I have been experimenting with wilderness knives for many years, trying to find the best. Over the years, I’ve tried several dozen of the very best designs. I have reached a couple conclusions.
Pasayten Lite Traveller: Hands down, my favorite knife ever. Based on pioneer designs dating back centuries, this one has been upgraded with linen micarta scales and a super steel, 154cm, which is soft enough to field sharpen yet very resistant to corrosion (very useful here in wet Nova Scotia). The knife comes with a superb kydex sheath. There was a time I had real doubts about this design, but ages of hard use has shown that it is as perfect now as it was to the coureurs de bois who favored it in the pioneer days when your life relied on your gear. Last year my Pasayten butchered two deer, many chickens, two geese, and was used a lot in foraging and prepping kindling and the blade is still strikingly sharp. I grew up with knives with bowie hilts and when I first started using knives in this pattern, I had real doubts about their handles, but the design has proven itself exceedingly practical. It is very comfortable, secure and offers a variety of good gripping positions for foraging, skinning, cleaning fish and carving. It is the most versatle handle pattern I know. The swollen butt locks the hand in place and provides a way to grip the knife further down the handle for cleaving. Reversed, the knife feels and functions something like the Alaskan ulu, perhaps the ultimate skinner. It’s only downside is it’s not a great self defense tool, though its big enough to serve the role in a pinch. But combine this knife with a good hatchet or small axe and you have a complete set of tools for every aspect of woods living. Knives in this pattern, and the Pasayten in particular, have become my first choice for almost any outdoor foray where my first goal isn’t to pack light and move fast.
Cold Steel Trail Master: I have spent a great deal of my life in the bush, and have the virtually unique distinction of having been charged by three grizzlies and five moose and lived to tell the tale. Ergo, I like to carry a knife sizeable enough to defend myself if the need arises, unlikely though it may be. So I like larger bush knives and tend to favor the traditional and versatile Bowie designs. And there is the simple fact that larger knives can combine the functions of a hatchet (though they should never replace one). A substantial but not-excessively-large knife is a jack-of-all-trades that can do it all.
I really wrestled with this choice because I have had several very good bowies, including the expensive and coveted Bark River Teddy II bowie. The Teddy II was so damned expensive at about $400 that I really wanted to give it top place, but after a year of field testing, I find it ties with the Trail Master. Each knife is slightly different, bringing a few pros and cons to the table.
The Trail Master is about 1.1″ longer than the Teddy II with a 9.5″ long blade with a hefty .33″ spine and a full flat grind (generally better for woodscraft). It is longer than the Bark River Teddy II yet doesn’t feel it because the balance is perfect. The squarish grip is very comfortable and secure. However, I have had two Trail Masters over the years and a weakness of the grip is the fairly soft polymer will wear fairly quickly. That texturing will vanish with a year of typical use. Eventually, the grip will wear so much it will have to be replaced. If you’re handy, you can easily make a replacement.
It’s construction is simple but stout; the handle is held in place by a brass nut. Pressure holds a brass guard in place. The O1 steel stains easily but resists rust well enough. Just oil it at the end of a day out. The sharply angled spine of the Trail Master also throws sparks a bit easier than the Teddy II.
The sheath of the Trail Master is just plain perfect, being a non-moisture retaining, fitted polymer that is very comfortable and versatile to carry. In fact, it is the best stock sheath I have ever seen, period! It’s lighter than kydex but about as durable.
And the Trail Master, around since the 1980’s and still a staple of Cold Steel, costs much less than the Tedd II. I bought mine on sale for $118. It’s usually closer to $200 here in Canada.
The Trail Master proves quality doesn’t have to come with a steep price.
Tops Air Wolfe: Clearly a tactical knife by design, it is actually very well suited to make an excellent all around hunting, fishing and woodscraft knife. It’s bowie shape lends to its all purpose practical use. At 11 inches total length, with a 3/16″ spine, it is about the right size for any task, from cleaning a trout to stripping twigs of wet bark, or even self defense in a pinch. Like many Tops knives, it is over built and the full thickness at the spine extends more than halfway down the vertical of the blade: a hefty saber grind. This adds toughness but also some unnecessary weight. Had this knife had a more of a full flat grind, I would rate it the equal of the Pasayten Lite Traveller, but with the unnecessary metal, the knife loses a point. Also, as it’s original design intent is tactical, the clip point is more designed for piercing. You will have to practice to learn to skin and clean game or fish without piercing hide or organs, ergo the knife loses another point. But because of the broad utility of the bowie design, and the knife’s supreme balance and comfort, I consider it a close runner-up to the Pasayten Lite Traveller.
The other thing I did not like about this knife is the choil (the finger slot between the guard and edge). Choils are all the rage among knifemakers these days, but I’d rather a slightly shorter blade or more cutting edge than the restricted space of a knife used up by a choil. One can choke up on a knife just fine without a choil. Still, it is largely a matter of personal preference.
In brilliant favor of this tool, it offers the singularly most secure and comfortable grip of any knife I have ever held, no matter what position I hold it in. The 1095 steel requires daily oiling when in the field but the coating is extremely durable (I haven’t even been able to wear it yet), and it sharpens easily and throws great sparks. The sheath it comes with, unfortunately, is fubar, and you’ll have to either modify it yourself or have a good one made. (Top’s current nylon sheaths are somewhat better than those of a few years back. I disassembled mine, molded the kydex to the blade to prevent the knife from rattling, and added heavy duty snaps. Now it’s useful, but the knife really deserves a good kydex sheath.)
Ultimately, this is a survival knife, as capable of fighting or breaking out a windshield as it is at carving up wood or foraging mushrooms. But it’s not really a woodsman’s knife; it’s just so versatile that it can easily be appropriated to that role.
