Here are some tips, tricks, and techniques to keep your blade sharp when adventuring far from home
As nice as it would be to have an electric sharpener, a stone, or any other sharpener at the ready when knives need to be touched up, life doesn’t always work in your favor.
The fact is that situations occur that may be out of our control, leaving us stranded without a conventional way to put an edge on our knives. It might be as simple as going camping and leaving it at home, or it could be something as drastic as a survival situation occurring deep in the wilderness.
Hopefully, you never find yourself in a survival situation where your life depends upon having a sharp knife nearby, but if it does, will you know how to maintain the sharp edge on your trusted tool?
No matter your experience level, there are simple ways to keep your knife in good working order. Additionally, these techniques do surprisingly well at blade sharpening just about any style of knife.
AN ASSIST FROM A CUP OF JOE
A ceramic coffee cup is something many campers, hikers, and all-around outdoorsmen have with them. If not, the world is full of litter bugs and it really isn’t difficult to find a piece of ceramic along a riverbank.
With a piece of ceramic from the cup, you can sharpen your knife with a little improvising. All that you have to do is to turn it upside down and run the blade against the raw, rough part that’s at the bottom of the cup.
Hold the mug upside down in one hand, and then place the base of the knife blade at a 45-degree angle against the exposed ceramic rim at the bottom.
Keeping a firm grip on both the mug and the knife handle and maintaining that 45-degree angle, drag the knife against the rim using even pressure as though you were using a traditional blade sharpening steel.
Do this three times on the first side. Repeat on the other edge of the blade, drawing the knife against the ceramic rim three times. Then, repeat using the first edge of the blade twice. After this, repeat using the second edge of the blade.
This will likely take a couple times on each edge to achieve the results you want. Carefully wipe the resulting carbon dust from the blade. It will be sharpened and ready to use.
A ROCKY SOLUTION
Can you use a random stone instead of a blade sharpening stone? The answer is a solid yes, and although an actual blade sharpening stone will probably give you a better result, using a flat rock can be a very good option if you don’t have one on hand.
Survival situations can hit fast and unexpectedly, you may not have access to your ready-to-go gear.
The key to this is finding a nice, relatively smooth, flat rock to do the job. A common technique when using blade sharpening stones is to lubricate it with water while sharpening, which should produce the wanted result.
Your job is to find a smooth, relatively flat rock, and clean it with water even if you don’t think it is dirty. This will give it the moisture it needs.
First, place the knife with the blade at a 10-degree angle to the surface of the rock, facing away from you. Then, in one smooth movement, stroke the knife away from you, moving the stroke so that you cover the full length of the blade.
Next, flip the knife over and drag it back towards you, this time sharpening the other side of the blade. Keep doing this until the knife is equally sharp on both sides.
A piece of broken glass or even car windows with their rough edges do a good job when it comes to sharpening a knife. Again, unfortunately, broken glass is not too hard to find out nearly any type of environment.
“No matter your experience level, there are simple ways to keep your knife in good working order…”
The sharpening technique for broken glass or a car window both involves the same techniques to get the job done.
Sharpening your blade with glass is accomplished using the rough edge of the broken shards. Take your knife and place it at a 10-degree angle to the edge of the glass bottle.
Stroke toward the edge in a smooth movement, keeping the same blade sharpening angle and moving your stroke to cover the full length of the blade.
Lift your knife, flip it over, and repeat for the other side of the blade. Continue doing this until your knife is sharp enough to meet your expectations, working both sides equally.
YOUR IN-THE-FIELD LIFELINE
Carrying paracord is a must when participating in any outdoor adventure. Whether it is on a survival bracelet, in a survival kit, or even on the handle of your knife, it is a good idea to have paracord with you at all times.
You’ll need several feet of paracord, a firm object such as a tree, and some mud to accomplish this blade sharpening task. Tie one end of the paracord around the tree and form a loop with the other end. Take some of the mud and work it onto half of the paracord in the middle.
Don’t get carried away with the mud application, but you do want a layer of mud all the way around the cordage. Grab the loop, pull the paracord taught, and strop your knife on the muddy part of the paracord like you would on a leather belt. The mud will provide enough abrasion to sharpen the edge. Then strop your knife on the clean part of the paracord to align the edge.
A GRITTY SOLUTION
Even though sandpaper is not a common survival-style item, it is so versatile and inexpensive that you should seriously consider carrying some of it in your backpack. To get the sharpest knife possible using this method, you need to know which sandpaper to use.
If your knife is in bad shape and contains rust or has uneven surfaces, it will require a thorough sanding. The type of sandpaper to choose should be water-based, with 180 grit.
Or if the knife only slightly lost its sharpness, an emery cloth sandpaper with aluminum oxide ore with 320 grain can be used, which will remove the remains of wear and start blade sharpening the tool.
And if the knife is still in rather good shape but just needs a little help to be at its best, then you can use a 600- or 1,000-grain water-based sandpaper with fine granules.
With one hand, hold the sandpaper, and with the other, move the edge of the knife from the tip to the end of the blade slightly inclined and from the inside out. These first passes are made with dry sandpaper to get the best out of it.
After getting the desired edge, start using 600- or 1,000-grain sandpaper. Repeat the above process. This sandpaper will remove the traces of scratches from your first blade sharpening and giving it the edge you want.
BELTING IT OUT
This won’t sharpen your blade in the actual, technical sense, but it will still realign its edge and make it keener. The name of this process is stropping. If you have ever been to the barber and had a shave with a straight razor, you have seen this done.
Just make sure that your belt has no stitching, and then run the blade away from the edge in order to realign it.
AN EDGE FOR AN EDGE
Do you carry two knives? If not, you really should. The thick spine of a second knife is one of the devices that’s the easiest to come across when far from civilization. Just like you would run the knife against the steel, run it along the spine of another knife.
The ways to sharpen your knives when far from home or, more precisely, far from your trusty sharpener are numerous. But like any other task, technique, or methodical process, it takes practice to get a relatively simple chore to become natural for you when it counts.
So before a natural disaster strikes, before an EMP pulse hits, or before a nationwide economic disturbance disrupts daily life, go out into nature’s backyard, find some “junk,” and sharpen both your knife and your mind to these normally unconsidered blade sharpening hacks! KIBG
Jason Houser is a full-time outdoors writer and has been featured in numerous knife publications and blogs over the years reviewing knives “in the field”, teaching proper knife caring techniques and a wide range of other knife related topics.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the KI Buyer’s Guide 2021 print issue of Knives Illustrated.