Getting by in the wild without a knife is next to impossible. It’s the backbone of any survival kit. From cutting wood for fires to building shelters, a good bushcraft knife can make life in the woods much more comfortable. But if your only experience with a knife is spreading peanut butter and jelly, you’re not going to get much use from one in a survival situation. The following tips will help you get the most out of your blade.
What to Look For in a Bushcraft Knife
The Benchmade Bushcrafter 162. Benchmade
The following features make a knife well suited to woodcraft, as well as field dressing a deer.
- Blade: 4 to 5 inches.
- Spine: Flat for pounding with a baton, no upper finger guard, and ground with sharp 90 degree corners.
- Handle: Rounded and smooth and provides a good grip with gloves on. A tang that extends through the handle for strength is a good feature. However, there are knives, like the Mora Bushcraft, without a full tang that will work well.
- Butt: Made from shatterproof material.
- Grind: Scandinavian, otherwise known as a “scandi” grind, or flat grind.
- Steel: One that resharpens easily, like 1095 Cro-Van or carbon steel.
- Sheath: It is very important that your knife has a good sheath that locks the knife in when not in use. Loose sheaths can lead to injury and increase the chance of losing your knife. If your knife doesn’t come with a strong sheath, have one made.
Eight Ways to use a Bushcraft Knife
1. Cut a tree down.
If you can double a sapling over using one hand (limber it up by bending it back and forth several times), you can slice the trunk in half using downward pressure with an angle cut. The sapling must be green and the pressure should be evenly maintained throughout the cut, although with larger trees it may be necessary to rock the blade. Support the sapling as the trunk weakens. It will be impossible to finish the cut if the wood splinters.
To bring down softwood trees (poplar, birch, some evergreens) up to 6 inches in diameter, pound the knife into the tree at a right angle to the trunk, then jerk it sideways or pound the spine with a baton (a hard stick used as a club) to work the blade back and forth and widen the cut. Repeat the process around the trunk. —Keith McCafferty
2. Use the “beaver chew” method to cut precise lengths of wood.
Building shelters, creating tools, or making traps sometimes requires specific lengths of wood. Without a saw, making those specifics lengths is more difficult—but still feasible. You can scrounge around for the appropriate pieces and maybe get lucky, or you can use your knife and the beaver chew method to cut them. —Matthew Every
Start by measuring where you want to cut. Then place your knife at a 45 degree angle against the stick. Use your thumbs to push on the spine of your knife and take small bites out of the stick while rotating it. Once you’ve worked your way around the stick, it should be weak enough to cleanly break at the appropriate length. —M.E.
3. Cut an animal hide into strips to make cordage.
Cord is a primary survival tool, essential for fashioning bowstrings, lashing gear, and strengthening braces for shelter. The hide of almost any animal can be rendered into strips using a circular cutting technique. Drive the knifepoint into a flat wood surface, then pull the hide into the blade in a spiral pattern to make a long strip. A guide peg driven into the wood maintains an even cut. —K.M.
4. Make a feather-stick for fire kindling.
If you can’t find dry kindling for building a fire, you can use your knife to make some in the form of a feather stick. Rest the end of a stout stick on the ground, then shave downward to lift curls of dry wood. At the end of each stroke, pry outward with the blade to spread the feathers. The end result will burn readily. —K.M.
5. Spark a ferro rod to start a fire.
In my opinion, ferrocerium rods, or ferro rods, are essential tools to bring into the woods. They are lightweight and can start countless fires no matter how wet they get or how cold it is outside. Small particles of a ferro rod ignite when they are scraped off quickly, and there is no better tool for the job than a good chunk of steel. You can make sparks on a ferro rod with a blade’s edge, but it will dull your knife. A better approach is to flip the knife over and use the spine. —M.E.
A good bushcraft knife will have a squared off spine specifically for this task. Simply lay the spine on the ferro rod and tilt it so that one corner is making contact with the rod. Then quickly rake the corner across the rod. This should create a spark, and if you have some tinder to catch it with, you’ll have a fire going in no time.
If your knife doesn’t have a squared off spine, you can modify it with a file or some sandpaper and a hard surface. Just don’t use power tools as it will affect the heat treatment. —M.E.
6. Batton a blade to split some wood.
A knife runs a poor second to an axe as a chopping tool, but when pounded with a baton, a small blade is perfectly capable of splitting small to medium sized logs or making dry splits from wood blocks. Rapping the knife with a baton, split a thin shingle from the side of a dry wood block. Sharpen the edges of the shingle to make a wedge, insert the wedge into a crack in the wood (or make a crack in the wood with the blade), then pound the wedge with a baton to split wood for a fire. Using a series of wedges, you can split a log section lengthwise. You can also use a baton and blade to split the chest cavity of an elk or moose. Keep to one side of the sternum for an easier cut. —K.M.
7. Use the chest-lever cut for greater control.
When you’re down to your last M&M, counting calories takes on a whole different meaning. Wilderness survival is all about conserving energy. While it seems like you might have to muscle your way out of a disaster, the less you move your body, the better. The chest-lever cut makes the most out of what little calories you may have left by leveraging your back and shoulders to make short strong cuts. It’s also very safe.
Bring your knife and the piece of wood you’re working on up to your chest and lay the blade on the wood. Grip the knife firmly as you would a hammer. Keep your arms tight, in a kind of chicken wing position, and pull back on your shoulders and arms to draw the blade into the wood and away from your body.This cut is strong and allows you to safely apply a lot of pressure. It’s a great cut for making stake points or cutting smaller sticks in half with one stroke. You can also slow it down to make tightly controlled, precise cuts. —M.E.
Read Next: Bushcraft Knives vs. Survival Knives
8. Master the push cut and the stop cut.
If you want to make traps and toggles, you’re going to need good strong notches. Two techniques that are essential for notching wood with a knife are the stop cut and the push cut. First, make a stop cut by applying pressure to the heel of your knife at a 90-degree angle into a stick. You can lightly baton the spine of your knife or use your thumbs. Then make a push cut at a 45-degree angle about a half-inch away from your 90-degree cut and take small bites out of the stick towards it until you reach the desired depth. The push cut terminates at the stop cut, leaving a perfect notch. —M.E.
Six Knife Safety Tips to Remember
It goes without saying, but as easily as a knife will carve up a piece of kindling, it will do the same to your skin. Cutting yourself in a survival situation will reduce your odds of coming out alive. No matter how proficient you are with a blade, it’s important to practice these basic knife safety tips when you’re far away from help.
- Think one step ahead of your cut to avoid cutting yourself. In other words, ask yourself: Where will the blade end up after I make the cut?
- Don’t run with your knife.
- Don’t grab a falling blade.
- Always cut away from your body.
- When not using your knife, keep it in a secure sheath.
- Your first aid kit and knife go together. Don’t go into the woods without carrying both, and stock your kit with enough bandages to patch up a nasty cut.