to the world of outdoor knives, you may assume that the knives in your kitchen will perform just fine out in the wild. Aside from the fact that both types of knives are sharp and come to a point, they don’t have other similarities, particularly when it comes to purpose. Here are some of the main differences between kitchen and outdoor knives to familiarize yourself with:
- A chef’s knife will have either a polymer or wood handle that’s comfortable to use in a kitchen setting and that’s easy to clean. The handle of a kitchen knife doesn’t have to be tightly gripped. Alternatively, the handle of a survival knife has to be comfortable even when gripped tightly and used for intense tasks, and it has to maintain that grip even when wet. Also, it has to do all that without separating from the blade.
- Kitchen knives, and any knife that’s meant for preparing food, will have a deeper, longer, thinner blade than a survival knife.
- The blade of a kitchen knife is created with a low carbon content steel, which makes it able to stand up to moisture and acid. However, this type of steel also means that the blade can easily chip, especially if it goes into a rugged obstacle.
- Kitchen knives are only designed to cut food. The blades aren’t meant for prying or stabbing.
- A kitchen knife is created to rock from the tip backwards in order to slice through food. A survival knife, on the other hand, is created to be drawn through or pounded through whatever it’s cutting.
- Kitchen knives are meant for repeated daily use, which means they’re sharpened much more frequently than outdoor knives. All of this sharpening means that the blade of a kitchen knife will decrease in length and depth over time. That may be fine for kitchen use, but definitely won’t suffice out in the wild.
Keep in mind that modern knives are sometimes designed for dual purposes, including survival needs as well as food prep. If you want a knife that can handle both, it’s possible to find ones specifically created for these purposes.
Types of Outdoor Knives
While there are several types of outdoor knives, they ultimately boil down to two main types:
- Fixed Blades
- Folding Blades
Choosing a fixed or folding blade is going to be your first decision. Fixed blades are stronger than folding blades and are best if you anticipate hard work, like splitting wood. Folding blades (also called Every Day Carry or EDC knives), on the other hand, are best if you need an everyday pocket knife. These knives flip open, are lighter in weight and have a lower profile than fixed blades, and they’re great if you’re going to be backpacking or camping in the backcountry. You can carry out tasks that require basic knife work, and folding blades tend to keep an edge, sharpen easily and last for years. They can easily fit in a pocket or belt, and they’re a good option if you’d like to carry a knife every day, whether you’re outdoors or just going about your daily life.
You can further segment knives into categories based on how they’re used, including bushcraft, combat, hunting and survival. (If you’re going to be in the woods or in the wild where you may face an emergency situation, you’ll want a survival knife.) Here are some of the most common types of knives:
- A Bowie-style knife is one of the most popular types of survival knives, and people have used this type of knife for chopping, hunting and fighting for centuries. When shopping for a modern Bowie knife, look for one with a full tang and that has enough weight to do things like chop without making it too heavy for carrying. Also, Bowie knives are made with all different kinds of steel, but you want one that has a heat treatment to keep the edge on the knife without it becoming brittle.
- A fighting blade is made for the purpose of hand-to-hand fighting. Military personnel may carry fighting blades on them. These blades have a single-edged, high-carbon, steel, straight blade with a clip point intended for thrusting and slashing. A small folding knife can be used for self-defense, but they’re typically used as a backup to a firearm. Regardless of whether your fighting knife is large or small, the blade should be as sharp as possible, rugged and have a penetrating tip.
- “Survival knife” is sort of a catch-all term, and there may be some crossover with other knife types, but for our purposes, we’re going to use this term to refer to a robust, versatile fixed knife that you can rely on in various survival circumstances. A survival knife can do everything from prepare food to split wood, and it may also be used for hunting. Most importantly, survival knives should be able to withstand impact and force.
- A Swedish wood carving blade is another popular type of wilderness blade. These knives are inexpensive while still being rugged and they’re a breeze to sharpen. Since so many survival tasks involve woodworking, such as cutting sticks for trap-making or carving a fire set, it’s important to have a reliable wood carving knife.
