Best Steel for Survival Knife

Exploring the Top Survival Knife Steels: Balancing Hardness, Toughness, and Corrosion Resistance

In the world of survival knives, the choice of steel is a crucial factor that can make or break the effectiveness and durability of your knife. With a myriad of options available, it is essential to understand the characteristics and performance attributes of popular steels to make an informed decision. This article will discuss some of the most popular survival knife steels, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses, to help you choose the perfect steel for your needs.

see also: knife steels chart

Why do you need a knife in a survival scenario?

In a survival scenario, a knife is an invaluable tool that can serve a wide range of purposes. Here are some common uses for a knife in such situations:

  1. Food preparation: A survival knife can be used to cut, slice, and chop food items, such as fruits, vegetables, and meats. It can also help in skinning and cleaning game, filleting fish, and opening canned goods.
  2. Fire starting: A knife can be used to create tinder by shaving wood or bark into fine shavings or scraping a ferrocerium rod to produce sparks. You can also use it to carve notches and grooves for a bow drill, a primitive fire-starting method.
  3. Shelter building: A knife is essential for cutting branches, saplings, and foliage for constructing shelters. It can also help in carving stakes and notches for securing ropes and tarps.
  4. Cutting cordage: A sharp knife is invaluable for cutting rope, paracord, and other materials needed for various tasks, such as securing shelters, creating snares, or tying loads.
  5. Digging: While not the ideal tool for digging, a survival knife can be used to dig small holes, create fire pits, or unearth edible roots and tubers.
  6. First aid: A knife can be used to cut bandages, tape, or clothing for improvised dressings and splints in medical emergencies. It can also help in removing splinters or performing other minor medical procedures, but caution is required to avoid causing further injury.
  7. Hunting and fishing: A survival knife can be used to create improvised hunting and fishing tools, such as spears, fish hooks, and snares.
  8. Signaling: A knife can be used to carve distress signals on trees, rocks, or the ground, or even to create a makeshift signal mirror by polishing the blade.
  9. Self-defense: In a survival situation, a knife can serve as a last resort for self-defense against wild animals or potential threats from other humans.
  10. Tool maintenance: A knife can be used to sharpen other tools, such as axes and saws, or to create and maintain other improvised tools.

Things to consider when choosing a survival knife steel

When choosing the best steel for a survival knife, it is important to consider several factors that will influence the knife’s performance, durability, and ease of use. Here are some key factors to consider:

  1. Hardness: The hardness of a steel is measured on the Rockwell C scale (HRC). A higher HRC rating means the steel is harder, which generally results in better edge retention but can also make it more brittle. For a survival knife, a good balance of hardness is essential – typically around 56-60 HRC.
  2. Toughness: Toughness is the steel’s ability to absorb and resist impact without chipping or breaking. A survival knife needs to be tough to withstand various tasks like chopping, batoning, and prying. Look for steels that are known for their toughness, such as 1095 carbon steel, 5160, or CPM-3V.
  3. Corrosion resistance: A survival knife may be exposed to moisture, saltwater, or other corrosive elements. Stainless steels, like VG-10, S30V, or S35VN, have higher corrosion resistance than carbon steels but may not be as tough.
  4. Edge retention: A survival knife should hold its edge well through prolonged use. Steels with good edge retention, like M390, CPM-S90V, or CPM-S110V, will require less frequent sharpening. However, these steels can be more challenging to sharpen in the field.
  5. Sharpening ease: In a survival situation, you may need to sharpen your knife with limited resources. Steels that are easier to sharpen, like 1095 or 1080 carbon steel, can be more practical in these situations, even if they don’t hold an edge as well as some other options.
  6. Cost: The price of the steel can impact the overall cost of the knife. More expensive steels often offer better performance, but you should consider your budget and weigh the benefits against the cost.
  7. Availability: Some high-performance steels may be harder to find or available only in limited quantities or from specific manufacturers. Consider the availability of the steel when making your decision.

Popular steels used in survival knives

  1. 1095 Carbon Steel: Known for its toughness and ease of sharpening, 1095 is a popular choice for survival knives. However, it has relatively low corrosion resistance compared to stainless steels.
  2. 5160 Spring Steel: With a good balance of toughness and hardness, 5160 is often used in large survival knives and swords. It is also easy to sharpen but has lower corrosion resistance.
  3. CPM-3V: CPM-3V is a high-performance, high-toughness steel that offers excellent impact resistance and edge retention. It has better corrosion resistance than carbon steels but still requires some maintenance to prevent rust.
  4. D2 Tool Steel: D2 is a semi-stainless steel known for its wear resistance and edge retention. It is more corrosion-resistant than carbon steels but not as resistant as true stainless steels. It can be more challenging to sharpen than some other options.
  5. VG-10: VG-10 is a stainless steel that offers good edge retention and corrosion resistance. It is relatively easy to sharpen and is commonly found in both survival and kitchen knives.
  6. S30V and S35VN: Both S30V and S35VN are high-quality stainless steels developed by Crucible Industries. They offer excellent edge retention, corrosion resistance, and toughness. S35VN is an evolution of S30V, with improved toughness and ease of sharpening.
  7. 420HC: This is a budget-friendly stainless steel with decent corrosion resistance, toughness, and ease of sharpening. While it doesn’t have the best edge retention, it is a popular choice for affordable survival knives.
  8. AUS-8: AUS-8 is a Japanese stainless steel that offers a good balance of toughness, edge retention, and corrosion resistance. It is relatively easy to sharpen and is often found in mid-range survival knives.
  9. M390: M390 is a premium stainless steel known for its excellent edge retention and corrosion resistance. It can be more challenging to sharpen but is a popular choice for high-end survival knives.


Selecting the right steel for your survival knife is a critical aspect of ensuring its performance, durability, and ease of use in various conditions. While there are numerous steel options available, each with its unique characteristics, it is essential to find the right balance of hardness, toughness, corrosion resistance, edge retention, and ease of sharpening. By understanding the differences between popular survival knife steels and considering your specific needs and preferences, you can make an informed decision and invest in a knife that will serve you well in challenging situations.