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Ask an Expert: How to Choose a Survival Knife

Expert tips on picking the survival knife that's right for you.

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Photo by Mike Petrucci

A survival situation can leave you unprepared and panicked, but having the right knife can keep you warm, fed, and hydrated. We asked Gerber product manager Bill Rackowski for advice on choosing your next survival knife. His number one piece of advice? Hit the store. “Shopping online without actually feeling the knife is not a great idea,” Rackowski says. “Take a survival class and use the products before you’re in a survival situation.”

What are the different types of survival knives?

Large fixed-blade knives, like a machete, can be a game changer in a survival situation and are a great convenience in everyday, heavy-duty work like creating shelters or cutting up dead trees for a fire. The durability in smaller fixed-blades is unrivaled, and versatility is key, too. They can be used as a standard knife, for chopping tasks or even lashed to a large stick to create a spear. Small knives can also be used for detailed work, like weaving or lashing branches together. Another option is a sheath-folding knife, which can be a convenient carrying option for the wilderness.

What are the pros and cons of fixed-blade versus foldable knives?

Fixed blades are preferred for their strength while batoning, chopping, and digging, and are also the preferred method for defense against other mammals. The downside of a fixed blade, though, is their size and usually, their weight. Sheath folding knives are preferred if space and compactness are priorities, but they are inherently weaker at the pivot point.

What should I consider when looking at the size of a survival knife?

The size depends on how you are carrying the knife, and what activity are you preparing for. Are you driving into a remote location where you could be stranded? A larger fixed blade knife and sheath folders can be brought since weight and space are not priorities. Are you going on a solo trip? Choose a smaller fixed blade or a sheath folder. The size of the knife also depends on the size of environment. Larger knives would be best suited for large trees or dense forest, while sheath folders are good for desert where there is less need to cut large objects.

What about the handle?

A heavier knife should have a heavier handle—especially for chopping—so wood, bone, or a plastic/rubber combination is ideal. A medium knife can use any combination. Wood and bone handles can be very comfortable and wear nicely, but are prone to cracking or drying out if not cared for. Metal (steel or aluminum) is strong and long-lasting, but can be heavy and gets hot or cold depending on the conditions. Rubber can be comfortable if designed properly and absorbs vibration, but can deteriorate or get damaged more easily.

And how about the material of the blade?

Carbon steel is the most common on large fixed blade knives, like machetes or axes, and can hold an edge for a very long time. This material is more prone to rusting, and needs to have a coating or mirror polish to reduce corrosion. Stainless steel, generally found in small fixed blades and sheath folders, is the most common steel available, is often the least expensive. With either material, the general rule of thumb is that the less carbon content, the quicker the edge will go dull. Yet it’s easier to resharpen and will be the least expensive. The more carbon content, the sharper the edge will stay, but will be harder and more expensive to resharpen.

Any else I should know before buying a survival knife?

Go to a retailer, talk to the person at the store, and try many tools as they are intended. Don’t just hold a knife in one direction and only with the dominant hand. Many times, the dominant hand is damaged in a survival situation. When you’re not using the knife, always put the tool away sharp and prepared to use in an emergency. Learn how to sharpen your knife and always keep the edge sharp. A dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp knife.

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