Knives are then broken down again by features, like blade material; hafting, which is how the blade is attached to the handle; and tang, which is how much of the blade goes into the handle.
No matter what type of outdoor knife you choose, you’ll want to make sure that it’s useful and long-lasting. These features are much more important than appearance or even sharpness – the knife has to hold up during the task at hand.
That said, it’s a good idea to avoid outdoor knives that have a ton of features and uses. You’ve undoubtedly seen the knives that can also double as scissors or a screwdriver, but the more features you add to a single knife, the worse any of those features are going to perform. If you need those additional features, buy them separately. We will go a bit into the reliable Swiss army knife later on in this article, where we’ll talk specifically about the Swiss-made, all-in-one tool as opposed to cheaper versions.
Types of Steel in Outdoor Knives
There are hundreds of versions of steel out there today, but the three you should be most interested in for the sake of knife shopping are carbon steel, stainless steel and tool steel. Many types of steel can make a great survival knife, but they have their drawbacks, too. Also, based on their heat treatment, they may respond differently even if the knife is made with the same type of steel.
This steel has a high carbon content, making it incredibly tough and difficult to crack. It’s also easy to sharpen a carbon steel knife even while out in the wild. Since it’s not stainless, it can easily rust within a few hours or days if you leave it wet or with fruit acids still on it. It also doesn’t do well around salt water, so reconsider taking your carbon steel knife if you’re going to be near the ocean. In order to prevent rusting, carbon steel may have a special coating on it.
Stainless steel knives have a high carbon content, just like carbon steel knives, but they also have chrome, which somewhat protects the steel from rusting. Stainless steel can be more challenging to sharpen than carbon steel and it’s not capable of handling a lot of force. However, it is a decent option if you don’t have any other knives that can withstand humid or salty conditions.
Tool steel has a high carbon content as well as chrome, but it doesn’t have the right amounts to fit into either the carbon or stainless steel category. Tool steel has the best of both worlds. While they can rust after some time, they won’t rust as quickly as carbon steel. Tool steel is also very strong and easy to sharpen.
More Outdoor Knife Features to Look For
Aside from fixed vs. foldable and the type of steel your knife has, there are several other features to consider. In this section, we’re going to talk about the knife’s spine, handle and other factors that should go into your decision.
Look for a spine that’s thick and square, and that looks like it can stand up to a lot of use. With the saw, you’ll be able to perform all sorts of heavy duty camp tasks. Since the spine of your knife should be strong, you should avoid any knives that have a saw on the spine. If you need a saw, purchase one separately – having a saw on the blade will only weaken it. Every one of those V-shaped notches is another opportunity for the blade to crack.
Micarta is the brand name for the composite material that’s often used in knife handles, and it’s made from linen and synthetic resin. Micarta is very strong and can have great grip even in wet conditions. It can also stand up to changes in humidity and temperature. Plus, Micarta is resistant to abrasion, comfortable to hold and maintenance-free. G10 is another reliable material that’s similar to Micarta, made from fiberglass and synthetic resin, but it’s not as reliable in terms of grip during wet weather.
Rubber is also often used in knife handles, whether it’s pure rubber, a synthetic mix or a mold around another material. Rubber can withstand humidity and, based on texture, may offer excellent grip even in wet conditions. However, rubber can’t stand up to heat very well, which may pose a problem for some outdoor adventurers.
Whatever the knife handle is made from, it has to have a comfortable, solid grip whether wet or dry. The grip should feel good to hold even when holding it firmly. Look for an ergonomic shape with a texture that’s easy to grip.
If the handle isn’t designed well, it could result in painful blisters or cause the knife to “jump” out of your hand while you’re using it. Don’t go for a round handle (if it looks like a broom handle, you don’t want it) or a squared-off handle.
We also don’t suggest wooden handles, because wood can easily crack. Also, wood can lose its shape based on humidity or temperature. While there are laminated or stabilized types of wood that may be okay in knife handles, we feel that it’s best to stick with the materials that are always reliable.
