There are few things more personal to a bushcrafter than his or her choice of knife. Many are the choices available and many are the opinions of what is necessary. As a bushcrafter and a hobby knife maker, here are some of my ideas to what makes a good knife for bushcraft survival.
First of all, a bushcrafter should consider the type of steel used. Beware of any knife that does not advertise the type of steel used. They are usually made from inferior grades of steel and will not usually have the quality that one needs to properly process game, carve and shape wood and easily re-sharpen in the field. For this reason, many bushcrafters use 1095 High Carbon Steel. It is a simple carbon steel that is easy to sharpen and holds an edge well. It can also be used to strike against a piece of rock such as flint to provide a spark for emergency fire starting as long as the spine was hardened sufficiently in the heat treat process. The main downside to this steel is that it rusts easily. However, as I have heard it said, anyone that would let a good knife rust probably shouldn’t own one. The main exception to this rule is when a person is going to spend an extended amount of time around salt water. Then, a good stainless steel knife should be sought out, understanding that it will be harder to sharpen and will not maintain an edge as well due to the higher chromium content of stainless steel.
Second, a bushcrafter should consider the type of sheath that comes with the knife. A quality knife should come with a quality sheath. For this, consider either a thermo-plastic sheath made of Kydex or a well-made leather sheath. It should have a belt or carry attachment large enough to fit your belt of choice.
Third, consider where and how the knife will be carried. A bushcraft survival knife should be on the person’s body and available at all times. It should not get in the way of other gear and should be held securely against falling out in an event of a fall or canoe spill. A drop-leg sheath is a nice option as it is out of the way of backpack belts or any other gear one may be carrying. There is only so much real estate available on your belt so use it wisely!
Fourth, what kind of blade profile will you choose? There are many choices for the bushcrafter in this area as well but again consider what the blade will be used for. Many bushcraft experts choose a drop point, straight blade with a flat grind. This profile has a strong tip that lends itself well to game processing as well as drilling out the hole for a fire board etc. It can also be used for self-defense if needed. Also, a straight blade with a flat grind is easier to maintain and sharpen.
Fifth, consider the thickness of the steel used in the blade. Ask yourself how thick should the blade be for the work that it must do? I believe that a bushcraft survival knife should be no less than 1/8 of an inch on the thin side and no more than 3/16 of an inch on the thick side. Too thin and it could break, too thick and it becomes useless for smaller tasks. It should be thin enough to process fish and game yet heavy enough to baton through wood but not too heavy to carry.
Sixth, consider the amount of steel in the blade. I believe that a bushcraft survival knife should have a full tang blade. This means that the blade steel is full width and length with a slab of handle on either side.
Seventh, consider that a bushcraft survival knife should have a lanyard hole. A lanyard is handy when working with game, or batoning wood. It becomes an absolute necessity when working around or over water.
Eighth, consider not having a knife blade with serrations. They are nearly impossible to re-sharpen in the field without specialized sharpening tools. Also, many of the tasks that the bushcrafter will be doing require the use of the blade closest to the handle such as carving notches etc. and serrations make this difficult at best. The exception would be when operating for long periods of time on a boat when serrations are particularly helpful in cutting ropes and lines.
Ninth, consider the length of the blade. Most experts consider the ideal bushcraft survival knife blade length to be somewhere in the 4 to 6 inch range. This is long enough for batoning wood and personal protection but short enough for processing game and carving wood. Any longer and the blade becomes unwieldy and almost useless for smaller tasks.
Tenth, consider the price of the knife. If your life depends on your blade, do you want the cheapest option? However, if you unfortunately lose your knife, can you afford to replace it when you come out of the wilderness? (Note that a knife should probably never be lashed onto a stick and used as a spear, as pointed sticks can be easily made in most locations, are easily replaced if lost or broken and a fire hardened tip is usually sufficient for spearing game and the like. If you lose your primary knife because it fell in the water when you were trying to spear a fish and your lashings loosened in the water, or you speared that animal and it ran off before you could extract your blade, you are going to have a hard time replacing it in the field!) I would say to pick a balance between affordability and quality and if you find a knife that you really like, buy two!
Now that you have considered all the options and have made your selection, go out there and use it! A knife is a tool that is meant to be used, not admired and put on a shelf! The wilderness is waiting; your knife at your side!