In the past few years, the outdoor community has been at loggerheads debating about the one favorite bushcraft blade that they’d carry with them, if given a choice.
Blame it on Gary Paulsen, but the hatchet manages to find more takers as compared to the humble bushcraft knife, when in reality, the knife is clearly the more versatile choice.
We are not talking about a full tang Crocodile Dundee bowie knife folks.
(‘That’s not a knife. This is a knife’ ~ Croc Dundee)
We are talking about the compact, fixed blade bushcraft knife that’s an irreplaceable part of our outdoor kit.
And why not?
It is lightweight. Easier to use (provided you get some practice), easier to carry, and can rival the hatchet in the tasks that you can perform with it.
The only possible argument that one can pit against it is that camping is not necessarily about survival these days.
It’s the more glamorous avatar that’s more popular.
So, it’s extremely unlikely that you’d run into a scenario where you’d have to baton wood with a knife or hunt with it.
But what if you do? Take a moment to think about it.
What if a thief decamped with all your gear leaving you with just a knife? Your car is 30 miles away.
What if you discovered that the heavy hatchet that you lugged along has a dull blade (Read our hatchet blade sharpening guide) and you need to rely on your knife instead?
Knowing your way around the woods with a bushcraft knife gives you an advantage that will pay dividends in such scenarios.
Even otherwise, a knife can be used to perform more intricate tasks like carving objects, which are impossible to perform with an axe or a hatchet.
All said and done, today we will talk bushcraft knife skills 101.
By the end of this article, you will be as skilled with the knife as John Rambo was.
What are you gonna hunt with it? Elephants? ~ First Blood
Cutting Branches, Twigs, Trees, Et al
Whether its building shelter, a tripod or keeping a fire going through the night, you will be needing small, portable pieces of wood.
It’s given that an axe is the best tool for it.
But when you don’t have a bushcraft axe handy, you can carve, cross-baton (more on this in a bit) or chop wood with your bushcraft knife.
The caveat is that you need to identify the right wood for it.
A skilled knifeman can even bring down a large tree with a small knife. But it’s a laborious task that’s best avoided, especially if you are a novice. Always pick smaller branches or logs whenever possible.
Chopping is the riskiest of these techniques and should only be attempted if you are an expert at it.
Cross-batoning is a lot easier and with some practice, you can chop off reasonably thick wood with ease.
To chop off a branch from a tree trunk, hold your bushcraft knife blade at a 90-degree angle to it.
Use a slightly smaller, but stout branch to drive the blade into the branch by hitting the spine of the blade.
A couple of hits should usually suffice to chop off a branch that’s 2 to 3-inches in diameter.
If you are looking to chop a thicker branch or a full tree, create a notch on the branch by holding the blade at a 45-degree angle and making repeated strokes until the blade hits the middle of the trunk.
You can also use the baton technique as above.
Now pull it out and repeat the same process from the opposite angle until you have created a notch.
Now, you can just break the tree trunk off and chop it into smaller pieces.
Most bushcrafters would warn you against batoning with a knife.
We agree, it is a controversial technique that’s rife with the risk of injury and damage to your knife blade.
But with some practice in your backyard, it can be mastered. And when mastered, it is one of the safest ways to split a log of wood when you do not have a splitting axe or a machete.
And you never know, it might just save your life in the outdoors one day.
Here are some of the things that you will need.
- A thick blade knife as it will be easier to drive into the log. Also it’s less likely to get damaged due to the baton.
- A solid surface to place your wooden logs on. We prefer a thick tree stump because unlike rock or ground, it does not damage the blade.
- Logs of wood that are cut square at the edges. These are easier to place vertically.
- A large swinging club or baton that you will use to drive the knife into the wood. This can be as thick as a baseball bat and must give you a clean swing every time.
Start off by placing your wooden logs on the solid surface. Now place the knife right in the center of the wooden log so that there are at least a couple of inches of the blade beyond the outer perimeter of the log edge.
Tap gently on the spine of the blade using the baton to drive the blade into the log. The blade should fit firmly in the wood.
Now make more powerful strokes on the portion of the blade that juts out from the wood. Be careful not to hit the blade tip.
Batoning can be used to extract dry wood even from a dripping wet log and is one of the most useful bushcraft knife techniques that you can learn.
