Now that summer is fast approaching and camping/hiking is becoming an activity that more people will take to, I wanted to discuss survival knives. If you aren’t sure what a survival knife is, or how to choose a good one, The Art of Manliness blog has a really nice post on them. Basically a survival knife is a large, fixed blade, knife that one uses to survive in the wilderness with should the worst case be presented. That means that the knife you choose must be versatile.
In this post I am going to be looking at just five such knives that I own, but if you want to look at more options then Blade Reviews is a good place to start.
All of these knives are full tang blades, and all are actually quite different. I ran them through a few tests in my backyard to simulate things that I would do with them while out camping:
- Whittling a tent stake.
- Striping a tree branch of bark.
- Creating kindling.
- Chopping a much larger log.
After the test I observed how sharp each blade was and finally resharpened the blades to see how easily (or hard) it is to get back a razor edge.
SOG Field Pup
We are going to start with the baby of the bunch, the SOG Field Pup. Of all the knives in this test this is the lightest and smallest of the lot. It has a non-serrated blade that features a curve in the middle.
When whittling this blade offers superior control for a larger knife. It is easy to strip branches and do detail work with. This, I believe, is due solely to the shape of the blade.
However, it is that same blade shape that causes trouble when you try to perform larger tasks with the knife. Creating kindling is easy, but chopping off a branch or chopping down to size a log is a difficult task for the knife. Both because the knife lacks the mass of the others and because the curved blade provides an uneven striking surface. Presenting a large tradeoff for this blade.
This knife comes with a sheath that offers a storage pouch for a lighter, or fire striker — a nice touch. It also has a large strap on the back that allows for easy placement on and off packs and belts. The handle is very grippy and comfortable to hold, but only in one position.
The metal itself is easy to get a sharp edge on, but is rather soft and dulls much quicker than other high carbon knives.
This is not a knife that I would personally choose for my survival knife type situations, solely because of the blade shape and soft metal. It is however something to think about for someone who is not comfortable with knifes, since it does offer such great blade control for smaller tasks.
It’s a knife I would shove in my wife’s pack for her to use in a survival situation.
SOG NW Ranger
This was the first survival knife I purchased and I still love it for the looks alone. Smooth and sleek. Unlike the Field Pup this knife is partially serrated, something that I generally would recommend you stay away from in survival knifes as the serrations have limited utility in practice.
As far as partially serrated knives go, this one isn’t too bad because it has ample room of a straight edge for using to whittle and chop.
I found the NW Ranger to be very comfortable to hold while whittling, but lacking in control. This is in large part due to the serration of the blade, which forces you to work closer to the tip of the blade. This is a universal problem with partially serrated knives, but it isn’t as large as an issue with this knife as with the Bear Grylls knife that we will talk about in a bit.
Chopping and all the other tasks were accomplished in an average fashion with this knife, no major complaints. It does take some getting used to so that you can properly work around the serrated portion of the blade.
This knife features an all leather sheath, which compliments the look of the knife but is also less than practical for actual survival situations. The knife attaches to your belt through a loop at the top, leaving the knife to flap against the side of your leg — not comfortable for active hiking.
The steel on this blade is a bit stronger than the Field Pup, and does hold a nice edge. It is easy to sharpen and keep sharp. The handle is also very simple and would allow for multiple holding positions.
My only concern with the design of this knife is the handle itself. It would worry about my hand slipping when using the knife under wet conditions and assume this is the reason for a small front quillion on the edge side of the blade.
This is still my favorite looking knife of the bunch. But the sheath is heavy and cumbersome to use. The blade’s serrations make it less than ideal. Overall this isn’t a knife I would recommend as a general survival knife. However, SOG does make a new version of this knife that has no serrations and, if all else is equal, that knife would make a fine choice.
As it is, and probably with the non-serrated version, this knife is best reserved for the role of a land owner in Montana that wears Filson all day long and rides around his land on an ATV — also known as my retirement plan.
SOG Fixation Bowie
The SOG Fixation Bowie is the largest knife I have. I purchased it for cheap on woot.com one day because, well, why not. I have never actually used it for anything before and after putting it through the paces, I hope to never use it again.
At seven inches long, this blade is much too unwieldy to use for whittling. However, with this knife being the heaviest it made for easy work chopping at wood.
