Essays and Articles by Kevin Estela

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This article was published in the September 2015 issue of American Survival Guide.

The Preparedness Double Standard
By: Kevin Estela, Owner/Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education

No one would criticize the victim of a crime or the survivor of an emergency for being more prepared after the fact. If a homeowner discovered someone gained entry to their bedroom and stole their belongings, no one would blame them for installing a home security system. If a female were sexually assaulted, no one would question her interest in self-defense or the pepper spray on her key chain. If a family in the Tri-state area lost power for over a week during Hurricane Sandy, the public would perceive it logical and prudent to purchase an emergency generator and extra flashlights. These scenarios illustrate the public’s general acceptance for remedies to problems experienced. To the public, if you have been on the receiving end of bad fortune or criminal activity, it is now o.k. to react and learn from mistakes. On the other hand, if you prepare ahead of time, you must be paranoid, hysterical or crazy. There exists a double standard in the preparedness world, driven by the media, where prepping actions are acceptable after crisis but unacceptable and stigmatized if done prior to.

I believe in proactive solutions to problems. After all, it is easier to prevent than it is to react. The reason I choose to carry a firearm when legally able and train in martial arts is the same reason I have a first aid kit with tourniquets in my truck. The reason I never leave home without a lighter (even though I don’t smoke) and a Swiss Army Knife or two in my pocket is the same as why I have a fire extinguisher at home. I want to have the means to deal with problems before they become life or death emergencies. Coincidentally, the time it takes for an emergency to develop is much shorter than the average police, fire or ambulance response time. I’ve said it before, “when seconds count, help is minutes away.” Despite logical justifications for preparedness, the media and society in general paint preppers in a negative light. The same people who will criticize a person for what they own or carry daily are the same who will destroy a person’s character if they fail, become victimized or die for not having what they needed when the time arose. The media has no real compassion for humankind, only ratings. Their opinion should not matter to you. The opinions and feelings that should are those of your inner circle including close family and friends. Don’t let the beliefs of anyone or anything (even the large audience the mainstream media commands) change your habits if your habits will help protect life.

Over the years, I’ve watched as the media has used moral superiority claims to ostracize those who prepare. I find this absolutely amusing. I also find it comical who they elevate to fame and/or infamy for their spending habits. They often mock those who spend a fraction of their paycheck on emergency rations and supplies yet celebrate those who put the largest rims on their overpriced SUV. They often look down upon those families that spend quality time learning how to survive together and share practical skills like canning and jarring but give national attention to mother daughter duos that snort cocaine together or share the same plastic surgeon. The same folks who fawn all over these comfortably numb and wanton spenders are the same who will call out a child suspended from school for a plastic McDonalds knife in his lunch bag or soldier arrested for “criminal” possession of a firearm in the Empire state building. In looking at what is the main driving force behind the double standard for preppers, I have determined for certain the media and their opinions have no bearing over my actions and I couldn’t care any less for what they think about what I do.

As a teacher, I educate students on how to determine the purpose of a piece of writing.  They learn the purpose is either to inform, persuade or entertain. The media today has lost focus of their purpose of informing and has become more about ratings and pushing the agendas of their corporate sponsors. If I were to listen to the media, I would fully rely on the response of the federal government in times of natural disaster. I would have a whistle and a cell phone to call in case I’m attacked on the street. I would also seek to find out why someone preyed on me to better understand how to prevent the problem in the future and how to learn from the experience. Sorry, this doesn’t cut it for me. I’m not going to wait for something to happen to me before I “learn” from my mistake and take steps to prevent it from happening again. Some lessons can only be taught once if you know what I mean. I’m also not going to rely on the government’s help since they’ve already demonstrated they can’t even hand out water in time (Hurricane Katrina). What I am going to do, is carry on with what I’ve learned to do. I’m looking out for myself regardless of what others have to say about it.

The double standard is not going anywhere. As long as the majority of this country would rather look for others to help them rather than taking the responsibility on themselves, the minority group that chooses to prepare will be an easy target for the media. After all, think about it, it is easier to knock someone down than it is to pick them up and attacking preppers for foresight and their habits is sure ratings from those viewers who don’t have the same mindset. Critics of my argument will likely say I’m holding everyone else who doesn’t prep to another standard and they would be absolutely right. I want to point out weakness to hopefully bring about change. The difference between me and the media is that I’m doing something to positively affect the lives of people. I’m also willing to help those who want to make a change and start preparing for emergencies rather than merely pointing a finger and looking for approval.

