Bushcrafting fundamentals

Damien Edwards

I hold the opinion that nothing is more personal in a hunter’s kit than a knife. It’s an ‘up close and personal’ tool. It receives way more use than my rifles when I’m out hunting, even on extended trips. On a weekend red deer hunt I may only fire three or four shots (I’m a meat hunter, predominantly). Sure, my Winchester Model 70 in 7mm/08 puts venison in the freezer multiple times each year, but that firearm plays a supporting role. It’s the knives which do the lion’s share of the work.

My late father was a butcher’s apprentice when he was a kid and although he did not go on to become a butcher (conscription took him), he never lost the skill and I learned a lot of knife drills from him. But as we are aware, knives are not just for butchering water buffaloes, skinning deer and slicing your porterhouse. They can come in handy for a myriad of tasks around the campsite. Here, I’ll share some of the rudimentary techniques and simple tricks I’ve picked up from more than 30 years of knocking around in the bush as well as the appropriate styles of knifes up to the task.

Permit me to state from the onset that there’s nothing wrong with a folding knife. They are handy, compact, simple to use and maintain and I’m a big fan of them and their virtues. The one downside of the folder is that it lacks the rigid strength of a fixed blade knife. A fixed blade will generally be longer, perhaps a little bulkier, but with this comes a good deal more strength and for some of the tasks which I’ll be describing, strength is what you need.

I prefer fixed blade knives of a full tang design, or, at the very least, a rat-tail tang configuration. What am I talking about? The accompanying pictures will help, but a full tang knife is one where the blade and part of the handle are milled from the same billet of steel, with two sides of the handle pinned to either flank of it. A rat-tail tang is similar, but thinner and completely enclosed within the handle and usually pinned through the pommel. Knives of this style offer supreme strength for the user.

So what can you achieve with a knife apart from skinning deer and gutting fish? Plenty. Let’s kick off with batoning. This is a great skill to learn and a technique to master. To put it simply, batoning is a means for you to use a knife to vertically split wood. The benefits are great. You can break down larger pieces of wood to create kindling. You can fashion multiple stakes from a single piece of wood for the purpose of ad hoc tent pegs.

Most importantly, it permits you access to dry wood in wet environments and can be the difference between ensuring whether a fire blazes or not. Here’s how you do it. First, find your branch. Then find a second one. Stand it vertically on a firm surface and lay the blade of your knife across it. Ensure that a good amount of blade length protrudes past the perimeter of the edge of the wood.

Begin by gently tapping the second piece of wood against the spine of your knife as illustrated in the photographs. The blade will begin to bite in. You can now commence making more powerful blows to the portion of the blade which protrudes from the wood. This process will, and in a short time, split that piece of wood vertically. The two halves can now, if desired, be quartered and further broken down to provide campfire kindling.

Now that you have smaller pieces we can move onto feathersticks. You’ll need a lesser, more manoeuvrable knife for this. It’s an incredibly simple task. Use the blade to shave off any damp outer edges as well as bark off the piece of wood that you select. You will now have exposed the dry inner layer, hopefully with an even inner surface.

Gently and with even pressure distribution, begin making sweeping motions along the length of your piece of wood. Try to keep an even amount of force. If you accidently peel off some of these shaving completely, that’s perfectly fine. The purpose of the featherstick is to allow fire to consume the stick and enable access to oxygen. It can be used as a means to transport fire as well as providing fuel to start one. Making feathersticks is also a wonderful way to gauge the bevel and sharpness of your blade. My best tip is to try to focus on precision rather than brute force.

These smaller batoned pieces of wood now lend themselves to easy carving. You will require precise chops to start this process. But it’s certainly a simple enough task to practise in your yard until you prefect being able to accurately hit the same place twice. Remember, you’re not swinging an axe. These little hits are be done at close range.

Ensuring that your blade is razor sharp prior to heading out and starting activities like these is paramount. Since we’re only talking about making small notches in relatively thin pieces of wood, a sharp blade can be used as a slicer to help tidy up those edges. You now have easy makeshift tent pegs once the end has been pointed or a way to help stake and smoke your venison or bass.

A word on knife grips. I prefer bushcrafting knives which feature a choil or type of finger groove just forward of the handguard. This permits my trigger finger to exert pressure on that point, while my thumb is free to slide back and forth along the spine of the blade.

The photographs will show you what I’m referring to. When doing this you have supreme control over short and precise strokes. This is a technique which I often use when skinning fallow deer, hares or foxes where I wish to reserve the furs for tying fishing flies or just to put up on the wall in my study.

The majority of knives I own have fingergrooves for a surer grip. I’ve always found knives of this style more comfortable in the hand. They’re also helpful if you suffer from hand fatigue from extended use. Similarly, knives possessing a handguard are safer, in my mind, as well as being more controllable due to being able to rest your thumb up against the rear of the top guard while slicing.

Be aware of this. Bushcrafting is a skill you will only develop with patience and more importantly, practice.

Of course, these skills are easily and safely practised in the backyard, but the more time you spend perfecting them in the woods and forest, the better. It’s a skill which is difficult to ‘unlearn’ once you’ve mastered the basics.

It’s my hope that this article has introduced you to a few of them. It’s now up to you to fetch your knife and begin working on your own skill set. What are you waiting for?

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