How To Sharpen Your Survival Knife | The Complete Beginners Guide

Whether you’re a hunter, a hiker, a camper, a fisherman or just an avid outdoors enthusiast, you would undoubtedly agree that your trusty survival knife is pretty much your best friend. It follows you everywhere you go and is always within reach to complete the most intricate or difficult tasks. From skinning & gutting to sharpening, stripping & cutting, a good quality knife is and has always been the go to tool in any serious tactical bug out bag. Understanding how to sharpen your survival knife to ensure its longevity is imperative.

Under all it’s duress, a knife will succumb to it’s constant usage and therefore as a maintenance requirement, you will need to sharpen it. Even the best quality knives need some tender loving care every now and then. Knowing how to sharpen your survival knife is a required skill that you should definitely master in order to make sure that your outdoors activity or journey continues without any hiccups. Lucky for you, we have created this beginners guide to help you walk away with the confidence needed to bring your weapon of choice back from the dead with very little effort.

Types of Sharpeners

Before we get into the sharpening of your survival knife, it’s a good idea to understand the different tools or equipment which you can use to do so. Some options can be purchased and tucked away in your tactical bug out bag. Other methods can be carried out using specific tools found around the home and completed as preparation before venturing out into the great outdoors.

How To Sharpen Your Survival Knife Using Whetstones

A Whetstone also known as a ‘water stone’ or ‘sharpening stone’ can be used to sharpen the edges of steel tools and/or various other implements. They come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and compositions. Whetstones are natural Japanese water stones and are cut from sedimentary rocks. They can be described by having a smooth stone surface that when wet, creates a slurry of liquid and sharpening particles that sharpen steel.They should generally be used in combination with water or some kind of lubricant to maximise their effectiveness.

Different types of Whetstones

There are 3 main types of sharpening stones with a 4th type possibly deserving their own title although they kind of fall under 1 of the 3 categories. Each type of stone has its own advantages that help bring a sharp edge to whatever tools you are sharpening.

  1. Oil Stones – Are the most common sharpening stones available for purchase. Oil stones require the application of oil onto the stone for lubrication before use (hence the name). The oil reduces friction which helps improve movement whilst sharpening. The oil also catches metal filings (swarf) which you can easily wipe away once sharpening is complete.
  2. Water Stones – Are slowly gaining popularity alongside oil stones but haven’t been around as long. You don’t need to add any lubricant but  water stone needs to be submerged in water for several minutes before beginning your sharpening work. These types of stone also collect the swarf within the stone and enable you to dispose of it with ease.
  3. Diamond Stones – Don’t let the name fool you. Diamond stones are imposters, they aren’t actually a stone but instead a metal plate with small diamond heads attached to said plate.These types of ‘stones’ are of course unnatural but due to that fact, they can be manufactured with the toughest of sharpening diamonds which in turn will enable a more simplistic effort and of course sharper blade. Some designs have perforated surface spores to catch the swarf. As these stones are manufactured, they can enable it’s user to sharpen their blade a lot faster and they also retain their flat surface unlike the natural stones that succumb to a curved surface with excess use.
  4. Arkansas Stone (Honorable Mention) – As mentioned above, the Arkansas Stone should nearly have it’s own category. The stone itself can only be mined in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. They are quarried by blasting and the usage of diamond saws so that alone speaks volumes of their quality. You can use either water or oil with Arkansas sharpening stones. A light mineral oil is preferred by most users. They must be cleaned and lubricated after each use followed by a wipe of any excess oil.

Most of these stones come in a range of shapes, sizes and grit. The most common of course is the rectangle shape. They can generally fit inside your tactical bug out bag for blade sharpening on the go. Don’t forget to pack some lube if your stone requires it also!

How To Sharpen Your Survival Knife Using Other Tools and Equipment

On the other hand, there are a few other types of tools and equipment that can be used to sharpen your knife. Most of these can be found in more civilised areas like your home or a home depot. It is advised that you use these types before you venture out as preparation. It would most definitely weigh your bug out bag down trying to carry around an angle grinder and I wouldn’t imagine it to be so easy finding a power point for the purpose of use or charge.

