How Much Knife Do You Really Need in the Great Outdoors?

by April 2, 2014 04/2/14
Variety of Knives

One of the questions that I get asked over and over again is; “what’s a good knife for backpacking?” My typical answer is an obvious but often frustrating one, “it depends.” I’m not trying to be a jerk about it, but asking what knife is good for backpacking or hiking doesn’t exactly allow for a one size fits all response. Putting aside everyone’s personal knife preferences for just a minute, there’s still the important question of what you intend to use the knife for when in the back country.

You’re NOT Rambo

Rambo Knife

Unfortunately, a lot of people have unrealistic expectations or pseudo-romantic notions of what they might need to use a knife for while out hiking on the trail. Those expectations, right or wrong, also tend to influence their purchasing decisions more than anything else. “I might need to build an emergency shelter or split a log” are some of the typical responses to that question that I receive, but the truth is often a lot more boring than people want to admit.

What do you Really use a Knife for?

I recently asked readers of my Backpacking Blog to be honest and share what they typically end up using their knife for while on a backpacking or hiking trip. I’ll admit up front that my readers tend to favor a minimalist or lightweight approach to gear. However, when it comes to knives, even a die-hard ultralighter likes to think that they may need to slaughter a wild boar, build a lean-to shelter, or possibly hack off their own arm. Here’s what they had to say:

Top 5 Uses for a Backpacking Knife

  1. Opening packets (of food)
  2. Cutting cord
  3. Making a spark (with a fire steel)
  4. Splitting wood, firesticks, preparing kindling
  5. Cutting moleskin, blisters, cleaning nails

Pretty manly stuff eh? These are all typical reasons why we need a small, lightweight knife when we’re in the back country and they’re are all valid. There will always be those of you that want to plan for every eventuality and carry something a little more substantial, or those of you that just like bigger blades. I get it and that’s fine with me, I can dig that. Even so, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest a couple of inexpensive knifes that will do all of the things listed above (and much more) and would be perfect for just about any backpacking or hiking trip you have planned.

Pocket/Folding Knives

Fallkniven TK4 Tre Kroner – $160

Fallkniven TK4

The TK4 has a superb 2.76 inch anticorrosive blade made of Fallkniven’s proprietary 3G laminated steel and beautifully crafted Zytel handles. This little knife is exquisitely made, as you would expect from a name like Fallkniven. It’s small but extremely capable and favorite among Bushcraft enthusiasts made popular by Ray Mears. Image © Fallkniven

Benchmade Mini Griptilian – $90

Benchmade Mini Griptilian

The mini Griptilian could be considered a pocket/EDC legend, but it’s equally well suited to the outdoors. The 2.91 inch 154-CM stainless steel blade is held firmly in place by Benchmade’s ambidextrous spring-loaded AXIS locking mechanism. The mini is a smaller version of the full size Griptilian with all the same features. Definitely a work horse of a knife and easily the nicest satin finish blade I’ve ever owned. If you’e ever owned or handled one you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Spyderco Delica4 Plain Edge – $60

Spyderco Delica4

I’ve carried a Spyderco Delica with me daily for over 18 years, starting with a Clipit and none of them have ever failed me. My personal preference is a plain edge so that I can keep it sharpened easily. The Delica design has matured and improved over the years and the latest full-flat grind (FFG) VG-10 blades are perfect for slicing and cutting, or any of the tasks listed above. The price, size, weight and quality are hard to beat.

Swiss Army Knife (SAK) Cadet – $27

SAK Alox Cadet

An old faithful and definitely deserving of an honorable mention. Be sure to buy genuine Swiss Army or Victorinox and not one of the cheap knock-offs that can be found in just about every store these days. I personally favor the newer Alox handle models (Farmer and Cadet) with just a few basic blades and tools over the massive multi-function knives that Swiss Army are famous for. Also shown in the photo above is the smaller Victorinox Swiss Army Classic SD.

Small Fixed Blade Knives

ESEE Candiru – $50

ESEE Candiru

The Candiru is a 5-inch long skeletonized knife with a 2-inch blade made of 1095 steel. Don’t let the diminutive size or weight (1.7 oz) fool you, this is a beast of a knife and capable of far more than you think; just like its bigger brother the RAT Izula. Superb quality as expected from ESEE and an incredible value at under $50. I reviewed the Candiru here.

KA-BAR/ESEE BK14 “Eskabar” – $40

KA-BAR ESEE BK14 Eskabar

This knife is a collaboration between two knife-making behemoths. Another fantastic all-in-one skeletonized knife with a 3-1/4 inch 1095 Cro-Van carbon steel blade and recent favorite of mine. I hand-picked this knife for Ryan Jordan of Backpacking Light when he asked for me help to find a serious and capable knife for lightweight backpacking. He has been extremely happy with it. I feel it’s better than the Becker Necker because it doesn’t have the annoying bottle opener on the end of the handle to dig into your palm.

Mora FireKnife – $35

Mora FireKnife

Exceptional performance at an unbelievable price. This knife feature a 3.9 inch Sandvik 12C27 stainless steel blade with razor sharp Scandi grind. Now combined Swedish firesteel in the handle for easy fire starting in even wet conditions. If you could have only one inexpensive knife for the outdoors, this Mora would be it.

Recommend Another Knife

Obviously there are thousands and thousands of knives on the market that would fit the bill and do all of the things needed on typical backpacking or hiking trip. These are just a few of the knives I’ve personally used and that have proven their quality and reliability over the years. If you have one of these knives, or have used one of them, I’d love to get your feedback on it. If you think there are other knives that deserve a mention in this category, please leave a comment below and share with all of us.

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Brian is an avid lightweight backpacker and author of the popular Brian’s Backpacking Blog. Originally from Southampton, England, Brian has lived in the US for over 15 years, finally settling in North Carolina. His love of the outdoors started at a very early age, almost as far back as he can remember. Now he spends as much time backpacking as his work schedule and family life will allow. Be sure to check out his blog for other great backpacking tips & tricks and gear reviews.


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K1TCP
K1TCP

When I camp or backpack, I always carry my leatherman charge. When I camp, I will bring my Jesse Junglas, or my Becker Bk9. Lately, backpacking, I have been carrying my Fallkniven A1. I think to not take a fixed blade that you can't pound the crap out of batoning and splitting wood with is a mistake. How else are you going to get to dry wood if it's wet out? I also usually carry a foldable pack saw.  

RayAke
RayAke

I have used the same knife for over 50 year's,,,it's a buck 119,,Daddy gave me when I was 11,,,now I'm 65..It has never failed me and alway's got the job done..My Daddies knife is a old western from 1946,that he got after he got out of the Marines,,it now hang's on my wall,,GREAT AMERICAN knive's and steel,,

northwest dweller
northwest dweller

I hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail last summer with two friends. My one buddy brought a huge K Bar, my other friend had a random multitool and a cheap folder. I on the other hand brought a Leatherman Micra and after 1200 miles of living outside it was the only knife that hadn't been sent home. When you take into consideration it's sizee, weight and overall practicality I would personally only ever take anything larger if I was planning on processing wood. In all likelihood you are not going to be able to or ever have to kill a wild animal with a 5 inch stainless monstrosity, you are just going to make your pack heavier. Bear spray works pretty well and is a much better deterrent to four legged and two legged creatures alike.

Adam
Adam

Anything Mora is a good choice. No matter what your preference I say grab one of the less expensive ones (I prefer the companion even to the thicker Moras) and toss it in your pack to use along side whatever else you choose. The scandi grind is great for making feathersticks and other whitteling tasks. Take a couple minuets when you first get it to square off the spine so it will strike a firesteel or make fine shavings for tinder.


I prefer a leatherman or other quality multi tool over a SAK mainly for the pliers. The ST300 is great for the outdoors but the wingman has the essentials, is more affordable, and is small enough for EDC so you can always have it with you. 


Beyond that I'm a big fan of Ka-Bar knives, especially the Becker line. Lot of value in those knives. Ontario is another great brand. Condor has some good options that are more friendly on the wallet but the few I have have rather thick grinds to them so they don't cut as well as others I've had. But they are still good quality for the price. The Cold Steel Bushman is a low cost knife that is light but nigh indestructible. I think the ability to use it as a spear head is over hypped and not really important but the one piece construction makes it very durable.

harunalrashid
harunalrashid

I think this article is a great facet of the issues of "overpacking" and "multi-function". Its really easy to overpack yourself with items you think you might need but probably won't use, and definitely follows along with knives. I have a Benchmade Griptillian with the partially serrated edge and it pretty much does everything that you could need out of a knife of its size and is extremely well made and reliable. I've used it out in the field during annual training a couple of times (I am an Army Reserve 68W) and don't really see the need from something bigger at this time. Well worth the price!

dustinacox
dustinacox

I've had a Gerber Bear Grylls folder knife for over a year. It's the best folder I've ever owned. The partially serrated makes getting through thicker materials, such as wood and plastic, easy. But the blade still has enough of a regular edge to get through basic things, such as cardboard and tape. It locks extremely well, and has no wiggle when opened. It's also a Gerber, which is known for good quality at a good price.

Bjorn
Bjorn

I've been carrying a Mora Robust or a Mora #2 for years.  In my opinion, I find the oval or round handles to be far more comfortable for prolonged hard usage than anything skeletonized (or anything of a more rectangular shape).  This might be a "no-no" for the ounce-counters, but I'll often carry the Mora Robust and throw the #2 in my pack as a lightweight back up. 

A good fixed blade can dance circles around a folding knife, especially if you are packing just one.  In my opinion, the classic Mora knives are a very good balance between lightweight and hardworking utility (though the sheaths are pretty awful), as long as you are not trying to use your knife as something other than what it was designed for (aka pry bar).

TheDude
TheDude

For light packing the Mora Triflex or FireKnife is plenty usually backed up by a Gerber Dime or Gerber UL micro.  The dime is only lacking a phillips head but you can modify the plier tips to be a phillips without losing much of their strength, which is only enough for light chores.  For much more wood prep beyond light splitting I pack a custom saw by a dude named QiWhiz but truly not needed for a weekender even at 5 ounces.


If you expect to need more than that, you probably need to consider why.  You aren't Daniel Boone and there are better tools to deal with other challenges.

Word of wisdom, I tried a Baledo (sp?) that is ultra light and it is ultra dangerous to the user.  The lock on the blade is flimsy and the blade can spring forward or back under much pressure.  No bueno, especially considering the minimal savings over a Mora.

There are even lighter Moras than those I mentioned and cheaper too, but they are thin and not great to baton.

FWIW the grind on these is a little different to sharpen so read up.

Alecks
Alecks

I'm taking delivery of an Izula early next month, I've been a huge fan of ESEE since I stumbled across their site, it was still RAT back then. One little hack / mod I've been keen to try since first seeing the skeletonized handle was to package a small set of survival essentials ( small ferro rod, some tinder, a small beta light, and maybe a couple of fishing hooks) in something suitable a place them in the middle of the handle and shrink wrap or ranger band over the entire handle with the contents in the middle, then paracord wrap the entire handle section to make a mini survival kit knife. I'm not exactly sure what essentials to put in the kit, it would obviously come down to experimentation o see what sits comfortably under the wrap and what is the best tool / piece of kit to include.


Grover6
Grover6

Great article! Most people carry too much knife in to the wild. I have come to realize that a 4-6" blade is a great length for just about everything you may need to do, including survival tasks. I personally love the ESEE line of knives. I use an Izula (first gen) and I switch up between the 4 and 6 depending on what I am doing. My other option is substituting an axe/tomahawk for the larger blade. You cannnot beat the smaller blade for general use.

XCNelly92
XCNelly92

Several years ago, I bought a CRKT Carson Design M16-14SFG knife. I have not sharpened it in the past year and a half considering the abuse I put my knife through. That being said, the blade has still retained its somewhat sharp shape. The knife is simple to disassemble and reassemble with the proper torx screwdriver. It will set you back about 60 bucks (dont remember the price) but have never had a problem with it. It holds together and I have cut cans,cardboard, as well as used the blade as a flathead screwdriver and the worse I have had to do was sharpen it. The model is a special forces series but the standard counterpart is the same reliability. I have had instances where friends/family/coworkers have had difficulty trying to close the knife, due to the locking mechanisms location, so it makes for a chuckle when you have a ''knife junkie'' fail to close it.

kmedic6351
kmedic6351

My EDC is an Emerson CQC Karambit on my person and a fixed blade TOPS scout knife. 

Drhawk7982
Drhawk7982

My EDC is an older Swiss Army Tinker that I've carried for near 30 years.  In addition, I usually have a larger folder for daily hard use such as my CRKT M16 Titanium. While not assisted, it flips open very easily. The only issue with it is that it eats clothes. The pivot pin is knurled on the opposite side from the clip so it rubs, like sandpaper, on your pants.

Matt
Matt

I LOVE the D2 version of the Eskabar; the D'Eskabar.  Its my favorite EDC.

backwoodsbrooks1
backwoodsbrooks1

I myself am a fan of big knives that stay in the realm of reality.  If I am going to be doing light bush crafting, I will always go with a large 10" knife, a saw, and my Surge.  If I am going heavy bush craft I may pack a sharp ax, a saw, my Surge, and a 6" to 7" fixed blade.  But it will always come down to personal preference and what that person feels comfortable using.

TheWaker43
TheWaker43

Great article and great choice of knives.  I've been backpacking my whole life starting in Cub Scouts and I've found that I've never needed anything more than the Benchmade Mini Grip mentioned and a Letherman PS4 I keep on my key chain.  They have been my EDC for years, but I've to admit if I am going somewhere that carrying these would be inappropriate I switch to a Alox SAK.  Those little guys look so classy.  

SKYF4LL
SKYF4LL

This was a fantastic article! I agree there really isn't a "perfect knife". My perfect knife may not be someone else's perfect knife. For a folder, I prefer a slim knife that can fit in my pocket easily with a straight edge. I also happen to really like assisted opening. So for me, the Kershaw Blur is what I carry daily.


For out in the bush, I like to carry a fixed blade as well. It doesn't need to be a rambo knife, but again this comes down to what you use it for. If i'm going on a hike, I'll carry something on the lighter side. If I plan on staying closer to the camp site, I might bring something a little heavier.

downsmustang
downsmustang

Esee Izula or Izula 2. Best all around small fixed blade.

Brian
Brian

Two knives that I use or have used that fit the bill for me. A U.S. Issued Camillus "Demo Knife or a Victorinox Pioneer. Both have a blade, awl, flat tip screw driver, bottle opener and a can opener. That will cover about anything I have needed for backpacking or bikepacking.

Evo
Evo

Gerber Evo (full size, fine edge).


It's one of the lightest knives that Gerber makes. I have thrown everything in life at it, and the most damage it's had is a little bit of the Ti coating wearing off the blade. It's my EDC and camping and hiking knife, and it's pretty water-resistant, too (just dry it off when you can, I accidentally took it swimming once). The only reason you will ever have to buy another one is if you lose it, like I did with my first one. On that note, if anyone finds it at the bottom of Glen Lake near the Sleeping Bear Dunes, look me up, my name is engraved on the blade ;)

CJ8404
CJ8404

Benchmade Mini Barrage for light hiking and trail running applications. When I go backpacking or dirt bike riding I carry the full size Barrage that is my EDC at work. The only two things that I could add to this discussion is I always keep a Leatherman Wave in my backpack or in my medbag at work, the other thing is that being from the high sierras (Donner Summit area) I will always take a fixed blade knife when snow shoeing or snow camping. After allot of trial and error i found this lighter and more practical then a hatchet seeing as how most your firewood comes from branchs depending on snow depth. The same thing could be accomplished with the Wave if I had more patients.

JC1972
JC1972

What do people like to use to sharpen your folder? 

Scott159
Scott159

I rotate what I carry but recently as a pocket knife I have been using a Spyderco Manix2, nice lightweight folder I highly recommend it.  In my pack I stash a Spartan Blades Nyx, probably the overkill you illustrated but I like having it.

Ppeek07
Ppeek07

Im a knife nut, and if your lookin for lightweight and dependability I would highly recommend the benchmade 530, its an excellent knife and I've never felt lighter. It was what I would mainly edc for years. Just recently switched out for a benchmade volli. Mainly because it doesn't weigh much more, has a drop point blade (the 530 has a spear point and i just prefer the drop point) and is assisted opening.

oldhamn
oldhamn

Good thoughts, I've owned a ton of knives (more for fun than any practical reason) and have found that most are overkill when I'm in the woods. A Mora will be sufficient 90% of the time. Mostly, I carry an ESEE Laser Strike paired with something like a spyerco tenacious…or a cheap folder that I won't be upset if it gets beat up or lost (rat ii, zancudo, SAK, etc.) I used to have an RTAK II for processing firewood but that thing was heavy, so I sold it and get most of my wood by way of deadfall or using a bahco laplander. The Laser Strike can baton in a pinch. Just my set up! Took me a while to figure out what works best for me. 

GregCarson
GregCarson

I hiked 170 miles on the Appalachian Trail last summer with a buddy of mine. We both carried large knives, what could be considered camp size. He used his handmade seax, while I carried a Blackhawk! Tatang. We had small knives (SwisS Army and I think an old Benchmade) that we used for little chores, but I was surprised at how much I used my biggie. We cleared brush off the trail, we gathered firewood out of places that were literally stripped clean. Some of the hikers laughed at us, but hey, they shut up when we made them a fire on a cold night :P

northward
northward

The Vargo Wharn-clip is a lightweight titanium alloy knife that fits most backpackers needs.  At one ounce it has a larger blade than similar weight knives.  Comes with a handy clip so that I can clip it to my neck kit, backpack strap, etc.  Great for kitchen work, very sharp, excellent point control (for cutting moleskin, etc.).  Made by a company that knows lightweight backpacking needs. 

