- Knives rank among the oldest tools known to man, and if you're in the wilderness and can only take a single item with you, then a good survival blade is the one you need.
- A reliable bushcraft knife should be at least 4 inches long, have a robust grind, a drop point or clip point tip, be made from stainless or carbon steel, and ideally be manufactured in the US, Europe, or Japan.
- Owing to its tough-as-nails build quality, utilitarian blade geometry, and textured Micarta grips, the US-made Esee 5 is the best survival knife for most people.
- See also: The best pocket knives
If you are in the backcountry with only one item, we hope it's a reliable knife. Although most of us employ knives for rather simple things like cutting food or opening packages, a good survival knife is still among the most important tools — if not the most important — you need to have if you ever find yourself in the wilderness far away from the amenities of civilization.
While blades are rather simple technology, what we use to chop, cut, and whittle with today has come a long, long way from the stone tools of old. First made from sharpened rocks such as flint, knives were later crafted from metal alloys like bronze, and later still, bronze was replaced by iron and the many different types of steel (that is, iron alloys) that blade-makers employ today. Knives come in a myriad of shapes and styles as well, designed for tasks such as cutting, cleaning game, hunting, self-defense, and, of course, survival.
What is meant by "survival" (in terms of knife design) refers more specifically to bushcraft, or the set of skills necessary for a person to source sufficient food, water, fire, shelter, and other necessities from a wilderness environment with minimal tools at one's disposal. With the possible exception of filtering or purifying water, your knife plays a role in meeting all of these needs.
Although there is no single blueprint for a "bushcraft knife," most designs cleave towards a fairly standard overall philosophy. This prioritizes ease of carry (i.e. not too bulky or cumbersome), ease of use (comfortable to hold during extended repetitious tasks and with a good grip), and utilitarian in both blade length and geometry (long enough to tackle most jobs but not unwieldy). This is a broad topic, so be sure to check out our more in-depth buying guide at the bottom of the page.
The next time you head into the great outdoors, don't be without your most important tool. We've rounded up the best survival knives which cover a nice spread of sizes, styles, and price points to help you find the right blade for your next bushcraft outing.
Here are the best survival knives:
- Best overall: Esee 5
- Best on a budget: Morakniv Kansbol
- Best large size: Becker BK9
- Best all-purpose: Buck 119 Special
- Best high-end: Benchmade 162 Bushcrafter
Updated 12/28/2020 by Rachael Schultz: Updated intro, checked availability and prices of products
The best overall
With a nicely sized and super-tough drop-point blade, grippy Micarta handle scales, a sturdy kydex sheath, and an all-American pedigree, the Esee 5 is an icon in the bushcraft world.
Pros: Made in the US, optimal size and thickness for hard field use, high-quality 1095 carbon steel with a great heat treatment, holds an edge well, grippy Micarta handle scales, comes with a sturdy kydex sheath, backed by a lifetime warranty
Cons: A little pricey, relatively large and heavy for a 5-inch blade
It hasn't been around nearly as long as some historic brands like Buck or Ka-Bar, but for a company that's less than 20 years old, Esee has managed to earn one of the best reputations in the wide world of knife making.
Founded by outdoorsmen Jeff Randall and Mike Perrin, Esee has built its name as a maker of some of the best American-made survival and utility knives that money can buy — and among them sits our favorite, the venerable Esee 5.
The Esee 5's design is about as utilitarian as they come: It sports a 5-inch blade, hitting a nice sweet spot between being small enough to carry but big enough to use. Although, at 11 inches overall, it's a fairly beefy knife to be sure.
This blade is a quarter of an inch thick at its widest point, too, so it's tough enough to take a beating with minimal risk of breakage. Esee has one of the best 1095 steels in the industry, and Esee's in-house heat treatment process results in a carbon steel that's extremely durable.
The Esee 5's blade features a drop point, which is the geometry favored by the majority of survivalists (including the SERE instructors who helped design it) as the tip of the blade is thicker and thus less prone to chip or break. The full tang comes sandwiched between canvas Micarta grip scales, which is also widely considered to be the best choice for a serious-use wilderness knife owing to its ruggedness and tough surface texture that provides solid grip purchase even when wet.
The Esee 5 is often compared with another hugely popular knife in this size category, the Ka-Bar Becker BK2, which was also a contender for our top pick. One look at both and the similarities in size, blade geometry, and intended purpose are obvious — these knives are purpose-built for survival.
We gave the nod to the Esee 5 for two main reasons: It comes with better grips (Micarta instead of polymer) and a better sheath (kydex instead of nylon). Another nice touch is the Esee 5's glass-breaker pommel that doubles as a pry bar.