  • Grinder
  • Belt Sander 
  • Knife sharpener from your kitchen 
  • Sharpening Stick/Honing Steel

How To Sharpen Your Survival Knife – Miscellaneous Options

When all else fails and you don’t have anywhere to turn to get your blade a much deserved tune up, there are some left field options you can try. Yes some are a bit of a reach but you never never know if you never never go. Am I right? Check these out and give them a try…

  • The Coffee mug – Mm hmm, you heard that right. So there’s a rough part that is underneath most ceramic coffee mugs that wasn’t designed to sharpen things but some clever bugger tried it and had success. Flip your mug upside down and rub your blade against that rough part, you’ll be surprised! The upside is, most outdoor enthusiasts carry one of these so they will serve a dual purpose when the going gets tough!
  • A Leather Belt – Using a leather belt is not really going to sharpen your blade as such but it will more so realign its edge. Ever heard of the term stropping? Stropping removes the microscopic-level inconsistencies of the edge so you have a true, razor sharp edge. It’s usually the final phase required during your sharpening process. 
  • The Spine Of Another Knife – If you carry around a second knife, and you should, the thick spine of that second knife also serves as a honing tool. It’s the same process as when using a honing steel/honing rod. Run your knife along the spine of your second knife (the unsharpened side)
  • A Smooth Stone – If you’re traversing along a river bank, keep your eye out for any smooth, flat stones. Tuck a few of these away in your tactical bug out bag. If you can do so without them weighing you down then you have found yourself some excellent sharpening tools, and free to boot! Use them the same way you’d use any purchased whetstones.
  • Sandpaper – Another supremely cheap and versatile item that is destined for greatness once packed down in your survival backpack. Before leaving civilization, grab some sheets with varying grit caliber. Make sure you at least take some super coarse and some super fine and possibly something in between. Start by using the coarse and work your way to fine for maximum effectiveness. 
  • A Nail File – Surely you’d have a small beauty kit floating around in your bug out bag. If you don’t it’s a good idea to add one because the nail file that it would most likely contain, can be used (as a last resort) to sharpen your knife. If it can file your nails and make them smooth, a little elbow grease can give your blade a makeover as well!
  • A Car Window – Huh? Who put that car there? Better make some use of it… wouldn’t want that window to go to waste now would we? If you happen to find a beat up car in the middle of nowhere or I guess it doesn’t matter where if your knife needs sharpening, you can use the window to give your blade some added edge. Run both edges of your knife against the curved edging of the window. Test for sharpness, rinse and repeat as desired!

Understanding your blades ‘rough grind angle’ or ‘bevel angle’

Ok so we’re nearly at the point where we can finally sharpen but before we do, there is one more thing to address or more-so, discover. This is the concept of a specific angle that each and every knife is built on. The concept is known as the knifes ‘rough grind angle’ or also known as its ‘bevel angle’. Meaning that if you want to make sure that your sharpening skills have been maximised in effectiveness, it will pay to hold it at a specific angle whilst doing so.

This is a question that a user should raise with its knifes seller or somebody who is in the know when it comes to this subject. There is plenty of info online, in store and of course via the product manufacturer.

A few factors that will affect and vary the way in which you sharpen it will be the quality of the steel as well as how you are actually planning on using the knife. Different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes…

How To Sharpen Your Survival Knife – The Process

We made it, finally! After getting a good grasp of some much required ground knowledge on the topic of knife sharpening, we can put that newfound nouse to good use. Just so we’re clear, your knife doesn’t need to be as sharp as an Obsidian knife blade. For the purpose of survival, a good enough edge is one that is easy to maintain, lasts a long time before needing restoration and performs well in a variety of tasks. That’s pretty much it!

For the purpose of this article, we will go through the process using whetstones as they are the items that you will more than likely have on you whilst out in the wild so it makes sense to use them as an example.

The process itself isn’t actually too difficult, the best results rely on good technique and motion.