You can also cross baton smaller pieces of wood or use the technique to create notches on wood.
Peeling Off the Bark
A bushcraft knife can be used for a lot more than making feather sticks, although that’s one of the most important uses.
You can even peel off the bark to make a temporary container to carry your food. Or use it to make cordage for your shelter.
If nothing else, then feather sticks will allow you to get that fire going even if the wood is damp and you don’t have magnesium blocks or other small fuel handy.
Unlike wood shavings, the tiny curly feathers stay attached on the stick making them easier to manipulate and giving them more access to oxygen.
Since we are going to be using a knife, look for a piece of wood that can easily be batoned with the knife.
2-3 inches in diameter, dry, standing, dead wood is your best bet.
Grab a small piece (split the log into smaller pieces using a baton), one that you can comfortably place and grip with one hand. The ideal length is 12-14 inches.
Use your knife to shave off any damp surfaces. Continue to shave off any ragged or bumpy edges to create a level surface.
You should be left with a bone dry piece of wood. One that has an even surface that’s easy to shave to create those wonderful curls.
If the inside edge of the wood piece is bumpy, you will find it incredibly difficult to keep the shavings attached to the wood.
Now with a soft grip, gently peel off a thin layer all the way to the bottom of the piece of wood. Use the part of the blade that’s closest to the handle to make the peel.
In the beginning, do not focus on the quality of the curls. You will accidentally peel them off the wood. That’s completely okay.
Learn to keep an even amount of force as you push the knife downwards to create the curl. When there are too many curls at the bottom of the stick, use the knife to push them away and make some more room.
Keep practicing until you can do this blindfolded. Nah!
To peel off bark, use a similar technique to shave it until you have a thin sheet of bark that’s the desired length. Now insert the tip of the blade into the farthest part of the cut and pry the sheet to pull it off the log.
Lighting a Fire
If the conditions are not favorable enough to allow the use of conventional fire lighting methods, you can use your bushcraft knife to start one.
There are two ways to do this.
If you have a stainless steel knife blade, then you can use a ferro rod to light a fire.
If you are using flint, then you will need a knife with a carbon blade.
Before you begin, you need to know whether or not your knife blade is up to the task.
That’s because we will not be using the sharp edge of the blade.
We will be using the back of the blade. A thick knife with a 90-degree spine is your best bet.
There will be enough surface space to allow the ferro rod to rub against it to throw a sufficient amount of sparks to light a fire.
If you are stuck with a knife with a rounded or polished edge, you might have your task cut out.
It might still create sparks mind you. But whether or not the sparks will be enough to start a fire will depend on other factors, like the dampness in the air and the dimensions of the tinder.
- Find the wood and prep it: We have already covered how to extract dry wood pieces from damp logs using the baton. The trick is to look for dead, upright trees and branches. Once you have small wooden logs that you can use to burn the fire, it’s time to prep it. Shave off any damp surfaces and split the logs to extract kindling which are thin, smaller pieces of wood that can be used as fuel to ignite the bigger logs. You can use feather sticks as tinder.
- Arrange the fire: Get a large log that can be used as the base and as the backstop to stop wind. Pile the kindling on one side of the log ready to be used.
- Sparking the tinder: Hold the knife in your dominant hand and a ferro rod in the other one. Keep the knife steady and pull the ferro rod backwards rubbing it against the spine of the knife. It should instantly produce a shower of hot sparks. If your tinder is dry and fine, it should ignite in no time. If you find that the sparks are not sufficient enough to create the flame (happens when the ferro rod is new), then keep trying. A ferro rod can be used thousands of times to spark a flame.
- Keep adding wood: Once your tinder is ignited with a steady flame, start adding the kindling to it. Always allow the narrowest part of the kindling to catch fire first. This allows the fire to breathe as it spreads. Once all the similar sized wood pieces catch fire, start adding larger pieces and keep scaling until you have a fire the desired size. This way you won’t snuff the fire at the start.
Starting a fire with a bushcraft knife takes practice and patience. It is recommended that you start practicing the technique in your backyard with wet and dry wood in different conditions (Windy, rainy, snow).
Hunting and Processing Meat
Believe it or not, with some skill (and some courage) you can go hunting with a bushcraft knife. This skill should be reserved for only those who are extremely experienced.