Ultimately, my advice is this; disregard the opinions of those who don’t matter to you. You will find the people you really care about and the ones who truly matter are those who share your beliefs and won’t hold you to a separate standard. Disregard the personal attacks and encourage your critics to learn about what you do by educating them. Rise above their attacks with true moral superiority and show them you are willing to help. If they continue to push the double standard, simply agree to disagree and move on. You will be ready and they will hopefully never have to say, “You were right” after something happens to them.



Kevin Estela Wilderness Education

Small knives you can carry with you at all times are more useful than those left at home

Emergency Preparedness vs. Survival Knives and Kits

By: Kevin Estela Owner/Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education 

How often have you heard the term “Survival Kit” used? Personally, I can remember using it almost 20 years ago as a preteen while assembling the contents of a kit I thought would see me through almost any crisis. It was cool to show your friends your Survival Kit when going through camping gear for an upcoming trip. I remember acquiring gear simply because it was survival-related or could be used in a survival situation. What I didn’t understand at the time was the difference between an emergency situation and a survival situation. I didn’t know many survival kit components were in fact items one will likely use and carry for any trip. Now, after years of experience in the outdoors and after countless life experiences, I can differentiate between the two. The differences will change your way of thinking and preparing for life’s unexpected setbacks.

To understand the differences between an emergency and a survival situation, we need to look at the timing and duration of each event. An emergency happens first and is generally short-term. Survival on the other hand is past the point of an emergency when your lack of planning, lack of skills or any other variable was unable to prevent the emergency from ending with a safe resolution. Think now to the items you carry in your survival kit. Do they handle life’s unexpected emergencies or are you planning on waiting for an emergency to evolve into a survival situation? While I may carry some equipment with me to be better prepared for a survival situation, I won’t put the idea in my head I will get into one. My “never give up, never give in” mindset will get me through an emergency and while the chance of an emergency turning into a survival situation is present, I’ll do my damnedest to plan and prepare to prevent that.

To help illustrate the emergency vs. survival point, I want you to recall the contents of the dime a dozen hollow handle survival knives from the 80’s and early 90’s. You know the type. Notwithstanding the fact they are mostly garbage (save the now discontinued Chris Reeve one-piece line) and fall apart at the weak tang, they contained mostly “survival knife” components. They contained a small fishing kit, matches, a wire saw and likely some sort of button compass. Think about how bad your emergency would likely be if you needed to resort to fishing for food, for a wire saw to provide firewood and a button compass for way finding. The contents of those kits were never recommended to be carried alongside the means to provide shelter, water collection/purification or signaling. You just bought a survival knife and that is all you need. Right? I know these knives would not sell as well if they included an “emergency kit” in the handle filled with more practical gear for short term emergencies. Maybe they could have included a water bladder, purification tablets, copy of your identification, small L.E.D. light, usable cordage or duct tape. Perhaps if they went the extra step to include a spare key to your car, a few $20’s to cover your bill or medication to stop you from going into anaphylactic shock, the knives would sell better. I know I’d buy one if it came with money and a key to your car.

Think now to what you could be carrying in an emergency kit. Try not to let the survival fantasy overwhelm your thoughts. While it is cool to think about making a twitch up snare,  isn’t it easier to pack a calorie dense food? When you think about packing your equipment, think about realistic emergencies that have happened to you in your lifetime, in your friends and in stories exchanged at the bait shop or hunting lodge. What happens when you get cold and wet? It is an emergency but not a survival situation…yet. You need fire so carry a good fire starter but don’t neglect to carry tinder. Ever hear of someone losing something in the dark? Maybe their tactical pressure cap switch flashlight? Carry a small backup on the outside of your kit so you don’t have to open in and potentially spill the contents all over creation. Our bodies are susceptible to the cold and to heat, please carry a means to reflect that heat and create shade like a good quality (no cheap substitutes here) space blanket you can quickly use to conserve it and throw in some duct tape for good measure. Of course, you can’t forget your water needs. While cotton mouth is an annoyance, letting that dehydration go further can lead to a survival situation. Carry the means to collect and treat water and or the means to drink right from the source on demand with a survival straw.

