Tips for Choosing a Bushcraft Knife
Bushcraft Knife vs. Camping Knife
a bushcraft knife is highly personal for most of us. In a way, isn’t
the knife we carry an ultimate extension of who we are, as much as what
car we drive or what brand of tools we own? However it’s important to
carefully consider what jobs you’ll need your knife for, and for this
all knives are not created equal. For outdoorsman who rely heavily on
their knives as all-purpose tools, there are two general, and very
overlapping categories: bushcraft knives and camping or survival knives.
The distinction between these two categories is rather vague, but generally we can say a bushcraft knife has a thinner blade than a camping knife, although again, many people will use these terms interchangably, and it’s not an industry standard by any means. But it most bushcrafters minds, mine included, there is a difference so we’ll go with that.
A bushcraft knife is generally suited for light and medium duties, such as skinning game, general food preparation, carving wood, making pointed sticks for cooking over the fire, making feather sticks, shaving tinder and so on. You can choose these in either fixed blade or a folder, and we’ll go over these choices in more detail shortly.
A survival or camping knife is usually considered to have a heavier, thicker blade than a bushcraft knife. This thick, strong blade will be less likely to break or get dull under severe use, but it also won’t be as sharp or as suitable for fine or more intricate work. It’ll not be as suitable for carving, skinning game or other work that would require a thinner, sharp more precise tool. Camping knives are well suited for batoning wood, chopping through branches, prepping material to make a shelter, splitting wood for the fire, prying, opening stubborn food packages and so on.
Bushcraft knives are generally about 4 to 5 inches long, which is a good compromise between size and dexterity. As we talked about, you’ll want one of these knives for finer work so a small or medium sized blade allows you to do finer work than a large blade. A survival or camp knife, on the other hand, ranges from 5 to up to 10 or more inches. These knives often are used for chopping and hacking, and the durability and leverage provided by a larger blade is ideal. Having said that, I still refrain from anything larger than 8 inches, but again this is a personal preference, partially determined by your environment. A guy I know in Brazil loves 12 inch or larger blades, but that’s a jungle environment where lots of chopping is common.
Blade materials are another consideration. There are many many types of alloys, which would require a whole article in itself. Sticking with quality manufacturers in most cases ensures you’ll get a quality alloy. Most often you’ll have to choose between stainless steel for your blade, or carbon steel. As a rule of thumb, carbon steel is harder than stainless steel and will stay sharp longer. Most guys prefer carbon steel for this reason, as having to resharpen your blades in the outdoors, or in the middle of cleaning your game, is rather inconvenient to say the least. The downside is once carbon steel is dull, it’s more difficult to resharpen. Stainless steel also tends to cost more, because it’s more complicated to manufacture than other types of steel. One warning, some people believe stainless steel is impervious to rust. This is not true, so caring for your knife properly is important regardless of the material.
One last thing we need to know about blades is the grind. This is the shape of the sharp edge. The two most common are the Scandinavian grind or scandi grind, and the Flat grind. The scandi grind is used on thinner blades that require a very sharp, keen edge, where the flat grind is usually found on thicker blades. The flat grind will not dull quite as fast, but the tradeoff is it’s not as sharp, but only mildly so. Neither are too difficult to resharpen.
Knife handles and Tang
No, we’re not talking about the astronaut beverage! The Tang is the part of the blade that sticks into the handle. This is where the handle attaches to the blade. This is one area where you should not compromise because it greatly affects the strength and durability of your knife. Look for what is called a Full Tang. The blade and tang are one solid piece of steel. A full tang is the same size as the handles, and the handle is often (but not always) visible around the edge of the handle, and the handle is two pieces sandwiched around the tang. Some knives have a hidden full tang, so it’s not as apparent, but always check the specs or ask if you’re not sure. TIP: Stay FAR away from those “survival knives” with the hollow handle full of useless tools. This greatly compromises strength and is not suitable for serious outdoor work.
As far as handles go for your bushcraft knife, you’ll want one that fits comfortably in your hand and offers a grip that will not be slippery, especially when wet. There are many blades out there that get style points with a fancy, designer handle. They look awesome, but in the back country, your outdoors knife needs function over form first and foremost. Micarta is a popular choice, as is stag bone, but are not the only choices. Ask around for the best bushcraft knife recommendations from someone you trust, try some out at the shop or borrow from friends if you can. Your knives will get wet, and the last thing you want is that blade flying out of your hands!
Other Bushcraft Knife Considerations and Tips
Fixed blade or folder?
Fixed blades will be more durable than a folding knife in most cases, but a folder is more convenient to carry. My own personal choice is to carry a heavier, survival/camping type fixed blade knife, and my knife for carving and more detail type work is a folding knife. In fact, I always prefer to carry two knives, so I can better cover all types of jobs. My opinion is that one knife won’t do it all, and adding a folder to your pocket does not add a lot of weight. As an aside, a neck knife is an alternative to your folder.
I know, I overdo it. But I also carry a leatherman tool, and I would have to really think about it to decide if this, or my heavy knife, is my primary tool. But I can say that I would rather give up my folder than my leatherman. Many manufacturers make multi tools, Gerber and Leatherman being two very popular brands. They usually have screw drivers, pliers, knife blades, files, and just about anything else you can think of. They are amazingly versitle and helpful. You should really consider getting one.
Knives run the gamut as far as price is concerned. There are many good cheap bushcraft knives available. Cheap is relative though, and does not need to mean cheap quality. Bushcraft knives can also run into the hundreds of dollars. There are some very nice, custom, and expensive knives out there, and if they are in your budget range, then by all means consider it. But I’ve been happy with my more affordable knife choices so far, so I think you can do well with selecting more affordable knives.
There are many things to consider when shopping for a bushcraft knife, but it really boils down to a few things that are essential, and the rest is preference. A good, strong blade that will stay sharp is important, so choose a good, recognized brand made from quality steel alloy. A full tang is a must on a fixed blade knife, as is a strong, non slip grip. Lastly, consider the job you’ll need the blade to do, how heavy and bulky it’ll be to carry around (the pounds add up if you’re backpacking for days on end). Lastly, ask around, find out what your friends have had success with, or ask around online. There are plenty of forums on the topic.
One last tip: If you’re knife isn’t with you, it can’t help you. Never go into the woods without it!