If there are drawbacks to the Esee 5, they're that it's a bit pricey and relatively heavy at around a pound. But considering you're getting a US-made blade that's built like a tank and backed by Esee's no-questions-asked lifetime guarantee, it's a fair deal.
You also get good Micarta grip scales and a nice kydex sheath out of the box, two things the Becker BK2 lacks; after buying these upgrades for your BK2 (as many owners end up doing), you're in the same price bracket as the Esee.$163.56 from Amazon
The best on a budget
For a solid, no-frills survival and bushcraft knife that won't break the bank, the Swedish-made Morakniv Kansbol has everything you need.
Pros: Made in Sweden, lightweight and utilitarian size for bushcrafting or backpacking, sturdy plastic scabbard that retains the knife well, stainless steel is resistant to rust and corrosion, blade geometry is great for cutting and slicing tasks
Cons: Not a true full-tang design, blade is too short and thin for "big knife" jobs
Hailing from Sweden, Morakniv is another icon among knifemakers. Like Japan, Sweden has a history of blade-crafting that dates back over a millennium, from the legendary Ulfberht Viking swords to the no-nonsense bushcraft knives still made there today.
Few knives encapsulate this utilitarian design ethos better than the reliable and affordable Morakniv Kansbol.
Morakniv is particularly well-known for its budget-friendly yet sturdy stainless steel fieldcraft blades, and this company has done a lot to dispel the notion that stainless steel knives are cheap junk — a reputation unfairly earned due to the sea of low-quality Chinese-made novelty knives floating around.
While most "hard use" blades are made of carbon steel, corrosion-resistant stainless steel has some clear advantages in the wilderness where conditions can quickly become wet and muddy.
True bushcraft knives are typically medium-sized tools with blades sitting at around 4 to 5 inches. Mora knives are exactly what many experienced outdoorsmen and adventurers envision when they hear the term "bushcraft."
The 4-inch blade is expertly engineered for tasks like cutting and slicing, which is what you're going to need a knife for most of the time (think food prep, sharpening stakes, making feather sticks or wood shavings for starting fires, and so on).
Blades like the Kansbol aren't made for heavier tasks like chopping or batoning wood. It's not meant to be, but the trade-off is that this knife is much lighter with a considerably smaller footprint in your loadout than something like the hefty Esee 5 or the super-beefy Becker BK9.
And along with its Swedish pedigree, great stainless steel, sturdy sheath, lightweight, and no-frills bushcraft design, our favorite thing about the Morakniv Kansbol is its unbeatable value: For a much cheaper price point, you're getting a lot of knife for your money, and one which you'll be glad to have on your hip when you're miles away from civilization.$34.99 from Amazon
The best large size
A large survival blade has a number of benefits over small- and medium-sized knives, and when it comes to the "big knife" school of philosophy, Ka-Bar's near-legendary Becker BK9 is still the one to beat.
Pros: Made in the USA, built like a tank, good handle ergonomics, solid blade geometry, great overall design for a big knife that's not so large as to be unwieldy
Cons: Plastic "Grivory" grip can get slippery when wet, nylon sheath is functional but not as good as molded kydex
Adherents to the "big knife" school of thought argue that big knives are more versatile tools. While heavier than your typical 4- to 7-inch field blades, a large knife actually lets you shave some weight off of your loadout as it can perform a number of tasks that typically require bulkier tools. A large knife can chop, process firewood, and perform other such tasks well, so you don't need to carry additional instruments like folding saws or hatchets into the wilderness with you.
This argument has its merits, enough so that we've included one big knife on our roundup: The famous Becker BK9. Designed by blade-maker Ethan Becker and manufactured in the US by Ka-Bar, the BK9 has become one of the chief icons of the big knife community owing to its great design, extreme ruggedness, and serious chopping power.
Crafted of Ka-Bar's excellent 1095 Cro-Van steel, the Becker BK9 sports a 9-inch full tang blade that comes to a flat clip point. Some users might prefer a drop point, but the flat clip point of the BK9 is short and not curved, so it's very sturdy with a tip that isn't too aggressively pointy or fragile. The 9-inch blade is also well into "big" territory without being overkill as some other large knives that sport 11-, 12-, or even 13-inch blades.
As mentioned in the Esee 5 review when comparing that knife to the Ka-Bar BK2, Becker knives typically don't come with great handles or sheaths. The BK9's grips are no exception, being made of plastic Ka-Bar calls "Grivory" (a fancy name for polymer) that can get slippery when wet.
