knife skills, dave Canterbury
Photo by David Canterbury

There are a wide variety of practical uses for a knife from self defense to tool making to fire starting and shelter creation, and there are a myriad ways to handle the knife for each application. However, if you were to narrow down this list into a tight five items, what are the most important knife skills to master when using a knife in a survival situation? Here are the top five knife skills I feel we all need to know.

1. Knife Skills: Creating Fire Lay Materials

knife, wood, shavingsThere are basic elements of any fire—lay, tinder, kindling, and fuel. With this in mind, we have to look to how our knife can be used to process all effectively and safely, while still trying to bear in mind the tool itself is a resource to be conserved as much as possible. The Number One rule in our conservation theory is don’t use your knife unless you have to. So look for what was known as squaw wood to our ancestors, wood pieces that are scattered about the forest floor of the correct size to create the kindling and fuel elements of our fire. Many times, the best pieces are not available or in a condition not usable when we need them most, so that takes us back to the knife.

For creating tinder materials, we want to find inner barks of trees such as cedar or poplar, if possible. These will be highly combustible and can be worked by hand once harvested to create the birds’ nest or tinder bundle key to starting a fire. The birds’ nest contains very finely processed material in the center to accept and cradle an ember like those from a bow-drill fire or charred materials; while the tinder bundle can be less meticulous in preparation containing all the fine, medium, and course materials but is not much more than a ball of processed material to be ignited with either open flame or a ferrocerium rod.

We want to avoid as much as possible using the blade of our knife for this process, and so a good 90-degree sharp spine (not unlike a cabinet scraper) becomes a sure bonus of a good knife. We can also use this 90-degree spine to actually shave smaller stick materials like fatwoods, and softer species to create fine shavings that (in my humble opinion) are far superior to feather sticks and have less impact on the knife by conserving the blade edge.

Kindling and Fuel

For kindling material and fuel wood, we may need to baton the blade of our knife to split material along the grain, reducing the diameter. We might further need to baton across the grain, diagonally, to reduce the length if we cannot simply break the wood it by hand; or we can use the fork of a tree for leverage to snap the length.

Batoning is an indispensable skill if we are ever left with only a knife to process wood. We must understand some dos and don’ts associated with batoning. First, try to use material that is free of knots, and try not to use a knife without a full tang. When you need to baton to split the grain, always try to keep initial impact blows in the center of the blade and centered in the material; once you have initially split the grain, you should be able to place a wooden wedge of material in the split and baton that to complete the task.

A good rule of thumb for splitting is to never split a log that is so large it will not allow at least an inch of the blade to protrude from the split once the knife disappears into the split, if you have to strike the knife again, strike the tip never the handle. One thing to always remember with this technique is to have some sort of anvil under the material in case the knife goes cleanly through a split, so the blade does not strike the ground or other hard materials causing potential damage to the blade.

2. Knife Skills: Use as a Fire-Starting Tool

knife, ferrocerium rod, sparksYour knife is an important component of starting a fire when it comes to combustion, as well by striking the ferrocerium rod with the spine, and its possible use as a steel for flint-and-steel ignition (a big advantage of a high-carbon steel blade). Indeed, a knife tool is truly the most multifunctional tool of any within the kit.

Using the back 90-degree spine of the knife to strike a ferrocerium rod accomplishes several important and often overlooked effects. First, it means we do not have to carry a separate striker of some kind, most of which are inadequate for the task, anyway. Let’s understand that the true function of the ferrocerium rod is to be used as an emergency ignition tool and so we want the maximum amount of material removed from the rod with a single strike. (This is the reason I believe a soft, large rod is better than a smaller or harder rod of this type.) We can bring maximum power and maximize the surface area being pushed against the rod with a knife blade.

Let me mention the high-carbon steel aspect: once we have made an initial emergency fire, our priority should shift to NEXT FIRE mentality, which means conserving resources by gathering charred material, whether from extra cotton material or natural material collected like punk wood, fungus, or plant materials such as cattail heads. All of these can be ignited by a variety of means—including a hard rock struck against the back of a high-carbon steel blade; when ignition happens, you place into a birds’ nest and fire lay.

Don’t forget flint-and-steel ignition with a knife. Of course, you can carve a bow drill set with a knife, but we should concentrate on learning the skills first that are not so complicated, then graduate to the more primitive methods. I honestly can’t see ever being without a lighter in my pocket and a ferrocerium rod either on my sheath or in a pocket.

3. Knife Skills: Cutting Saplings

knife, saplingThis skill will become necessary for shelter building, if nothing else, as green wood may be preferable depending on the type of shelter you want to build. Obviously, the flexibility of green wood has distinct advantages for making dome-type structures, as well as preserving structural integrity, which could be compromised when using deadfall materials. Cutting a sapling is as easy as taking advantage of the trees own weaknesses: Simply bend the sapling over, stressing the wood fibers, and cut into them at an angle toward the root ball.

4. Knife Skills: Felling a Tree

knife, tree, cuttingWhen we speak of felling a tree with a knife, we are obviously not speaking of felling a 50-year-old tree—which would be a job for an axe or axe-and-saw combination—but a more manageable size typically up to four or five inches—a tree you can’t simply bend over and shear cut.

This discussion really boils down to emergency knife use and harvesting material that has a large enough diameter to be structural or good fuel. You may have heard this technique called “Beaver Chewing.” We will baton our blade creating a V notch around the tree, steadily reducing the diameter until we can push over the tree for further use or processing.

5. Knife Skills: Creating Notches

knife, notches, tree limbNotching material is mostly used to build structures, but it also works for simple things like manipulating a pot over a fire, creating trap components, or making simple stakes for tarp and tent. Think about log homes—simple notches secure everything together without the use of nails, and the like. We may use cord with a notch to better bind the joint, but the notch makes interlocking wood components possible. In my mind, the most important yet rudimentary notches are the 7 Notch, the Log Cabin Notch, and the V Notch. With these three simple notches, you can construct many things.

This article is from Survivor’s Edge Survival Experts Handbook 2018 Special Edition Magazine. Grab your copy at

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