Bushcraft Knife Safety: Get The Fundamentals Right

posted in: Outdoor Safety 18

Knife safety starts with choosing the right knife for the job.

A folding knife can be handy in the outdoors but has an inherent weakness at the hinge.

With a fixed blade there is no chance of it folding on your fingers.

In choosing a fixed-blade knife, select one with a strong sheath. This protects both you and your knife.

Taking a knife out of its sheath

Believe it or not I’ve seen people cut themselves quite badly just removing a knife from the sheath. The thing to remember is to keep your fingers away from the cutting edge of a knife when unsheathing it.

Knife being drawn from sheath
Be aware of where the cutting edge of your knife is. Photo: Ben Gray.
Incrorrect hand position for drawing knife
WRONG: Where not to put your fingers when unsheathing a knife. Photo: Ben Gray.
Holding a knife to unsheath it
Keep your fingers well out of the way. Photo: Ben Gray.

When you are not using your knife, put it back in the sheath

The safest place for your knife is in its sheath. Don’t be tempted to stick it in a log or a tree stump for a few minutes or otherwise leave it lying around.

With plenty of potential trip hazards outdoors, replace your knife in its sheath before walking even a short distance. You could cause yourself or others serious injury if you fall with a knife in your hand.

Putting knife back into sheath
Put your knife away safely when not using it. Photo: Ben Gray

The only exception to this rule is if you have been using your knife to prepare raw meat or fish. Clean your knife before returning it to its sheath. Anticipate the need to clean your knife and have cleaning materials ready nearby.

Give yourself and others room

Don’t try to use your knife in awkward or confined spaces. Give yourself enough room to use it properly.

When using your knife, leave enough room around you so that you don’t endanger other people. If someone is within an arm’s reach, they are too close.

Be aware

If you are using a knife, be aware of the movement of other people around you. They may not have noticed you are using a knife.

Be aware of others using knives. If someone is using a knife nearby, stay at a safe distance.

Concentrate on what you are doing

Many cuts are due to a lack of concentration, either due to distractions or tiredness. If you aren’t able to concentrate, put your knife away until you can.

Hold your knife securely

The grip used most of the time is the forehand grip. It allows for powerful, safe cuts.

Forehand knife grip
The forehand grip is secure and allows for powerful, safe cuts. Photo: Ben Gray.

Cut away from yourself

Cut away from your body and cut away from your limbs. Pay particular attention to the position of the hand that is not holding the knife.

Cutting with knife away from the body
Cutting away from the body and away from the supporting hand. Photo: Ben Gray.
Example of dangerous knifework - cutting towards hand
WRONG: Do not cut towards the supporting hand, even if it is on the other side of the work piece. Photo: Ben Gray.

Don’t be overambitious

Even with a sharp knife, shave off modest amounts of material with each cut of the knife. Trying to remove too much material with each cut will require excessive force, causing tired hand muscles and reduced control of the knife.

Slicing off modest amount of wood
Remove modest amounts of material with control. Photo: Ben Gray.

If you need more power, work on the outside of your body and generate power by dropping your shoulder.

Invoking shoulder power
Safely create extra power by holding the piece like this and dropping your shoulder. Photo: Ben Gray.

If you need more stability, work onto a log, tree stump or chopping block.

Cutting onto a wooden block wiht a bushcraft knife
For extra support work onto a stable wooden block. Note I’m working towards the outside of my body and my legs are well out of the way. Photo: Ben Gray.

Elbows on knees

Cutting the major artery on the inside of your leg is potentially fatal. Take special care not to use a knife in a way that risks this. A particular concern is carving while sitting down. Keeping your elbows on your knees, prevents the knife coming close to your leg.

Example of dangerous knifework - cutting between legs
WRONG: Don’t allow yourself to work with the knife close to your inner thigh. Photo: Ben Gray.
Example of dangerous knife work - cutting close to inner thigh
WRONG: A slip with the knife here is potentially lethal. Photo: Ben Gray.
Using a knife with elbows on knees
The right way to do it. Working with elbows on knees forces your hands away from your thighs. Photo: Ben Gray.

Think about where the knife will go if you slip

For every cut you make with your knife, consider where it will go next – not only if things go to plan but also if you slip or if you cut straight through what you are working on. Position yourself so that the next thing your knife hits isn’t you.

Listen to the little voice in your head

If you feel like you are using your knife in a risky or foolish way, then you probably are. Listen to the little voice in your head that tells you so. Then alter what you are doing so that it is safe. If you can’t figure out a way of safely achieving what you would like, ask someone with more experience for help.

