What Kind of Knife Does a Backpacker Need?
Archaeology tells us that the knife was one of mankind's first tools. If anything, surely it came before that really cool infomercial saw that cuts cars in half. As someone who appreciates the fine lines of a good knife and as a backpacking adventurer, a good knife is always one of my primary concerns. I've gone through plenty of knives, I own hundreds and have carried dozens on my journeys. The belt sheath knives, the Swiss army knives, the folding tacticals, multi-tools, lightweight folders - yes I've tried them all.
Though the Ramboesque amongst us carry the largest knives on the market with 14-inch bowie style blades more akin to swashbuckling than backpacking, remember you don't need the biggest knife on the planet. Generally something with about a 3-inch blade is more than adequate for outdoor adventure. Though most backpackers opt for folding knives, a small fixed blade knife worn around the neck is excellent for the outdoors. Remember the basic backpacking knife tasks:
- Cutting rope
- Opening packages
- Slicing cheese and pepperoni
- Spreading peanut butter
- Carving tent stakes, spoons, etc (because you forgot them)
- Making fuzz sticks for fire starting
- Sharpening pencils at trail registers
- Gear repair
- Fending off bears
- Limb amputation
Single Blade Folders
Single blade folders are extremely lightweight and useful around camp. If weight is your primary concern, a small single bladed folding knife like the Gerber LST is your lightest option. If you are looking for something a little larger but still lightweight, look at Spyderco's family of FRN handled knives from the Dragonfly to the Endura.
My everyday carry knife is a 93 mm Spyderco Rescue and generally what I keep in my pocket for a day hike. Though most backpackers like the security of a folding lock blade knife, be advised that in some localities and countries, the UK for example, locking knives are illegal. Of course you should consult local laws before carrying any type of knife.
From the iconic Swiss army knife to the bone crushing knife-pliers-toolbox combo, the multi-bladed tool is a backpacking staple. If you are looking for something that is primarily a knife, go with a Victorinox or Wenger Swiss Army knife if you are looking for something that is primarily a tool - go with a multi-tool.
Many multi-tools on the market are built for the rigors of everyday industrial use, but in the backpacking world lightweight simplicity is better. Remember that Aron Ralston used a dull multi-tool to amputate his arm, so you never know when or how you will need it.
When long-distance backpackers ask me what kind of knife they should carry - I always suggest a small multi-tool. As someone who experiences the rigors of living in the backcountry for weeks (or more) you are going to need more than just a blade can provide. Eventually you will need to open a can, repair your stove, perform pack surgery, or find a beer without a twist top.
Multipurpose Backpacking Survival Knives
I know you are picturing the hollow handled survival knives with ineffective compasses and dangerous sheaths that breech concertina wire. However, backpackers don't need such unwieldy things as our survival knives are smaller, lighter, and much more practical.
Many of the backpacking survival knives merge a cutting blade, a whistle, and maybe a firestarter or a flashlight. Though I wouldn't use the ferrocerium rods that come with these knives as your primary ignition source for making fire, it does make an excellent emergency backup that you carry at all times.
Perhaps the best feature is the emergency whistle found on these knives. Sure you can always yell for help, but for how long and how far does your voice carry anyway?
I discovered neck knives over fifteen years ago while at a French and Indian War reenactment in Oswego. I purchased a small hand forged patch knife that sat tightly in a rawhide sheath and came with a long lanyard to wear around the neck. As I camped and trekked in my traditional longhunter garb quite often then, I found how quickly the neck knife was to deploy. In fact I used the smaller knife much more often than the one in my sash.
Soon, I found that present day knife makers still made neck knives using modern materials. Besides superior steel, these knives differ from their antique counterparts in the sheath retention system. Modern neck knife sheaths are made of a hard molded plastic like Kydex, which holds the knife upside down until tugged. My first neck knife and one that I still carry, mainly because I bought three, was the Cold Steel Para Edge. I carried one of those knives on my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and once it even saved my life, for more on that Check out "Crossing the Gully: An Adirondack Adventure." Today, I own an assortment of neck knives from Cold Steel, CRKT, Boker, and Esee.
Though the Cold Steel is a favorite when lightweight backpacking, when I feel I am doing something a little more rugged like search and rescue I opt for my Esee Izula. The Izula is one tough little knife, I've actually split firewood before and then used it for some impromptu wood carving. It is nicely balanced for solid knife work, albeit it is heavier than most other models.
