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How To Keep Knives And Other Tools Sharp Before, During, And After Camping

August 1, 2021

Without a doubt, having a dull knife can make the easiest task difficult, especially for hikers. Chopping a piece of wood for a campfire suddenly becomes a major chore, flaying a fish leads to a stressful mess, and prepping vegetables for a natural meal becomes a disheartening task. By using certain sharpening tools this can be avoided. mUsing a razor-sharp knife can be life-changing and will even lead to more enjoyable adventures.  By following the advice below anyone can take their knives to a razor-sharp state.

The Sharpening Tools You’ll Need

Whetstones are the best lightweight option for keeping knives sharp. This conclusion was made after countless hours sharpening various tools such as knives and axes.  Unfortunately, whetstones are a complicated topic, with several different types available for purchase it can be difficult to determine which is right for you.

The best whetstones for hiking are either diamond whetstones or synthetic stones. The reason natural whetstones are not recommended is that they do not offer a consistent sharpening.

  Diamond sharpening plate image by Silent C

You can determine the type of whetstone needed for hiking by referring to the following graph:

Diamond vs Synthetic Whetstones For Hiking

To get straight to the point, synthetic stones are probably a better choice. The one case where diamond stones have a major advantage over synthetic whetstones is when you’re looking for a handheld option. With handheld diamond whetstones, there are usually two sides a fine and coarse side. Even though it is two-sided the weight is usually less than a pound!

The main disadvantage of diamond whetstones (especially handheld stones) is that they aren’t able to get a knife as sharp as a synthetic stone. Additionally, handheld diamond whetstones can’t sharpen larger blades because they aren’t as large as regular full-size whetstones.

A small (1-2lb) double-edged synthetic whetstones can achieve a razor-sharp edge. When using a single stone, a double-sided (400, 1000) grit whetstone would be a great choice. Also, a (1000, 6000) grit whetstone would be optimal for hiking/camping.

The main disadvantage of a synthetic whetstone is that you usually need a base to sharpen on. This isn’t a huge issue because most whetstones come with a sturdy bamboo or plastic base.

Using A Whetstone

Because whetstone size varies and some stones are handheld, using them takes different techniques (known as diafolds.) Due to the differences, it is very important to consult the instructions that come with a given whetstone. Additionally, many YouTube videos and online articles teach the sharpening process.

In general, sharpening a tool with a whetstone is a relatively short process, only taking around 5 minutes. Once a knife is sharp just a few swipes across a whetstone can return it to a razor-sharp state. This is true with both handheld and standard full-size whetstones.

When first using a whetstone, practicing with a dull and cheap knife is the way to go. Even after watching several videos on technique it is difficult to master the motions without spending some time practicing. After a few attempts of sharpening with a whetstone, the process will become much easier and you’ll be able to graduate to sharpening higher-quality knives.

Other Methods of Sharpening

Although for hiking we recommend sticking to diamond or synthetic whetstones there are other sharpening options. These include sharpening steels, pull through sharpeners, sharpening systems, electric sharpeners, and honing steels.

Sharpening Steels and Honing Steels

Sharpening steels and honing steels are only useful on an already sharp knife. Neither of these options can make a blunt knife sharper but will instead only damage the dull tool you are sharpening. Overall sharpening steels are not useful for hiking unless you have a different sharpening method that you can use at home. The carbide tips on trekkings poles cannot be used to sharpen knives.

When buying sharpening steel, it’s recommended purchase one made out of diamond sharpening steel instead of ceramic steel. This is recommended because diamond sharpening steels are best for smaller knives. Additionally, diamond sharpening steels are lightweight, easy to use, and sharpen knives quickly making them a viable option for hiking. They only remain a good choice if your knife is already sharp because using a dull knife with sharpening steel is dangerous.

Image by Simon A. Euster

Pull Through Sharpeners

This method of sharpening has the same issues as sharpening steels and honing steels. Specifically, it can only safely sharpen already sharp knives. Also, this method can result in somewhat of a jagged edge. To avoid this jagged edge its recommended to only use a pull through sharpener with harder steel, something with an HRC over 60. It is highly recommended to use a whetstone instead of a pull through sharpener with a higher quality knife. Because of its downsides, we’d only recommend this method for someone who is looking for a very easy way to sharpen their small hiking knives.

Electric Sharpeners

Electric sharpeners are not good for hiking or camping because of they’re somewhat heavyweight.   Additionally, only some varieties of electric sharpeners take batteries, so they are often not portable. Electric sharpeners also tend to chip away at a knife very fast, so the sharpener can negatively affect your knife over time. A final note worth mentioning is that electric sharpeners can only sharpen knives. Higher quality electric sharpeners can be useful for sharpening a knife prior to camping, but they are definitely not recommended for hiking or camping.

Sharpening Systems

Sharpening systems main disadvantages are that they take up a lot of space and they are only suitable for small knives in most cases. Additionally, they take more time than other sharpening methods. Although they’re disadvantages disqualify sharpening systems from a viable hiking option, they still have several major advantages.

Excellent results due to sharpening under an extremely constant angle are only possible with sharpening systems making them preferable by sharpening professionals.  Also, sharpening systems are the only sharpening method where it is easy to maintain a good angle while not chipping away at the knife.

Guided sharpening systems work by using a holder to secure a knife. By using the holder, you are able to choose an angle that can be used consistently throughout the rest of the sharpening process. This leads to a very sharp knife, but it does take much longer than just using a whetstone.

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