Finally, think about what an emergency knife is and what survival knife is. Popular wisdom says the knife you have on you is your survival knife. I’ve used that saying before but for the average person who is not in harm’s way in a foreign country, you have no excuse not to have a blade on you. Granted, you can’t carry a sharp object on a plane and you will need to improvise in some situations but, and I mean a big BUT, you should always have at least one knife on you if you have no excuse not to have one on you. Chances are, it won’t be the biggest or baddest in the land but it should be a high quality knife. It should be sharp and well suited to discrete carry when you will likely not notice you’re carrying it until you need it. I’ve used less than macho folding knives to cut duct tape while making a waterproof splint on a canoe trip, a small fixed blade to make my fire when my large chopping blade was buried in the bottom of my pack on a winter camping trip and the most humble SAK classic to remove a painful sliver in my foot walking barefoot on a wooden deck. I know what you’re saying, that last one wasn’t an emergency situation but if you saw the girl I was with, I couldn’t fail at looking cool because my foot had a boo boo.

There is nothing wrong with carrying survival equipment. In fact, I would rather you carry what you may need as opposed to not have it at all. Then again, you can’t carry everything for any situation and weight and space limitations prevent you from doing this. What you need to do is make smart and informed decisions as to what is practical. Truly evaluate what emergency means to you and think about your personal attributes, strengths and weaknesses. Your personal kit is just that, personal. Make sure to carry true emergency preparedness knives and items that will prevent an emergency from becoming a survival situation or you may have something really personal written about you, an obituary. Don’t let fantasy cloud good judgment and select your gear based on real needs. Read, understand and prepare for survival but address the greater needs when they are emergencies first.


Estela Wilderness Education

A custom bowie knife designed by Kevin Estela and created at Bark River Knife and Tool

Choosing a “Survival” Knife

By: Kevin Estela Owner/Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education

A survival knife is an edged tool used to better the chances of an individual or group in a long-term emergency situation. Emergency blades are edged tools meant for short-term scenarios when time may be of the essence such as a shroud cutter for a parachutist, a rescue hook for the EMT or a blunt tip river knife for the paddler. This article features the process of selecting a survival blade. In doing so, the user must consider realistic conditions and ask logical questions to derive the optimal selection. After all  in a survival situation, you can’t call for a substitution, ask for a do over or call a mulligan. You need to make the right selection or you may not live to make another. No one can plan for all emergencies but certain consideration, preparation and training can better an individual’s chances in living through a crisis. One consideration vital to survival is the acquisition of an edged tool. A true survivor knows the utility of a blade and understands its value in the outdoors. With this in mind, the true survivor should be prepared with at least 1 good quality survival knife but preferably 2 or more carried in different locations on or around the body. If a person has no legal prohibition to carrying a blade, he/she should never be without one. Even if one cannot carry a blade, edged tools can be made and certain everyday objects can be fashioned into serviceable edges in a short time. The survivor should always be aware of “edges” around him/her even if they don’t appear as such in their current form. For the purpose of this article, emergency blades such as broken glasses, aluminum can lids, para-cord friction saws and halved CD’s will not be the focus. Instead, the emphasis will be on choosing the right long-term survival blade. Once the mindset of blade importance is understood, it should become apparent it is easier to plan ahead than react without in an emergency or survival situation. Emergency blades are very specific and are generally sold as, seat belt cutters, EMT shears, and anything with “self-defense” in the name. Survival knives may be marketed with the word “survival” in their name but they are likely cashing in on the marketability of that word. A true survival knife is one that stands up to the scrutiny of logical questions asked of its attributes given where it will be used. It will also be harder to spot as clever designs and marketing hype cloud good judgment. These questions go beyond the usual “What is the best steel”, “what is the best grind” and “what is the best blade style”. The questions asked are largely determined by the user and certain variables such as skill, strength and dexterity will make the questions vary. As a general guide a series of questions used to determine the appropriateness of a survival knife are provided.

1. Will the knife be used frequently? This question is important if you consider the knife’s role in a survival situation. It may be stored in a kit that will experience change in temperature, moisture and potentially cause it to rust. This may help the user decide to go with stainless or carbon steel. Most outdoorsmen prefer carbon steel for ease of sharpening but if a knife is never used, time alone will not dull its edge. If the knife is used frequently, the clear choice is carbon steel as it takes an edge easily and field maintenance is not a problem. Also exposed by this question is the grip design. An aggressive textured grip is fine for a knife used sparingly but causes hot spots and blisters on a knife used regularly.