  1. Start by applying water or oil to your whetstone (according to the manufacturer’s recommendation) This will reduce clogging and improve friction. Some require soaking it in water for several minutes.
  2. Place the stone on top of something with a slip-resistant base like a piece of dry towel for example.
  3. Find the bevel of your knife. To make it visually easier as your sharpening, mark a few small strokes at the beginning and end of the bevel. The bevelled edge is the only part of the knife that is necessary to be touching the stone.
  4. Depending on the type of whetstone you’re using, start with the more coarse grit side (Some are combos of coarse and fine)
  5. Starting with the handle end, use a circular motion, slowly gliding your knife up and down the stone. Pull the knife toward you so the full length of the blade makes contact with the stone by the end of the motion. 5-6 strokes is a good starting amount. The amount of strokes will depend on how blunt or dull your knife has become. You will need to be wary of that and adjust accordingly but start with fewer to get the hang of it.
  6. Turn your blade over and make a pass on that side also. Again, 5-6 strokes. Aim to add an even amount of pressure on the blade. Too little pressure will see that you sharpen too high or too low as it slips, too much pressure will burr your knife and wear out or deform your whetstone at a faster rate.
  7. You may need to add water or oil during the process to keep it lubricated and reduce excess friction and heat which could burn your hands.
  8. Once you’re happy with your progress, use the finer grit to give it some real edging. This time 3-4 strokes per side is perfect so you don’t over sharpen the bevel.
  9. Stropping to finish the job is always welcomed by your blade as it removes smaller burrs and gives it a great polished finish.
  10. Clean up your stone by giving it a rinse. Give your knife a good rinse also and coat it with some non-toxic oil to enable the longevity of your newly manicured best friend.
  11. Congratulations, you have successfully completed the task of ‘How To Sharpen Your Survival Knife’!

Testing Your Knife

After completing this process, it’s a good idea to test the sharpness of your knife. The level of sharpness that you require will be based on your needs so only you as the user can decide if it’s as sharp as it needs to be. A simple method of testing is the paper slice method. Hold a piece of paper upright and aim to cut through it using a diagonal stroke from one edge to the other (top right to bottom left), using a downward motion. A well sharpened knife should easily cut through it with one clean stroke. On the other hand, a blunt blade would just crumple or tear the paper.

You could also try to carefully shave a small patch of hair from your arm or leg (depending on hair availability of course). If you have sharpened your blade adequately, it will trim the hair. If your blade needs a little more work then you will see that your knife will just glide over the top of the hair. It’s a pretty simple test. Very black or white!

Worst case scenario you could send it into a professional who will do the lot for you with a guarantee in most cases. Problem is, they are a little tricky to find out in the middle of nowhere! Nonetheless, the idea is to be prepared no matter what!

Some Final Tips On Knife Usage

Given that your survival knife is your best friend, it will go through everything with you which means it will cop a pounding. Making sure your survival knife is sharpened shouldn’t only be about sharpening it on a regular basis. Meaning there are a few tips that you can follow regarding usage to help them keep their edge for longer.

  • An obvious first tip would be to try to cut with your knife using a straight motion and avoid side to side movement.
  • When using the knife on any food item (animal, fruits & vegetables, etc) make sure you clean your blade directly after use to avoid any bacterias which can introduce corrosive matter. 
  • As tough as it may be out in the wild, try to use a softer cutting surface or mat underneath when chopping. This will ensure your knife lasts longer by reducing the chance of blunting.
  • As mentioned in the sharpening guide, give your knife a thin coat of oil to prevent rusting by reducing the amount of moisture that may seep in.


The bottom line is, if you don’t look after your knife then it won’t be able to serve you. A good suggestion is to go and do some research into a quality whetstone that suits your needs and can be comfortably lugged around whilst you are on the go. Hopefully this article has given you the confidence to make sure that your blade is functioning to its full potential. More-so that you understand what it takes to maintain your blade and keep it in tip top condition. Remember, knowing how to sharpen your survival knife is a life long skill that can save your life. Happy trekking!

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