(Note: This is the first of several articles based upon information I learned at the 6th Annual Midwest Traditional Winter Camping Symposium in Fall Creek, WI, in early November, 2005)
Remember the scene in “Crocodile Dundee” where Mick is confronted by a New York City street thug with a switchblade, and says to him, “That’s not a knife.”
Pulling out a long sheath knife from behind his back, he emphasizes, “THAT’S a knife!” Well, the situation wasn’t nearly as tense (or comedic) but I found myself with similar sentiments while listening to Paul Van Horn, an Outdoor Education Professor at Wisconsin’s Northland College talk about the right kind of knife to use when winter camping. I had brought two with me, a lock-back folding hunter’s knife with a 3 ½ inch blade, and a standard Victorinox Swiss Army knife, knowing that I wanted to take the class on knives for winter camping and travel. I found out that while there was nothing really wrong with my choice of cutlery, it probably wasn’t the best tool (remember that word) for use in the backcountry during the colder part of the year.
In addition to the two knives mentioned above, I own a basic Leatherman, a small knife that is part of my mountain biking multi-tool, two light Bowie-type hunting sheath knives that my father-in-law gave me, (one has a beautiful Ebonite –the stuff they make bowling balls out of — grip, and is one of the nicest knives I have ever seen) a sheath 6 ½ -inch Buck knife identical to the ones issued to Maine Game Wardens and a 6 inch Marine-type Kabar Model 1209 hunting knife. In addition, the ideal number of knives you can own is one…one more than you already have. Incidentally, I feel that way about mountain bikes, too. I bought a stainless steel Frost’s Swedish-made sheath knife with a 4-inch blade and a plastic handle from the instructor. More about that tool, later. (See picture for my working knife collection.)
One of the things I have noticed, but never thought much about, is that if you look at pictures of Garrett and Alexandra Conover, winter travel pioneer Calvin Rustrum, or many northern Native hunters and mushers, you will frequently notice a sheath knife hanging by a lanyard around their necks. Back when I was learning climbing and high-angle rescue, our instructor told us “Never tie a knot you can’t undo with your gloves on.” The same thing applies to using a knife in the wintertime. Folding knives, even those that can be opened with one hand, can be difficult to open with mittens on; a sheath knife is not. Pull it out of the sheath and it is ready to work. The sheath on the lanyard makes it easy to access without having to dig through layers of clothing to reach your belt. You need to have access to your tools. The lanyard makes that possible. If your knife is in a sheath or case on your belt, you have to somehow get past several layers of clothing to get it out and use it, if it is folded, you have to open it before you can use it. You may be able to do that wearing gloves, but can you do it with expedition grade mittens on? (Another solution would be to wear a Maine Warden Parka from L.L. Bean, which has a zipper for what is basically a sidearm “port”.)
What can you do with a good knife? Just about anything you need a good sharp tool for. You can use it to make tinder and kindling, clean food, open, pry, split, spread peanut butter, and lots more. You can gut and clean a ptarmigan, a trout or a caribou. You can cut down small trees for tent poles and use it and a pair of pliers to fix your snowshoes or skis.
The Frost knife I bought at the symposium is great for winter use. The handle is a rugged type of plastic and the blade is stainless steel, and only cost $11.00. Van Horn has had one and used it regularly for over 11 years, which goes to show you that a low cost blade can sill be a great, dependable piece of gear.