Essential Skills Your Bushcraft Knife Will Help You Accomplish By: Kevin Estela Owner/Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education
A bushcraft knife without a skilled user is nothing more than an expensive piece of steel. Having one attached to your belt, around your neck or in your pack will not automatically make you a better woodsman. A former student of mine once told me, “it is easier to buy a knife than it is to learn hard skills.” Looking the part is only nice until your skills or lack thereof reveal you have no resolve in learning how to properly use your equipment. I consider the knife the most important tool in an outdoorsman’s “tool box” for with just a knife almost any need can be addressed. Below is a list of essential skills you can acquire with practice and full utilization of your bushcraft supplies.
1. Fire- I place fire at the top of my list because it is incredibly important for both psychological and physical needs. It warms, it purifies, it accompanies you, it is vital to life. With your knife, you can prep tinder with the sharp spine, create fuzz sticks effectively increasing the surface to mass ratio of your fuel, make a bow and drill set, tease jute twine into fibers for tinder, use the carbon steel spine with a piece of flint and scrape the ferro rod you should always carry with you. If you want to make larger fuel smaller you can baton it. Then again, you can protect your number one tool and pick up the wood already dead and down.
2. Shelter- Exposed to the elements, you can live about 3 hours without shelter. With a knife, you can cut fabric into shading shelter material, carve tent/tarp stakes to tie it all down, cross grain baton a long ridge pole if necessary, trim annoying branches away from poking you in the eye inside your debris shelter and cut branches to size to maximize the strength and uniformity of your structure.
3. Water-Water makes up the majority of your body and without it, you cannot live. Regardless of activity, you must hydrate. Your knife can help you collect water in a variety of ways. You can poke holes in ice to expose the unfrozen water underneath (just make sure not to drop your knife to the bottom of the body of water), you can tap trees for sap and cut the materials necessary to create a collection basin for rainwater.
4. Containers- Sure, your knife can help you collect water but can you contain it? You can use your knife to peel bark to make a birch bark container, you can also use it to create a divot in a round of wood to start a fire-blown container. Additionally, your knife can help process long lengths of willow shoots to make baskets for harvesting edible plants.
5. Signaling- Your knife can be used to create a smoke generator for signaling. Add wet green vegetation for white smoke to contrast against a green forest and cut strips of tire (or any other synthetic) for black smoke against a white winter background. You can also use milkweed and birch bark for black smoke but it doesn’t have as much oil or latex in it to create the dark plumes of smoke a synthetic generates. In a pinch, your polished blade can be a reflective surface for sunlight and it can also be used to process an aluminum soda can into a whistle.
6. First-Aid- From popping blisters to drain the fluid underneath, to cleaning under your fingernails to prevent contaminating food sources, to cutting wood for splints and carefully cutting clothing away or bandage material, your knife has many uses in the first-aid context. 7. Trapping/Fishing- Figure 4 traps are deadly effective (But may be illegal in your state. Check your laws before using them in any except the most dire of emergencies) as are fish basket traps. Unfortunately, there is a direct correlation between what is effective and what is illegal. Your knife can be used to create a spear for thrusting or pinning. Your knife will help put food on your plate.
8. Tool Making- Bushcraft is all about doing more with less. On past trips, I’ve used my bushcraft knife to create digging sticks, pot hangers, spatulas for flipping ash cakes, hot rock tongs and of course, spoons. Your knife can be used for carving batons with stepped down handle diameters like a mallet as well as wedges for splitting wood along natural cracks in the grain. Your knife is extremely useful in helping make these tools but you must also learn to develop what some call “a third eye” or “invisible eye.” This allows you to see forked branches as more than a natural growth pattern of a branch and a large burl in a tree as a potential mallet.
9. Cordage- Creating cordage is not easy at first but once you develop the muscle memory, it can be done with your eyes closed. Good natural cordage requires 3 criteria; it needs to be long, flexible and strong. If it is long and flexible but not strong, like grass, it will not make good cordage. Certain branches are long and strong, like ironwood, but not flexible and thus bad cordage. A good bushcraft knife can help you begin to splice cordage materials like roots and bittersweet. It can be used to cut other cordage materials, like nettles and milkweed, at their base to maximize the length.
10. Food Prep- Let’s face it, if you’re bushcrafting, you probably came prepared with some great trail snacks and camp food. While we were given incisors, it is so much easier to slice pepperoni than it is to gnaw off a chunk of it. Food prep is an important part of bushcraft and one your knife should be able to handle in a pinch. While not optimal for slicing, your small belt knife should be able to make fine cuts rather than mashing your food into an unrecognizable shape. I consider cleaning animals and filleting fish part of food prep as well. Not every bushcraft meal will come in bite-sized portions packaged by the butcher. Your knife must be able to handle these as well.
Of course, there are countless other tasks your knife will handle on any bushcraft trip. No trip is complete without picking up a stick by the fire and simply carving it into a pointy object of sorts just because it can. If you are a bushcrafter, you’ll likely find yourself making an elaborate and unnecessary pot hanger when sitting a pot in the coals will heat up the water just fine. You will find you use your knife all the time if you choose to carry less. Then again, you should always carry a minimal amount of safety equipment but think of the satisfaction when you keep the gear packed away and resort only to your knife.