5 Critical Knife Skills for the Outdoorsman

The outdoorsman’s knife is a versatile tool that can be used for more than just cutting and chopping. By learning these five critical skills, you’ll have the means to increase your survival odds in life or death situations.

The “creek stewart knife” is an essential tool for the outdoorsman. It has a wide blade and can be used to cut through wood, rope, or even other knives.

Removing bark with knife.

Editor’s note: The following is an extract from Dave Canterbury’s Bushcraft Illustrated.

Knives for the Belt

Your belt knife is your primary bushcrafting instrument, thus it must be versatile in nature. If you need to process firewood, a knife that is too tiny will not be suitable, and a knife that is too large will not be suitable for delicate carving and shaping wood. One would like to have numerous tools on hand at all times, and in this instance, the belt knife can be fine-tuned to a certain set of requirements, making it more suited to finer jobs; an axe and saw would do the heavy lifting. This isn’t always the case, and it’s not always possible, so stick to a 4′′–5′′ blade with a complete tang and a carbon steel blade. This will maximize the flexibility of your knife.

With your belt knife, you should be able to complete the following five tasks:

  1. Developing fire-fighting materials
  2. Building a fire
  3. Taking down saplings
  4. Taking down a tree
  5. Making a notch

However, many knife-craft abilities are essential, and many of them overlap in some manner. As a result, the abilities on this list are the ones I feel will have the greatest immediate impact in an emergency if you are just equipped with your beloved belt knife as a tool. As a result, fire and shelter will be more vital to you than most other things, and the abilities you’ll need to start are based on this assumption.

1. Creating Materials for Fire Layouts

You’ll make fire lay materials using your knife. Tinder, kindling, and fuel are the three main components of every fire. With this in mind, consider how your knife can be used to process all three efficiently and securely, while also keeping in mind that the instrument is a resource that should be saved to the greatest extent feasible.

The first guideline of our conservation philosophy is to only use your knife when absolutely necessary. Look for little pieces of wood laying about the forest floor that may be used to make kindling and fuel.

Of course, the nicest items aren’t always accessible or in useable shape when we need them, so you’ll have to improvise with your knife. If feasible, collect inner barks of trees like as cedar or poplar to use as tinder materials. These will be very flammable and may be manipulated by hand to make a bird’s nest or tinder bundle once gathered.

You want to avoid using the blade of your knife for this operation as much as possible, therefore a sheath knife with a 90-degree sharp spine—which means the spine is squared off to be sharp on the corners, similar to a cabinet scraper—is a must-have. You may also use this 90-degree spine to shave smaller stick materials, such as fatwood and softer species, into thin shavings that can be utilized as kindling while still preserving the knife’s edge. For an illustration of how to cut tinder with a knife, see FIGURE 2.5.


A man shaving a bark.

If we can’t break it by hand or use the fork of a tree for leverage to snap the length, we may need to baton, or strike the back of the tool or knife with a wooden mallet or baton for processing, the blade of our knife to split material along the grain to reduce the diameter and possibly baton across the grain to reduce the length. Batoning with a knife is seen in FIGURE 2.6.

Illustration of a batoning with knife.

If you’re ever stuck with just a knife to process wood, batoning is a must-have skill. To begin, try to use knot-free, small-diameter cloth, and avoid using a knife without a complete tang if at all feasible. Keep impact strikes in the middle of the blade and centered in the material during batoning to split the grain. After you’ve split the grain, you should be able to finish the job by inserting a wooden wedge into the split and batoning it.

When splitting a log, a good rule of thumb is to leave at least an inch of the blade protruding from the split after the knife has vanished into it. If you must hit the knife again, do so on the tip rather than the handle. Keep an anvil beneath the material in case the knife passes through a split neatly. This prevents the blade from colliding with the ground and inflicting harm.

2. Beginning a Fire

When it comes to combustion, your knife is a vital aspect of your re-starting capabilities. You can hit a ferrocerium rod with its spine, which is a mixed metal rod containing pyrophoric elements like iron and magnesium that emit hot sparks when materials are scraped off the rod fast with a sharp item harder than the rod. Your knife may also be used as a steel for flint-and-steel ignition (provided you are using a high-carbon steel blade). Examples of ferrocerium rods may be seen in FIGURE 2.7.

Illustration of a Ferrocerium rods.

When you hit a ferrocerium rod with the knife’s rear 90-degree spine, you achieve many crucial and sometimes ignored things. For starters, you won’t have to bother about bringing a separate striker, which is usually insufficient for the job. To hit the rod, you can gain a lot more leverage with your knife.

Because the ferrocerium rod’s primary purpose is to be used as an emergency ignite instrument, you want to remove as much material as possible off the rod in a single stroke (this is the reason I believe a soft, large rod is better than a smaller or harder rod of this type). A knife blade may provide maximum force and increase the surface area pressed on the rod. For instances of hitting a ferrocerium rod, see FIGURES 2.8 AND 2.9. FIGURE 2.10 shows an example of a flint-and-steel kit.


Illustration of striking a ferrocerium rod.

Striking a freocerium rod to lit a fire.

Illustration of a flint and steel kit.

3. Taking Down Saplings

Because green wood may be preferred, cutting saplings becomes important for shelter construction. When it comes to dome-shaped constructions, green wood’s elasticity comes in handy. Cutting down a sapling is as simple as exploiting the tree’s inherent flaws. Bend the sapling over and cut through the fibers at an angle toward the root ball, straining the fibers. For an example, see FIGURE 2.11.

Cutting of sapling with knife.

4. Cutting Down a Tree

We’re certainly not talking about falling a fifty-year-old tree with a knife; it would take an axe or an axe/saw combo. Rather, we’re talking about falling trees of a more manageable size, often up to 4′′–5′′ in diameter, that can’t be bent over and shear cut like saplings. You just need to pick stuff that is big enough in diameter to be structural or excellent fuel for this topic of what comes down to emergency knife usage. This method, also known as beaver chewing, involves batoning your blade around the tree, forming a V notch, and gradually diminishing the diameter until the tree can be pushed over for further usage or processing. For instances of tree falling, see FIGURES 2.12 AND 2.13. 

Felling of tree with knife.

Steps of feeling a tree.

Creating Notches No. 5

Everything from erecting a house to controlling a pot over heat to making trap components requires notching of material. Consider the Lincoln Logs you may have played with as a kid. Without the use of cordage or other fasteners, the simple notches were what kept everything together. You can use string with a notch to better tie them together, but the notch allows wood components to interlock.

The 7 notch, the log cabin notch, and the V notch are the most significant but basic notches in my opinion. Many different things may be made with just three basic notches. For instances, see FIGURES 2.14 THROUGH 2.16. 

Illustration of a notch and a knife.

Log cabin notch in a illustration.

A V notch with a knife illustration.

The 7 notch, the log cabin notch, and the V notch are the most significant but basic notches in my opinion. Many different things may be made with just three basic notches. For instances, see FIGURES 2.14 THROUGH 2.16.

Bushcraft is an excerpt from the book Bushcraft. Dave Canterbury created the artwork for this book. 2019 Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright The publisher, Adams Media, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster, granted permission for its use. All intellectual property rights are retained.



The “versatile knife” is a multi-purpose tool that can be used for many different tasks. When you are out in the wild, it’s important to know how to use your blade properly. Here are 5 critical knife skills for the outdoorsman.

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