Joe13
Joe13

Winkler Belt Knife for me

backyardsniper
backyardsniper

I love my Gerber Para-Frame for these kind of tasks, It's my EDC along with a Leatherman Sidekick. It opens easy (even faster than my switchblade), feels great in my hand, is rugged and tough, and is very inexpensive (about $30).

bfgreen
bfgreen

@Drhawk7982  have you ever thought about grinding or sanding the pivot pin down so that it doesn't wear through your clothes? The Tinker is a great knife.

bfgreen
bfgreen

@Matt  Shoot! I wasn't even aware that they had brought out a D2 version - darn it, that is a nice looking knife and better steel choice. Twice the price, but still very affordable. Thanks for the heads up!

bfgreen
bfgreen

@TheWaker43  We seem to have very similar tastes and mindset. The Leatherman Squirt PS4 is with me most of the time too, hard to beat for size, functions, and price! One of my top ten pieces of gear > http://bit.ly/1lvHKJ3 The Alox SAKs are a joy to use and hold.

bfgreen
bfgreen

@SKYF4LL  Thanks! I have a SOG Twitch II that is light, spring assisted and has a slim plain edge - I really should carry it more. There are so many variables and emotions when it comes to choosing and using a knife that it's impossible to say which one is right or wrong. These are just a few examples that I have used and can recommend. Even here I've read suggestions for knives that I didn't know about and have added to my "wish list" that's the beauty of sharing this information and getting feedback - I'm always learning and improving.

bfgreen
bfgreen

@CJ8404  Benchmade knives keep popping up as suggestions or for what people already do carry - and for good reason. I've been eyeing a Barrage for some time, just hard to pull the trigger with the knives I already own. I'm sure many here can relate :)

bfgreen
bfgreen

@JC1972  I use an inexpensive Lansky universal sharpening system for all my knives and I've been very happy with it. Some of my friends have the Wicked Edge sharpening system, but that's a little out of my price range - at least for now :) 


You can never go wrong with a good set of whetstones though.

bfgreen
bfgreen

@Scott159  The Nyx is a beast for sure, but it has a wicked looking recurve blade profile. Hey, if you're happy carrying it then that's cool. What blade and handle options do you have?

bfgreen
bfgreen

@Ppeek07  I'm not a huge fan of spearpoint knives, but it's hard to go wrong with a lightweight Benchmade anything. At the end of the day there are thousands of knives that can be used in the back country, my suggestions are just that and based on my own use.


I just looked at the Volli - nice!

bfgreen
bfgreen

@oldhamn  Great feedback. It's hard to beat a well made ESEE knife. The Candiru I mention and slightly larger Eskabar (collaboration with KA-BAR) are perfect examples. The Candiru is small for battoning, but still up for some very heavy use. I carry a Bahco too - great choice :)

bfgreen
bfgreen

@GregCarson  LOL - If that works for you then go with it. Ain't gonna hurt my feelings that's for sure. I often carry a folding saw that does all the heavy work and get laughed at too until I pull together a roaring fire.

bfgreen
bfgreen

@northward  I've seen the Vargo Wharn clip titanium knife and often wondered about edge retention and sharpening. It's a pretty clever little knife and well designed for sure - can you share any thoughts on sharpness and if you've ever had to resharpen it. Thanks for the feedback.

bfgreen
bfgreen

@Joe13  that's some pretty serious stuff and amazing quality. Did you have something custom made?

bfgreen
bfgreen

@backyardsniper  a lot of people tell me they carry a para-frame for the obvious reasons. Pairing it with the Leatherman make sense too. We could have a whole other blog post conversation on the topic of multi-tools for the backcountry...

CJ8404
CJ8404

@bfgreen @CJ8404

I would go for it, I have the mini and fullsize barrage and started carrying a Benchmade Triage at work instead of a strap cutter on my belt. Never gotten a benchmade to fail.

Scott159
Scott159

Black blade, tan scales, black kydex sheath. The sheath mounts nicely to molle webbing.

Joe13
Joe13

@bfgreen @Joe13  I did. I had one of my Belt Knives custom made with textured, tan micarta handles and my Tactical Dagger custom made with textured micarta handles and a desert coating all around. The Dagger obviously isn't intended for backpacking. I found that my Belt Knife with maple handles (the first Winkler I owned) is a bit lighter and slimmer. It's an older knife and the knife I carry most often when not in a military environment.

Joe13
Joe13

@bfgreen @Joe13  

They're expensive knives, no doubt. But I think you'd really like one if you gave it a shot. Bladehq has an exclusive Bushcraft model that looks like it'd be a great backpacking knife. That, the Hunting Knife, or the Belt Knife would be my recommendations. 

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