The Ultimate Showdown: Survival Knife vs Axe – Which Tool is the Ultimate Survivalist’s Choice?

When you’re out in the woods, camping, or stuck in a survival situation, you’ll want a survival knife of some kind and an axe, but what if you could only choose one? Which one is a better survival tool?

Ideally, you would have both a survival knife and an axe. If you have to do more delicate work that doesn’t require a lot of chopping, then a survival knife will be better. If you have to do a lot of chopping and fewer fine tasks, then an axe will be better.

There’s no way to have a clear-cut winner between a survival knife and an axe, but let’s look at what makes each one useful and the situations in which they excel.

Which is Better, a Survival Knife or an Axe

Survival knives and axes both have essential roles to play in the outdoors. Usually, you would want to have an axe and a survival knife with you if you’re camping or in an outdoor survival situation, but which is better if you could only have one?

They both have strengths and weaknesses. The two complement each other well, making up for the shortcomings of one another.

Axes

Axes come in various sizes and are designed for everything from woodworking to combat. For our intent here, we’re going to discuss those axes that make the most sense to use in an outdoor survival situation…the hatchet.

Hatchets are short handles axes designed to be used with one hand. They excel at processing and splitting smaller logs and can easily fall small trees.

How do I choose a good axe?

Choosing a good axe can be tricky if you don’t know how to do it. Follow these steps to pick the best axe for you:

Figure out what the axe will be used for. If you’re interested in a survival axe, you’re most likely looking for a foresty axe. Forestry axes are designed with a relatively narrow blade that gets wider at the bit. They’re built to cut across the grain into the fibers of a tree.

They can also be used to split logs, but that’s not their primary purpose.

Determine how long the axe should be. Longer axes are better at cutting than axes with short handles. The longer the handle, the better the axe will penetrate the tree, making it take far less time to chop down a tree.

For a survival axe, you’re probably going to want to go with a hatchet designed for one-handed use, although a short handles forestry axe that allows you to get two hands on the handle isn’t out of the question.

Pick the weight of the axe head. A heavier axe head will exert more force on the tree that it’s cutting. This means chopping will take less time and effort in the long run.

Weight needs to be balanced by two things. The size of the person swinging the axe and the amount of weight you’re willing to carry when you’re not using the axe.

A long-handled axe with a heavy head may make the most sense for a large person that will be chopping trees all day, but it’s less than ideal when you’re talking about choosing an axe for survival. In that case, a hatchet or very short forestry axe is probably the perfect size for you.

How long should my axe handle be?

The length of the handle of an axe is usually determined by the activity that the axe is intended for.

Hatchets have short handles meant for you to use with one hand. Their handles are usually from 9 inches to around 20 inches.

Pack axes are usually between 20 and 26 inches long. These are about the smallest axes you can comfortably use with two hands.

Splitting axes tend to fall in the 28-31 inch range.

A good rule of thumb for chopping axes is the same length as the user’s inseam.

How heavy should my axe head be?

The weight of an axe head depends on how long the handle of the axe is. The longer the handle, the heavier the head can be and the more power you’ll get in your swings.

Hatchets: 14 oz. to 2 lbs

21″ handles: 1.25 lbs to 2.25 lbs

28″ handles: 1.75 lbs to 2.5 lbs

32″ handles: 3 lbs

36″ handles: 3.5 lbs

How sharp should an axe be?

Axes are just like any other cutting tool that you own…they should be as sharp as you can get them.

When an axe isn’t sharp, it can bounce off the target or deflect at an angle, making it more dangerous. Keeping it sharp will let you chop more effectively and make better cuts with less of a chance of getting a glancing blow on the piece of wood that you’re working on.

The Ultimate Showdown: Survival Knife vs Axe - Which Tool is the Ultimate Survivalist's Choice?

What Is The Best Survival Axe?

Choosing an axe for a survival situation will rely a lot on personal preference and the area you plan on having to survive in. Choosing an axe for survival in the city will be much different than selecting one in the forest.

Here, you can read our full article on what makes the best survival axe.

What is the best bushcraft axe?