2. Where will the knife be used? Think of the environment. If the knife is around moisture (particularly salt water), another hash mark should be made in the column of stainless steel. If it is used in the woods but cared for with oil and other rust inhibitors, carbon will hold up well once a patina forms. This question regarding location also will help determine the length of the blade. Perhaps you are in an environment with dense green vegetation. This would indicate a longer blade is needed for trail clearing. Think of the indigenous tribes of the jungles that do everything with a blade. If the primary location is a hardwood forest, a small belt knife will do most of the work as firewood is generally found on the ground and there isn’t a dire need to chop large trees to obtain it. If you do need to chop wood, your blade should be heavy enough to cut through hard wood.This question reveals the need to carry more than one blade. A small personal use blade and a larger chopping tool at the very least.

3. What time of year is it and what conditions are created by the season? This question helps determine how the knife will be carried. If it is winter, the survival knife may be carried outside the body and not underneath many layers of clothes. Thinking of winter, this question also helps the user consider if the knife can be opened with gloves on just as easily as with gloves off. The question also determines if rain encountered in the spring/summer will affect the grip of the knife. A slick handle may lead to the user riding the blade and causing more of an injury to him/herself.

4. What is the manner of carry? If the knife is carried in a belt sheath, there should be a method of retention other than a friction fit. Also, the knife should be carried in a manner that can be reached by both hands effectively even if it isn’t quickly. Assuming injury, the knife should be obtainable both right and left handed. Many survival knives feature loops to add fire steels and or sharpening stones. Some sheaths have additional features that prove to be more style than substance. Don’t get caught up in the allure if the reality isn’t practical. If the knife is too heavy, it will be left behind unless it is carried comfortably.

5. What are the other items carried when away from home? A person who leaves home with a solid pocket knife or small fixed blade can focus on packing a larger chopping tool or saw. Hollow handles become obsolete if other pocket items are carried every day and are better quality than those that can be crammed into a small handle. A blade doesn’t need to have attributes that look cooler than they actually perform if other items are more specific to purpose. A saw back blade will never cut as efficiently as a folding pocket saw meant for sawing primarily. Knives move farther and farther away from looking and performing as knives when more attributes are added that aren’t needed.

6. Will you actually carry it? Be realistic. A large knife is a heavy knife. If you can’t answer you will always carry it, you shouldn’t carry it. If you invest in a knife that you value too much or you have too many emotions and sentiment tied to a knife, you need to buy another you don’t care about. A small knife is less obtrusive and will likely always be with you. Also, you may not be able to carry your ideal knife if the law prohibits you to. Your survival knife will likely be the knife you actually carry. It won’t be the knife you are preserving in your safe.

Many of the questions asked in this article could become articles on their own. There is ultimately no limit to the questions one can ask in determining if a knife is right. The problem is when a knife’s ability is questionable through a bad experience. Hopefully this article will provide the questions necessary to prevent many bad experiences from materializing in the first place. Your survival should not be dependent on what you carry but how you use what you carry. Selecting the right survival knife is easy, learning to use it to its potential isn’t as easy. Make the right choice in selecting blades and spend more time developing hard skills.


Estela Wilderness EducationEssential Skills Your Bushcraft Knife Will Help You Accomplish

By: Kevin Estela Owner/Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education

A bushcraft knife without a skilled user is nothing more than an expensive piece of steel. Having one attached to your belt, around your neck or in your pack will not automatically make you a better woodsman. A former student of mine once told me, “it is easier to buy a knife than it is to learn hard skills.” Looking the part is only nice until your skills or lack thereof reveal you have no resolve in learning how to properly use your equipment. I consider the knife the most important tool in an outdoorsman’s “tool box” for with just a knife almost any need can be addressed. Below is a list of essential skills you can acquire with practice and full utilization of your bushcraft knife.

