The Essential Backpacking Knife
When you go into the wilderness for any length of time, it’s never a bad idea to carry a knife with you. Not so much for protection, but for utility purposes. The handiness of a knife in the woods is invaluable, yet it never ceases to amaze me how many people end up asking to borrow mine while I’m out there. Seeing as how knives are viewed as weapons just as easily as they are viewed as tools, it’s not hard to understand some people’s reluctance to carry them (some carry scissors instead). Regardless of your personal views on knives and how they relate to wilderness backpacking, there is a bit of a gray area when it comes to hiking with a knife… how much knife is enough knife? And how much knife is too much knife?
(This is how I imagined myself before my first thru hike)
I’ve seen everything from machetes hanging on belt loops; to K-bars strapped to people’s thighs; to tiny pocket knives no bigger than a pinky finger during my time on trails (I’ve even seen a samurai sword once). The question remains, what size knife is just right, and what’s overkill?
I’ll go ahead and clear the air right now… machetes and large combat type knives ARE overkill. In 7,000 miles of hiking (so far), I have never found myself needing a machete or a combat knife (except maybe that one time when there was a ton of Poison Ivy :’-/ ) You’re not going to build a cabin. You’re not going to fight a bear or a wild boar (I hope). You’re not going to get into a random gypsy hand to hand knife fight for control of the clan. And you’re not going to trail blaze a new path to parts unknown (or maybe you are?). What you will use a knife for on trail is… Cutting cheese, summer sausage, or perhaps a bagel. Opening a stubborn package of food. Whittling sticks by the fire. Shaving bark off damp fire wood. Cutting some string, cord, or other material. Bloodletting yourself from sickness or a snakebite (just kidding!). Cleaning a fish if you’re the type who likes to fish while on trail (I am). And maybe, maybe, mayyyybeee as a form of self defense or a deterrent in the very rare case that something does happen to you. That’s about it.
(Don’t be this guy)
With the main practical uses of a knife while wilderness backpacking (not wilderness surviving) listed, all that’s left for you to do is decide which (if any) of those activities might apply to you; then choose a knife that suits your purposes, as well as your tolerance for extra weight. What sort of knife shouts your name when you look at it? A folding pocket knife? A neck knife? A multi tool? A straight edged knife? A knife with a guthook? A serrated knife? Or perhaps a straight edge/serrated combo? With knife fighting, hog stickin’, cabin building, and bushwhacking off the table… you’ll know the right trail knife for you when you see it (and hold it), based on your own comfort levels, interests, and applications.
(Definitely don’t be this guy either…)
For example: I am a whittler, a fisherman, and an active campfire builder in almost any weather condition (you can shave the bark off recently wet sticks to build a fire in damp conditions). Personally, I prefer a knife that can do it all, without being too much to lug around. A sturdy three to four inch blade is MORE than enough to accomplish those tasks, plus much more (even self defense if it came to it). I might also add that I prefer a fixed blade knife as opposed to a folding knife; no moving parts, so there is less to potentially break, weaken, or fail. Having said all that; if you plan to do as much, or less with your knife, then it doesn’t need to be any bigger, or even as big as that. A knife with a three to four inch blade is going to be around seven to eight inches long overall (even when opened if it’s a folding knife), and that’s plenty big as it is. Any larger and you’ll be straying into “BFK” (Big F***ing Knife) territory.
(Be this guy 🙂 Cleaning a fish, minding his own business)
Without spending a lifetime going into the different types of knives that exist, as well as their myriad of applications; I’m going to provide a diverse list of knives that could serve you perfectly well on trail, as well as other areas of your life. These are not recommendations so much as they are visual examples (although these are great knives). You can go anywhere on the internet and find a knife that looks like another knife that performs the same tasks while weighing and costing less or more. This is just to show you the sizes, styles, and weights that will get you by out there perfectly fine.
(I used this knife on the AT and the PCT. For the price, utility, and durability – I’ve never found a better all around knife. I’ve whittled, skinned and cleaned small animals/fish, dug up edibles, cut cheese and sausage, cut rope, and fashioned whole walking staffs with this knife. I can’t say enough good things about it, and it only weighs a few ounces with the sheath)
(This is the cousin to the Canadian Belt Knife above. Same durability, same value, similar weight; just a different style that might appeal more or less to you than other styles)
(If you consistently hike with a belt, this a great knife for light, easy, and discreet carrying)
(A very small and light fixed blade knife you can keep in your pack or wear around your neck)
(When it comes to small, light and functional, it doesn’t get much better than the Sherpa Neck Knife. It weighs just over an ounce and can perform most tasks you can think of. Very low profile to wear around your neck or keep in your pack)
(The Genesis is a bit on the pricey side, but I was given one as a gift and I fell in love with it. I wore this around my neck for my CDT hike and found it incredibly useful and effective when cleaning fish, whittling, and cutting my bagels to make sandwiches. This is easily the sharpest knife I’ve ever owned; made in America and weighing less than 3 ounces)
(This style of small pocket knife is one of the most popular amongst ultralight backpackers. It weighs virtually nothing, yet it can perform most tasks you can think of)
(Slightly larger version of the pocket knife above. Still weighs next to nothing, yet you can perform a few more tasks than it’s smaller cousin)
(If you’re the MacGyver type, then you might look into more of a multi tool type knife and be ready for any task that might present itself to you. There are plenty more versions of multi tools out there than this one, it’s up to you to decide what you need)
(Just about everyone is familiar with Swiss Army Knives. Their value and practicality is undeniable, even when it comes to backpacking)
(This is a simple, light folding knife that comes with a straight/serrated combo option. I’d say this is probably the second most popular style of knife amongst lightweight backpackers. You can find about a million options/versions of this kind of knife anywhere you look. Gerber, along with many other companies is a trusted brand)
(For those of you who can’t stand the thought of carrying a knife, I didn’t forget about you! These are the scissors to end all scissors. Survival/Paramedic Shears; I have a pair of these that I use for fishing. They weight very little and can cut almost anything. Fun Fact: you can cut a penny in half with these scissors… I’ve done it)