The Best Knives for Backpacking: Choosing the Right Outdoor Knife
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 ParaKnife 4.0 kit includes a great economical knife and a mini survival kit.
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.
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© 2011 Dan Human