By Geoffrey Guy
A knife is the most important tool for outdoor survival. Before steel knives, our Stone Age ancestors would have used cutting tools of stone, bone, antler, and even wood to survive in the harshest of conditions. Nowadays, although we are lucky to have modern steel knives that will hold an edge and can be fitted with comfortable handles, you will need to choose a knife wisely before heading outdoors to live off the land. Today, I’ll help you pick one that will last you a lifetime and never let you down.
There are two major schools of thought when it comes to selecting a knife for living and working in the outdoors:
The first, particularly popular recently amongst “survivalists,” is the idea of a knife being a “one-tool option.” These knives tend to be larger, which allows them to be used in ways you might normally associate with an ax or machete. However, this naturally makes these knives less well suited to finer tasks such as skinning game, whittling, and preparing food. Larger knives can be pressed to these tasks but will never be as good as smaller, more nimble knives. The saying goes that “a big knife can do anything a small knife can, but a small knife can’t do everything a big knife can.” While this might be true in some respects, the quality of the fine work you can do with a large knife is severely hampered by its size. Large knives are also disproportionately heavy and won’t ever be as a good as an ax or saw for heavier work. A larger knife such as the popular Ontario RTAK II, which weighs 22.6 ounces; or the ESEE Junglas at 22.5 ounces (33 if you include the sheath) might weigh as much as an ax, knife, and saw combined if you choose your tools carefully. That’s not an exaggeration either. A Gransfors Wildlife hatchet, Mora Companion knife, and Bahco Laplander folding saw have a combined weight of 30.6 ounces – well under the weight of a large knife and its sheath, and far more versatile.
For this simple reason, I’d recommend choosing a knife as part of a simple toolkit rather than as a one-tool option; and I’m not the only one to think this way. George Washington “Nessmuk” Sears, 19th-century adventurer and author of probably one of the most popular outdoors manuals of all time, advocated a simple outdoors toolkit consisting of a pocket knife, sheath knife, and double bit hatchet.
Carrying dedicated chopping tools such as an ax and/or saw allows you to gather firewood and cut wood to build shelters whilst saving the razor-sharp edge of your knife from damage. The knife that forms part of this simple outdoors toolkit needs to have a few key features:
A sharp point:
This might sound obvious but there are many knives without a sharply pointed blade. There may be many design reasons for this. Often skinning and butchery knives feature a blade with a deep belly, which makes it easier to skin game animals but reduces performance when it comes to working wood to create components for traps or items for your camp kitchen. Your main knife needs to strike a fine balance and allow you to perform all these tasks.
A suitable grind:
The edge of your knife isn’t as simple as it might appear at first glance. There are so many different styles of grind to choose from, and some are more versatile than others. Nessmuk might have chosen a flat ground knife as his primary belt knife because he preferred to reserve it for butchery, and a flat ground knife excels at this task. A flat grind extends all the way from the spine of a knife to the sharp edge with a very fine additional bevel to add strength. This makes these knives excellent for slicing but also makes the edge quite fragile.
Scandinavian grinds are often chosen as bushcraft knives because their edges are “zero ground” from about a quarter or a third of the way up the blade. This means there is no secondary bevel, and this makes the knives exceptionally sharp and excellent for working with wood. Fantastic Scandinavian grind knives are produced by manufacturers such as Casström, Mora, and Helle.
A convex grind is my preference for an all-round outdoors knife, as it provides a very strong but still “zero ground” edge for a balance between sharpness and strength. Fairly few production knives feature a convex grind, but you may find something suitable from manufacturers such as Bark River and Fällkniven.
Not all steel is made equal, and you will need to choose a knife that strikes a balance between being hard enough to retain its edge but not so hard that it chips, breaks, or is too hard to sharpen. The hardness of steel is measured with the Rockwell scale, and somewhere between 58 and 60 on that scale is great. There is also a whole range of potential blade steels. Many affordable knives will have blades of 1095 carbon steel, D2, or 12C27 Swedish Steel, and these are fantastic steels that, if heat treated properly, will perform perfectly. You can spend an awful lot on a knife, though, if you go for some of the higher-end specialist steels such as 3V, S30V, VG10, or 3G. It’s not so much the type of steel but the quality of the build and heat treatment that is the most important factor. Most reputable manufacturers will do decent heat treatment on their knives, so you can rely on them. I don’t necessarily have a favorite steel that I would recommend above others, but the knives I most often use are a custom bushcraft knife made to my design featuring a blade of O1 steel, a Fällkniven F1 in 3G steel, and an Eickhorn Nordic Bushcraft knife in Böhler N695 steel.
As well as good quality and well heat-treated steel, you will want a knife that features a strong full tang design. The tang is the part of the blade that extends through the handle of the knife. A full tang extends all the way through the handle, and some are full width – meaning the handle has been attached in two parts to either side of the tang. I prefer tangs that are not full-width, as they don’t leave any cold steel against your skin when you are using them in very cold conditions. Short tangs should be avoided as they can be weak and may break under extreme conditions.
A comfortable handle:
If you are going to be using your knife for a long period of time, whether for whittling or food prep, it will need to be comfortable. Wooden handles have been popular for generations but can potentially be contaminated by blood and other fluids, so other modern options might be preferable for hygiene reasons. Various plastics are used in knife handles, and Micarta is a popular modern handle material that is made of resin-impregnated fabric. A similar method can be used to “stabilize” wood and make it completely impermeable to fluid while still retaining the aesthetic attraction of natural wood grain. For knives that I might dedicate to game preparation and butchery, I would choose a plastic handle; but for something more general purpose, I prefer the appearance of wooden handles.
Depending on your specific needs and preferences, if you follow these guidelines you will find a knife that is suitable for your needs. With practice, it will become your greatest asset in the wilderness.