How to Sharpen a Knife in the Field

knife sharpening
Stay Sharp: Touch up your blade in the field.Dan Saelinger

There are all sorts of knife sharpeners with guides that keep modern woods wussies from hurting themselves, but none of them works terribly well—at least not the ones I’ve tried. And these contraptions are not designed to be used when you need them most: when you’re standing over 800 pounds of dead elk and need a blade that is scalpel-sharp.

The best tool I’ve found for sharpening in the field is the Sportsman’s Steel, made by Gerber. It is now discontinued but still easy to find online. An elongated steel wedge 5 inches long by 7⁄8 inch wide, it pivots in and out of a leather case. The steel is coated with superhard chromium carbide. Learn how to stroke your blade along its side, and your knife will be sharp enough to shave with even after you’ve just butchered a bull.

knife sharpening
Hold the knife blade with its spine raised 20 degrees.Steve Sanford

Step 1. Pivot the steel so it forms a right angle with the leather case. Hold the case so that the steel points either away from you or back over your hand (the two positions work equally well). At the rear of the steel, hold the knife blade with its spine raised 20 degrees, sweeping it forward as though you're cutting yourself a nice slice of carbide. Now change your grip and do the same thing with the other side of the edge, this time slashing toward yourself. Do I have to remind you that injuring yourself in the field not only can be catastrophic but also makes you a sorry excuse for a sportsman?

Step 2. Alternate strokes until the blade feels sharp. It should take no more than 10 on each side, because this thing really peels the steel. The key to using the Sportsman's Steel is keeping the edge angle at a constant 20 degrees. If you can't do that, you'll never get the knife sharp. If you're unskilled, first practice with a cheap knife that you don't care about wrecking.

knife sharpening
Give the blade half a dozen alternating strokes on the sharpener’s flat surface.Steve Sanford

Step 3. Switch to the flat surface of the Sportsman's Steel, which features a finer grit for a better finishing edge, and give the blade half a dozen alternating strokes. You're done.