Choosing a campknife–my thoughts
Mookamon is the Cree-Ojibwe term for knife. Almost every traditional or primitive skills enthusiast I know has something to say about knives, whether its of their own collection, or the nice one that so and so owns. On this page, I will offer some advice on choosing a good knife for campcraft and have links to pictures of some of my campcraft knives (& and cases).
If you plan to use a knife for craft heavier than making sticks for roasting marshmallows, I would suggest you stay away from jacknives. Even jacknives with locking blades are too weak for heavy usage. The weak part is the pin the blade hinges around. Moreover, there is a danger that the knive will close on your hand when using. Enough said.
Carbon steel versus stainless steel blades
I do not want to bog you dowh with too many details, but choosing the approprite type of steel is important so I will briefly disscuss both. Carbon blades need to be oiled or they will rust. They actually rust noticably overnight in some circumstances. If you use these knives on canoe trips and they have a leather case, it will be difficult to keep the blade from rusting once the case becomes wet. However, they sharpen with less effort and work well in most contexts if proper care is taken. Stainless steel blades are great around water–they don’t rust when wet. I lost a whitewater safety knife in a river and came back the next year with a mask and flippers and recovered the knife. It did have rust spots, but nothing major. Stainless blades are a little harder to sharpen but keep an edge longer. That stated, I prefer carbon steel unless I am shooting a lot of rapids on a river trip where gear just gets wet.
Aesthetics and handle comfort
I have to like the look and feel of a knife before I will use it. I am a traditionalist at heart and bringing plastic into the woods does not sit well with me. Hence, plactic handles and cases are too manufactured looking for myself–I go to the woods to escape these items of urban manufacturing. The more ‘traditional’ one gets, the more he/she seems to want to make their own gear. The same is true with knives. One may start by making their own knife cases, then handles, then the whole knife, and some go to the length of flint-knapping blades as well. Each to their own.
The handle should fit nicely in your hand. Any protruding surface may cause a blister while carving. Avoid plastic handles as they are often slippery when wet. Rubberized handles work well when wet but sometimes create a blister while whittling. Wood handles are great but require a little care (keep dry). Bone or antler handles are stable and quite tough.
Blade shape, strength, and size vary a great deal. Ideally you need a blade that is one continuous piece of steel from the tip through the whole handle. The shape and size will vary with the types of activities you pursue. For instance, a skinning knife is all but useless for heavy craft. Skinning knifes may look to be tough but the blade is usually very thin and brittle–avoid them! The blade you choose should be rather thick (3-5mm) with an approximate 25 degree cutting edge–ideal for campcraft. Mors Kohanski, I think, once stated that a knife should actually be strong enough hold your weight when prying on it. Yikes! I would be scared to try this with some of mine, but most would surely pass the test. We have probably all heard that we are not to use knives as a prybar, rightly so, but heavy campcraft does put enormous strains on a knife.
Does length matter?
I have heard survival experts argue size both ways and I will walk the razors edge and agree with both sides here. A big knife (5 inches long blade or more) has many advantages. Such knives are usually tougher and will withstand heavy work and also can be used like small hatchets. The weight alone allows you to hack through a piece of wood rather quickly and with less effort. You can split large pieces of wood with a larger knife. Conversely, big knives are heavy. Small knives, on the other hand, used by an experienced woods person can do wonders too. For example, I watched Mors Kohanski (boreal survival expert) take down an 7 inch diametre Aspen tree with a little Mora knife that had a 4 inch blade. He did it fast too, you almost had to see it to believe it–way to go Mors (the tree was dead already)! Small knives are light weight and are often worn around on a string around the neck for easy access. For most carving tasks, a small blade will work just as well as the large ones. Moreover, with a hammer stick (used to pound one side of the blade thru wood while holding knife handle in other hand) a small knife can do many tough tasks
My advice is this, if you are going to do heavy shelter construction and a lot of craft on a trip, bring a small knife and an axe. The weight of an axe may be worth it–you can build a log cabin with it if you have too. For those who will doing some heavy craft but are a little concerned about weight, bring a big knife. Lastly, if weight is a concern and you do not mind working a little harder, bring the small knife. Leave the folding knife at home.
I hope this little primer into knives has got you thinking about the type of knife that may suit your needs.
I first came across this design for a knife sheath from a friend in Alberta. My chin dropped when I saw it. However, time restraints did not allow myself to learn the technique used to make it. Luckily for me, Bill Scherer later offered guidance on a simular design from which, I made this sheath.
More on this in “more articles’ section