A Knife for the Outdoors: Is Big Always Best?

Knife

Knife

The iconic Gerber BMF (Basic Multi Function) is an exceptionally well made knife and to all intents and purposes indestructible. Is it ideal for the adventurer? No, it’s too long, too heavy, offers little control and it’s very difficult to maintain a razor sharp edge when in the field. That does not make it a bad knife! Just unsuitable.

A knife suitable for the outdoors has to do many jobs; can it be good at all of them? The knife itself is only half of it; the sheath, obviously being the other half. Many people overlook this but the sheath is extremely important for two reasons. The first is that it holds the knife securely and protects the cutting edge; the second, and perhaps more important is that it protects the wearer from being injured by the knife in the event of a fall or slip. As your location may, and probably will be, very remote; safety, as always, should be at the top of your list. Let’s take a look at all the things we need our knife to achieve.

  • Cutting.
  • Skinning.
  • Carving.
  • Making traps.
  • Starting fires.
  • Making feather sticks.
  • Preparing food.
  • Chopping.

These are just the main uses, there are many, many more. You will notice that neither ‘weapon’ nor ‘personal protection’ are on the list, and nor should they be. A knife is a tool and should only be looked on as such. If you want a weapon you can make a much more lethal weapon using your knife to produce it.

Size

Big is not always best, any man will tell you that (especially if you’re a woman). Strangely though, most men choose to buy the biggest knife they can find when venturing into the great outdoors; it doesn’t take long for them to realise that their new purchase is worse than useless. It is extremely important that you are able to control the knife properly; if you can’t, not only will you struggle with the task in hand but you will be more prone to having an accident. Generally, a female’s hands are smaller and a knife should be chosen that accommodates this.

Blade Length

I have found that the best blade length to be between 80mm and 125mm; this is not set in stone but seems to offer the best all round service taking into account the myriad of tasks it is expected to perform.

Blade Thickness

The blade thickness will be chosen by the manufacturer taking into account the shape of the blade, its intended use, the type of grind required, the blade material, the blade’s heat treatment specification etc. but around 4mm is what you are looking for.

Quality

You pays your money, you takes your choice! When you consider that your life may (and often will) depend on this tool, money should be no object. Fortunately, you need not spend more than £100 to get an excellent knife. Of course, you can go for the custom made knives but this is down to personal choice. I have found that EKA Nordic knives are of excellent quality and use them on our courses, Gerber, Buck and Kershaw are also quality brands. That’s not to say that everything else is of inferior quality, it isn’t; you just need to know a lot more about what you’re buying.

Different Blade Materials

There is much talk of different blade steels and coming from a technical engineering background I naturally find this subject extremely interesting; I can fully appreciate that you probably don’t. Different steels and heat treatments give the blade different characteristics such as hardness, toughness, edge retention, resistance to corrosion etc. As a rule, the shape of the blade will dictate the use that the knife will be put to; this being the case; the manufacturer will choose the steel and corresponding heat treatments to give the best all round service under the conditions likely to be encountered. With this in mind, don’t be concerned too much with all the technical specifications associated with the type of steel.

Looking After Your Knife

All your equipment should receive the best care possible. Indeed, your life may depend on much of it. Your knife is no exception here and after each trip you should re-finish the blade properly and lightly oil, treat the wood if it has any and wax the sheath (if it’s leather) before you put it away. Don’t leave this until you need it; all your kit needs to be ready at a moment’s notice, especially your knife. Even if you are only venturing out for a
few hours, your knife should be by your side and at its best.

Folders

Folding blades are always a compromise and although they are a useful addition they will always be a second choice to a ‘through tang fixed blade’ knife for the wilderness adventurer. If you do go for a folder as a back-up or as an everyday companion, always choose a sturdy lock-blade; it should be ‘one hand opening and closing’ as you are often holding the thing you want to cut. A lock-blade offers additional safety when heavy cutting and stops the blade from accidentally closing on your fingers. This is important as the blade should be finished to the same standard as your fixed blade. Another thing to look for when buying a folder is that it must be completely strippable; this ensures that the knife can be cleaned, lubricated and adjusted properly. A good quality folder will give many years service and is a good companion for everyday use.

How Sharp is Sharp Enough?

Your knife can only perform at its best when it is at its sharpest; that means shaving sharp. If your knife will not shave the hairs from the back of your hand with one light stroke, it isn’t sharp enough. To finish a blade properly is not only a skill, it’s an art; one that the adventurer must master to ensure getting the best from the knife. The best way of learning this is from someone with a passion for finishing blades; you must share this passion if you are to become proficient. It is very easy to ruin a blade if you don’t know the correct way and you should never, ever be tempted to re-finish the blade on a powered grindstone or use one of those pull-through sharpeners.

The Last Word

Don’t be rushed in any way when purchasing your knife, take your time and do your research; the internet is a great place to see what’s available. If you can, take someone with you that knows their stuff. A good blade re-finishing kit will cost nearly as much as the knife but this will last many, many years and will also service your other knives and cutting tools. Get used to handling knives, axes, hatchets etc. as these will become your best friends on lone adventures; with these you can make nearly everything else that you may need.

Stay sharp! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one).

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