Finding the best survival knife that can do it all is a daunting task to say the least. There are many choices available. So many in fact, that research can boggle the mind. And, as far as I'm concerned there is not one, perfect, survival knife. But let's read on to find out.
Best survival knife
I have used a heavy, stainless steel, seventeen ounces, single fixed SOG Bowie over eight years. The Bowie has a lanyard at the end of the handle. I find lanyards on a knife an important part of its usability. See the SOG Bowie.
The SOG Bowie
The SOG Bowie I use is a commercial high-end version of the Vietnam War Era's fifth Special Forces Groups known as the Study and Observation Group, made by SOG Knives.
The overall length of my version; tip to handle - 11 1/8", The blade length itself is six inches, the width is around 1 1/8", at the middle of the blade. The blade is thick where it meets the handle, a solid one-quarter inch and tapers to a point thickness of 1/16 at the blade tip, or about 1/32 at the leading edge of the blade.
A comfortable handle makes the difference
The handle is a rubber type material (Kraton) for a better grip, which I have had to re-glue and rivet because of wear. For protection of the hands from slippage there is a brass guard for forefinger and thumb.
First, let's talk about the positive benefits of this knife.
I love the weight of this knife. I use this knife as I would a small hatchet. The weight and the thickness of this blade makes it great for splitting and chopping.
You can get away with some prying with this knife due to the thickness of the blade. But you can break the tip as I have done.
I use a baton with this knife for splitting wood and making spindle blanks for the bow drill. I take a baton (A heavy piece of wood such as a throwing stick, or limb wood) to pound on top of the blade to control my splitting.
The technique works very well with this blade, as long as I'm careful and stay away from large knots. Rhododendron makes a very good Baton as do many hardwoods.
I have skinned many animals with this blade and I have found that it is not the best type of knife for skinning. But I have also found that the more I used this knife the easier jobs like skinning became.
SOG knife steel
SOG knife blades are made of various stainless steel and chromium blends. Carbon, chromium, and molybdenum blends are good quality steel for knives.
Stainless steel reduces the problem with rust but are harder to sharpen. Adding more Chromium to the steel adds hardness and performance. Expect to pay more for a knife with a higher Chromium content.
Knife blades hardness ratings
The hardness rating of the SOG Bowie is Rc. 57-58. The knife buyers guide on the SOG website has great information on the different blade steels including D 2 tool steel.
Easy to sharpen steel
I prefer soft carbon steel over stainless because it's easier to sharpen in the field. And because it's a softer steel I can dress the edge with a strop to get it working sharp again. Without spending a lot of time on sharpening.
You can reduce rust on both types of steel by keeping it dry and oiling it often. And if your storing your knife for a while wrap it in an oily cloth. I use vegetable based oil because I use my knife to eat with.
The newer model the SOG Bowie, has a black coating. My older model is bright stainless steel and not painted. The knife balance's well in my hand.
The handle has a covering of Kraton. A rubber like substance. Kraton gives the handle a better grip when the knife is wet. It has a sticky feel to it but works well.
Negatives of the SOG Bowie
I found detailed carving with this knife is difficult. Especially when cutting notches for a fireboard. The reason is the thickness of the blade edge. This is why this blade works well for chopping and not so well for fine carving. I get around this problem of a thick blade by the use of a baton.
This knife has a thick blade. A better blade for fine carving is a blade on a Swiss Army Knife. This very thin blade, when sharp, cuts through softwoods fast. So now this brings up another question...thick blade or thin blade survival knives. I'll get into this in a bit.
Now let us consider the weight of this blade. Weight is an important consideration with gear on your back.
The more you know the less you carry
The SOG Bowie is a very heavy knife. Once you have packed up all the essentials and take your pack for a long hike. This is when you decide what you will carry or leave behind. The difference in weight of a Bowie and a lighter knife will make a difference.
There are advantages to packing a lighter knife with you. You can pack a bit more food, gear, or that extra pint of medicinal spirits that, cough, cough, might be a good idea.
But then again I backpacked with this knife many times and was willing to bring the extra weight. It was handy when I needed it.
Another point to consider about stainless steel knives, is that they take a while to sharpen by hand and in the field. And I'm not that impressed with the SOG Bowie's ability to hold an edge with heavy use.
Having said that. It's possible that its my sharpening technique at fault. But the proof of the pie is in the eating. And so is the difference between the ease of sharpening carbon again stainless steel.
I now use a sandpaper sharpening system. I also use a coarse and fine composite stone from the Razor's Edge for touching up the relief. You can read more about the sandpaper sharpening system on my blog post - How to Sharpen The Tracker Knife.
My conclusion and observations on the SOG Bowie
I would not recommend this type of heavy knife for backpacking or the fine detail carving bushcraft demands. Also over these many years of using knives in the field. I much prefer a thinner relief for the a cutting edge as it allows for faster carving.
The Bowie has a thick relief, edge, which makes the blade stronger. And for what this knife is designed for it excels. The SOG Bowie was designed for use in the jungles of Vietnam.
Survival Knife for the beginner
The students who take our First Circle Camp begin their introduction to survival knives. For beginners, I recommend a fixed blade that is about four to five inches in length. Making sure the tang runs the full length of the handle for strength and long-term durability.
