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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


Top to bottom: Idaho Knife Works, "Cliff" knife, Grohmann #1 Camper, Spyderco Military knife (this one is left-handed). The Cliff and Grohmann are carbon steel. The Spyderco is high-end stainless.

What do you think is the most important tool to have along on a wilderness camping trip? If you said a good sharp knife, you’re in agreement with the experts. But few of today’s knives are sharp, let alone ideal for camping. The best-sellers have thick blades that are better for cutting through car doors than slicing salami and pine! A camp knife should be thin-bladed, lightweight and compact. Edge retention is a factor only if you seldom sharpen your knife. A folding knife is fine, but a fixed blade is more rugged. You can flex a fixed blade or hammer it with a wooden mallet to split kindling and you won’t damage a thing. And, there’s no folding mechanism that can be gummed up by jam or peanut butter. But sheath knives can be dangerous, not because their blades don’t close, but because the sheath’s that generally come with them are too thin and flimsy. If you choose a fixed-blade knife, make your own heavy-duty riveted sheath (my book, “Camping’s Top Secrets”/25th Anniversary Edition, shows how).

Top to bottom: Forschner #40614 butcher knife; Victorinox "Forester" folding knife. Both knives are stainless steel.


Four to four and-one-half inches is an ideal blade length. Shorter won’t reach to the bottom of the peanut butter jar; longer is necessary only for filleting fish. Maximum blade thickness is one-eighth inch at the spine, and thinner is better, much better! Try cutting paper-thin slices from a tomato with a thick-bladed knife and you’ll see why!

Knives with serrated edges are good only for cutting seat belts and rope. They are useless for most camp chores. And you need a special hone to sharpen them. Whittling kindling does not go well with a serrated knife!

Carbon steel knives are generally easier to sharpen than stainless steel knives. Carbon steel also tends to take a quicker, keener edge than stainless. A narrow, straight blade with a central point is best for peeling spuds, slicing vegetables and general camp work. Avoid knives that have a long unsharpened area near the handle; a dull spot here shortens the cutting edge and reduces cutting leverage near your hand. Many sheath knives are made this way simply because they are less costly to machine.

There are three basic edge “grinds”: flat-ground—the edge tapers uniformly from the spine to the cutting edge. Flat-ground knives are best for slicing meat and vegetables and doing most camp chores. “Hollow or concave-ground”—the sides of the blade are hollowed out which produces a very thin edge. But the thin cutting edge is prone to nick and break. Hollow-grinding is easier and less costly than flat-grinding because the edge is quickly ground on a rotating wheel. Flat-grinding generally takes more skill. Scandi-grind: the blade is slab-sided for most of its width then wedge-ground to produce a sharp edge. Pluses: blade strength and good geometry for whittling.

I prefer a flat-ground blade for wilderness travel. Most of the old time jack-knives, and virtually all Swiss Army multi-tool knives, have flat ground blades.

Mora knife (carbon steel) with Scandi-grind,as recommended by Mors Kochanski

You can buy a surprisingly good knife for under 30 dollars. American made pocket knives (with one or two blades) and genuine Swiss Army knives (Victorinox and Wenger) are best buys. If you want a very good, inexpensive sheath knife, Canadian survival expert, Mors Kochanski recommends the carbon-steel Swedish Mora knife, which comes with a rugged Scandinavian style sheath and costs under 20 dollars. Why carbon steel? Easier to sharpen than stainless and has efficient edge geometry for whittling wood. Also, carbon steel will shower sparks when striking flint. Stainless won't! Both carbon and stainless steels will spark with with ferro rods.


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