A knife is the most essential and useful tool you can take with you into the outdoors. But, do you know how to get the most out of one? Let’s go over the basics and show you all the stuff a knife can do.
Want to get started using a knife outdoors? The basic Mora Companion in carbon steel costs less than $15 and excels at any job described here. Spend more on a knife because you want to, not because you need to. The Mora is also very light, making it a great companion (har) for ultralight backpackers.
I’ll be demonstrating all this with an Esee-6, my favorite bushcraft blade. This is one I’ve owned for eight years or more and which has served well on numerous adventures. For 10 times the price of the Mora, you get a longer, thicker, broader blade made from better steel, as well as a full-tang design that bolts the comfy linen micarta handles to its outside.
Being in the outdoors creates its own safety concerns. Often, you can find yourself a long ways from medical care or even other people. So getting hurt is a bad idea. And further exacerbating the danger are often fatigue, inclement weather and unfamiliar or tricky terrain. So, it may seem elementary, but using a knife safely is of paramount concern.
For this reason, I strongly recommend you carry a fixed-blade knife in the outdoors. Even the strongest folding mechanisms and locks can break, either leaving you with a non-functional tool or badly cutting your hands.
Always keep a knife in its sheath. Laying it on the ground or stabbing it into a piece of wood can result in injury should you fall onto it or trip over it or otherwise knock into it. Use the knife, then return it to its sheath. Every single time.
Before drawing the knife, ensure you aren’t holding the sheath where the blade could potentially cut through it and into your hand. And, make sure your hand isn’t on the sharp side, where the blade may cut it as it comes free.
Draw the knife in two stages: first loosen the blade in its sheath by taking hold of the handle with a forehand grip and pushing against the sheath with your thumb. Then, wrap your thumb back around the handle and slowly and deliberately pull the knife straight up and out of the sheath, then away from your body.
Always move the knife in a slow, considered and deliberate way. Do so at least an arm’s length from other people, while you have a secure footing or seat. Retain a strong grip on the handle. Make sure any knife movements carry it away from your body and that no limbs or fingers or other body parts will be in the knife’s path should it suddenly break free.
Never stab with a knife. Doing so can cause your hand to slip down onto the blade, cutting it badly. Doing so can also ruin a knife’s tip. If you must perform a stabbing motion (such as to open a can), locate the object being stabbed securely on flat ground, place the knife straight down on top of it, make sure your feet and legs are out of the way, hold its handle securely, then tap its pommel with a piece of wood. With any operation, only use enough force to accomplish the job.
Everyone should carry and use their own blade, that they’re responsible for maintaining, sharpening and caring for. But, if you must pass your knife to someone else, start with a forehand grip and rotate the knife between your forefinger and thumb so its handle faces the other person and the edge is pointed up, away from your arm and hand. Pass it to them and allow them to securely grasp it before releasing. Some acknowledgement from the other party that they now securely have a hold on the knife is a good idea. Just say, “thank you.”
Never throw a knife. Doing so can easily result in a lost or broken blade and they can bounce back towards you with surprising force.
Finally, regularly sharpen your knife to keep it as sharp as possible. Regular maintenance is far easier a task than bringing a dull blade back to life. And, because using it requires far less force, a sharper blade is always going to be a safer blade.
If you’re sitting down while using a knife, place your elbows on your knees to ensure the knife clears your legs.
All this may seem a little pedantic, but being deliberate, considered and careful with how you use a knife is a lot better than hiking back to civilization across multiple days, carrying a lost finger in one of your pockets.
Outdoors, the vast majority of things you’ll use a knife for will be food prep, opening packages, cutting cord, in assistance of first aid or processing wood for fire or shelter making.
For the vast majority of those tasks, a forehand grip, where the knife is closed in your fist, with the edge facing the first joint on your fingers, is going to be what you use. For fine control during small tasks, moving your thumb or index finger to the top of the blade’s back can help. For power, you’ll want to fully close your fist around the knife’s handle.
It’s a good idea when considering the purchase of a knife to ensure that you can fully close your fist around the handle. Many bullshit tacticool, oversized blades now come with overly large handles. You know, because not being able to hold your knife properly is super manly.
Some knives, as pictured, place a finger choil in front of the handle. You can choke your grip up on the blade to place your forefinger here for added control during fine cutting. Just be warned that you lose some purchase on the knife in doing so; don’t choke up for heavy tasks.
When cutting cordage (rope, vines, paracord, shoe laces, tape, whatever) you may want to use a reverse grip, where the edge points towards the join of your thumb. The key to using this grip safely is to pull with your shoulder (for lesser power) or torso (for more) and not your arm. This moves you with the knife as it comes towards you, allowing your arm to keep it from closing the distance to your body.
Bushcraft experts like Ray Mears are big proponents of the chest lever grip, which facilitates both lots of power and lots of control for difficult cuts, while keeping the knife moving away from your body. To do this, it employs your strong back muscles as you pull your hands apart. Personally, I rarely feel the need, but it’s still a good grip to know. Mears says you should hold the blade with the edge pointed in the reverse direction to the forehand grip, pointed up towards your knuckles.
Chopping: Using a forehand grip, place the knife against the wood you want to get through, then use a wooden “baton” of about wrist thickness to drive the blade through the wood. Do this in the same wedge pattern you’d use to chop with an axe or hatchet. A knife will take longer to perform this job, but is easier to carry.
Splitting: Again with a forehand grip (make sure your fist is closed), place the knife’s blade over the wood you want to split, in the same direction as the grain and taking advantage of any splits or gaps that may already be there. Then, use that same baton to whack the protruding tip of the knife while exerting equal downward pressure on the handle. The longer a knife is, the larger the wood it will span. To split a large log with a small knife, simply split off little fractions of it, around the edges.
Carving: Want to put a point on a peg? Sit or kneel with one leg raised as a working surface. Hold the wood in one hand, with the hand braced on that leg and using a forehand grip with a closed fist, carve away from your leg and body. Think about the natural path of your forearm as you straighten it and use that natural travel and strength to your advantage. With force, a carve will remove a lot of wood. With care, a carve will remove very thin slices of wood; this is how you make a feather stick for fire starting. Putting the end of the stick against something will help maintain fine control if you’re doing that.
Slicing: First, find a log or similar flat surface on which to cut. Think: cutting board, this is just like food prep at home. Then, using a forehand grip with your thumb or forefinger on top of the blade, hold it at an angle and draw it through the material being sliced. Make sure your body is out of the way.
Cutting With Power: Using the chest lever grip, securely hold the stick or limb being cut and use your back muscles to draw the blade through it. Go hard, making sure your knees and other people are out of the way.
Cutting With Control: Again use the chest lever grip, but instead work your way around the stick being cut, carving a continuous wedge-shaped notch. Your opposite thumb may help there.
Drilling: Need to put a hole in something? Place the object on a secure surface (like a log) that the knife will be ok poking into. Using the forehand grip with a closed fist, place the tip of the knife where you want the hole, apply pressure and twist the knife back and forth. Be very careful not to apply so much pressure that you may lose your grip and cause your hand to slide down onto the blade.
These are the basic moves you’ll use with a knife; combing them gives you the ability perform more complex tasks like fire making, shelter building and food preparation.
What do you use a knife for outdoors and how do you do it?
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