This is a question that comes up a lot. Many people wonder if the term camping knife and survival knife are interchangeable. I believe they are different types of knives entirely although one can be used for the other in necessary.
What are the differences between a camping knife and a survival knife?
Every knife is a balance of function and compromise. While either knife can work as a camping or survival knife, it is worth remembering that a knife is a tool and the intended purpose of the tool will define the form and shape it takes. There are a few basic differences between camping knives and survival knives; blade shape, steel, composition of the grip and point to name a few. However, the major difference between camping and survival knives is size.
Size is the most significant difference between the two types of knives. On the average, survival knives are larger than their camping cousins. This is due mostly to the uses that they are put to. A larger heavier knife is far more useful for shaping shelter poles or lashing to a length of wood to use spear fishing, while a smaller lighter knife is the better option for cleaning a fish or doing jobs around the camp. Survival knives normally feature a fixed blade full tang construction with a clip or drop point and average around five inch for the blade. Many popular camping knives are drop or Tanto point and blades are rarely over four inches.
Blade shape can often be another distinction between the two knife types. Most of the popular survival knives have a drop or clip point, the most recognizable clip point is probably the Bowie knife. The clip point makes the knife very good for working in smaller spaces and gives it excellent penetration but at the cost of overall integrity as the point is more likely to break than with a drop point knife. Most good camping knives have either Tanto or drop point blades that sacrifice the advantages of the clip point for added durability.
Steel composition is another difference between the two types of knife. You will find that most quality survival knives use high carbon steel that is easy to maintain in the back-country and holds an edge longer with wear than the often softer grades of steel used for camping knives. The drawback to high carbon steel is that it is more susceptible to rusting than stainless. Many of the more popular camping knives are made of stainless steel. This steel is less expensive than high carbon and corrosion resistant, but the softer material means that you are going to have to maintain your edge more often.
A lot of knife manufacturers market the same knife in both categories and the knives are versatile enough to work in both situations. This does not mean that you should avoid camping knives in favor of survival knives, but it does mean that a good general purpose knife can carry you through most situations. Survival knives are longer and heavier, and while the high carbon steel helps them hold an edge, unless they are powder coated they are prone to rust if not maintained. Camping knives are more versatile due to their smaller size, the soft steel requires more maintenance to hold an edge but they are often less likely to break at the tip.