You’d be somewhat limited with your choice of prey due to obvious reasons.
But in a survival scenario, it can mean cuddling up next to that warm fire with some much needed protein in your body as opposed to surviving on berries and grub.
And if you have other weapons (firearms, cross bow) for hunting large game, then you can use the bushcraft knife to reduce it to small sized packages that can be tucked into the freezer.
In the wild, you can skin, gut and quarter a large animal within no time with a sharp knife.
Let’s look at each of those scenarios in detail.
Hunting with a Knife
Bushcraft knives are usually used to hunt wild boars. In a dog hunt, dogs are used to pin the boar down while you flip it over on its back and stab the heart to administer the death blow.
If you are hunting alone, then the situation becomes a little tricky and a lot more challenging.
A wild boar can weigh up to 800 pounds and charge at you at up to 25 miles an hour. Not to mention that they have four razor sharp tusks that they can use to gut you and fling you above their heads. (Hence the courage part) When hunting solo, always aim to get within a safe distance (30-35 feet) of the animal.
Allow the boar to charge at you rather than the other way round. Push it to the side and use the knife to stab on the spine. This will weaken the animal. Then flip it over on the back and stab the heart.
Knives are a primitive hunting tool and modern laws require that you kill the animal as swiftly and humanely as possible. Do not attempt other methods like throwing the knife or dropping down over the animal from a tree. It will most likely end up in an injury and the animal might run off with your knife still lodged in their body.
Processing Meat With a Knife
Processing meat in the outdoors is a different ball game altogether.
You need a sturdy fixed blade knife that’s ideally 4-6 inches in length, thick spine, rounded edge, has a non-slippery handle (very important) and can be sharpened in a jiffy.
Some hunters carry a bunch of knives for specialized tasks like skinning, quartering and boning. But you can do a reasonably good job even with one sturdy bushcraft knife.
This primer is intended for processing deer meat. But the same rules apply for wild boar as well as other big game like elk.
We begin by field dressing the animal as soon as possible after it is put down. This allows the body to start cooling and prevents bacterial growth. Also, this prevents the meat from getting gamy.
Start off by making a small incision near the belly and cut the skin all the way up to the sternum. Now you need to make a small cavity in the muscle tissue and cut all the way to open the chest and remove the entrails. Unless you have a boning knife or a bone saw, you just need to separate the two limbs near the pelvis. Peep into the chest cavity and you can see a muscle on both sides that’s attached to the guts of the animal. Slit along the diaphragm muscle to dislodge the guts completely and pull it out. Now, you can hang the deer by the neck or on a gambrel, make initial cuts on the outside and inside of the legs and the neck and then use the edge of the blade to pry and work the hide away from the meat.
Quartering takes a fair amount of practice and know how of the anatomy. You can start off by removing the legs from the ball and socket joints, removing the tenderloins next by dislodging the spinal back straps and slicing away any leftover meat. That’s it. You’ve just processed your own venison. Be warned that it reads a lot easier than it actually is. But with some practice, you will get there.
Whittling is one of the skills that’s integral to bushcraft. Not only does it allow you to hone your knife handling skills, it also lets you carve out some pretty useful stuff for use around camp.
A wooden spoon for example can be pretty useful. So can a wooden stake to anchor your tent or tarp.
Fishing hook, a whistle, a bow and arrow, the possibilities are endless.
But if this is the first time you are tying your hand at whittling, go slow and start small.
The tent stake is one of the simplest things that you can carve.
While any type of softwood would be ideal for carving, like pine or balsa, you can give it a shot even with random twigs and branches that you find around camp.
Sharpen your knife if the edge has borne the brunt of your bushcrafting skills already. Start by making slow strokes cutting along the grain of the wood. Use straightaway rough cuts to give your object shape. This is a fairly straight forward cut just like shaving the bark of the log.
Now you can alternate between the pull stroke and the push stroke. The pull stroke is similar to paring an apple and you can use it to create finer details on the object. Just ensure that you keep your thumb out of the cutting path.
The push stroke is usually used in places where you cannot use the pull stroke. You can use the left thumb to apply pressure and push the blade forward. Use the right thumb and the index finger as a guide for the blade as you push it ahead.
You will be switching between 45-degree angled cuts (mostly) and 90-degree cuts (rarely).
