Gear Guy

The Gear Guy asks: What should one know about using knives in the wilderness?

Readers may have recently come across my thoughts on some of the more offbeat reader questions. One was: "What three or four skills should a true outdoorsman be able to do with a knife?" I had to admit—I was stumped. I use a knife to make shavings for a fire or for various gear-repair chores, but despite many years of hiking and camping, I'm not much of a knifesman. So I asked readers for help, and got some! Sue Duncan in Billings, Montana, read my plea, and responded with a detailed note. I thought her advice so good that it was worth posting.

Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.

Making shavings for a fire is indeed one very good backcountry skill, but having taken several wilderness and winter survival courses, I’d like to offer a few other knife uses that backcountry travelers should know. Tools, especially knives, can prove invaluable in survival situations. I should mention first, however, that most of these are not possible without an appropriate knife (meaning, forget about it with a Swiss Army knife or almost any other folding knife).

Use number one: lighting a fire. One should always head into the woods with at least two means for making fire: generally, matches in a waterproof container and either the flint-and-steel method or the spark rod” method. The back of a knife blade can be used as the striker in the flint-and-steel case, if the knife is made out of carbon steel. Carbon steel is a superior choice over stainless for this reason, as well as the fact that it is much easier to sharpen and holds an edge for a long time. A carbon-steel blade can be maintained to a literal shaving edge with wet-dry sandpaper, whetstones, or river rocks if necessary.

An excellent choice for an all-purpose bush knife is the Swedish “Mora” style, Mora being a Swedish town known for producing high-quality steel. Its basic design has been in use throughout Scandinavia for centuries. The single bevel allows great control in woodworking, which is the essential task in wilderness living and survival skills. [The Gear Guy notes: these knifes are available from many sources on the Web and cost a mere $10-$15.]

This style of knife allows the user to split wood, cut notches, and fell small trees with great efficiency, knife uses that are usually not possible with folding blades. To fell small trees, bend the tree at the base, placing the knife on the top of the bend at a 90-degree angle to the ground, and apply pressure to the knife as you continue to bend the base of the tree away from the knife. A knife can be used to split wood as well. Simply stand the piece of wood perpendicular to the ground, place the knife blade down across the radius of the wood, and whack at the handle with a stick that is several inches in diameter. After splitting the top of the wood, continue to hit the knife (keeping it parallel to the ground) until the entire piece of wood is split. On bigger logs (more than about six inches in diameter), you need to split one side first, and then split from the opposite side. Knives can also be used to cut notches in wood, useful for making additional tools or equipment in the woods (rudimentary snowshoes, for example).

I’m not sure how much you really wanted suggestions for knife uses, but what the heck, that’s my two cents.”

Well, I thought it was great. Thanks, Sue! Happy New Year all.

Filed to:

promo logo