Monday, July 19, 2010

The Best Bushcraft Knife

Oooooh, I know. I’m trying to pick a fight. Not really. I just want to throw my perspective into the mix. For those of you who don’t know what I’m referring to, this is one of the most controversial, and most argued over topics when it comes to outdoor tools and equipment. Each person has a very strong preference, and fights are not uncommon.

Why, do you ask, is this such a big issue. For one, we tend to care deeply about the tools we use, and it only stands to reason that we will defend our choices with great vigor. The other reason however, is that we often talk about this subject in abstract and out of context.

Why do I say that? Well, I believe that we like to talk about knives because they are such a personal tool. Most people will however agree that it is not the king of bushcraft tools. That honor has traditionally gone to the axe in hard wood forests, and the machete in tropical and desert environments.

We have no problem acknowledging that when it comes to jungle terrain. Few people who are familiar with any outdoor activity would even consider taking anything other than a machete as their primary cutting tool when going into a jungle. Perhaps the reason for that is that there are still indigenous populations that actively live this lifestyle and make use of the tools. We have not lost the connection to the way these skills were being practiced when life actually depended on them.

We have however, largely lost that knowledge in Europe and the United States. It is almost impossible to find a person who relies on their axe to make a living in the woods. For most of us it has become a hobby. We have lost the connection to the traditional tool use, and have forgotten the central importance of the axe. If we look however, we can still see examples of it. In large parts of Northern Asia, life depends on the axe, and woodworking skill is essential. If we even go not too far back in history, we will see the same pattern. In his autobiography of 1860, Abraham Lincoln wrote:

Abraham, though very young, was large of his age, and had an ax put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument--less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons.

For every pioneer, the axe was an indispensable tool. Even these days it is not uncommon to see people who live in the mountains of Eastern Europe going into the woods with an axe and a cheap equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. I remember my grandfather had half a dozen axes, and one pocket knife, which would not pass anyone’s quality standard. The axe was used for all the heavy work. The knife was used to decorate his walking stick.

So what does this have to do with the ideal bushcraft knife? Well, it gives the discussion context. Here is the point-if the most important cutting tool in the woods is the axe or machete, then the knife takes a secondary importance. That allows it to be, well, a knife. It can be a tool selected by the user because of the tasks that it is expected to perform. If you expect to be doing a lot of hunting, then perhaps a skinning knife will be your best choice. If you like to go in the woods and do delicate wood carving, then a knife designed for that purpose would suit the situation best. Going get my point.

It can’t be that simple, you say! It’s not. The reason why it gets complicated is that these days we do not use the axe. Few people know how to use it, and even fewer want to carry it around. Instead, we turn to the knife to now accomplish not only the tasks for which we had originally selected it, but also to cover the cutting tasks which would have traditionally fallen on the axe.

This is where the hard choices begin. A knife designed for fine woodwork, for example, will have a hard time performing the wood cutting tasks traditionally covered by an axe. What do we do?

For some the answer is that there is no need to perform any of those cutting tasks. The reason why they left the axe at home was because they do not expect to have to do any heavy woodworking on the particular trip.

For others the answer is to carry a tool that offers a compromise. The tool often takes the shape of a larger knife, which incorporates some of the functions of a machete, and may even be supplemented by a saw. This tool will not perform the work of a job specific knife as well, and it will not do the work of an axe as well, but it does offer some comfort when a large range of tasks needs to be accomplished.

In my opinion, what we need to avoid is getting tunnel vision and forgetting the context. For example, if you had seen that my grandfather was a person who was comfortable in the woods, and had asked him what knife he uses, he would have pulled out a two and a half inch, non locking, folding knife. If that is all that we are focused on, we may reach the conclusion that this is the ideal bushcraft knife. If however we look at the context in which it is being used, we will see that had the axe been left at home, that knife would have been terribly inadequate.

So, just like I promised, I have answered no questions!