Rule of thumb: Always try to cut away from the body. Wear gloves or a thumb pad if you have access to it. If you accidentally hit a knot, it might cause a deflection on to your finger or body causing a deep cut. Do not press on. Allow the wound to heal before you make another attempt.
Mastering Knife Grips
There are only two ways to hold a bushcraft knife. The right way and the wrong way.
Holding it in the right way makes it easier to perform the task that you intend to. It minimizes the risk of injury to yourself as well as others around you.
We are sure that the wrong way needs no introduction. You don’t want to be the guys who accidentally maimed, or even worse, killed themselves because they didn’t know how to handle a knife.
Having said that, there are a few commonly used knife grips by survivalists and bush crafters for accomplishing various tasks with their knives.
- The Hammer Grip is the most basic one. Just wrap all the fingers around the handle. You can use the knife for chopping, in a similar fashion as you’d use a hammer.
- The reverse hammer is the exact opposite of the hammer grip and can be used when you are using a pulling stroke in carving. This is a very dangerous grip because the sharp edge of the knife will be facing you. The rule of thumb is to keep the sharp edge away from you at all times. So, use this grip only if you have no other alternative.
- The reverse grip is the hammer grip. Only, the tip of the knife is pointing downwards like in the psycho movies. It’s a pretty useful grip really to stab an animal or to make a slit in the tarp. Keeping the thumb on the base of the handle gives you better control when you use the reverse grip.
- The chef’s grip or the pinch grip is used extensively while processing meat in the field. The thumb and the index finger pinch the spine of the blade allowing the user great control on the knife.
- The saber grip is somewhat similar to the pinch grip. Four fingers are wrapped around the handle of the knife while the thumb rests on the spine. It is used when making the push stroke in whittling. If the knife does not have a finger guard, then it is recommended that you use a lanyard to prevent injury while using this grip.
- The pencil grip is another frequently used knife grips in bushcraft. You hold the blade pretty much like you’d hold a pencil with the thumb and forefinger. It can be used for a variety of tasks that require precision in the cuts.
Bushcraft Knife Safety tips
A lot of newcomers to bushcraft want to become expert whittlers and craftsmen right off the bat.
We know the temptation. We’ve been there.
But have you ever accounted for an unexpected Injury or the risk of cutting yourself?
Old timers would regularly dole out this advice to us when we were starting off; ‘If you haven’t cut yourself yet, you are not a real bush crafter’
Sorry to differ with the experts on this. You do not necessarily need to cut yourself to be a skilled bush crafter. True, the nicks and scrapes are unavoidable.
But a full blown injury can easily be avoided if you set some basic ground rules and abide by them at all times.
That includes when you are weary after a grueling day in the wild, when the light is poor, when you are in a rush. Basically, every time you get your hands on the knife.
- A dull blade is a recipe for an injury: In other words, keep your blade sharp at all times. A dull blade will require you to exert more effort to cut. When you exert more effort, the chances of the blade flailing and deflecting are high.
- Master the grips, especially if you intend to hunt with the knife. It means that you are more likely to use grips like the point down and hammer which can cause injuries.
- Hold the knife in your hands and stretch out your arms. Now turn 360-degrees and imagine an invisible boundary created by the knife all around you. That’s your blood circle, an invisible safety boundary that you must try not to breach when working with a bushcraft knife. When you are working around people, be aware of their blood circles too.
- Do not use any part of the body as a backstop. Place the wood on a level and stable surface. If you find a tree stump, use it. Else just place it on the ground if need be. Keep your body away from the sharp edge at all times.
- Never let your guard down while you using the knife. This is especially important when you are sheathing and unsheathing it.
- While whittling, sit in a comfortable position. Keep your elbows on your knees and cut away from the body. Never use the knife over the inside of the legs even though that might seem like a comfortable position. It’s called the Death Triangle for a reason.
- Use safety gear whenever possible. That includes Kevlar gloves, thumb pads, lanyards and goggles.
- Keep a first aid kit close by. Bandages, gauzes and a disinfectant should suffice.
A Few Last Words
Practice your bushcraft knife skills in your backyard. That’s the best part about each one of the skills that we have mentioned here, except for hunting. You can practice them over and over. Make mistakes. Rinse and repeat until you master them.
You can also Interact with other knife enthusiasts to learn newer techniques.