One thing you definitely want to avoid when it comes to an outdoor knife is a hollow handle, which means it doesn’t have tang. A hollow handle means that the handle and the blade are two different pieces, which creates a weak point. Survival knives should have at least partial tang, though full tang is best. This will prevent the knife from breaking, especially when you need it to work in-the-moment.
You want to find a knife that’s easy to sharpen with just a basic whetstone, or even one that you can sharpen without any type of sharpening kit, using only a rock or stone. Your goal should be to sharpen the knife before it gets dull, since using a dull knife is dangerous.
Length and Weight
When opting for a fixed blade knife, size is going to be the main consideration. Do you need something huge that can basically handle what a machete could? You may need this if you’ll be in tropical terrain or dense forest that requires bushwhacking.
When choosing a knife, compare the weight to the length. If the extra weight isn’t worth it for the benefits of having a longer knife, consider purchasing a shorter knife to save on the weight.
There are three main sheath styles you’ll come across:
- The most popular sheath you’ll see has a hole or another type of attachment on the end that lets you attach the knife to a backpack or belt.
- You can also find a sheath with a lanyard attachment, which is a loop that lets you put the knife around your neck. This type of attachment is great for small knives, but not for large ones.
- The last sheath style is the strap, which means that the knife goes into the sheath and is then covered by a piece of material and locked in place. To slide the knife out, you’ll pop the bolt.
The knife you choose needs to be able to carry out the tasks of the activity and/or region you anticipate. A big part of finding the right knife is knowing where you’ll be and how you’ll be using it.
Choosing the Best Swiss Army Knife (Multi-Tools)
Now, we’ve mentioned that we don’t necessarily recommend opting for a knife with a bunch of bells and whistles, but some people simply love Swiss army knives, so we didn’t want to leave them out completely. In this section, we’re going to cover some must-know information about choosing the best Swiss army knife for your purposes.
What is a Swiss Army Knife?
The Swiss army knife has been around since the late 1800s and, while it does include a knife, it does so much more. It’s technically an all-purpose tool that has a couple of sharp blades in addition to various tools, including scissors, a corkscrew, a can opener and a screwdriver, among others. If you opt for a Swiss army knife that’s actually made by the Wenger or Victorinox company, you’ll be getting a high quality, Swiss-made tool, one with a lifetime guarantee and an excellent return policy.
Choosing a Swiss Army Knife Based on Purpose
With all the gizmos a Swiss army knife has, it’s a good idea to start your search by thinking about the main reason you’ll need it. Which of the tools are you going to be using the most? Swiss army knives have an array of tools packed into one, and the more tools yours has, the more expensive it will be. If you’re not going to be using all of those features, why pay for them? Also, size will play a role in how much the knife will cost, so you’ll want to consider how large a knife you’ll need – for example, if you need the knife to help you with heavy duty jobs, you’ll want a larger blade. Also think about size in terms of what you’re willing to carry – a Swiss army knife should be portable and comfortable to carry so you can always have it on you.
A Word About Price
While there are some exceptions, most of the time you’ll get what you pay for when it comes to outdoor knives. It’s a good idea to spend as much as your budget will allow so that you’re ensuring the knife is made from high quality materials and steel.
One Last Thought: Maintaining Your Knife
In order to get the most out of your knife for years to come, it’s important to practice proper maintenance. Keep the blade clean and occasionally wipe it with oil. Also, regularly sharpen the blade so that it stays effective and strong, and sharpen with the technique that’s meant for your blade’s angle. While it’s a good idea to own a sharpening kit, there are some techniques you can master in order to sharpen your knife on a rock.
Outdoor Survival Knife Reviews Directory
Below you will find a handy reference to all of our published reviews, comparisons, and guides:
Knife Buying Guides
- Becker BK2 Review
- Benchmade Barrage Review
- Benchmade Griptilian Review
- Benchmade McHenry Review
- Benchmade North Fork Review
- Benchmade 940 Review
- Buck 110 Folder Review
- Esee Laser Strike Review
- Falkniven F1 Review
- Kershaw Skyline Review
- Kershaw 1660 Review
- Ontario Rat 2 Review
- SOG Seal Pup Review
- Spyderco Paramilitary 2 Review