The tasks that this knife is good at are the imprecise and crude tasks — it’s like a shotgun compared to rifles.
Again this is a softer steel and actually is rather difficult to get sharp and to maintain a sharp edge. The sheath is the same as the Field Pups, so it is quite nice.
Aside from this knife being much too large to use, it is very uncomfortable to handle. The handle itself is very hard and the shape doesn’t fit my hand well.
If you buy this knife, you buy this knife to scare someone. Because if you try to use this knife you are likely to hurt yourself if you do anything other than carry it on your hip.
After I first started talking about knives several readers emailed in about the ESEE knives. They came with glowing recommendations so I promptly purchased the ESEE-4. This is slightly different than the other knives because it is high carbon, non-serrated, black coated blade.
This knife is a joy to use. The blade control is nice, the grip is solid and the mass of the knife lends to nice chopping. Of all the knives I tested, this knife excelled at no task and failed at none as well.
Chopping was as easy as whittling. The shape of the knife handle lends good control over the knife for all tasks that I tried.
This is a high carbon steel knife so it takes a bit more work to get sharp, but then it really holds a good edge. The knife comes with a kydex sheath that is the lightest and nicest to use of the bunch. As a testament to how well this knife holds an edge, during one of the tasks the knife slipped off the log ((User error.)) and slammed with full force into a bed of rocks.
The end result was a small chip out of the blade and after working the blade on the sharpening stones for ten minutes you couldn’t tell something had happened. I have no doubt that had this happened to any of the above knifes I would be telling a much different tale.
This is also the only knife with a handle that could be removed and wrapped with another material should the handle become unusable at any point. This is something that could potentially be done with the other knives, but is unknown how comfortable it would be given the molded rubber over the top that hides what the shape of the metal beneath is.
I really like this knife. It is hefty when used, but light when carried. The size is right and the handling is very good. This is the best all around knife of the bunch.
Gerber Bear Grylls Ultimate
Endorsed by the host of Man v. Wild this is a fixed blade knife by Gerber. This knife has always fascinated me because Grylls actually uses it on his show. That was testament enough to get me to buy this knife.
The knife is partially serrated, but unlike the NW Ranger the serration covers a much larger portion of the knife. So all the problems that I had working with the NW Ranger were multiplied with this knife. The straight edges of the blade are far and few between which makes it hard to whittle with.
That said it is has excellent mass and excelled at all the other tasks. It’s the finer whittling tasks that challenge this knife.
This knife comes with quite the marvel of a sheath. Housed on the sheath is not only the knife, but:
- A safety whistle.
- Survival signals.
- Sharpening stone (medium grit)
- Fire starter
That’s a pretty nice kit. Add to that that the sheath is versatile enough that it is the only one that doesn’t matter which direction you holster the knife in.
The blade itself is made of the same high carbon steel as the ESEE and performed just as well. The edge from the factory was laughably dull, but once sharpened the knife performed well. The handle also has a special edge for pounding with and though it’s not as good as a rock, it beats any of the other knives on this list in that facet.
Lastly the position of the whistle (the strap you see hanging from the handle) is in a really bad spot. I would take that off and put it somewhere else because as it is you are constantly battling to keep it out of your way.
The grip is wonderfully secure feeling, but again is only made to be held one way. Even at that this is the best handle of all the knives tested: comfortable and secure feeling.
I really wish this knife had a finer sharpening stone built in, but then again in a true survival situation a medium grit is likely to be better than a fine grit stone. However for most campers a fine grit stone would be far more useful.
This is now the knife I keep in my car and it will likely stay there for emergency situations.
After going through all these knives I wasn’t surprised to come away knowing that the ESEE-4 is the best of the bunch. In a true survival situation this is the knife I would want to have with me.
That said, I was surprised with just how good the Bear Grylls knife is. It’s not perfect, but if you are just a casual hiker who wouldn’t pull out a knife like this unless you were in a worst case scenario — well this would be the knife I would recommend for you. What’s nice about the Grylls knife is that it basically has everything you need to make a good attempt at surviving in the woods — and that’s in large part due to the integration of the fire steel.
For me it’s the ESEE-4, but I pack a well prepared bag. If you are a hiker that worries more about sunscreen and food in your pack, then I would go grab the Bear Grylls knife and a good sharpener, set the edge, and leave the knife in your pack.