1. Fire- I place fire at the top of my list because it is incredibly important for both psychological and physical needs. It warms, it purifies, it accompanies you, it is vital to life. With your knife, you can prep tinder with the sharp spine, create fuzz sticks effectively increasing the surface to mass ratio of your fuel, make a bow and drill set, tease jute twine into fibers for tinder, use the carbon steel spine with a piece of flint and scrape the ferro rod you should always carry with you. If you want to make larger fuel smaller you can baton it. Then again, you can protect your number one tool and pick up the wood already dead and down.

2. Shelter- Exposed to the elements, you can live about 3 hours without shelter. With a knife, you can cut fabric into shading shelter material, carve tent/tarp stakes to tie it all down, cross grain baton a long ridge pole if necessary, trim annoying branches away from poking you in the eye inside your debris shelter and cut branches to size to maximize the strength and uniformity of your structure.

3. Water-Water makes up the majority of your body and without it, you cannot live. Regardless of activity, you must hydrate. Your knife can help you collect water in a variety of ways. You can poke holes in ice to expose the unfrozen water underneath (just make sure not to drop your knife to the bottom of the body of water), you can tap trees for sap and cut the materials necessary to create a collection basin for rainwater.

4. Containers- Sure, your knife can help you collect water but can you contain it? You can use your knife to peel bark to make a birch bark container, you can also use it to create a divot in a round of wood to start a fire-blown container. Additionally, your knife can help process long lengths of willow shoots to make baskets for harvesting edible plants.

5. Signaling- Your knife can be used to create a smoke generator for signaling. Add wet green vegetation for white smoke to contrast against a green forest and cut strips of tire (or any other synthetic) for black smoke against a white winter background. You can also use milkweed and birch bark for black smoke but it doesn’t have as much oil or latex in it to create the dark plumes of smoke a synthetic generates. In a pinch, your polished blade can be a reflective surface for sunlight and it can also be used to process an aluminum soda can into a whistle.

6. First-Aid- From popping blisters to drain the fluid underneath, to cleaning under your fingernails to prevent contaminating food sources, to cutting wood for splints and carefully cutting clothing away or bandage material, your knife has many uses in the first-aid context. 7. Trapping/Fishing- Figure 4 traps are deadly effective (But may be illegal in your state. Check your laws before using them in any except the most dire of emergencies) as are fish basket traps. Unfortunately, there is a direct correlation between what is effective and what is illegal. Your knife can be used to create a spear for thrusting or pinning. Your knife will help put food on your plate.

8. Tool Making- Bushcraft is all about doing more with less. On past trips, I’ve used my bushcraft knife to create digging sticks, pot hangers, spatulas for flipping ash cakes, hot rock tongs and of course, spoons. Your knife can be used for carving batons with stepped down handle diameters like a mallet as well as wedges for splitting wood along natural cracks in the grain. Your knife is extremely useful in helping make these tools but you must also learn to develop what some call “a third eye” or “invisible eye.” This allows you to see forked branches as more than a natural growth pattern of a branch and a large burl in a tree as a potential mallet.

9. Cordage- Creating cordage is not easy at first but once you develop the muscle memory, it can be done with your eyes closed. Good natural cordage requires 3 criteria; it needs to be long, flexible and strong. If it is long and flexible but not strong, like grass, it will not make good cordage. Certain branches are long and strong, like ironwood, but not flexible and thus bad cordage. A good bushcraft knife can help you begin to splice cordage materials like roots and bittersweet. It can be used to cut other cordage materials, like nettles and milkweed, at their base to maximize the length.

10. Food Prep- Let’s face it, if you’re bushcrafting, you probably came prepared with some great trail snacks and camp food. While we were given incisors, it is so much easier to slice pepperoni than it is to gnaw off a chunk of it. Food prep is an important part of bushcraft and one your knife should be able to handle in a pinch. While not optimal for slicing, your small belt knife should be able to make fine cuts rather than mashing your food into an unrecognizable shape. I consider cleaning animals and filleting fish part of food prep as well. Not every bushcraft meal will come in bite-sized portions packaged by the butcher. Your knife must be able to handle these as well.

Of course, there are countless other tasks your knife will handle on any bushcraft trip. No trip is complete without picking up a stick by the fire and simply carving it into a pointy object of sorts just because it can. If you are a bushcrafter, you’ll likely find yourself making an elaborate and unnecessary pot hanger when sitting a pot in the coals will heat up the water just fine. You will find you use your knife all the time if you choose to carry less. Then again, you should always carry a minimal amount of safety equipment but think of the satisfaction when you keep the gear packed away and resort only to your knife.


