Sunday, April 13, 2014

Gear I Use: Edged Tools

"Sawtooth's Quartet":  Victorinox Swiss Army Tinker, Randall's Adventure & Training ESEE-3, Cold Steel Trailhawk, Bahco Laplander.

All photos by Randall Haynes.

I have a confession…I love knives.  I love them so much that I have too many.  I have a whole drawer in my gun safe full of knives I don’t use.  However, as much as I love knives, I love truly useful backcountry gear even more.  With that thought in mind, I’ve really whittled down all my gear to those items that really are purpose-driven, and I’ve vowed to part with the rest.  I know it sounds clich√©, but less truly is more.  You’ll see that it’s a recurring theme in my “Gear I Use” series.

This post is devoted to those edged tools I use in the backcountry.  All of my tools serve a specific purpose, have been selected after a considerable amount of testing and thought over an extended period of time (in some cases, decades), and none of them will put a big dent in a wallet.  All of them fit hand-in-glove with my version of lightweight backpacking, backcountry tenkara, both small and big game hunting, and light duty bushcraft.  If I were a vegan, camped in a hermetically sealed tent at night, and only burned fossil fuel stoves, I wouldn't need these tools.  However, I do kill and eat game animals and fish in the wilderness, build fires constantly, repair equipment and clothing in the field, chop ice, and fashion tools out of wood or even bone if I have to.  I need capable tools.

Many of you have heard of “Nessmuk’s Trio” of edged tools.  I’ve long respected the implements that George Washington Sears, aka Nessmuk, used in his 19th century boonies.  I happen to be a fan of old Nessmuk, and I’ve long admired his choices and use of those tools.  My own small collection of tools includes some similar ones (for perhaps different uses), but I’ve also added one that he never had.  Friends of mine have seen the four edged tools I use and have sometimes dubbed it “Sawtooth’s Quartet” (“Sawtooth” being the nickname by which many of my hunting, angling, and backpacking buddies know me).  What I’ll outline here is an explanation of what “Sawtooth’s Quartet” is, and how I use it.

My quiver of tools is comprised of a small pocket knife that will fit in the palm of my hand, a fixed-blade knife with a blade that doesn’t exceed 3 ¾”, a tomahawk with a hammer poll and instantly removable handle, and a lightweight folding saw that’s around 9” long and doesn’t exceed 7 ounces in weight.  Sometimes I carry all of them, sometimes I don’t.  I carry most of the all of the time.

The Pocketknife – Victorinox Swiss Army Tinker.  This is my oldest edged tool, even if you include the many knives I have in my collection.  It’s actually one of my oldest possessions, period.  I’ve been unzipping trout, squirrels, snowshoe hares, and blue grouse with this particular knife for decades.  I’ve managed to lose a few of its little plastic toothpicks, but other than that, it’s in good shape.  Whenever I’m outdoors for any reason, it rests reassuringly in my front left pants pocket.  I notice instantly when it’s not there.  It sports a bottle opener, wire stripper, both a large and small knife blade, a Phillips and flat tip screwdriver, reamer, can opener, toothpick, small screwdriver, and tweezers.   It also has a small split ring to which I’ve attached a small self-made fob.  The uses for this little pocketknife are many, and it’s very handy to have it immediately accessible in my pocket.  From cutting paracord to cleaning trout, it’s the small size, very light weight (2 oz.), and purpose-driven (a description I apply to a LOT of my gear) tools that make it so handy.  The blades on this pocketknife are very easy to sharpen, and hold an edge through a good amount of use.  The fact that one of the most experienced outdoorsmen I know, my friend Patrick Smith, carries one underscores the usability of this little knife.  I simply will not leave home without it!