The nylon sheath isn't quite as rugged as kydex, either, but it gets the job done and has a kydex insert which keeps the blade secure — although many owners opt to replace it with a custom sheath from one of the myriad of online sheath-makers.
More than a few BK9 owners also buy Micarta replacement grips, although a cheaper solution is to grab some grip tape to wrap the Grivory scales, which greatly improves the knife's handling in wet conditions. Despite these cut corners, however, the Becker BK9 is a supremely solid knife for anyone who's a fan of big blades, and at this price, it's a good value for a US-made tool of this caliber and versatility.$112.79 from Amazon
The best all-purpose
It may buck modern bushcraft knife trends, but an old-school design and American pedigree make the Buck 119 Special an all-purpose survival blade that your grandpa would be proud to own.
Pros: Its 6-inch blade and traditional design make it an ideal "all-purpose" field knife, made in the U.S. of good stainless steel, comes with a nice thick leather sheath, backed by Buck's lifetime warranty, excellent value for an American-made survival knife
Cons: Smooth handle can get slippery, clip-point tip isn't quite as robust as drop-point blades
Modern bushcraft knives typically follow the same design pattern: A 4- to 5-inch drop-point blade, Micarta grip scales, no crossguard, and an exposed full tang. But sometimes the old things are the best things, and traditional knife designs like the time-tested Buck 119 Special remain hugely popular among outdoorsmen for a reason.
When you take a look at the Buck Special, you're probably reminded of the sort of knife your grandpa might have had on his hip when hunting or fishing. It has a traditionally-shaped grip with a metal pommel and crossguard to protect your fingers, a 6-inch stainless steel blade that terminates in an intense beak-like clip point, and is hair-popping sharp out of the box.
You can hunt, skin, and even defend yourself with this knife. So although it might not boast the design features and high-end steels found in modern bushcraft knives, this great old-school design lends the Buck Special its all-around versatility and appeal.
The smooth handle can get slippery when wet or bloody, though — hence the crossguard to keep your fingers from sliding up onto the blade — but this is easily fixed if you find it to be a problem.
Like Morakniv, Buck is another knife-maker that specializes in stainless steels for its blades. The 420HC steel that Buck uses isn't going to win any awards, but it's easy to sharpen, keeps its edge well, and is as corrosion resistant as you'd want stainless steel to be in wet environments.$84.07 from Amazon
The best high-end
Benchmade is one of the most respected American names in the world of knife-making, and for a high-end fieldcraft blade that your grandkids will fight over, the model 162 Bushcrafter is nearly perfect.
Pros: Full-tang drop-point blade that's purpose-made for field survival, made of excellent CPM-S30V carbon steel, is the perfect size for a bushcraft knife, grippy and moisture-resistant G10 handle scales, backed by Benchmade's lifetime warranty
If you're at all acquainted with knives, you've heard of Benchmade. For more than three decades, this all-American company's blades have been coveted by knife enthusiasts, outdoorsmen, law enforcement and military personnel, and just about anybody else who wants the best and is willing to pay for it.
These excellent knives remain hugely popular for hunting, tactical, and everyday carry applications, and when it comes to high-end survival blades, the Benchmade 162 Bushcrafter is nearly perfect.
In stark contrast to the old-school Buck 119, the Bushcrafter completes the full checklist of modern survival knife features: Its 4.4-inch blade comes to a sturdy drop point at the tip, the knife is made from 0.164-inch thick steel stock with a full exposed tang, and the tang itself is sandwiched between two grip scales.
It's not Micarta, however. For the Bushcrafter, Benchmade used resin-coated G10 fiberglass, which stands up to moisture and blood better than cloth-derived Micarta while still providing a rough, grippy surface that won't slip around in a wet hand.
Since it's not as thick or nearly as large as the Esee 5, the Bushcrafter is considerably lighter: With an overall length of 9.15 inches and a weight of just 7.7 ounces unsheathed, the Benchmade 162 is a more carry-friendly field knife (while still being built like a tank) for those looking to run a lighter load.
Its CPM-S30V stainless steel also ranks among the best, with excellent sharpening and edge retention capabilities plus superior corrosion resistance to more common carbon steels.
The Bushcrafter comes in two flavors, each with different handle colors and sheaths: One with blue/green G10 scales with red liners and a tan leather sheath, the other with tan-colored G10 grips and a black kydex sheath. Although the first is more visually striking, kydex is generally accepted as the best sheath material, especially for wet and rugged conditions where leather is not ideal — but the choice here should come down to your own preferences.
