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The Two Best Inexpensive Survival Knives

Knives are an important part to the off-the-grid lifestyle and can be game-changers in a survival situation. If you were to ask any survivalist or hardcore “bushman” which items they would never be found without, without a doubt one of their top two items would be a knife.

But what if you are an aspiring bushcrafter and want to be sure it is a good hobby/lifestyle before you invest heavily in time or money—which knife is for you?  For veteran bushcrafters—what knife is a good “beater”? For those who use their knives for lighter work or need more versatility than a machete can give them, what choices do you have that won’t go over budget?

There are two knives that come to mind as perfect companions in the low-end price range. These pieces are incredible for their costs and blow the other competition out of the water.

The budget is $25, so there aren’t a lot of proven contenders in the space.  The requirements:

  • Sharp
  • Must be a mainstream and widely available brand-name manufacturer
  • Relatively maintenance free
  • Easy to use
  • Versatile
  • Capable of both small work and medium-duty tasks
  • Easy to sharpen
  • Comes sharp in the box from factory
  • Under $25 USD

These requirements are difficult for many knives to meet, as the actual usage of most knives will expose them as incapable at best in this price range. But without further ado…

The Cold Steel Bushman

This is an unorthodox knife made out of one piece of high-carbon steel with a hollow handle that can fit on the end of a stick/dowel/broom handle to form a spear and flat out performs better than any knife in its price range for 90 percent or more of the survival duties faced by someone in a difficult situation.  It’s incredibly sharp out of the box and takes an edge like you wouldn’t believe, if you know what you’re doing with a stone.  It’s relatively maintenance free with the heavy coating on the blade.  The edge will simply roll over rather than chip for the most part, as it is hardened to a bit under the “brittle” threshold (I would imagine between 53-57 Rockwell, but don’t quote me). It can actually be filed with a good quality flat file if you need to take out big gouges made by rocks or overzealous lumberjacks.  It’s a bit thinner than other dedicated survival knives, so don’t expect to be able to lop off four-inch thick branches with ease (two-to-three inchers should be doable with practice).  As a side note, the bowie-style bushman puts more weight density over the blade so it swings better for chopping, but it is still not a venerable chopper, and those looking for a dedicated “tree feller” should look elsewhere.

The weight is lower than most knives that have similar duty capabilities, and the handle is hollow but substantial.  You can stuff some small and basic survival stuff in the handle and seal with a plug of wood/rubber if need be.

The blade is substantial (around six inches long, depending on style), and it’s certainly not a small knife (over ten inches total), so you aren’t getting a knife capable of comfortably being carried in your pocket.  The company used to make a compact version of the knife, which was an excellent all-around piece, but it has since discontinued it (rumor has that it was more expensive to produce than the bigger version and was not nearly as profitable or popular).

As a user, I have punished this knife for years, and while it has lost about a quarter inch or so off the total blade width (flat width, not thickness) from sharpening/reshaping, it is still as sharp and capable as ever.  It has been thrown into boulders, used to serve food, skinned large game, and used extensively as a throwing knife and a spear, as well as cut down whole fields’ worth of cattails, vines, and saplings.  The bowie knife is particularly well suited to blade holding and intricate palm work with a high handhold, but the drop point is also fairly adept in such scenarios as well.

It will rust because it doesn’t contain any chrome, vanadium, etc. (to speak of), and you will want to wipe the cutting edge with oil before you put it away.  If you are really hardcore and do a lot of chopping through heavier branches, you might consider removing or at least buffing down the texture on the blade finish, as it can catch in repeated work and slow you down.  You will need to oil the blade to avoid rust if you do this.

As a spear, consider using a screw to secure the stick (and specifically consider using straight production-milled wood if possible) through the lanyard hole in the handle, as it will make sure you can react quicker and do more intensive work with it.  It will work well as a machete if used with a securely fastened twelve-to-twenty-four inch handle as well.

Some notes about its weaknesses:

The thick blade covering can be a hindrance when chopping through branches that are thicker than three inches.

The handle is metal and does not use any knurling or checkering to maintain grip control; when wet, it could be more difficult to use.

The Mora Line of Knives

The Moras have more than their fair share of fanboys/girls, so I won’t try to convince you of their suitability as a survival knife. Rather, it’s important to understand that Moras are smaller and have thinner, more flexible blades.  They are better suited to small woodwork (such as making snare triggers) than they are to chopping and hacking branches for shelter or fire.  They are also well suited to wetter environments with their (almost) “stainless” blades, although they do offer a carbon-steel blade for purists.  The knives don’t typically have very convincing finger guards, so skills with a knife are certainly necessary to avoid cutting your palm when you are using the knife with certain techniques.  These knives (and most knives in the survival genre) are not for stabbing.  More harm than good usually comes from using stabbing movements with survival type knives, and it is highly discouraged.

This knife is small enough to carry in a pocket with an appropriate sheath, but it’s more comfortable on the belt.  It’s not big enough to do big survival jobs, but it’s small enough to do EVERYTHING that other knives in the genre cannot do.  For close up work or small-diameter woodwork, it’s certainly a good choice.

There are a ton of great knives in the line, and any of them will outdo the price tag attached to it.  The blades are more flexible, easier to sharpen, and more rust resistant than 99 percent of their competition, and the reputation of the company is incredible, so for the $15-25 price tag, it really is hard to beat a Mora.

It’s a good craft knife, fishing knife, and campsite chore blade, and it is relatively small for a fixed blade with such capabilities.

Some notes on its weaknesses:

It’s not a chopper at all, not even close to the Cold Steel Bushman (which in itself is not necessarily a chopping knife), so don’t under buy if chopping is on your list of needs.

The sheaths are subpar for a lot of the line of Moras, so unless you have some ranger bands or can handle looser sheaths, expect a need for some slight modifications.

The blades will rust under very extreme conditions and don’t hold an edge quite as well as the Bushmaster or some other choices in the range, though it’s not a poor blade edge in any stretch of the imagination.

When it comes down to it, sometimes you need a cheap knife that can handle the trial by fire.  The knives mentioned above cannot only tame many survival situations, but they have done so for many years and for many hard-to-please customers.

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