The backcountry is seldom a forgiving place — weather changes in an instant, the terrain offers challenges unheard of in our modern lives. That’s why outdoor enthusiasts know the value of effective gear. A dry sleeping bag on a cold, wet night can mean the difference between waking up refreshed in the morning and… hypothermia.
A good knife can be just as important. Whether you’re cleaning game in the field or cutting wood to build an impromptu shelter, a reliable knife can be the deciding factor that makes your job easier or keeps you alive. When you’re miles from the nearest road, the last thing you want to think about is if your knife is capable of performing its job. When it comes to your blade, you need to trust it’ll get the job done.
What Is a Bushcraft Knife?
Bushcraft knives are often considered more generally as survival knives — they're designed to handle a wide range of outdoor tasks like building a shelter, starting a fire with a Ferro rod and batoning (splitting wood with a knife and mallet or a stick used as a hammer).
Bushcraft knives are almost always fixed-blade knives with long blades with a flat edge. (Short blades limit the thickness of the wood you can process with the knife, and serrated edges aren't adept at the cutting and chopping tasks mentioned above.) Bushcraft knives typically also have a grippy handle, which, these days, means that most are made of synthetic material, though some still do use wood.
What to Look for in a Bushcraft Knife
When shopping for a bushcraft knife, you should first consider the core traits mentioned above; some knives are marketed as bushcraft knives even though they don't meet all these traits. You should also consider what you plan to use the knife for — maybe you want a knife that you can use with a Ferro rod to start fires, but you don't plan to do any batoning, in which case you can get by with a smaller knife that's lighter and easier to pack. Here are some general considerations to keep in mind.
Knife Construction: Look for a knife that has a full-tang construction. This means that the steel that makes the blade also runs through the handle to the butt of the knife. This makes for a heavier knife but a much more robust construction that will stand up to hammering and leveraging.
Blade Steel Qualities: Not all steel is the same, and maximizing one trait typically happens to the detriment of another. Most bushcraft knives prioritize toughness, which is a measure of a blade's ability to withstand sudden impacts and forces (think chopping). Toughness often relates inversely to edge retention, which is why many bushcraft knife blades use carbon steel, which is also easier to sharpen in the field. The downside to carbon steel is that it isn't as resistant to corrosion as stainless steel. Again, there are always trade-offs, and it comes down to what you plan to use the knife for.
Handle: Wood handles might impart a classic look, but they're often not as grippy or lightweight as modern synthetic materials. Remember that a bushcraft knife is primarily a tool, and you need to be able to use it as such, sometimes for long periods, without it slipping in your hand. Don't discount comfort either.