Sheath Knives for Backpacking
Though all neck knives are sheath knives, in this category we'll explore larger belt carried knives. Though there may be some environments where a large heavy duty sheath knife is required, we'll talk about a few options that are viable for standard backpacking trips.
One problem you may have is how to carry a belt mounted sheath knife while wearing your pack's hip belt. One option is just to toss it in your pack, but if you are in a situation where you need a knife you won't want to dig for it.
More options for carrying sheath knives on the outside of the pack, is to use a military drop leg platform. These are inexpensive and can accommodate most knives. Another option, is to attach the knife to the shoulder strap of your backpack with ranger bands or pieces of bicycle inner tube.
Budget Sheath Knife Pick: UST ParaKnife
For the last couple of years, I've been carrying the ParaKnife 4.0 from Ultimate Survival Technologies on my hikes. It is lightweight enough to justify it in the pack yet robust enough to baton through wood. In an emergency, unravel the paracord wrapped handle to unveil several feet of useful cordage. The edge is good enough for simple carving and the serrations rip through tough materials like heavy rope.
This knife is available by itself with a nylon sheath, though I carry the kit. The kit has a pouch with a mini survival kit. Included in the kit, is a fire starter, flashlight, whistle, mirror and compass. The mesh pouch on the back also holds a mylar space blanket. If you have that knife kit on your belt, you'll always have enough to make it though the night.
The Perfect Combination
Though many of us lightweight fanatics abhor duplicating our equipment, I will make an exception when it comes to knives. Maybe it is something that came from 18th century reenacting where everyone carries a half-dozen knives or maybe it comes from years of backcountry experience, but I usually carry two.
The primary knife I carry is a neck knife worn around my neck (duh) and is always handy. It is what I use for cooking, cutting, and occasionally cutting myself loose from a sled. As a secondary knife I carry a small multi-tool like the 1.8 oz. Leatherman Style PS with small pliers. The pliers serve as a great pot grabber, plus there are still fold out scissors for trimming moleskin. I found that this is a great combination and provides a backup tool in case of extreme emergencies. Remember that the knife is one of the 10 Outdoor Essentials for every foray into the outdoors.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Dan Human
Aaron on February 06, 2019:
I'm surprised the ka-bar Dozier didn't make the list.
Chimook on August 07, 2017:
I have carried various knives for many of my 73 years and find a 3.5-4 " blade most practical, spear point or drop point fixed blade. Inexpensive Mora knives make terrific neck knives with a little rigging intimation. I have expensive Randall made fighting knives and find them impractical for camp chores and for gutting a deer or small game or cleaning a fish and heavy on the belt over time.
Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on February 05, 2014:
I love canoe camping, once you portage back once or twice - you'll get solitude and a peaceful setting. Isn't it great that motorboats can't make the portages? Of course, many places like Algonquin motors aren't allowed anyway.
The Swedish firesteel is a good method of making fire, as they'll work when wet and add a bit of the primitive into the mix. They do take a little practice though - try igniting cotton balls soaked in vaseline as a firestarter.
While paddling, I usually carry three knives. The first is a small leatherman multitool that stays in my pack for doing repairs, cutting moleskin and for use as a potgrabber. The second is my ESEE Izula neck knife that stay around my neck - that is my camp chore knife for sharpening sticks etc. The third is a small fixed blade knife from CRKT that is attached to my PFD. It is handy for cutting myself out of fishing line or other tangles in an emergency. As it is stainless, it is also my food prep knife.
Good paddling to you and thanks for commenting.
JessBraz from Canada on February 01, 2014:
Wonderfully informative hub, Dan!
My husband and I are avid campers. This past summer we purchased ourselves a canoe, so we can finally start doing portages and experiencing a little bit "rougher" camping in backcountry locations.
The first item on my "backcountry/portaging" wishlist, was my canoe, which I now have... And I got item number 2 as a Christmas gift this year: Fire. :) Well, the ability to light fires wherever necessary. It's the Swedish FireSteel 2.0 "Light My Fire" firestarter. Next item on my wishlist: A knife.