Knife Handles for comfort
The handle should fit comfortably in the hand and balance well. We're not looking for a Machete or a Bowie here, a good strong, comfortable working knife with a thin relief blade, is what we're after.
The comfort of the knife is the most important factor to consider for the beginner. The reason being that after an hour of steady carving, (uncomfortable handles, and folding knives) can make your hand very sore.
Mora carving knife
You do not need to spend a lot of money for this type of knife. Down the road when you have some carving time behind you, you will have a better idea of the type of knife that fits you best, as well as the type of work you use it for the most.
Mora make excellent knives for carving softwoods. I recommend these knives especially if you haven't carved for a while. A note on Mora companion series of knives. Many of Mora knives do not have a full tang. But they still are excellent lightweight carvers.
If you want to learn more about the knife steel Mora uses for their knives. Read their article "The Steel Makes the Knife."
It's important to know that the Mora knives, their Bushcraft series are not made as strong or heavy as SOG's Bowie. So be careful how you treat your Mora blade. The edge will chip if used for chopping on hard, dry, wood.
SOG Northwest Ranger
As a wilderness skills instructor for over 24 years, for a woods knife I like the Northwest Ranger. (This knife is no longer available through SOG.)
It's lightweight, which is good for packing around. It has a thin relief for carving, important, and it sharpens easily and holds an edge.
The blade has a nice length. A little long, but what it was originally designed for, blade length is fine. The blade is stainless steel, so it's still a pain to sharpen but does what I need it to do.
The NW Rangers Finger Guard
There are a few thing about this knife I don't like such as the index finger guard can be rough on the finger but it was designed for use with gloves. And I have learned to use it... it's not a big bother. Would not keep me from owning one.
The sheath it comes with is the standard sheath style. If you're crawling around in the brush with it your apt to loose it from the sheath. I have a couple of techniques I use to keep this from happening.
The Ranger is too light to use as a chopper like the Bowie. But having a baton handy helps with that. The Kraton handle is very comfortable, has a lanyard, always a plus with me. It took me a while to get used to the feel of the handle due to its thinness. But after using it for years now I recommend this knife.
All major knife manufacturers make knives for survival and bush craft. So check out the manufactures I have listed below. I also recommend visiting several knife stores in your area and have a look see. Listen to what the dealers have to say, but at all costs, stay away from hollow handle knives.
Many of these long winded knives have a survival kit stashed in the handle. Some even come with a compass at the end. This is a good idea but unless the quality is high stay away.
Kill me a Bar - A couple of my students showed up with Rambo type knives at camp. They looked like they were ready to take on a Grizz instead of carving wood. They soon learned about these types of knives. After one minute of carving with these monsters their hands were sore. Not far behind, blisters on the horizon. Sorry, these are weak knives and cheesy as well. If that's all you got. More power to you.
Utah Knife Works - Now check out these high quality knives at Utah Knife Works. These are beautiful custom quality knives. Mark Russon the owner and knife maker for Utah Knife Works, sent me a surprise package in the mail recently. What a surprise indeed when I opened up the box it contained Russon's UKW Survivor Knife.
This is a big knife. If you're familiar with Top's Tracker Knife it will look familiar. Read Russon's story about the Tracker knife on his website. I'll have a review on the UKW Survivor soon.
Bench Made - made in Oregon City, Oregon. My son in law raves about their pocket knives. They make a higher end woods knife-the BushCrafter Family. Definitely worth checking out.
Cold Steel - Check out the wide variety of knives these folks carry. One of our staff uses the Cold Steel Bowie and has been carrying it with him for many years. It's a keeper.
KA-BAR knives have a long history of use. Their tough knives, though a bit light for my taste, (important for military application) and the handles are quite uncomfortable and take a while getting used too.
KA-BARS carbon blades do sharpen easily which is positive and their generally inexpensive. Originally made for heavy utility use, digging foxholes and such, as I said, they are tough!
Buck Knives make many good knives as well and offer a variety of price ranges. Most are good solid knives though the edge from my experience are dull out of the box and need some relief grinding to get a professional edge.
Ontario is a knife company to check out. Their Spec-Plus Bolo recently to get the feel of a large blade, machete-style knife. I use this knife mainly for chopping brush here on the coast of Oregon.
I have to watch the rust problem with this knife because of the carbon steel. Dry the carbon blades when done and keep them oiled when stored. I fine Carbon steel easier than stainless to sharpen.
TOP Knives make a variety of Tactical knives that are in the high dollar range. TOP makes the Tom Brown Tracker Knife, which if you have never seen one check it out on their website. It’s a multi-application knife.
Very beefy and well made. I have tried the earlier version made by Beck, it's quite heavy and expensive, but it’s a work of art. Tom also developed a companion knife to go along with the large Tracker knife.
These are just a few of the companies that offer Survival Knives the list is more than I'm willing to write today. I do not necessarily recommend these companies, I am including them because I have used their products and they offer a good variety of knives.
The best survival knife
I'll leave this to others to decide. (I'm working on my version of a perfect Survival knife.) I love and do recommend the Swiss Army Knives as well, for a secondary knife system; they have many cool tools to pick from and are a well-built multi-tool lightweight system.
Let me know about your recommendations on Survival knives. Or any good sharpening systems familiar to you.