(The reader should note: My opinion is based on the knife’s woodsman and bushcraft applications. As a survival knife, I’d rate the Tops Air Wolfe 9/10, taking away one point for the choil.)
Bark River Teddy II
My other favorite knife, the Teddy II recreates the traditional bowies of the 19th century. A bit shorter than other bowies I have used, it is 13.4″ long with an 8″ blade. The spine is very stout at .25″.
I find the A2 steel to be curious and sometimes perplexing. It’s a carbon steel that seems to stain as easily as any other, but it is less inclined to rust. And the natural patina that was on it after a year of hard use came right off when I cleaned the blade after sharpening with some residual grit from an 8000 Japanese water stone. I mean it came off as easily as sugar melts under running water; I wasn’t trying to remove it. I remain uncertain whether I am happy about this. So I decided to force another patina. I used hot apple cider, yet after a half hour (which can turn other carbon steels black) the A2 only became slightly gray. It did develop some lovely patterning, though, something like Damascus steel, though so faint it’s hardly visible.) However, all my research on A2 (a steel I am admittedly new to, this being my first knife in A2) indicates it’s very good stuff, not prone to corrosion or rust, and needing less maintenance than older carbon steels such as 1095. After a year of use in wet Nova Scotia, this has held true.
The hilt is in the old fashioned style of swelling at the middle, which can make the knife a bit awkward in the hand. Better would have been a squared hilt in the more modern style. Still, once you get used to it, it works really well. The G10 hilt is much tougher than the soft polymer hilt of the Trail Master, however, it is not grippy. Which is not to say it is slippery; the knife affords good purchase. I think it was a good move on the part of Bark River not to add texturing to the G10 as it always wears off. It doesn’t matter how it’s done, it always wears off. A smooth hilt wears much better.
The sheath is good. It’s top grain leather and a durable, practical design. A kydex sheath would have been better, especially for wet country, but I know Bark River was going for a traditional sheath to match this traditional knife design. I don’t fault them for it. We used carbon steel just fine in wet, cold Alaska without problems. You just have to maintain it. You can improve leather in wet country considerably by treating it with mink oil or beeswax. Just heat the leather with a hairdryer or heat gun, rub the substance on, then blow the heat over it til the substance melts and is absorbed by the leather. The only real flaw I found with the Bark River sheath is that the leather strap should have been oriented toward the spine of the knife so there is no chance the edge could cut it when being drawn or replaced. (Note: I wrote previously that I tried a Spec-Ops sheath for it and I won’ t mince words: Don’t buy into the Spec-Ops hype. The Spec-Ops sheaths have problems. Not least of which, they did not bother to put any protection on the male, inside part of the snap, so it scratches and abrades the knife handle terribly. There are other problems, but I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say I have tried two models of Spec-Ops sheaths and sent them both back.)
Finally, and certainly most importantly, the blade. It is not quite a flat grind but smoothly curves into its edge. This convex profile makes the strongest possible blade, a bit heavier than a full flat grind, but only by a fraction. Some weight is removed with the runnel near the spine, which is nice though you have to take extra care to clean it. But what I really like about this blade is the length. I find eight inches to be the ideal length for a field knife if you don’t plan to carry any other tools such as hatchets, hunting knives or saws. Though a little awkward for fine work, with practice it’s small enough to cook and eat with, as well as process game and fish, yet big enough to hack and chop with, and more than ample for self defense. To me, eight inches is the perfect jack-of-all-trades blade length, not excelling at anything but capable of doing everything a knife needs to do pretty damned well. Yet, it is very hard to find good eight inch blade knives for some odd reason. Because of the blade length, this is my favorite knife.
Honorable Mention for the BK16
I should have included this knife in the original article. I wanted to keep it to four, but the Becker BK16 is just such a good design–elegant, simple, hardworking–at a great price that it really deserves a place here. It is almost the same size and profile as the famed and expensive Fallkniven F1. It is quite small, so it’s saying something that I like it as much as I do, since I have a strong preference for larger knives. It weighs a mere 5.4 ounces and costs around $80 in Canada. Featuring a full flat grind, tough-as-nails polymer scales and a practical drop point profile, this is a fantastic knife, especially for those who favor a small knife/hatchet/folding saw combo as their outdoor tools, or for those who live in an area where dangerous wild animals aren’t a potential concern. The nylon/polymer sheath it comes with is MOLLE compatible and quite secure and serviceable. The sheath is so light, I just leave it permanently attached to my daypack, even if I am not taking the knife with me. I’ll often wear this knife on my belt in a tiny leather pouch sheath (appropriated from a knife I didn’t like and gave to my wife for butchering chickens) as a companion to a large bowie. When out foraging in wild country, a small knife for doing the general work combined with a large knife for big tasks and defense is an excellent combination. Given it’s inexpensive, this is my beater for garden work, foraging in the meadows and hedges around the homestead, and any other time I want a cheap but tough knife for hard use. I liked this knife so much I also bought its cousin, the BK17, which has a heftier saber grind and a bowie profile that’s very good at piercing tough hide and severing joints–an excellent knife for butchering large livestock and deer. These are working knives–neither expensive nor perty, just get-the-job-done practical. And that’s mostly what a knife should be.
Conclusion: If I am going foraging, hunting, or just plan to be a few days or more in the bush, I take the Pasayten and a hatchet, or the Pasayten and a small axe. If I’m just out hiking or tracking and want to keep my gear light, I’ll take the Teddy II as a good, jack-of-all-trades option that is lighter than a knife/hatchet combination.