A camp knife is simply an all-purpose knife that’s built bigger and heavier than a standard hunting knife. It should be unbreakable, and should be able to double as a hatchet or a machete. A good camp knife can take on many of the tasks of a hunting knife and do them faster and with far less effort. It’s also a survival knife if you’re unlucky or dumb and have to hack your way out of whatever you got yourself into.
The camp knife concept is not new. Mountain men carried them and used them for everything. Usually they’d get a butcher knife that suited their fancy and make a sheath for it. The actual term was probably coined by the great knife-maker Bill Moran, who experimented with camp knives in the 1960s.
A proper camp knife should have a blade no shorter than 8 inches and no longer than 10. Nine, as you may have gathered, is just about ideal. The blade should be made of ¼-inch stock, or heavier, and should be fairly wide. What you’re looking for is heft and leverage. When you whack something, you want to make an impression.
Almost all the good camp knives I’ve seen are made of tool steels, such as 1095, 1095CR, 5061, or 01, and most of them are tempered on the soft side. These steps make them easy to sharpen, and you can get a bloodcurdling edge.
You want a nice, big, indestructible handle that you can grip in a variety of positions. You don’t need a guard; it will only get in the way.
Carrying a big knife is a problem. The best position I’ve found is in front of your left hip (assuming you’re right-handed), handle forward, at about a 45-degree angle. Much better to carry it in your pack, or lash it to your pack.
Camp knives, like tennis racquets and baseball bats and golf clubs, have sweet spots—a point on the blade where you get the most power. Usually, it falls just south of where the blade curves. It’s worth your while to find just where this sweet spot is. If you’re looking for something to experiment on, I suggest you find a standing dead tree that is dried out but not rotting, and between 6 and 7 inches in diameter. This is about the size you’d choose for an emergency shelter or a stretcher pole. And if you live in yellow-pine country, look for that. It will test both your knife and your manhood.
When hacking and hewing, I strongly recommend the use of tactical gloves. They give you a better grip, absorb a lot of the shock and, unless you have a hard and horny hand, spare you the blisters that come with this work.
We all know that it’s fitting and proper to keep any knife sharp. In the case of camp knives, it’s a matter of dire necessity. A camp knife with a razor edge is a labor-saving device of astonishing versatility and precision. A dull camp knife is a club with a point on it. Get it sharp enough and a camp knife can slice onions thin, whittle wood shavings so fine you can see through them, or perform corneal surgery. Without that edge, it’s a reasonably good pry bar.
Sharpening a long-bladed knife by hand can present a problem because as you slide the edge down the stone, you lose your leverage as you get to the point. What I do is sharpen the 4 to 5 inches closest to the handle first, then wrap the blade in a rag and hold that to sharpen the rest. Use plenty of rag, and if you’d really like to be on the safe side, tape the rearward part of the edge before you shift your grip.
Now, here are some camp knives with which I have experience. This is not a product test or a gear roundup—just a sampling that I’ve used and liked.
This is something of a cult favorite, and people are forever modifying it. The 9.25-inch blade is made of 1095 Cro-Van steel, and is on the thin and light side for this class of knife. It’s ground with a short, strong point and takes a razor edge. The handle is a synthetic called Ultramid, and if you’d like something fancier, there are aftermarket handle scales available. The sheath is nylon, and is excellent. About $90 on amazon.com.
A classic camp knife, from Ontario Knife Company. Ontario Knife Co.
If you lust for a knife that packs plenty of pork, here’s your huckleberry. The Woodsman‘s 9.5-inch blade is made of 5160 steel (which is what auto leaf springs are forged from) and is hardened to 53-55 Rockwell. The handle is nice and roomy, and made of laminated hardwood. DeSantis makes the nylon sheath, and a fine job they do. This is a very classy, well thought out tool, and you may not be worthy of it. I’ve seen it as low as $60 on Amazon, but it usually goes twice that or more.
The ultimate indestructible camp knife, made by Dan Winkler. Winkler Knives
Dan Winkler, who has pretty much become designated knife-maker for the High Speed Community (SEALS, Special Forces, Delta Force) makes the ultimate indestructible do-anything-you-want-to-it-and-it-will-just-laugh-at-you camp knife. Built to order, of a high-tech steel called 80-CrV2, this 9 ½-inch-bladed knife is ground to be damned near unbreakable, has a no-glare oxide finish, a first-rate Kydex sheath, and a price that will cause you to hyperventilate. It’s not easy to sharpen, but it holds an edge like grim death itself. If you’re looking for the ultimate heavy-duty outdoor knife, you’ve just found it.
A combination hunter/camp knife, by Mike Malosh Arizona Custom Knives
Malosh, who is a machinist and knife-maker, turns out beautiful camp knives in the style of William Scagel, who inspired Bo Randall. Malosh works in 01 and W2 steels, and grinds a rolled, or Moran-style edge that sharpens with notable ease. His knives are distinctive, quite beautiful, and no two are exactly alike. He has his sheaths made by Jack Mosher, who is a master leatherworker. Malosh knives come on the market irregularly, but they are available, and you can see what’s out there by Googling “malosh knives for sale.” He doesn’t charge nearly what his work is worth.
This is one of the traditional knives of the Sami, who inhabit northernmost Europe. Leuku means “big knife,” and the tool evolved—perhaps a millennium ago—for use in bitter cold weather. The classic leuku has a distinctive birch-root handle that’s designed to be held by a mittened hand, a wide, straight, hand-forged blade, and a sheath that swallows nearly the entire knife.
Since not all sporting-goods houses carry leukus, the best place to see them is at ragweedforge.com. Click on any of the knife links and you will find plenty. Ragweed Forge is run by Ragnar, and is the chief importer of handmade knives from Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Ragnar has loads of leukus, and his prices are astonishingly low.
I was intrigued by the leuku, but I didn’t care for the handle shape, which is too short and too thick for my hand. So I had one made by Lamont Coombs, Jr. of Bucksport, Maine. (You can Google him.) Lamont came up with one that has a slimmer, longer handle made of birch-root burl, and a 9-inch 1095 blade with a weight-forward shape that is not traditional, but is very effective. It’s also the sharpest big knife I’ve ever owned. If I ever have a reindeer to butcher or need to carve out a sled runner in a hurry, this is where I will turn.