Years back I spent a couple of weeks at the edge of a jungle far to the south of where I live now. It took nearly two days traveling in and out of canyons in a couple of Jeeps and then hiking inland after the road fizzled before we established a camp at the top of a hill. The area was infested with fer-de-lance snakes and all sorts of stinging insects including a species of scorpion that looked like it’d been hatched in hell. The nearest village was about sixty miles away and the closest town of any consequence was 150 miles to the west. In the jungle there were no established trails with the exception of a number of crisscrossing game paths and an assortment of old cuts made by an oil exploration group about ten years previous. The cuts were mostly overgrown but we could still make out their directions by examining the lowered tree canopies where the ever rapacious oil people had sliced open the land like leaf-cutter ants denuding a garden.
There were three of us in the group along with four young men we’d hired in the village sixty miles away. Like most of the people in the region they were of Indian decent and their Spanish was mixed with many indigenous words. They’d lived at the edge of the jungle all their lives and knew a thing or two about the land. We’d brought along two tents: One for the workers and one for the three of us. We packed enough food to last a week but planned to replenish our supply with fish and the plants we’d forage along the way. We had lightweight sleeping bags and a couple of kerosene lanterns with, if memory serves, about a gallon of lamp oil and a couple of extra wicks. Small creeks and rivulets bisected the region and we planned to refill our canteens with stream water after we’d boiled it. Hats, leather gloves, seven machetes, a lima plana (mill file), a first aid kit and some emergency medicines, matches, ropes, eating utensils, metal pots and cups and three pounds of coffee were included in our kit along with extra clothes and several bars of soap. I carried a Case sodbuster in my pocket along with a couple of bandanas and I’d tied a USMC KaBar, its leather handle wrapped in paracord, to my backpack.
My old KaBar compared to two Mora knives
I was the only native plant lover in the group so while the others sat around camp listening to tinamous whistling in the canyons and parrots and mot-mots singing and cackling in the nearby woods, I roamed the hidden trails amazed at the jungle’s beauty. Twice I walked up on a couple of ill-tempered fer-de-lance snakes but on both occasions I was able to skirt the vipers and keep going. After about a week we decided to break camp and head down to a large river eight miles to the north. Our plan was to meet up with an eccentric, blue eyed Spaniard named don Carlos who’d built a house along the river with a fishing pier and had also taken up residence with a young Indian girl named Lupita. It took us almost a day to reach don Carlos’s dwelling, a main house built from lumber brought up the river with a covered area and large brick cheminia on one side.
When we finally trudged up to don Carlos’s compound we learned he’d acquired a motor boat from a man who’d come to fish and managed to bring the boat up river after nearly losing it at a shallow spot about twenty miles from the compound. After fishing for nearly three weeks the man decided to call in a float plane and abandoned the large boat with instructions for don Carlos to consider the craft his own. The boat was replete with a small cabin and a ponderous outboard motor that leaked oil and looked like it’d logged many a watery mile over the years.
“Does this motor work?” one of my companions asked.
“Of course it works,” don Carlos said. “Lupita and I take it up river all the time to visit her family fifteen kilometers from here.”
So the next day we decided to go for a boat ride and do some fishing and exploring. But before we boarded I asked don Carlos, “Where’re the paddles in case we have any problems?”
Don Carlos laughed and scoffed, “That’s silly. Nothing is going to happen. We’ll be fine. Come on let’s go.”
Well, I was young and had been raised to respect my elders so I didn’t say anything more and off we went the three of us with don Carlos at the helm and our four workers standing on the pier waving and saying they’d have a new camp set up by the time we returned.
It was a big boat and the ride was comfortable as we plowed up river observing the steep hills on both sides. At one point we neared an island and as we slowed hundreds of parrots flew skyward in a cacophony of squawks and cries that resounded back and forth against the hills. All was beautiful, the day sunny and calm, and we were four happy men exploring a secret world. And then the motor stopped. Like a water skier slipping across a muddy bank the boat stalled and jerked and stood cold in the river. I looked at don Carlos who was busy trying to restart the engine but after about fifteen minutes it became clear the motor had given up the ghost. We were far from the man’s house and pier and had not one paddle on board to take us home. The words “nothing is going to happen” kept bouncing around in my head.
We drifted in the river for a few minutes and then I turned to don Carlos and said, “I need to make a paddle from one of your benches.” He nodded reluctantly and using my KaBar I ripped one of the boat’s two benches apart and then used the knife to fashion three crude paddles. Five hours later with a young Woods Roamer paddling from the bow and my two companions rowing along port and starboard we moaned and groaned up alongside the pier. Don Carlos apologized and, of course, we said, “Think nothing of it.” But I learned a valuable lesson on that trip: Don’t listen to people who say, “Ah, don’t worry nothing is going to happen.” Things can happen and sometimes they do and it’s best to be prepared and that’s one reason I always take along a trail knife when out in the wilds.
The question, you might ask, is what constitutes a trail knife. One fellow might say he needs nothing more than the folder in his pocket and another guy will never leave camp without his super custom $300 Mucho Macho—the same knife carried by Tactical Survival Expert Decker Larson on the hit survival show, Skins and Steel.
