Above Knives: (Top/left to right): Grohmann #1 flat-ground carbon steel "Camper", Gerber Shorty, Victorinox large Swiss Army Knife, Forschner #40614, Carbon steel Mora Kniv, Inexpensive carbon steel paring knife, Idaho Knife Works "Cliff Knife". All are good bush knives.
Many articles that have attempted to define the perfect “bush knife”—that is, the best one to carry on a wilderness trip where help is an airplane ride away. Advice has been as wide (or narrow) as the author’s experience, and a variety of blades—from Swiss Army knives and multi-tools, to huge hackers that can double as swords—have been recommended. Invariably, the nod has gone to big knives that are better for cutting through airplane doors than for slicing salami and pine. Are big blades really best for the bush? I think not. And neither do the experts. Consider this advice from the past:
“The thick, chisel-edged belt knives which are generally sold are of little value in the wilderness. Get your belt knife too thin rather than too thick”
Calvin Rutstrum, The New Way of the Wilderness, 1958.
"The bowies and hunting knives” usually kept on sale, are thick, clumsy affairs, with a sort of ridge along the middle of the blade, murderous-looking but of little use. The one shown in the cut is thin in the blade...”
Nessmuk (George Washington Sears), from Woodcraft and Camping, 1920.
“I like a small, light sheath knife. It is always open and “get-at-able. My knife is of the right size (4.5 inch blade), the right shape, and the proper thinness."
Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1917.
This, from Ray Mears (Bushcraft, 2002), internationally renown bushcraft instructor:
“Do not choose a knife with a large blade; we do not want to hack, but to carve. This is best achieved with a blade 8-12 cm (3-5 inches) long. It should have an edge on only one side; avoid blades that are very round...avoid serrated blades...I have found a fine flat bevel grind to be the most efficient for bushcraft.”
Mears couldn’t find a knife that was right for the bush, so he designed his own.
Survival guru Mors Korchanski’s preference for inexpensive Swedish Mora knives is well known.
The late Dick Person, who, for 17 years, lived in a tipi in the Yukon, carried a Grohman #1, four-inch blade sheath knife.
In summary, here’s what the experts—old and new—want in a bush knife:
A thin, pointed blade, 3 to 5 inches long. (When I was a Boy Scout in the 1950’s--when every kid carried a knife--there was a saying that “the longer the knife, the greener the kid!.)
The blade should not be chisel or hollow-ground.
Blade sharpened on one edge only. (The flat spine can be used with a baton to split kindling).
No serrations along the edge. I don’t know one expert who likes serrated blades!
Full tang construction for strength.
On a typical wilderness camping trip, daily cutting chores may include cutting and splitting thigh-thick logs to campfire size, whittling wafer-thin tinder, filleting fish, slicing lunch meat, cheese, vegetables and bread; spreading peanut butter and jam, cutting cord, tape and gauze, prying out a splinter.
How can one knife do it all? It can't! That's why you need more than one!
Rutstrum carried three knives—a four-and-one-half inch blade sheath knife, an Indian “crooked” knife and a small penknife.” Nessmuk and Kephart carried a 5-inch sheath knife and a two-bladed pocket knife. Dick Person wore a Grohman #1 sheath knife and a Swiss Army knife on his belt and he stashed a folding saw, and often a small axe in his pack. Mears—the modern expert—carries a light sheath knife of his own design, and a folding saw. Every expert said that he would feel naked in the woods without an axe. All but Dick Person preferred carbon steel blades over stainless. Note: carbon steel is easier to sharpen than stainless. And, it will emit a spark when it strikes flint. Stainless steel won't spark so it can't be used as part of a flint-and-steel fire-making kit.
If you want to be prepared for all options you’ll add a multi-tool to the list. Then, all your cutting chores—from sawing and splitting logs to slicing cheese and picking splinters—will be covered.
Some think that a big knife can substitute for an axe and saw. Not really. When the woods are soaked you may have to split a thigh-thick dead log to get at the dry heartwood inside. First, you cut the log to a manageable length (takes just seconds with a good saw), then, you split it from the end grain with an axe.
Even a mini-hatchet is an awesome splitter if you use the safe method illustrated above. Also, the blunt poll of an axe is a handy hammer—useful for setting tent stakes and rivets and for straightening the hardware of a bent aluminum pole or canoe. I wouldn’t dream of going on a remote canoe trip without an axe!
A medium sized thin-bladed sheath knife, a multi-tool and a compact folding saw and light axe, are all the edged tools you need on a remote bush trip in North America, and indeed, most anywhere else in the world. The tropics are the notable exception. There, you’ll need a machete.
YOU'LL FIND MORE INFORMATION ABOUT EDGED TOOLS IN MY BOOK CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS.