Dave Canterbury is hardly a new name to the world of wilderness survival. With over two decades of experience in various outdoors careers, his resume is formidable. He is firstly a product of the US Army, having served as an SRT scout, sniper, and instructor.
Currently, however, he owns and operates The Pathfinder School, based in southern Ohio.
While this wilderness survival school is certainly popular, Canterbury probably gains most of his ‘pop culture’ notoriety from the Discovery Channel series “Dual Survival” where he and his co-host Cody Lundin tackle some of the world’s harshest environments. It seems, like most folks who spend a good deal of time in the wilderness, Canterbury has certainly formed his own opinion of what makes a proper woods knife. He has, in fact, worked previously with companies such as Blind Horse Knives to develop such a tool. The Blind Horse blade is a beefy Scandinavian-ground blade, ~10” overall length, defined by ruggedness and simplicity. I bring up the past only because it leads to the present: a Pathfinder blade produced by TOPS knives.
TOPS has frequently worked with survival aficionados to make their designs a reality. The controversial Tom Brown ‘Tracker’ knife comes to mind, as does the Hellion by Myke Hawke. In this case, Canterbury has actually tweaked an existing TOPS design to come up with a winner. Some basic specs are as follows: overall length 9.25”, blade length 4”, thickness 3/16”, steel 1095 @ RC 56-58. (Mmm, 1095 goodness.)
The handle scales, set off by handsome white liners and secured by three hex screws, are very nicely textured black micarta. They have been left at an appropriate ‘grippiness’ (versus a slick high polish, as seen on some production knives). The scales are also produced with a series of lateral grooves that give excellent traction during wet or hard use.
The handle dimensions are designed quite well for those with small to medium sized hands. My [very] large paws weren’t a perfect match, and I sometimes found that I was wishing for a bit more ‘beefiness’ during carving sessions. It was certainly not uncomfortable for me, however. While the micarta provides great texture as described above, the actual handle shape provides at least as much security. There is a strong first-finger groove that locks the hand in high and tight, and a gentle curve that fills the rest of the palm. At three points along the handle there are ~3/4” areas of jimping (one at the pinky, one above this on the spine, and one at the front of the handle on the spine). These didn’t cause any hot-spots at all, but do exactly what they were intended for. A lanyard hole hides at the butt of the handle, with the forward-most portion of the handle capped off by dual finger guards.
The blade is quite simple; nothing fancy or ‘experimental’. I would submit that it feels a bit like a highly modernized hunting knife. The cutting edge is right at 4”, with an overall length of 4.5” from tip to handle. The difference in length is due to a small but useable choil that just allows my first finger. The first ¾” of spine has more jimping, and shortly after begins to drop to a fine point. There is a bit of steel removed at the spine towards the edge, suggestive of a swedge but not quite as defined. These areas of steel removal help to make it feel light and controllable when working on finer tasks. The tip of the blade is right in line with the central axis of the handle, giving excellent control for drilling. Coating every bit of steel (minus the edge) is a handsome gray crinkle coating. It gives a very matte, utilitarian finish to the knife that would prevent even a sea-bound gent from worrying about rust. Lastly, the left side of the blade is embossed with the TOPS symbol, the Pathfinder School symbol, and the words “PATHFINDER SCHOOL”, underscored with the name Dave Canterbury. The individual serial number of the knife is also present near the hilt. The overall fit and finish of this knife are absolutely excellent, and on par with everything else I’ve seen from TOPS.
I confess that in raving about the knife I nearly forgot another important aspect: the sheath. This sheath is definitely one of the most versatile designs I’ve used. It’s a cordura affair, utilizing a kydex insert and a Velcro strap to secure the handle. There’s a removable flap as well, which folds over the knife handle and locks into a Fastex buckle on the front of the sheath. For stowing certain needful things, there’s a generously sized pouch with an elastic strap securing the mouth. The back of the sheath has strong MOLLE compatible webbing. Two eyelets at the base of the sheath are perfect for lashing the setup to your pack, or for strapping to your thigh. TOPS even includes a hank of paracord for just such an application.
So how’s the knife actually perform in the field? In a nutshell, probably as well as Mr. Canterbury intended. The Pathfinder blade is a formidable slicer, though it does suffer a bit from an obtuse grind. This problem was easily solved after a few minutes with a rough diamond stone. I think a few seconds on a belt sander would do wonders, incidentally. After the edge work, the Pathfinder went on a stroll with me and helped prepare some lunch, consisting of summer sausage, an apple, and cheese. Each provides a pretty helpful estimation of your edge. First, it’s hard to smoothly slice through the oily, slick exterior of the sausage without a keen edge. Second, you’ll have trouble getting thin slices out of the apple and cheese without a decent grind. While the Pathfinder didn’t demonstrate the awesome slicing offered by something like the Mora 2000, it certainly wasn’t a slouch. And I don’t think the apple noticed any difference.
In general whittling and carving, I again wasn’t disappointed. The Pathfinder was making some very nice fuzz sticks and throwing good chunks of wood. Spear points and trap notches were likewise not a problem. My only complaint during extended cutting sessions, as mentioned, was the slightly cramped handle. It was just a bit thin for my paws, sadly. The majority of users would likely not encounter this issue. My last ‘general woods knife’ test was making the parts for a bowdrill. This generally takes into account most sorts of tasks you might encounter in the bush. You have to be able to split a small piece of wood to make the hearth, drill a hole (twice), carve a notch, and shape your spindle. All in all, the Pathfinder handled things pretty well. Splitting a small log was done easily, as was drilling my spindle divots. Sadly, however, this tale does not have a happy ending: I just couldn’t get a coal! Turns out even a knife as nice as the Pathfinder won’t make your bowdrill technique successful.
Mr. Canterbury and TOPS have really produced a smooth little cutter with the Pathfinder knife. The quality is top-notch, the blade and overall length are perfect for a general-purpose woods knife, and the sheath is stellar. Certainly any student of The Pathfinder School would find themselves well-equipped with this knife, as would any outdoorsman on the prowl for quality steel.