Weight 2 oz.
Suggested retail:  $30.00 (mine was a gift from my parents a LONG time ago, so it was undoubtedly less expensive)

The Fixed-Blade Knife – Randall’s Adventure & Training/ESEE Knives ESEE-3.  Of all the tools in the quartet, I burned more brain cells over this one the most.  Given the requirements I would place on it – skinning and field dressing everything from squirrels to elk, splitting firewood up to 3 inches in diameter, sparking tinder into life with a ferrocerium rod, slicing meat and vegetables, and other light duty bushcraft – I had much to consider and many knives that were fully up to the task.  I looked at production, semi-production, and custom knives.  I considered many factors such as blade design and material, edge-holding ability, ease of sharpening, handle design and material, and maker’s warranty among others.  Being a man of modest means, I also had to weigh in getting the most knife for the money.  I arrived at the ESEE-3 (model number ESEE-3P-UC).  I’d been told it would be a lot of knife for the money, and everything I’d been told held true.  The ESEE-3 is long enough to split firewood for the Kifaru stoves and small campfires I use, it’s short enough to stow in a “chamber pocket” inside my Kifaru backpack, and the flat grind design makes it a really good slicer.  I like jimping on the spine of my fixed-blade knives, and the ESEE-3 has a section of rather rounded, shallow jimping.  The spine wasn’t squared off and sharp enough to throw sparks off of my ferro rod, so I took it to the grinder and put about ¾” of sparking surface just forward of the jimping.  Problem solved.  The plastic factory sheath is good, and the design allows for multiple mounting options.  I plan to have a custom Kydex/leather sheath made by the good folks at Godspeed Tactical soon, mainly to give myself a handy way to carry this knife on my belt once I make camp.  ESEE chose to make their handles out of canvas micarta.  I’m a fan of micarta because it’s a durable non-slip material, which comes in handy when the entire knife is coated in oil-slick elk blood.  The ESEE-3 is made of 1095 steel (hardened to RC 55-57), which is a tough, durable, and easily sharpened tool steel that holds an edge well.  The fact that 1095 is easily sharpened in the field with simple, compact sharpening tools weighed heavily in the ESEE-3’s favor.  It’s succeptible to rust, so as soon as I bought the knife I applied a forced patina to it by boiling it in apple cider vinegar for about 15 minutes.  That patina came out fine, putting a dark rust-resistant finish on the steel.  I keep a very light coating of olive oil on it and now I don’t really worry about rust.  I just keep it wiped down and lightly oiled after use.

My ESEE-3 after splitting a load of stove wood for a Kifaru titanium oval stove.  The lines on the blade are cosmetic, and a result of splitting Douglas fir with a baton.

Batoning my way through a 3" chunk of tough Douglas fir.

The ESEE-3 is a good slicer, making short work of this elk backstrap.

Onions are one of the most challenging food items I slice, and the ESEE-3 does a good job.

A mess of potatoes, ready for frying in a cast iron skillet, prepared with my ESEE-3.

Weight with factory sheath:  6.7 oz
Blade length:  3.875"
Blade cutting length:  3.38"
Blade thickness:  .125"
Suggested retail:    $167.00 (I got mine from KnivesShipFree for $99.95)

The Tomahawk-Cold Steel Trailhawk.  I've carried some sort of small hatchet for years.  I've used them for pounding tent pegs, splitting firewood, and chopping through ice, wood, and bone.  Once I discovered the Cold Steel Trailhawk I put my favorite little hatchet, a Gransfors-Bruks Mini Hatchet, into semi-retirement.  The Trailhawk is much more practical for my uses.  First, once I customized the 'hawk a bit, the haft is instantly removable.  This is handy for a few reasons.  I can pop the head off the haft, and slip it down inside my backpack, making storage of both much easier inside a pack.  I usually put the head in my clothing bag where it's padded.  The head can also be used as a hand axe with the haft removed.  I haven't used it much as such, but the possibilities are definitely there.  The fact that the friction-secured haft can be easily removed is also a plus if you ever break it and have to craft a new one in the field (carving down a length of wood with either the 'hawk head or the ESEE-3 knife).  Cold Steel's Trailhawk comes from the factory (yes, one in Taiwan) with the head painted gloss black and a coating of varnish on the handle.  I chose to strip the paint off the head and apply a patina using mustard.  I actually did this twice to ensure a good, rust-resistant patina.  Lastly, I rubbed the steel with several grits of wet-dry sandpaper and finished up with 00 steel wool.  I also removed the set screw that Cold Steel uses to secure the head and threw the screw away.  It took a bit of sanding to get the handle to fit in the eye of the head perfectly, but once it fit it was possible to slide the head onto the haft, tap it down tight onto it, and the head was plenty secure, using friction and a tight fit to stay put.  Because the Trailhawk has a hammer poll, it becomes much more practical for my use than my Gransfors-Bruks hatchet, which is not designed to be used as a hammer.  I can slam tent pegs all day long with the 'hawk, or any other pounding job that comes up.  One very efficient task that the Trailhawk tackles is "tap splitting", and I've piled up a lot of firewood doing just that.  I had a custom Kydex sheath crafted by an acquaintance, Adam Choate, and you can read about it on one of my previous Tenkara Tracks posts.  Given the overall usefulness of a tomahawk, and this one in particular with the mods that I've done, I can't imagine an extended wilderness trip taking place without it in my backpack.

