Finding a good survival knife
September 5, 2012 5:03 PM   Subscribe

A friend of mine has been getting back into camping/hiking/general outdoors-ness recently and has asked for my help locating a good 'survival' knife.

What he's really looking for is a sturdy, good quality general use outdoors knife, likely in the general size range of a Ka-Bar. He hasn't really specified point type, etc. I've made my suggestions to him, but I figured the hive mind might have some good suggestions I don't know of.
posted by skrymir to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Stay away from the Bear Grylls knife from Gerber. The pommel is known to break off. It's a cool looking knife, and the fire starter thing on the back of the blade is handy, but it can't withstand "survival" use.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 5:11 PM on September 5, 2012

I've been shopping for a good knife too, and while I haven't found the perfect one to recommend I'd like to mention, in case he hasn't considered it, that with any kind of extended camping/hiking, unnecessary weight becomes a concern. So within his specific needs for a knife there is likely a sweet spot to find between not-too-heavy and still-perfcectly-functional.
posted by Balonious Assault at 5:25 PM on September 5, 2012

Get something sturdy, and without novelties like a compass on the pommel. The real choice to make is serrated edge vs. smooth edge. I like the advantages of both, so I got two knives. (The serrated knife is a smaller spyderco folding knife. My larger knife is a SOG knife.

Ka-Bar is a great knife maker and fairly indestructible. Their straight-blade marine knife is proven in outdoor trials, ahem, all over the planet. SOG Seal Pup is a well-reviewed knife-- straight blade, short serration element. I got a deal on my SOG knife as part of a package, but if I hadn't, I've gone with the Seal Pup.

Other stuff to avoid: Kukri blades, unless you are getting a machete, in which case that might be useful. Kukri is generally a fighting blade, and for that purpose I don't know if it's any good, but it's not a great outdoorsy blade. Don't get Smith & Wesson-- S&W doesn't make their knives, and I don't know who does. The knives don't get to bear the same brand rep as their firearms, and if they did, I might not buy their knives either.

Make sure to get a good sheath, either a hard sheath or very sturdy leather or the like.
posted by Sunburnt at 5:31 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

For something slightly too large to wear around day-to-day, but very nice as a fixed-blade camping knife, Helle.

For something pocket-sized and comfortably under the "weird guy carries a big knife" threshold, the smaller Benchmades are nice. I pretty much don't leave the house without mine.
posted by brennen at 5:31 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've carried a SOG Bowie (similar to this one) during my outdoor escapades for twenty years.

Is your friend in Knoxville? If so, pile in the car and head over to Sevierville and visit Smoky Mountain Knife Works. Your friend can get touchy-feely with more knives than I have ever seen in one place.

Also, hi from Maryville!
posted by workerant at 5:43 PM on September 5, 2012

For lots of review videos check out Nutnfancy on YouTube. His reviews can be pretty long, but you get a lot of information and often get to see the knives in action.
posted by Crashback at 5:46 PM on September 5, 2012

Seconding SOG. I don't know anything about knives but my husband does and he purchased a folding knife for me (this one) and frankly, its the first knife that I like to carry and use. They are here in Seattle and I handled a few knives that my husband did purchase for his own use, both fixed and folding and they feel nice.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 6:11 PM on September 5, 2012

My boyfriend says: the ESEE-5, although it's a little big/heavy for every day carry. But if you only want to bring one knife with you, it's a good one to have. It's expensive, but comes with an unconditional lifetime guarantee.
posted by bluestocking at 6:22 PM on September 5, 2012

I use a Benchmade Tanto Mini-Griptilian as the knife I carry every day and for all outdoor adventures.

It's small enough to fit in all jean pockets. It cuts food cleanly. It cuts rope cleanly. It has a fine enough tip for getting splinters out. It can be opened one-handed. And I've had mine for 5-6 years and it's still in perfect condition, despite a ton of use.

Too many "survival" knives out there are super-gimmicky.
posted by MonsieurBon at 6:23 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most inexperienced people think they want a large survival knife, but time in the wilderness will teach them that often times a smaller blade is better. For me the sweet spot of price and performance come with the soft steel Mora knives. I've had them for many years, they are tough and keep an edge really well. If you watch Dual Survivor, you'll see that Cody Lundin carries one on a cord around his neck, although depending on your tolerance for barefoot hippies this may or may not be a recommendation! Also, it seems like every construction worker in Sweden carries one of these knives on his or her belt. Knives are such a personal thing and full of so much unbelievable hype and truly gi-normous price markups that it can be really hard for a someone new to the field to navigate. Start with something cheap, rugged and simple, but still good steel. Can't go wrong with a Mora.
posted by seasparrow at 6:56 PM on September 5, 2012

Best answer: On the smaller (and perfectly adequate) side, there are Mora knives, which use good steel and are pretty inexpensive. I like the older style wooden handle model with carbon steel blade and no guard, and come in several (smallish and easy to handle) sizes. But they are available with finger guards, too. There are a variety of plastic handled models that come different colors and configurations.