How to pass a knife safely

If you need to pass a knife to someone, pass it in a way that does not put you or them at risk. Here’s how:

Start with the forehand grip.
Start with the forehand grip. Photo: Ben Gray.
Pivot the knife in your hand.
Pivot the knife in your hand. Photo: Ben Gray.
Offer the handle to the person receiving the knife.
Offer the handle to the person receiving the knife. Photo: Ben Gray.
Note the point and sharp edge of the knife is away from both hands. Keep your fingers out of the way of the blade as you pass the knife.
Note the point and sharp edge of the knife is away from both hands. Keep your fingers out of the way of the blade as you pass the knife. Photo: Ben Gray.
Even if the receiver snatches the knife from your hand, there is no risk of the knife cutting you.
Even if the receiver snatches the knife from your hand, there is no risk of the knife cutting you. Photo: Ben Gray.

Pick up a cuts kit

If you use a knife often you will likely incur a few minor nicks. Having a small first aid kit on your person will help patch up and cuts and prevent infection.

Keep your knife sharp

A sharp knife is a safe knife. A sharp knife is predictable. You don’t need to apply excessive force when making a cut. If the knife is sharp, it cuts in a familiar way and you easily achieve what you need to. For more about sharpening see the additional resources below.

Stick to the rules

Above is laid out a straightforward set of rules for knife safety. If you apply them each time you pick up a knife, you will significantly reduce the chances of a serious cut.

Even if you are an experienced knife user, however, you should never become complacent. Having cut myself many times over the years, particularly when I was young, as well as having taught thousands of people knife techniques over the years, I am more conscious of the importance of applying these rules than ever.

Additional Resources

How To Sharpen A Bushcraft Knife

Can I Use A Lock Knife For Bushcraft?


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Paul Kirtley is Founder and Chief Instructor of Frontier Bushcraft. He has had a lifelong passion for the great outdoors and gains great satisfaction from helping others enjoy it too. Paul writes the UK's leading bushcraft blog. He is the author of Wilderness Axe Skills and Campcraft, as well as having contributed to several other books. Paul has been involved in teaching bushcraft since 2003. He is also a Canoe Leader, British Canoeing Level 3 Canoe Coach and UK Summer Mountain Leader.

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18 Responses

  1. Roy Henshall
    | Reply

    Great stuff to learn, better than learning the hard way and getting cut.

    All bushcrafters should learn knife safety first as a must.

    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      Cheers Hedgey.

      Indeed, most of the bad cuts I’ve ever seen have been when someone ignores one of these simple rules.

      All the best,


  2. Terry Halls
    | Reply

    Hi Paul,
    As always, a very clear and concise article with good photos and lots of tips! I tend to work with children and teenagers, so I still avoid the ‘elbows on knees’ position as I find that people tend to slip back to the less safe ‘between thighs’ position.
    Thanks again,

    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      Hi Terry,

      Thanks, it’s good to hear from you.

      Good point regarding hands-on-knees for young people. Some adults need just as much reminding though 🙂



      • Frank
        | Reply

        Where can I attend in an in- person bushcrafters safety course in the east coast – NJ area ?

  3. Bodge
    | Reply

    Hi Paul,

    Again, a great informative tutorial. I always advise and practice ‘elbows on knees’ and am glad you have participated in the new Haynes manual. Good for you!

    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      Hi Bodge,

      Thanks for your comment mate. Glad you liked this and thanks for your support!



  4. Simon Wearn
    | Reply

    A really great tutorial perfect for when I start my forest schools training look forward to more informative tutorials keep up the good work.

    Best Wishes

    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      Hi Simon.

      Thanks for your comment and kind feedback. I’m glad this will be useful to you.

      Good luck with your Forest School training.

      Warm regards,


  5. Mike W
    | Reply


    Great article, if it’s ok with you I will link to it from our Scout website and get all our scouts to view it before we start our ‘basic bushcraft’ programme after Easter

    There are several of your articles I want to link to, such as knife sharpening

    Keep up the good work


  6. Anika Tulip
    | Reply

    Thanks for this guide! I’m still learning about Knife safety and choosing the right knife. There’s so much information and varying opinions out there, thanks for presenting the facts and helping me to get a clear understanding of what I should be thinking about and considering for my Knives purchase.Thanks again and keep up the good work.This is a reasonable and brief article with great photographs and loads of tips! I have a tendency to work with youngsters and young people, so despite everything I evade the ‘elbows on knees’ position as I find that individuals have a tendency to slip back to the less safe ‘between thighs’ position.

  7. Southp4w
    | Reply

    The most cuts I have witnessed were due to cleaning a sharp knife with quick movements. Always be extra careful cleaning a sharp blade and make slow movements with the blade pointed away.

  8. Wolfmaan
    | Reply

    This is a great article! Cheers for posting! When we do our basic bushcraft course, we teach an almost identical method for people ages 6 to 60+

  9. Bart
    | Reply

    Thanx Paul!

  10. Jock Campbell
    | Reply

    Surprised you didn’t include the chest pull among these skills.

    I find that technique the best for control and safety.

  11. Paul Kirtley
    | Reply

    Hi Steve, thanks for your comments.

    This should provide some pointers: https://frontierbushcraft.com/2012/06/08/getting-started-bushcraft-equipment/

    Warm regards,


  12. Paul Kirtley
    | Reply

    Thank you.

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