Bushcraft Knives– Why You Want One, What One is and How to Choose One.

By: Kevin Estela, Owner/Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education, LLC 

I’m going to suspend disbelief and pretend you don’t know what the term “bushcraft” means. Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you already know. However, if you are completely naive to the term or the addictive way of life the pastime creates, this article is for you. This article is especially for you if you’re wondering what all the buzz is about the so-called “bushcraft knife.” Let me explain what the traditional understanding of a bushcraft knife is, where it came from and how you can join the phenomenon that is Bushcraft.

Bushcraft can be defined through any number of maxims, “doing more with less”, “living simply”, “being one with nature” and so on. Richard Graves literally wrote the book, Bushcraft about utilizing natures resources to live off the land and more recently Britain’s own Ray Mears starred in a series of outdoor inspired shows on the BBC telling tales of indigenous knowledge and skill sets. Bushcraft, as I interpret it, is a lifestyle and woodswalking philosophy. It incorporates indigenous knowledge, conservation and appreciation/stewardship of the land. Bushcraft is deliberate handicapping of survival. Instead of using a road flare to get a fire going, you utilize the bow and drill. Instead of carrying a few MRE’s, you learn to harvest edible plants. While some may not agree with me, I believe bushcraft to be a hobby or sport as well.

At the heart of bushcraft is the bushcraft knife. Traditionally, these knives are small fixed blades with a full tang (exposed or stick tang.) These knives can be inexpensive Mora’s with a short height flat grind (A.K.A. Scandi) or a more expensive “Woodlore style” knife made popular by Ray Mears. Bushcraft knives must be able to handle woodworking. Since much of bushcraft is processing natures materials into tools, utensils and items of convenience, no weak folding knife is optimal. Granted, as your skill improves in bushcraft skills, you can handicap yourself to using a smaller knife, traditionally forged or even a primitive edged tool but if you have the opportunity to plan ahead, do so. The bushcraft knife design most enthusiasts will agree is the epitome is the spearpoint although any edge will do. Generally, the handle swell is slightly larger to prevent fatigue in extended carving sessions and it isn’t textured to prevent blisters from raised “hot spots.”

The traditional bushcraft knife is made from a carbon steel which is easy to sharpen in the outdoors and holds a keen edge. Most bushcraft blades are carried in a leather (say “kydex” in bushcraft circles and people cringe) sheaths so proper maintenance is required to keep the carbon steel free of rust. The flat of the blade will patina with time but this natural bluing finish the steel picks up protects the steel from rust and alludes to the fact you have used your knife in developing your skills. You will also notice most knives sold as “bushcraft” blades do not have serrations, saw teeth, skull crusher pommels or any of the other attributes that sell “tactical” blades.

In choosing your first bushcraft knife, examine the attributes of it. Consider the aspects of the blade that will facilitate enjoyment in using the knife in the outdoors. Knowing the various demands of bushcrafting (i.e. fine carving, battoning, shaving, point first drilling that is actually carving not twisting), does the knife look like it will cut more of the wood or more of your hand? Ask the right questions in selecting your knife such as, “is the maker reputable?” “Does the knife have a good warranty?” “Is this knife intended for a purpose outside of the scope of what I want it for?” And so on. You want a knife you will be proud to own and be hesitant to loan out. As your skills improve, you will find you develop almost a companionship with your blade. Just as you want to be careful in selecting a husband/wife, you want to be careful in selecting your bushcraft blade companion. Then again, if you’re bushcrafting, you probably ARE doing more with less and you can afford to buy more blades just for fun.

The bottom line is this, you can read all about what bushcraft is, what the right knife is or you can learn for yourself. Bushcraft is not something you buy in a store, earn from a college or are born with. It is a spirit you develop as you spend more time in the woods. While the most optimal bushcraft knife doesn’t ensure bushcraft knowledge, anytime spent roaming the forrest will be more productive than sitting at home thinking about it. Get a good knife, carry your basic gear and learn with friends if possible. I promise you, once you learn about bushcraft, you will find you will have a hard time unlearning the skills and hidden knowledge the woods provide.