In a larger size, there's the Buck 119. I think they be found starting at about about $45 from places like Walmart and Amazon. Still made in US like always.

I find larger, thicker bladed knives like the Kabar not all that great in real world use, better suited to digging and orying than cutting. The smaller ones like the Mora knives are much more practical. However, if one needs a large and very practical knife, I'd suggest a small (12" or so) machete. Real machetes are inexpensive, extremely durable, and are easily maintained in the field. Names like Tramontina, Condor, Imacasa, and Marbles sell decent inexpensive small (and large) machetes. Ontario and Barteaux are American manufacturers of machetes, if that's important to you. Cold Steel sells a variety of small machetes in some more exotic and fanciful shapes. Unlike Kabar-like knives, machetes are made from thin stock, are tempered more like springs than knives for resistance to fracturing, and often come with a rudimentary edge, requiring the end user to sharpen the blade before use. On the upsode, they can be sharpened with a file, a carbide sharpener, stones, or any other method you can think of.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:05 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, I want to politely disagree with Sunburst's statement that khukri's are primarily fighting knives. I feel the opposite. In Iraq I saw Gurkhas do amazing things with khukri's-- this blade shape gets you a lot of the functionality of a long knife, hatchet and machete all rolled into one, and centuries of use have honed it into a really functional, balanced form. But the Gurkha's I saw using khukris were all prying open ammunition boxes, clearing brush, digging, stirring tea in pots, etc. 99.99% of even the most combat-hardened veteran's use of a khukri is in these absolutely mundane tasks. And in the last seven years we have used them extensively in the wilderness and around the house and yard, and we definitely aren't doing any fighting. But, I was so impressed I ordered two of the nice ones direct from Nepal for me and my wife. Village bladesmiths there pound them out of the leaf-springs of old Mercedes trucks. However, Sunburst is generally right that your friend shouldn't get a khukri unless he absolutely knows exactly what this blade is for, and that for a beginner who is looking for a "traditional" Western-style survival knife, well, that isn't a khukri.
posted by seasparrow at 7:09 PM on September 5, 2012

^^^^^ Oops I guess it is Sunburnt, not Sunburst. My apologies!
posted by seasparrow at 7:21 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 2nd Mora knives. Don't let the inexpensive price fool you into thinking it is junk. Seasparrow nailed it. The Morakniv Companion MG is my favorite and for only $14.
posted by luvmywife at 7:22 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a bit of a knife geek, I own too many to ever use. But in all my years of mountaineering, backpacking, and boy scouts I've found the basic swiss army knife to be plenty useful. The Camper has everything I've ever needed in a knife.

If you need something bigger, then you need an actual tool - saw, axe, or skinning blade - and whatever knife you have isn't going to cut it.
posted by jpeacock at 8:39 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's an interesting thread with good video links on the topic: Defining a "Survival" Knife - Mors Kochanski
posted by 2N2222 at 9:19 PM on September 5, 2012

My favorite knife is an Opinel Savoyard. It's very simple, and made of a wonderful steel. (Mine, a gift from my father many years back, was stolen a week ago, so if you get one I'll enjoy it vicariously.)
posted by anadem at 9:50 PM on September 5, 2012

Seconding the Swiss army knife (Victorinox camper or similar). I've carried one every day for the last 30 years or so and it's a life saver. The tools it includes are all useful as opposed to being gimmicky. They're reasonably durable (I end up replacing mine about once a decade) and the ergonomics are good enough for most things. They're useful both in city situations (disassembling computers, opening wine and beer bottles) and wilderness (sawing tree limbs, cutting things, getting out splinters). They are reasonably priced. I think they're much more useful than a simple sheath knife, but it probably depends what you need to do.

I have one of the SOG knives that folds out to become pliers. I mainly only use it once in a while for the pliers. It's well made though.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 10:32 PM on September 5, 2012

Another smaller folding knife: I love my Leatherman Crater. Cheap is important, you don't want to hike two miles back because you think you left behind an expensive knife, only to find that it was actually in the other pocket... At the same time, the Crater is sturdy and comfortable to use. I originally got mine as a barn knife but I need to buy a couple more because I'd like to permanently keep them in the house and in the car, too.
posted by anaelith at 2:32 AM on September 6, 2012

By the way, thanks to the neo-survivalist movement, and the fact that a sturdy knife will be in the kit of every camper and even the laziest of bug-out bags, there are a ton of view reviews on youtube for the most popular knives. It's an excellent place to see people talking about the utility of the knife, what it has stood up to, etc. Mostly I looked for negative reviews, such as the one re: Gerber/Bear Grylls above, and decider whether the flaws are a showstopper or not.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:08 AM on September 7, 2012

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