The four Indian workers who accompanied us on that long ago trek owned no knives but gladly accepted the four Columbian made 24 inch machetes we gave them along with the brand new lima. With the mill file they put fierce edges on those long blades and went about clearing a spot for us to camp then constructed a techito made from saplings, branches and banana leaves under which we sat, ate, told lies and drank coffee. As we walked through the jungle the four young workers were constantly whacking vines to replenish their water and on several occasions we stopped to feast on cactus fruit. The machetes clipped the fruit off the tops of the cactus, scraped off the spines, sliced open the fruit and then one of the blades became an impromptu plate on which the pieces of fruit were laid.
Some people call a trail knife a bushcraft knife and others refer to them as survival knives. Go to forums where people sit in their houses chatting across the globe about what’s good for this or that and you’ll meet folks who’ll lay down criteria of exactly what a Trail/Bushcraft/Survival knife out to be. One man even went as far as to proclaim that the proper TBS knife must have a Scandinavian grind with a spine that extends straight back along the grip and a blade of four inches with a handle that is as long as the width of one’s palm. He claimed those measurements were as immutable as the laws of physics. But my experience says otherwise. I sometimes think about those four young men from that village and the Colombian machetes we gave them and how they made everything one might need to survive in an area so remote that had we been bit by a snake or had any sort of serious accident then we’d have just sought our tent and waited for the big midnight to arrive. Go to Africa or Australia or all across Latin America and down to places like Borneo and Malaysia and the Philippines and you’ll run into the same sorts of experiences. Here in South Texas there aren’t many folks who have heard of a Scandinavian grind or a “bushcraft knife” and really don’t even care. That’s not to say there aren’t knife nuts in these parts and most certainly everyone who takes to the trail around here carries some sort of blade. As I’ve mentioned in other posts the pocket folder rules in these parts. Still, I often see people, especially hired hands, carrying some sort of fixed blade knife on their belt. It’s the knife that will do the work a folder can’t accomplish and will take the abuse that would destroy a jackknife. A trail knife is a knife for cutting heavy rope or used as an impromptu garden tool—not for digging but for severing stalks and sharpening stakes. A trial knife is the knife that isn’t too big as to be clumsy or awkward but nonetheless is large enough to become a crowbar of sorts if need be. On that trip into the jungle I found the USMC KaBar had its advantages as well as disadvantages. Most unplanned trail work consists of light chopping. The paddles I constructed were crude but they worked. Most of the job was accomplished by whacking out pieces of the boards until something resembling a paddle was created. Tent stakes, pot holders, rudimentary fishing gear, simple spears, traps, bed frames etc. require basic whittling but not serious woodcarving. Even so, I prefer my trail knives not have a straight grip but instead a gentle ergonomic curve that lessens fatigue on the hand as well as the wrist. Most “survival knives” have straight grips and while that might suit most people I find the curves I put into the handles on my personal knives much more comfortable. The USMC KaBar has a straight grip and like many “survival knives” is not all that comfortable when attempting to chop a branch. It does come with a tough convex bevel at the edge that makes it less prone towards crumpling or folding over when batoning extra hard woods like mesquite, ebony and chaparro prieto. It’s for that reason that though I am an admirer of Mora knives and other Scandi-grind blades I find them unsuited for woods with specific gravities over 0.84 and that includes many Southwestern hardwoods.
KaBar compared to my new favorite knife
A trail knife must, aside from keeping its edge, hold together. The blade can’t break off or chip and the handle must be comfortable enough to protect the hand. While four inch blades make good woodcarving knives they are on the short side for trail knives especially in the American Southwest and primarily the brushlands where short blades can be dangerous around thorny plants. I’ve said this many times but it’s always worth repeating. If “don’t worry nothing will happen” becomes “damnit, something happened” then you’ll want a longer blade in desert, brushland and jungle environments. It’s for that reason that I’ve learned the best trail knives have blades at least six inches long but I prefer seven or eight inch blade lengths. In forested lands the short Scandi-bladed knife works but in the grueling deserts, brushlands and jungles you need more than that I assure you. I have no favorite blade steel but I wouldn’t go lower than 1074 for carbon steel and I have had great success with 5160 spring steel. The blades should be tempered in the mid to high 50s Rockwell but that is primarily along the blade edge. The spine should be tempered down a bit and the tang area where the blade meets the handle should be tempered lower in order to make the knife robust. Military blades are good knives but not necessarily the best. The military buys millions of knives and concessions are made to economics and that doesn’t always translate to a great blade. I had an uncle who spent WWII hopscotching across the Southern Pacific courtesy of his Uncle Sam. He was a quiet man but he kept a journal and I remember reading about places called Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Guam. He mentioned once that they broke a lot of knives and sometimes they’d gather up razor blades and broken knife blades and wedge them into palm tree trunks as “deterrents.” Still, the KaBar USMC and USN and the Ontario USAF all have stick tangs and those will break if given some persuasion.
These days I carry one of my own blades made from either 5160 steel or 1095 steel. A ranch hand showed me the knife he’d purchased at the local pulga or flea market. It was a Chinese job made from 440A stainless steel. He kept a six inch mill file in his back pocket in order to keep the blade sharp. I am no fan of stainless steel but others will disagree. Maybe that’s the thing to keep in mind when selecting a trail knife. The decision is yours. But ask yourself: What might go wrong and if it does do I have the knife I would need just in case. And then try to imagine a young Woods Roamer stranded in a drifting motor boat in the middle of a jungle river dismantling a wooden bench then fashioning three paddles and all the while thinking…Damn, we should’ve been prepared. Fortunately the KaBar worked that day as it has done millions of times in other places. But it was a valuable learning experience.