The question “What’s the best knife?” is one I hear a lot. The answer: There isn’t one. Or, rather, the best knife is the one you have when you need it. That could be a fixed-blade knife, a pocket knife, a stone flake, or even a piece of broken glass. If it cuts stuff, it’ll probably do the job you need it to do.
The knife that does every job perfectly hasn’t been invented. And it never will be. It’s an impossible challenge: for every task in which a knife performs well (e.g. skinning), it has a drawback in another (e.g. carving).
A better question is…
In a survival, wilderness, or bushcraft setting, when tools are limited, what is it that we need a knife to be able to do?
My answer: It needs to be able to do everything reasonably well, nothing perfectly. You want a knife that is a generalist, not a specialist.
You want a knife that can skin, carve, chop, split, drill…and still have an edge you can shave with. You want a knife you’re not afraid to get dirty, can resharpen easily (when it needs it), and not afraid to leave behind if it was necessary. A knife small enough to handle comfortably, yet large enough to baton-split wood and thin (sharp) enough you can carve those splits into feather sticks.
Nowadays, there’s no shortage of ridiculously-priced knives, stamped with someone’s name (or worse, “nickname”), promising that it cuts stuff better than yesteryear’s knife. I can assure you that if a knife is sharp, it will cut stuff just as well as any other sharp knife. No fancy designs, features, coffee grinders, or any other useless “spec” needed. Period.
When choosing a knife, put it through the paces. Try several in your backyard, before you need one in the woods. As far as technical details, here is what I do and don’t recommend in a knife.
Features & Specifications to LOOK FOR in a Survival Knife
- Carbon steel blade
- Fixed (non-folding) blade – the “fuller” the tang, the better
- Blade length approximately equal to the width of your palm (~3 ½” to 4 ½”)
- Blade thickness of less than ⅛”
- An easily-resharpenable grind to the blade (such as the Scandinavian (“Scandi”) grind)
- A handle that’s comfortable to hold, in a variety of positions, for a prolonged period of time
- Comes with a sturdy sheath that holds the knife securely (less important if you feel comfortable making a new sheath)
Features & Specifications to AVOID in a Survival Knife
- Stainless steel blade (unless you work/recreate in an environment where your knife will stay wet for prolonged periods of time, such as on a fishing boat or rafting trip)
- Hollow ground knives and similar fancy grinds (unless you plan to invest in a complex setup to sharpen it)
- Expensive knives (over ~$40), particularly ones branded with the name of a famous person
- Folding knives
- So-called “survival” knives with hollow handles that hold stuff
My Survival Knife Recommendations
You’ll find all of my recommended specs epitomized in the no-frills Mora 511. Carbon-steel blade, ~4” long, comfortable — and retails for about ten bucks. So you can afford to buy several and have them around: belt, glovebox, office, garage…
The Mora Knife was designed by Bill Frost (you’ll still sometimes hear these knives referred to as “The Frost Knife”) and just keeps kicking. In recent years (to compete with other, fancier knifemakers) Mora has begun to expand its market, offering wider, stouter blades with various handles, even one model that comes with a ferro rod in the handle.
It costs a few more bucks to get their tri-fold blade, or the Classic model with wooden handle. But, for my money, you won’t go wrong with a knife made by Mora – still made in Sweden. You could spend 10, 20, even 30 times as much money and not get a better knife.
There are other decent blades out there, of course, but the Mora is an example of an inexpensive knife that does most jobs pretty darn well. Unless the knife’s going to do the work for me, I don’t see a reason to use anything else.
Photo Credit: knifecenter.com