The best bushcraft axe is hard to choose because there are so many good manufacturers of axes that would suit you well if you were heading out to a campsite or doing some light work in the woods. These axes are usually targeted at doing more work than you’d do with a hatchet but aren’t need to do full-time chopping.

For a bush crafting axe, I like a handle between 18 and 21 inches long. This gives a decent balance between size and weight and allows you to use it with two hands easily. Gransfors Bruks, Husqvarna, and Wetterlings all make great axes that will work for you, and you can find inexpensive options from Fiskars that make finding a low-price axe easy.

Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe 19 Inch, 420
  • Length with handle: 19 inch, Comes original Gransfors "Axe-book"
  • Weight: 2 lbs
  • Sheath in vegetable tanned leather
  • Perfect for splitting small sticks or cutting limbwood
  • The Small Forest Axe is excellent for felling trees and limbing

The Gransfors Bruks small forest axe is a great little axe with a 19″ handle and a 2-pound head designed for light chopping and felling of trees, climbing, and fire-making. This is my choice for a small backpacking axe that can chew through more wood than a smaller hatchet.

Sale
Gerber 17.5-Inch Freescape Hatchet [31-002536]
  • PTFE coated blade reduces friction, chops clean.
  • Forged steel head construction is durable for long term use.
  • Composite handle is shock absorbent, reducing hand strain.
  • Slim sheath ensures safe storage + transport.
  • Chop deeper with control + efficiency.

This is equivalent to the Fiskars X10, which isn’t easy to get in the U.S. It has a 17.5″ handle and fits the role of a bushcraft axe perfectly. This is the axe that I’d choose if I were looking for a budget option.

What is a good camping axe?

Depending on your plan, the best camping axe can be either large or small. I tend to use a smaller hatchet when I go camping because I only use it to chop down mostly dead, small trees and split smaller logs for the fire.

If you usually do more than that, a larger axe will suit you better, but I recommend a hatchet for general camping.

Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet 13.50 Inch, Axe, 415
  • Length with handle: 13.50 inch, Item-ID: 415
  • Weight: 1.3 lbs
  • Sheath in vegetable-tanned leather
  • Traditional scouting and camping axe
  • The Axe Book comes with every axe purchased from Gransfors Bruk, Made in Sweden.

The Gransfors Bruks wildlife hatchet is what I use as my baseline for what a hatchet should be. The 13.5-inch handle fits almost any pack, and it feels like a larger axe when you’re out using it.

Sale
Fiskars 378501-1002 X7 Hatchet
  • Ideal for chopping kindling and small- to medium-sized logs
  • Chops deeper with each swing to get more done faster
  • Perfected balance and power-to-weight ratio increases swing speed to multiply power, much like an...
  • Proprietary blade-grinding technique provides a sharper edge for better contact and cleaner cuts
  • Lifetime warranty. Low-friction blade coating powers through wood and prevents head from getting...

The Fiskars X7 is a great little hatchet! This is my budget choice for just about anywhere I may need a hatchet. It’s good enough to compete with much more expensive hatchets and cheap enough to buy one for every kit in your lineup and not worry about it.

The 14-inch handle is perfect for camping. It’s comfortable, fits just about anywhere, and is super strong.

Survival Knife

You can get huge survival knives that function like an axe, but then you have more of an axe than a survival knife. Therefore, we’ll look at larger knives that aren’t too extreme in size or proportions.

What should I look for in a survival knife?

Look for these things when you’re choosing a survival knife:

  • Full Tang Blade – A full tang is one solid piece of metal that extends from the blade and is the full length and width of the handle. Full tang blades are more robust than knives made in other ways.
  • Solid Handle – A solid handle that is textured enough to allow you to hold the knife securely when it’s wet or slippery but isn’t going to cause your hands to blister when you’re forced to use it for an extended period.
  • Straight or Partially Serrated Blade – A blade that is straight or partially serrated from 4 to 10 inches long and 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick is what you should be aiming for. There’s a lot of variation in that blade size, so you should be able to find a knife that’s perfect for you somewhere in that variation.
  • Flat Spine – The last thing you should look for is a blade with a flat spine. You can also grind the spine of a knife flat if you’re really in love with a particular knife, but it’s easier to find one that already has a flat spine. This lets you strike a good spark from a ferrocerium rod and make tinder shavings without dulling your blade.

