When preparing your survivalist kit for the outdoors, an essential component will be the knife (or knives) you bring. While a universal knife that can tackle any given task is ideal, not all blades are suited to each job that you may encounter in the wilderness. Understanding the subtle nuances between the types of knives can be the difference between having the right tool and something that can’t live up to the task.
The key difference is that bushcraft knives tend to be smaller, around 3-5 inches in length, while survival knives are often 6-12 inches. Bushcraft knives are typically suited for delicate tasks like making traps or skinning small game. Survival knives are better for batoning, chopping, and digging.
One way to put it is that bushcraft knives are considered survival knives; however, not all survival knives are bushcraft knives. Otherwise, they are strikingly similar, with full-tang, carbon steel, or stainless steel blades, and handles that are designed to be held for an extensive period of time.
Ultimately, having the correct blade in the wilderness makes survivalism easier. A smaller, lighter bushcraft knife may be all you need, or your adventures may call for a larger, more robust blade. Evaluating the options and subtle differences can mean the difference between having the correct tool or not.
Characteristics Of A Bushcraft Knife
Bushcraft knives are a subset of survival knives that are used for the smaller, more delicate tasks in the wilderness. Such duties include making traps, skinning small game, or getting a fire started. Bushcraft knives are also suited for rope trimming, wood carving, and tree limb cutting. Consequently, these knives have to be durable, reliable, and flexible.
When analyzing the physical aspects of a bushcraft knife, there are a few elements that are common among them.
Bushcraft knife blades tend to be between 3-5 inches in length. They are the shortest of the survival knives available to keep them agile and flexible for use in the wild. The blade should also be around 1/16 to 1/8 inch thick.
All quality bushcraft knives, like my USA-made favorite found on Amazon, will have a full-tang blade, as these are the most reliable types of blades available. A full-tang blade is one that is a single piece that runs entirely through the handle. By making blades in this manner, the energy from a strike has more mass to travel through, maximizing the load the knife can take without breaking.
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Most knives made for use in the wilderness will use either stainless steel or carbon steel in their construction.
Stainless steel is a desirable material because it is durable and does not oxidize; therefore, it does not rust easily. These traits make stainless steel knives ideal for use in humid climates.
Carbon steel, however, does not dull as quickly as stainless steel and is easier to sharpen. Therefore, it is a popular choice of material. However, as carbon steel will rust, it does need to be taken care of more diligently, especially after use in wet conditions.
The grind of a knife (its cross-sectional shape) will affect how it performs during specific tasks. Bushcraft knives tend to have either a Scandanavian or flat grind, as these are the easiest to sharpen and maintain.
As the blade is full-tang, you can usually see the blade through the middle of the handle. The material of the handle is the most variable aspect of a bushcraft knife, as this aspect is mostly down to personal taste. Common materials include dense rubber, firm plastic, or wood.
Premium knives tend to use Micarta or fiberglass to provide a durable material. The choice of the handle will need to feel comfortable in the user’s hand when used for a prolonged period. Therefore, if possible, try to hold a knife before buying it.
Characteristics of a Survival Knives
Survival knives are a class of blades that are used for a variety of tasks in the wild. While bushcraft knives are for delicate tasks, survival knives are generally bigger and used for arduous tasks such as batoning, chopping, digging, skinning, and prying. These knives are designed to withstand the most onerous tasks without bending, breaking, or becoming dull after each use.
While a variety of knives is a way to have the best tool for everything, a survival knife is the closest option you can have for a universal tool. It can even do some of the things a machete can. Here are the pertinent traits.
Generally, a survival knife, like the one I recommend (also made in the USA), can be anything from 4-12 inches long and sometimes longer. The length of the blade will depend on personal preference, weight, and proposed purpose of the knife on your trip. There is no right or wrong length within this range. Also, they will typically 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick.
All good survival knives are made with a full-tang blade. The single metallic piece is the most robust way to create a knife and is the only construction you should consider when buying a survival knife.
Survivalist knives are made from either stainless steel or carbon steel. Carbon steel keeps an edge longer and is easier to sharpen. Stainless steel, however, is less susceptible to rust and can be sharpened to give a sharper edge.
Survival knives can either have a single-edge or a semi-serrated edge blade. Serrated edges are better suited to cutting through challenging materials such as large logs. They also lose their edge more slowly than a straight blade. However, they are challenging to sharpen.
Therefore, many survival knives have hybrid edges to get the best of both edge types. Hybrid edges can take two forms, either a semi-serration along the entire blade or a section of the knife is fully serrated, usually located at the tip.
The handle of a survival knife will either be one piece surrounding the entire blade, or two pieces on either side of the metal. Materials used will range from rubber, wood, or Micarta.
Pay attention to the design of the handle, as too much texture in the handle can cause blisters after an extended period of use. The material used needs to withstand various temperatures and climates. For example, stay clear of leather grips as they aren’t suited to damp conditions, which is often what the knife will endure.
Bushcraft knives are a subset of the survival knife family. Consequently, they share many common characteristics. However, bushcraft knives are shorter, averaging around 4 inches in length, whereas a survival knife can be up to 10 inches long.
Both knife types will be full-tang, made from either carbon steel or stainless steel. Generally, the grind of the knife will be a single straight edge, such as Scandanavian or flat, as these are ideal for ubiquitous use and are simplest to sharpen.
A bushcraft knife is best suited to more delicate tasks due to its small footprint and weight, whereas a survival knife is better used for imprecise tasks, such as removing a large branch or skinning massive game.
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How Do You Sharpen A Survival Knife?
There are several methods available to sharpen the edge of a knife. These include electric knife sharpeners, handheld sharpeners, and sandpaper.
However, the most common way for a survival knife is to sharpen the edge with a whetstone, like this one, found on Amazon. They are made from materials harder than steel, such as ceramic. Or, you can just use a handheld sharpener. I personally use a multi-purpose hand-held sharpener.
To use either variety, you wet the stone and move your blade across its surface in the same manner several times. Each pass removes a small amount of material from the knife’s edge until it is abrased to a fine point. A whetstone should be part of your survivalist kit so you can keep your blade sharp at all times.
How Long Do Bushcraft and Survival Knives Last?
Bushcraft and survival knives can last decades if they are well-made and looked after correctly. The initial construction of the knife will determine how well it withstands use without the blade bending, the handle cracking, or the edge becoming dull quickly.
The length of service time is also determined by the user. If it is used daily, it would last for a shorter period than a knife that is used once a year. You also need to keep your knife dry and protected in a sheath to increase its longevity. Also, make sure you don’t sharpen it too much or incorrectly as this can exponentially decrease the life of a blade. Usually, just honing it occasionally will suffice.
Where Does The Term Bushcraft Come From?
During the 1800s, Australians coined the term “bushcraft” to refer to skills relating to survival skills that are required when in the bush country. The popularity of survivalism shows helped this term reach a broader audience in English-speaking nations and helped its ubiquitous use.
Elsewhere in the world, bushcraft means the same as woodcraft or wilderness skills. In 2013, bushcraft was trademarked as a service name. However, the validity of the mark is questionable as the term was used in print decades earlier.
Hey, I’m Jim, and the author of this website. I have always been interested in survival, fishing, camping, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up, I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!