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It’s day three into your camping trip.
The sun is setting and it will be dark soon.
You pull out your knife, again, and start to whittle another feather stick so you can easily start the fire.
However, the knife isn’t cooperating.
You have to use more force to cut into the wood. This isn’t good.
A sharp knife is a safe knife. This knife is no longer safe.
Your knife sharpening guy is a hundred miles away, and though your knife’s manufacturer promises free sharpening, there’s no post office around.
What do you do?
Sharpening and Stropping
Knives become dull with use, this is a fact.
But dulling is not the process everyone thinks it is.
Often, we think of dulling as the edge wearing away until it has become blunted.
But most of the time we use knives on objects which are softer than steel, so the steel doesn’t actually wear away.
It does, however, become deformed.
The thin point of the edge, because steel is malleable, can be pushed around by objects softer than steel.
A knife with an out-of-whack edge is a dull knife.
Related: How to Sharpen a Tanto Blade
Stopping is a method used to align the edge and keep the knife sharp for longer.
You can buy a dedicated strop, or you can use a leather or nylon belt or strap as a strop.
Hold the strop taught and pull the knife backward while pushing the knife into the strop.
Make sure you’re not cutting into the material; the spine should be the leading part of the knife.
Once you’ve reached one end of the strop, rotate the knife on its spine, and pull it the other way.
Do this a few times and the knife’s edge should be aligned and ready to use.
However, this sort of maintenance won’t keep a knife’s blade sharp forever.
Eventually, the knife will become blunted or chipped and you’ll have to grind an edge back onto the blade.
This is sharpening.
Let’s go over how to do that.
Method #1: Pocket Knife Sharpener
One of the simplest ways to sharpen your knife in the field is to bring a sharpener with you.
You don’t have to lug an entire sharpening station with you, but whetstones and pocket knife sharpeners are cheap and effective.
Pull through sharpeners have a set angle but are small, light, and easy to use.
Just pull your knife through!
They often come with a diamond rod that is useful for sharpening serrations.
Pocket diamond plates by DMT are also common and the small ones fit on your keychain.
Pocket rods can also be used to maintain your knife’s edge and only take up as much space as a pen.
I prefer using a whetstone, though.
Often made from carborundum or Arkansas stones, these are small rocks cut into a useful shape.
Some hunting knives come with sharpening stones.
My favorite is the Lansky Puck.
It’s larger than the smallest sharpening stones but is usable with both small knives and axes.
To use any of these sharpening methods you place your blade’s edge against the sharpener and use consistent pressure to try to “shave” off a thin layer of the sharpener.
Because the ceramic, diamond, or stone is harder than the steel it’ll grind away the edge instead.
Swap sides after every third or fourth swipe.
You want to sharpen the knife evenly because a lopsided edge isn’t sharp or safe.
Make sure to angle the blade on the sharpener at the same angle as the existing bevel.
Too much of an angle and you’ll grind away at the edge rather than sharpening it, too shallow of an angle and you’ll miss the edge entirely.
Don’t forget to clean off the steel from the sharpener occasionally.
Water helps the whetstone work better too. You can use a stream.
I’ve spat on the puck, it works well enough.
Some people like to use oil, but once you’ve used oil with a whetstone you can’t use water.
Since I often don’t have oil available in the woods, I recommend using water.
Method #2: Sanding Stick
Sandpaper is sometimes used to make a knife scary sharp.
You start with a coarser grit paper and use it like a whetstone. Then transition to finer and finer grits.
Now, I keep some sandpaper in the toolkit of my truck, but not many people carry sandpaper with them everywhere.
A solution used by bushcrafters in the US and guides in the Amazon is the sanding stick.
Take a stick, such as a paint stirring stick, and affix sandpaper to it.
A wet/dry sandpaper works best.
Wrap the sandpaper around the stick horizontally, so you end up with multiple layers.
Then tape it up top and bottom.
Duct tape works well for this purpose.
If you want to get fancy, you can glue it as well.
Use high-quality glue because you don’t want the sandpaper coming off in the wild.
I recommend a flat stick but you can wrap the sandpaper around something round as well, even as small as a pencil.
But if you do use a flat stick and glue, you can fit two different grits on the front and the back.
Lay the sanding stick down and use it like a whetstone.
When the sandpaper is worn down you can tear off a layer for a fresh sanding stick!
For those who don’t want to carry a sanding stick around, you may already carry an alternative.
First aid kits sometimes contain emery boards, which are very similar to nail files.
You can use an emery board the same way you use a sanding stick.
Method #3: Ceramic, Glass, or Steel
All you need to sharpen a knife is something harder than the steel.
Steel is actually not as hard as many people think.
If you have a ceramic coffee mug or plate around, you can use them to sharpen your knife.
Turn the item upside down and you’ll find an unglazed portion of ceramic around the bottom.
Slide the edge of your blade forward against the unglazed ceramic and you’ll get a sharp knife in no time!
You can also use glass.
The top portion of your automobile’s windows works the best.
Roll your window down about halfway and push your knife along the top to sharpen your knife.
Other smooth edges of glass work as well.
Glass is more common in the wild than you think.
Granted, it’s because of people throwing glass bottles into the woods instead of the recycling bin, but don’t tell me you’ve never gone as far away as humanity as you could and didn’t find at least one piece of trash.
Also, if you’re close to an ocean, you can easily find sea glass.
Lastly, you can use the spine of another knife.
Make the same motion with the dull knife on the spine of the other knife as if you were using a traditional sharpener.
Keep in mind that this will not actually sharpen your knife.
This method is called “steeling” and, like stropping, aligns the edge.
Steeling will help a slightly dull knife but can’t bring one back from the dead.
It also won’t do anything to combat a chipped edge.
Method #4: A Rock
Whetstones are fancily cut special rocks.
But do you know what you can use that is almost as good as a whetstone?
When you need a field expedient sharpening solution, almost any stone is good enough to give a knife a good edge in the wild.
River stones are easier because they’ve already been smoothed by the water.
You can also find flat ones easily. Flat sides make things easier but aren’t necessary.
If there’s no water around, find two similar rocks that are not too coarse.
Rub them together. This will smooth them out and turn them into an acceptable whetstone.
If you want, you can rub them together for an entire evening to flatten them out, but you don’t need to.
Sandstone is a good choice if you can find it.
Crumbly stone like shale won’t work very well, if at all.
You can even use concrete, but this is a choice of last resort.
You’ll get an edge that cuts better than a dull edge, but not by much.
It may also ruin your knife.
But if it’s a choice between your knife and your life, the choice should be obvious.
Method #5: Paracord
We often harp on the benefits of carrying paracord, and for good reason.
Here’s another use for paracord I bet you’ve never considered: you can use it as an improvised knife sharpening method.
You’ll need several feet of paracord, a firm object such as a tree, and some mud.
Tie one end of the paracord around the tree. Form a loop with the other end.
Take some of the mud and work it into half of the paracord in the middle.
You don’t want it sloppy but you do want a layer of mud all the way around the cord.
Grab the loop, pull the paracord taught, and strop your knife on the muddy part of the paracord.
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 and make it nice and keen.
Paracord and mud works surprisingly well!
This method should also work with mud rubbed into a nylon strap.
When you’re out in the wild, you depend on your knife.
Your knife depends on you to keep it sharp.
Whether you buy the fanciest knife sharpener or rely on finding a rock in the ground, now you know how to keep your blade sharp and happy wherever you are.