How thick should a survival knife be?

It would be best to look for a knife between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick. If you want a knife that can chop more like an axe and be super sturdy, go for a thicker blade.

Most bushcraft knives are closer to 1/8 inch thick, while solid and heavy-use blades are more than 1/4 inch wide.

How long should a survival knife’s blade be?

Survival knives should have a blade that’s between 4 inches and 10 inches in length.

You can go shorter, but you run the risk of not having a blade that’s long enough for all of the tasks that you need it for. You can also go longer, but then you’re getting into a knife that isn’t necessarily as well suited for survival tasks.

I like knives with shorter blades for bushcraft and survival tasks. I rarely choose a knife larger than 5 inches or shorter than 4 inches in a survival knife.

What is the best steel for survival knives?

Survival knives are typically made with carbon steel. Carbon steel is going to be the best for most survival knives.

Carbon steel is hard and can be sharpened to a fine, sharp edge. It’s also easier to sharpen than stainless steel.

A carbon steel blade needs more attention than a stainless steel blade because it can rust quickly when exposed to the elements.

Stainless steel has the benefit of usually being less expensive than carbon steel and is resistant to stains and corrosion. Its big downfall is that it’s more difficult to sharpen and less likely to hold a sharp edge.

Should a survival knife be serrated?

Serrated blades have a few advantages over straight blades, but they’re difficult to sharpen in the field, so they aren’t very common in survival knives. I wouldn’t suggest getting a fully serrated blade as a survival knife because it is difficult to sharpen.

If you like serrated blades, you’d be better served with a partially serrated blade. This gives you a straight blade that you can easily sharpen when it gets dull and a serrated portion that you can use if you need to cut something really tough to get through.

I usually choose a straight blade for survival knives, so I don’t have to deal with the serrations, and I never feel like I’m missing out by not having them.

What is the best knife for outdoor survival?

With all of the great knives out there, how are you supposed to narrow it down to just one that’s the best outdoor survival knife? I don’t think it’s possible. Instead, I will list a few of my favorites and explain why I like them.

These knives will serve you well in a survival situation or even for general outdoor use.

Ka Bar BK2FDE BK2 Becker Campanion FDE Handle Hard Black Sheath, Brown
  • Full Tang heavy duty field knife suited for camping chores
  • Limited Edition
  • Blade length 5.25"
  • Overall Length 10.5"
  • 1095 Cro-Van Steel

The Becker BK2 has a full tang blade that is 5.25″ long and 1/4″ thick. It’s a beast that can take a beating.

ESEE Knives, 4, Sharpened Clip Point Plain Edge, Coyote Brown Sheath, Clip Plate
  • Blade Length: 4. 50"
  • Cutting Edge: 4. 06"
  • Blade Material: 1095 Carbon Steel

A lot of the ESEE knives are very similar to this one. There are many different coatings to choose from, and the handles come in different colors, but you always get a knife that’s good in the field and feels like it should cost a lot more than it does.

The ESEE 4P has a 4″ full-tang blade that can do a lot of hard work in hard conditions and not fail you.

Condor Tool & Knife, Bushlore Camp Knife, 4-5/16in Blade, Hardwood Handle with Sheath
  • Crafted from the highest quality materials
  • Built for performance and durability
  • Made in El Salvador
  • Handle: Hardwood
  • Blade Material: 1075 HIGH CARBON STEEL

The Condor Bushlore is a traditional bushcraft-style knife. It has a 3.4″ carbon steel full-tang blade, a hardwood handle, and a leather sheath. The best part is that it’s priced much lower than other knives of equal quality.

What is the Best Survival Tool

This is what this entire article boils down to…what’s the best survival tool? Is it the survival knife or the axe?

The survival knife is a great survival tool. It can do nearly anything that you would want in a survival situation. You can use it to make a fire, build traps, clean game, and on and on, but it just can’t chop like an axe unless you get a large one.

Large knives like that usually don’t chop as well as an axe and fall short of being able to do the tasks that a knife excels at. For this reason, I’m going to say that an axe is the ultimate survival tool.

An axe can do almost anything a knife can do and chop what a knife really can’t.