Kevin Estela Wilderness Education

Removing white pine inner bark

Muscle Memory, Coordination and Knife Skills
By: Kevin Estela, Owner and Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education, LLC

The quality of your knife matters less than the quality of your training when your life is on the line. If you fail to perform due to lack of training or experience, your death could not have been prevented with even the most expensive of tools at your side. Far too often, knife enthusiasts attempt to compensate for lack of skill with abundance of, elaborate or overly expensive knives. In the end, their knives are handled more in the comfort of their home than in actual conditions. While I don’t suggest subjecting yourself to dangerous conditions haphazardly or with wanton disregard, I do believe in learning your limits and testing yourself. I also believe in the value of regular training and guided instruction. This training regimen doesn’t have to be stern, overbearing or impossible to follow; it just needs to be realistic and practical. What works for a person half your age or twice your size may not work for you. What you will find through careful use and experience is what does work for you. Through structured, disciplined study and over time, improved muscle memory, coordination and blade skills will be developed improving your all-around survivability.

To begin with, your knife selection is intensely personal but equally important is how and where you carry it. If you carry a knife at work in your front pocket but remove it in lieu of a belt knife while hunting, you will more than likely reach for your knife in your front pocket first. Your body and mind have become familiar with reaching for it in one location and you pause momentarily to find where you actually have access to an edge. This momentary lapse in time probably won’t matter in a low stress situation cutting cordage, opening a stubborn tab on a box of ammo or spreading mustard on your sandwich. It will matter though if fractions of seconds count in a defensive situation or rescue scenario. Build muscle memory in reaching for tools by carrying them in the same place all the time. Also, don’t vary the opening mechanisms on your folding knives from day to day as frequent change doesn’t build repetitions and familiarity. Fumbling for a thumbstud on your folder when only a nail nick is present can cost you critical seconds you can’t get back.

Coordination is the ability to incorporate different elements effectively toward a common goal. Often, when using knives, coordination deteriorates as users focus too much on the sharp object in their hand than all of their surroundings. Of course, care should be exercised with any sharp tool but too much care distracts from other tasks at hand. I recall vividly a student using the tip of his blade to open the lid of a pot only to find his meal boiling over the top and causing stove flare ups. With his right hand holding the knife with the pot lid dangling from the tip and his left hand free, he paused to determine where to put his lid down and knife down then turned the stove down with his right hand. In examining this scenario, he easily could have turned the stove down with his left hand or transferred the knife from his right hand to left to free up his right hand. Again, critical seconds are lost from lack of experience. My students often inquire how I’m able to perform different tasks while never putting my blade down or putting it back in my sheath. The answer is simple, coordination. I learned early on where the cutting edge and points of my tools were. I’m able to pinch with my thumb and forefinger cordage fibers while holding my knife with my middle, ring and pinky finger. In the field and street, edge awareness prevents accidental cutting, improved dexterity and the ability to multi-task (within reason).

In spending more time using your knives, you will develop better blade skills. This is a broad category of ability incorporating sheathing and re-sheathing without looking, cleanly cutting with the fewest strokes/passes and transitioning from one cutting grip to another. Having seen students cut through their leather sheaths from pushing the knife too far down into the pouch, absolutely butchering an easy filet job on a recently caught fish and dropping knives while holding them for one task then turning them in their hands for another, I know there is a clear difference between an exclusive knife collector and a knife user in the field. Knife skills and ability come with time and with repetition. They also are developed with trial and error. There is no shame in cutting through your knife sheath…once. Do it every time and there is likely need for a drastic change. The same goes for filleting a fish. There isn’t shame in how many pieces you cut it into the first time as long as eventually you can cut a single filet with most of the meat on it. As previously mentioned, in low stress scenarios, these mistakes aren’t life-threatening. In a more critical scenario, dropping your knife while sheathing it and damaging the tip can ruin your chances of survival. In an equally critical scenario, cutting someone free of entanglement can be life-threatening to them if you don’t have good control of your blade. You can never practice too much!

In sum, muscle memory, coordination and blade skills are absolutely necessary for anyone who carries a blade. I strongly suggest finding a mentor to help you learn the proper way to use a knife. If one isn’t available, the internet is filled with how-to’s and tutorials that are easy to follow. Knives are great companions but they won’t save your hide alone. You bring the knife to life and in the end your knife ability and know how will determine your survival.