The Bushcrafter is admittedly expensive at $250, owing to its premium S30V steel and superb level of craftsmanship. But this brand didn't become a legend in the knife world by hawking overpriced wares. When you're buying a Benchmade, you can be sure you're getting a hard-use American-made tool that'll outlast you, and the Bushcrafter is the one to get if you're looking for what may be the best modern survival blade that money can buy.$225.00 from Amazon
How to choose the right survival knife for your needs
Hunting down the right bushcraft or survival knife can be a time-consuming process. You can spend hours learning about different knife designs, steel types, blade geometries, and so on when shopping for a survival knife. To save you some time, here's the quick-and-dirty survival knife buying guide to get you started:
People have strong opinions about blade size, but as a general guideline, the sweet spot for a survival/bushcrafting knife is 4 to 5 inches (6 to 7 inches is also acceptable for a general-purpose blade). Some survivalists and outdoorsmen subscribe to the "big knife" school of thought, as you can get a lot more done with a large blade, reducing redundancy among the other tools you're carrying.
Whatever size of survival knife you choose to carry into the wild, it's best to go with a blade that's at least 4 inches long. Any shorter and it'll be too small for many tasks. Also, consider that it will always be easier to perform small tasks with a bigger blade than it is to tackle big jobs with one that's too small.
"Blade geometry" refers to the general shape of a knife's blade. As different knives are built for different tasks, there's no "one size fits all" blade shape even for rather specific niches like bushcrafting. Drop points and clip points are the styles you'll see the most among modern knives made for survival knives owing to their time-tested versatility.
Drop point blades are the most favored among survivalists, as the tip is more durable than that of a clip point (which comes to a sharper tip, thus making it more likely to break) and stands up well to rough use, but the sharp end of a clip point has some advantages of its own. Bushcrafting knives should also feature a robust grind that will leave the blade less susceptible to chipping or cracking along the edge.
You can spend hours and hours learning about different blade steels before even approaching other design considerations. To keep it very brief, steels are divided into two main camps: stainless, which is more resistant to corrosion but typically softer, and carbon, which is less rust-resistant but holds an edge better.
The ideal hardness for a survival blade on the Rockwell scale is 58-60 HRC. Too soft and the knife will be tricky to sharpen properly and won't hold an edge well; too hard and the blade will be brittle and prone to breakage.
Stainless had a bad reputation years ago (mostly due to poor steels that you typically find on cheaply made knives), but some companies like Buck and Morakniv make very good stainless blades today. The most common carbon steel you'll see is 1095 owing to its ease of manufacturing, low cost, good edge retention, and durability when properly heat-treated. Other carbon tool steels, like A2, D2, and CPM-S30V, may have better properties (superior edge retention, corrosion resistance, etc.) than 1095, but are pricier.
Grip material is also important. Many users today, myself included, favor Micarta (made from compressed layers of linen, cotton, or paper), as its rough surface texture provides excellent purchase on the handle even when your hands are slick with sweat, water, grease, or blood. Leather and polymer handles are also rather common, but generally inferior to Micarta in both grip and durability, although there are ways to improve these shortcomings.
Knives are manufactured all over the world, but for a knife that you may end up having to rely on to survive, we strongly recommend sticking with qualified and well-known blade-makers in the US, Europe, and Japan. You typically don't have to pay out the nose for one of these blades, either. Stay away from the ocean of cheaply made junk from no-name brands (often made from low-quality stainless steels with poor heat treatments to match) that litters the internet.
That's not to say that all knives that come from China are poor quality, but as a general rule, the best blade-smiths in the world are located in America, Europe, and Japan — places with long traditions of quality smithing. Although our own picks are made in America and Europe, there are also some very solid blades coming out of countries like El Salvador (Condor), Brazil (Tramontina), and Taiwan (many of Cold Steel's offerings).
See more great camping and wilderness buying guides
While you never intend to need a first aid kit, you'll always be glad you planned ahead and kept some high-quality medical supplies on hand. The best first aid kits have everything from bandages and wraps to antibiotic ointment and pain relievers stored conveniently in a box or bag for easy access. Here are our top picks.
An emergency kit is something you should have around, in case an unexpected dangerous event happens. You can make your own, or purchase a pre-assembled kit that has everything you may need. We've rounded up the best emergency kits you can find pre-assembled.
The ability to make fire is the oldest and most important technological innovation — and one that's vitally important if you spend a lot of time outdoors. Here are the best ones.
Subscribe to our newsletter.
You can purchase syndication rights to this story here.
Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Insider Reviews team. We highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our commerce partners. We frequently receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We operate independently from our advertising sales team. We welcome your feedback. Email us at email@example.com.