I've done a little bit of searching online. Mostly on Outdoors Stores websites (Cabelas, Bass Pro Shops, etc.) but since I didn't really know what to look for, I got frustrated. I don't want to just pick a knife at random... This hub was perfect for me. :) I had never even considered getting a knife that you wore around your neck. When I'm ready to purchase my knife, I'll definitely come back here for reference material. I think I'm also going to take a gander at your 10 Outdoor Essentials hub. See if there's any items I'm missing from my "backpacking wish list"
Cheers! Voted up!
JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on June 23, 2013:
Spyderco is a great blade for boat enthusiasts. The ergonomic design is just splendid.
Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on June 21, 2013:
Thanks GetitScene! As far as a boating knife, I'd have to include the Spyderco SALT series of knives, as they offer a high degree of corrosion resistance even in salt water.
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on June 21, 2013:
Excellent advice. I am thinking of writing something similar for boaters.
Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on June 21, 2013:
It seems like we all have our favorite knives. It makes sense as they are all extremely personal and often reflect the personality of the user. I have a few Smith and Wesson knives myself and never had an issue with them.
Thanks for commenting jpcmc!
JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on June 21, 2013:
Great info my friend. I usually have my S&W Extreme Ops with me. It's really handy outdoors. As long as it's easy to deploy and durable, it will be useful.
Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on May 30, 2013:
I sometimes carry a larger knife too, depending on where I am going. If I plan on whacking brush or using it to build a survival shelter, I definitely want a stouter and longer blade.
ketage from Croatia on May 30, 2013:
Cool Hub, and nice knife collection :)
I agree, it is not necessary to carry a gigantic knife while hiking, the one I carry is about 6 inches and that is more then large enough for my needs.
The only time I have carried larger, was when hiking in the Malaysian jungle, the brush gets so thick that you sometimes need to use a machete to clear the path.
Sergemaster on May 13, 2012:
Dan I think you'll like the Folts Minimalist, it fits perfectly in the hand, and weighs next to nothing. The only thing I would change is I dropped the 550 chord and upgraded to a ball chain similar to those used for wearing dog tags. Not that 550 chord is a bad thing, I just don't dig it around my neck for a variety of reasons.
CRTK is now licensed to manufacture the minimalist line, but I went with a "real deal" made by Alan himself from an online cutlery shop for about $100.00.
These are made from a much higher quality steel, and better yet, it's an original Folts!
As for Cold Steel, I used to use a Beavertail but it was just too BIG for use as a necker even though it was designed to be used as one.
Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on May 13, 2012:
A friend of mine carries the Folts as his everyday carry knife as an EMT. I've been thinking of getting one myself as it is a little lighter on the neck than my Izula.
Oh, I've seen "backpackers" myself here in the Northeast that have gone a little overkill in their knife choice too.
Last year, I saw a bogged down hiker in the
Adirondack High Peaks with a Ka-bar knife on his waist belt and a full-size axe hanging off his pack. I'm not sure what the axe was for, it is illegal to start fires in that region and he wasn't part of a trail maintenance team.
Thanks for reading and commenting Sergemaster!
Sergemaster on May 12, 2012:
Dittos on a great article. As a fellow hiker, backpacker, and fellow "knife nut", I've carried just about every type of fixed or folder that's out there. And the same can be said in the multitool department.
Recently I've come to the conclusion that less is more, and nowadays I settle for a Folts Minimalist Necker with a Warncliff style blade, supplanted by a Leatherman Juice S2. Both are extremely lightweight and fully functional.
On some of the trials I've used I've encountered hikers carrying a plethora of knives that went from being functional to being out right scary. One time I encountered a fellow hiker that had on his back of all things a machete!
This happened on a trail with NYC a mere 40+ miles away and visible in the distance from our elevation, not in the deepest rain forests of the Amazon.
Being located here also on the East Coast where the attack from wild Indians, lions, tigers, or even bears are at an absolute minimum at best, I find that these tools are perfectly ideal for where I tend to venture.
Now if I was going to backpack in the Pacific NW or even through one of the provinces of western Canada, I would definitely carry a hatchet, a fixed blade, and a large MT with a saw.
With that trinity of tools, I believe I could stay out and feel quite comfortable that I was adequately prepared.
Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on December 27, 2011:
Thank you David! As you know, a good knife can sometimes make all the difference between a good and a bad outdoor experience.
David Legg 7 from Trout Paradise, Colorado on December 26, 2011:
That is fantastic hub, with such diverse information. Great research and experience are both evident in your work here, and I applaud you. Nice sense of humor as well...
Thank you for the excellent work!