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- 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.
- 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.
Of all the tools that we use today, the knife remains one of the most prolific and most useful. Humans have been relying on knives for tens of thousands of years for a myriad of tasks both mundane and deadly. 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.
These handy blades, while rather simple technology, have 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 steels (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 procuring 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 five 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 you can buy:
- Best survival knife overall: Esee 5
- Best budget survival knife: Morakniv Kansbol
- Best all-purpose survival knife: Buck 119 Special
- Best big survival knife: Becker BK9
- Best high-end survival knife: Benchmade 162 Bushcrafter
Read on in the slides below to check out our top picks.
The best survival knife overall
Why you’ll love it: 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.
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 size and carryability. 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 at roughly $160 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.
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, and it’s backed by a lifetime warranty
Cons: It’s a little pricey, and it’s relatively large and heavy for a 5-inch blade
The best budget survival knife
Why you’ll love it: For a solid, no-frills survival and bushcraft knife that won’t break the bank, the Swedish-made Morakniv Kansbol has everything you need.
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 great, 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, light weight, and no-frills bushcraft design, our favorite thing about the Morakniv Kansbol is its unbeatable value: For only $32, 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.
Pros: Made in Sweden, lightweight and utilitarian size for bushcrafting/backpacking, sturdy plastic scabbard that retains the knife well, stainless steel is resistant to rust and corrosion, and the blade geometry is great for cutting and slicing tasks
Cons: Not a true full-tang design, and the blade is too short and thin for “big knife" jobs
The best all-purpose survival knife
Why you’ll love it: 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.
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, precluding the need to carry additional instruments like folding saws or hatchets.
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 around $90 to $100, it’s a good value for a US-made tool of this caliber and versatility.
Pros: Made in the USA, built like a tank, good handle ergonomics, solid blade geometry, and a 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, and the nylon sheath is functional but not as good as molded kydex
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