My self-customized Cold Steel Trailhawk, with the head stripped and a forced patina applied, as well as a burn-marked and hand-rubbed haft.

Head weight:  12.6 oz.
Head length:  6 1/2"
Cutting surface:  2 1/4"
Handle weight:  9.9 oz.
Handle length:  22"
Suggested retail:  $39.99 (I got mine from Amazon for slightly less)  

The Folding Saw-Bahco Laplander.  This one is a no-brainer!  I've used a compact folding saw literally hundreds, if not thousands of times, over the past few decades.  I've used the old Sven Saws, the smallest Fast Bucksaws, a substandard Coghlan's saw, and a capable Corona saw that I used for nearly a decade.  Enter the Bahco Laplander.  This saw was added to my gear pile only recently, but I found out quickly that it's a very functional and effective backcountry hand saw that outperformed the Corona.  I put the Bahco saw up against my model 7245 Corona saw in a head-to-head test recently, and the Bahco came up the winner.  The only thing I changed on the Laplander to make it more user-friendly was to cut off the leather lanyard and replace it with a high-vis length of 3mm cordage.  Now I can see the green and black saw when it's lying on the ground! Two things make the Laplander a better saw than the Corona, even though they're nearly identical in size and weight.  First, the Laplander has the finer XT teeth, allowing it to cut through wood more quickly.  Second, the heavy gauge Swedish steel blade has a rustproof coating that also minimizes sticking and drag while cutting.  These two features make the Laplander a very vast cutter.  In a recent head-to-head field test with the Corona 7245, it took only 76 strokes to cut through a 3" piece of rock-hard dry Douglas fir, while it took 96 strokes to cut through the same piece with the Corona.  After some initial hard use, the coating on the blade of the Laplander is scuffed, and time will tell how durable it is.  However, it's faster and easier cutting ability makes it a permanent addition to my wilderness tool collection.  

Bahco Laplander saw (bottom) and Corona 7245 saw (top).

The Bahco Laplander, making short work of firewood for my Kifaru wood stove.

Weight:  6.5 oz.
Blade length:  7"  
Closed length:  9"
Suggested retail:  $29.98 (Ben's Backwoods)

HONORABLE MENTION:  ESEE Izula II fixed-blade knife.  The only reason I opted for the ESEE-3 over my Izula II is the 3's ability to split larger diameter firewood  I absolutely LOVE my little Izula II, and I've spent a long time wringing it out and customizing it.  If you don't need to split firewood over 2" in diameter, this knife is an excellent choice!

My customized ESEE Izula II (right) alongside my ESEE-3.

There you have it.  My quartet of purpose-driven backcountry edged tools!  They, along with the rest of the gear in my backpack, make backcountry living possible in the Colorado Rocky Mountain wilderness.  


  1. That Laplander is a good-looking little saw.

  2. Only thing I would add is if you get a chance to play with a Silky Saw I much prefer mine over the Bahco ones.

  3. A big +1 for the ESEE-3. Super awesome knife that can definitely take a beating.

  4. That's a great looking Trail Hawk guys. Gives me the urge to break mine out.