One of the most frequent questions I receive is, what is the best knife to buy? Well, in my mind, that is often a loaded question, but here are my thoughts on cutting tools in general, and then we will look at knives specifically. In the Pathfinder System, I teach a concept known as the 10 Cs, these are 10 types of items that should always be carried in case an emergency were to arise when recreating in the wild. The first of these Cs is Cutting Tool. Now, we should all realize a few facts; one, we should always carry multiple items within the same functional category so that if we were to loose or break one we would have another. So an axe, saw, knife, and pocket knife or multi-tool are always good choices, and depending on the environment, a machete may replace the axe. However, for the sake of a discussion on emergency gear, I think there should be one knife attached to our belt in a sheath that we will have a very hard time loosing, unless someone steals our pants? For this knife, certain criteria should be met so that it is the most robust and functional it can be. It may have to perform multiple tasks in an emergency if that is all we are left with. It can be used for processing fire materials; fine carving tasks; skinning and processing game or fish; and to help create a fire by use as a striker for a ferrocerium rod, a hard stone, or just as a spokeshave to create fine materials for easier combustion.
A good cutting tool can make shelter, process food, repair gear, and make warmth and light. It is one of the oldest tools, and an invaluable aid in survival. Don't scrimp on this essential tool.
Looking at this list, we now can begin to see the necessity for the right knife to begin with. The brand and cost are truly inconsequential to the attributes the knife possesses. First, I think a good belt knife should have a 5-inch blade; though a bit less or more is okay. Four-inch green wood is structural material for building a temporary camp, and four-inch wood makes good fuel as well. If this wood needs to be split, you will want some blade outside the split when batoning. It is easy enough to beaver-chew your way around a four-inch sapling for building with a knife larger than the tree’s diameter as well.
Choose a blade long enough to be useful for batoning a 4" diameter sapling.
Now to the structure of the belt knife. I strongly believe the best belt knife is that of full-tang design. This means that scales are pinned or bolted to a solid piece of material and the knife itself is one piece from tip to end of the handle. Any reduction in steel from things like a rat tail or partial tang knife are an inherent weakness we want to avoid if this tool may be abused in an emergency. Now to the steel; if we want this knife to be as functional as possible it should be high carbon steel, not stainless. The reasoning here is that for fire mentality, which we will discuss in the next installment, we want to be able to use this blade in an emergency to strike a hard rock and create a low temperature spark that is capable of igniting charred materials. Carbon steel is also easier to re-sharpen in the field using natural stones, should the need arise, as well as the simple strop of a leather belt to hone the edge.
The spine of a blade is better for striking a ferrocerium rod, as it provides a better shower of sparks as well as conserves your cutting edge. Find a knife with a good 90-degree spine that can be as useful as the cutting edge in bushcraft.
The top of the blade should be a 90-degree spine, not sanded or ground over, while this is more comfortable if you rest the thumb atop the blade while working a lot, it negates a very important function of this tool. We want to ALWAYS conserve our resources in an emergency as well as MANAGE them properly. If we use the blade of our knife for scraping a ferrocerium rod, or to make feather sticks, when we could perform both functions much quicker and easier using the back of the blade in spokeshave fashion, then we are sacrificing blade edge retention we may need later.
A good bushcraft knife needs a full tang and carbon steel to take abuse, and a point that will stand up to heavy structural use, while still allowing for finer detailed carving.
Let's now speak to blade profile and grind. There are as many profiles out there as there are colors in the world now, but the tried and true knife is always simple. The three main profiles that work well for a woodsman are the butcher-style blade, probably the most popular of all profiles across the US from the early days of the Hudson’s bay trading company to the early civil war era, and still preferred later by many like Nessmuk; who carried a sort of squatty butcher style knife himself. Then there is the spear-point design popularized by Horace Kephart, and the standard kitchen knife profile carried by many woodman through history, simply because many of the knives along the frontier were repurposed from the homestead and came from the kitchen (hearth) to begin with. Today we call this a bushcraft design blade and it is a very functional tool for lots of tasks mentioned above.
A knife with a flat back can be used as a spokeshave to create flammable wood fuzz and tinder that takes a spark easily for making fire.
The profile is really a personal decision but don’t be fancy; be functional. Now to blade grinds. Here again, there are many variations but the main ones are “V” or Scandinavian grind, convex, full flat, and hollow grinds. Hollow grinds are truly reserved for smaller knives like pocket knives, or specific blades like razors. Full flat grinds cut and split well, but the blade thickness in the spine is a concern as the thinner the material to begin with the weaker a full flat grind will be at the blade edge, and chipping can become an issue if the tool is abused. The two best, in my opinion, are Scandi and convex. Some of this is a matter of personal preference, but I find that a Scandi grind makes a better knife for finer work, is easier to sharpen, and splits well. However, there is good argument to a convex grind as well, for edge retention and the shear slitting power of these type of grinds. I hope this helps. Whatever you do, don’t get hung up on price or brand; get hung up on function and quality. About the Author - Dave has been published in Self Reliance Illustrated, New Pioneer, American Frontiersman, and Trapper's World, and has appeared on the cover of Backwoodsman Magazine. Dave’s book BushCraft 101 is a two-time NY Times Best Seller. In addition to writing about survival, Dave is the Co-Owner and Supervising Instructor of The Pathfinder School in SE Ohio, the United States premier school for self reliance. The Pathfinder School is listed as one of the top 12 Survival School in the U.S. by USA TODAY. Dave holds a bachelor’s degree in Wilderness Ministry from Frontier Christian University is certified in Advanced Search and Rescue,Wilderness First Aid/CPR, as an Expert Trapper by the Fur Takers of America, and holds basic and intermediate certificates from the International School of Herbal Arts and Sciences.