How to Choose a Bushcraft Knife

Bushcraft Knives – Why You Want One, What One is and How to Choose One.

By: Kevin Estela, Owner/Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education, LLC 

I’m going to suspend disbelief and pretend you don’t know what the term “bushcraft” means. Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you already know. However, if you are completely naive to the term or the addictive way of life the pastime creates, this article is for you. This article is especially for you if you’re wondering what all the buzz is about the so-called “bushcraft knife.” Let me explain what the traditional understanding of a bushcraft knife is, where it came from and how you can join the phenomenon that is Bushcraft.

Bushcraft can be defined through any number of maxims, “doing more with less”, “living simply”, “being one with nature” and so on. Richard Graves literally wrote the book, Bushcraft about utilizing natures resources to live off the land and more recently Britain’s own Ray Mears starred in a series of outdoor inspired shows on the BBC telling tales of indigenous knowledge and skill sets. Bushcraft, as I interpret it, is a lifestyle and woodswalking philosophy. It incorporates indigenous knowledge, conservation and appreciation/stewardship of the land. Bushcraft is deliberate handicapping of survival. Instead of using a road flare to get a fire going, you utilize the bow and drill. Instead of carrying a few MRE’s, you learn to harvest edible plants. While some may not agree with me, I believe bushcraft to be a hobby or sport as well.

At the heart of bushcraft is the bushcraft knife. Traditionally, these knives are small fixed blades with a full tang (exposed or stick tang.) These knives can be inexpensive Mora’s with a short height flat grind (A.K.A. Scandi) or a more expensive “Woodlore style” knife made popular by Ray Mears. Bushcraft knives must be able to handle woodworking. Since much of bushcraft is processing natures materials into tools, utensils and items of convenience, no weak folding knife is optimal. Granted, as your skill improves in bushcraft skills, you can handicap yourself to using a smaller knife, traditionally forged or even a primitive edged tool but if you have the opportunity to plan ahead, do so. The bushcraft knife design most enthusiasts will agree is the epitome is the spearpoint although any edge will do. Generally, the handle swell is slightly larger to prevent fatigue in extended carving sessions and it isn’t textured to prevent blisters from raised “hot spots.”

The traditional bushcraft knife is made from a carbon steel which is easy to sharpen in the outdoors and holds a keen edge. Most bushcraft blades are carried in a leather (say “kydex” in bushcraft circles and people cringe) sheaths so proper maintenance is required to keep the carbon steel free of rust. The flat of the blade will patina with time but this natural bluing finish the steel picks up protects the steel from rust and alludes to the fact you have used your knife in developing your skills. You will also notice most knives sold as “bushcraft” blades do not have serrations, saw teeth, skull crusher pommels or any of the other attributes that sell “tactical” blades.

In choosing your first bushcraft knife, examine the attributes of it. Consider the aspects of the blade that will facilitate enjoyment in using the knife in the outdoors. Knowing the various demands of bushcrafting (i.e. fine carving, battoning, shaving, point first drilling that is actually carving not twisting), does the knife look like it will cut more of the wood or more of your hand? Ask the right questions in selecting your knife such as, “is the maker reputable?” “Does the knife have a good warranty?” “Is this knife intended for a purpose outside of the scope of what I want it for?” And so on. You want a knife you will be proud to own and be hesitant to loan out. As your skills improve, you will find you develop almost a companionship with your blade. Just as you want to be careful in selecting a husband/wife, you want to be careful in selecting your bushcraft blade companion. Then again, if you’re bushcrafting, you probably ARE doing more with less and you can afford to buy more blades just for fun.

The bottom line is this, you can read all about what bushcraft is, what the right knife is or you can learn for yourself. Bushcraft is not something you buy in a store, earn from a college or are born with. It is a spirit you develop as you spend more time in the woods. While the most optimal bushcraft knife doesn’t ensure bushcraft knowledge, anytime spent roaming the forrest will be more productive than sitting at home thinking about it. Get a good knife, carry your basic gear and learn with friends if possible. I promise you, once you learn about bushcraft, you will find you will have a hard time unlearning the skills and hidden knowledge the woods provide.