At a recent Georgia Bushcraft event, (image credit above) I was flattered to have someone approach me for advice. She was going to start bush crafting and wanted to know what she should get as a first knife. I was flattered to be trusted to advise someone on such an important topic. I was a bit overwhelmed to try to condense so many variables into a single answer. I was working a booth with a lot going on, so I copped out and told her “it depends” and asked her to reach out to me after the show. I told her I would be glad to talk to her about it when I had time to go into details.
After I got home, I noticed that she had reached out to some Facebook groups with the same question. The answers were predictable:
“Get a Mora.
“Yeah, a Mora.”
“Condor is good.”
“Brothers of bushcraft.”
“Get a Mora Malberg, because it is the best Mora, and Mora is good.”
What I noticed was that everyone’s answers to the question were heartfelt and honest advice that would have been perfect if she had the same hands, lived in the same area, used the same techniques, and had the same experience as those answering the questions. Of course, she did not. I get very frustrated with this pattern. There is no single best knife. People are too different. Their budgets are too varied. And if the definition for bush crafting changes by each person, how the hell can there be the best knife for it?
I got the chance to message her. I started with my standard questions:
“How are you going to use the knife?”
“What is your budget?”
“What other knives have you liked? Not liked?”
“Where will you be using the knife?”
She did not know how exactly hoe or what she was going to use the knife for because she is just starting to learn knife skills. She did know she wanted to do bush crafting and be outdoors. She had some money, but did not want to spend a lot on the wrong knife. She did not know what kind of knife she likes. She did know that she would be using it in the southeastern US. This last bit may sound like I am being sarcastic, but it is a significant bit of info because what works in the Rockies may not be the best blade for coastal wet lands.
We came up with a plan of very inexpensive but good knives so she could build a knowledge base to work from. We started talking about options. The Mora Classic 2, Pro S, and Companion are all good buys for $25 or less. My kids had the Companion, and it served them very well. Mora has a well-earned reputation for an inexpensive knife that is well-made.
If you are a little crafty and want to make your own sheath, you could also go with Old Hickory 4 paling knife for $5. There are several Old Hickorys that make good outdoor knives. Again, they have neither bells nor whistles, but do have a rock-solid reputation to go with a rock-bottom price.
I advised her to get two of whatever she chose, one to wear on her hip and one to carry in her pack in case the one on her hip broke. This will put you out $10-50, which is something most people can budget.
These knives are good skill builders because they do not have anything to compensate for bad habits or weak skills. People are forced to learn proper techniques. An added advantage is that because of the price, people are more willing to push them to see what their limits are and have more realistic expectations when one fails.
I recommended that once she had built a basic skill level in a few tasks, she should go back to the list and invest another $10-50 on knives with different shapes and sizes than the one she has been using. Use the new knives for the same tasks. This teaches the user how to do different tasks with different tools. The user also learns which tools are best for different tasks. As a bonus, it would give her a baseline for what blade and handle shapes work for her. Once she knows what shapes work best for her and what tasks she will use the knife for, then she can start looking for more refined (see: expensive) blades that have the traits that work for her.
As you meet more people in the outdoor community and build a network of like-minded individuals, trading can be a great option to gain experience with different knives. You can get a knife, see how it works for you, and then trade it for a different one to try out. This is a way great way to start getting experience with intermediate knives. It does come with some risk, but those who are well established in a group tend to have become established for a good reason. Some makers bring demo blades to gatherings to let people borrow them and compare traits. These knives usually have blemishes or were test blades that cannot be sold. The makers do not mind if they are actually used rather than just fondled. Fondling is not bad, but it is not as fulfilling or informative as taking the time to really work a blade and get to know it at a personal level.
It is important to remember that everyone has different hands and different styles, which is why there are so many types of knives. Before spending $400 or more on a handcrafted or high-end knife, build a broad knowledge base on what will work for you. Remember that the best knowledge is first-hand knowledge.