How to Choose a Knife for BackpackingPublished on 07/06/2021 · 7 min readIn this guide to backpacking knives, Camping & Hiking expert Kat Keith shares everything you need to know about knives and multi-tools on the trail.
Photo courtesy of Kat Keith
When trying to determine the best backpacking knife for you, we need first to consider the myriad uses of a hiking knife. You may peel and chop food with your knife, prepare fires, perform other general bushcraft, or even keep it close for self-defense. You may laugh at self-defense; I have heard it before.
While solo hiking on the PCT in the San Bernardino Mountains, two mountain lions trapped me on the trail near sunset. I had to bushwhack down a hillside, cutting across switchbacks where I then stumbled upon a snake. It was not an ideal situation! As I tried not to run, I took out my titanium ice ax and my puny 2” folding knife. These tools certainly wouldn’t help much had the mountain lions decided to take greater offense to my presence. Still, they significantly reduced my level of panic at being so otherwise helpless and weak.
I love knives and most often carry two different styles with me. My rural Alaska lifestyle and background as a commercial fisherman, professional dog musher, and camper has taught me that you ALWAYS need a knife around; your safety depends on it. I usually carry a fixed blade knife on my belt with a small folding knife in my pocket somewhere. On extended backpacking trips or when traveling in remote and unpopulated backcountry, I also bring a multi-tool. Therefore, I consider a lot of perspectives when reviewing knives for backpacking.
In general, your activities might not demand that you need a tactical survival knife with you. However, with critical tools such as your one and only knife, lightweight is not always the best.
How Do You Carry It?
First, a couple of things about knives: it doesn’t do you any good to keep your knife buried deep mixed in with gear in your backpack. Find a system that works for you where the knife is accessible, such as in a fanny pack or zippered jacket pocket. A larger fixed blade can be carried on your belt, on a string around your neck, or if you want to keep it on your back, put it in the top compartment for fast access. You could affix a loop of paracord to the knife and use a carabiner but be mindful you are at risk of losing your knife if your system fails anywhere.
Injuries can be troublesome when far out on the trail. When handling knives, practice basic safety. Cut with the sharp edge pointing away from you. If you aren’t comfortable handling knives (and even if you are), wearing gloves can help you maintain a solid grip on a slippery handle. That is partly why picking knives is personal; you want the handle to fit correctly in your hands for proper leverage.
There are so many backpacking knives on the market because there are endless aspects to consider, including the blade length, style, and material, handle material and surface markings, blade material, locking method, durability, weight, and cost.
Consider how often you think, “If I only I had a knife handy.” What types of things did you want it for? Cutting rope, making kindling, slicing meat, or opening packages? Or do you wish you had a Phillips screwdriver for repairs, can opener, scissors, bottle opener, Ferro rod, serrated knife, and straight edge? Your use determines the best tool for you.
For a bit more money, you can get a high-quality blade that will be rustproof, lightweight, and strong. Stainless steel, rust-resistant, and carbon blades, easiest to sharpen and more robust than stainless, are the most dependable. Keep in mind that carbon blades can rust and should be treated accordingly to keep dry.
A knife handle with a textured grip and finger grooves increases the safety of operation considerably when you are not wearing gloves. The way a blade opens and locks is also important. To release the blade on a folding knife, you may need one or two hands, depending on the locking style.
Regarding cost, a backpacking knife is an investment. If you don’t plan on carrying it very much, a cheaper blade will undoubtedly get you by. A quality lightweight multi-tool, such as a Leatherman, can cost close to $200. These are heirloom items, and you might have it in your possession for decades, as my dad does his.
Testing Your Knife
There are a few old-school tests to figure out which blade performs the best. A cardboard cutting speed test: how long does it take to cut through a section of cardboard? A sharpness test: how easily does the knife cut through a piece of printer paper? A fire test: how many strikes on a Ferro rod from the back of the knife’s spine does it take to ignite your tinder pile?
Are you looking for some direct recommendations?
If you seek a multi-tool, the Victorinox Swiss Army Swiss Champ is rated by many to be the best multi-tool on the market. Coming in under $90, this brilliantly designed tool has 33 functions, all made with stainless for rust resistance, and weighs 6.5 oz. You can never predict when you need a particular tool or gadget. Once you carry this on your person for a couple of weeks, you will be amazed how you ever got on without one. These multi-tools have a lifetime warranty as well.
Folding Knife Options
The Spyderco Honeybee weighs only 0.56 ounces and has a 1.625” 3cr13 stainless steel blade. This is a remarkable ultralight backpacking knife for under $30; just keep in mind that this is a barebones knife. While extremely sharp, it isn’t the fastest cutting tool, nor is it the safest due to the lack of a locking mechanism and slick handle. It also doesn’t have much of a spine to strike on your Ferro rod. The 3cr13 steel is good for the price and has high corrosion resistance.
The best value for your money, also under $30, great for those not looking to invest much in a folding knife right now, is the Opinel No8. The easy-to-sharpen 3.28” blade is made from Sandvik modified stainless steel. You can get the handle with beech, olive, walnut, or oak wood. This design has remained unchanged since 1890. Weighing only 2 oz, a twisting locking ring offers increased safety. This won’t perform like a more premium option but is a capable knife and promising addition to your collection.
A lightweight, high-quality knife is the Spyderco Delica 4, around $120, which gives you a 2.875” VG-10 mostly-carbon blade for 2.5 oz. The handle is fiberglass and texture for traction and ergonomics. A large opening hole gives confidence when opening the very razor-sharp blade one-handed. The spine also works well for starting fires with your Ferro rod.
Fixed Blade Options
If you are a heavy-duty user, the ESEE Izula II is a solid fixed blade backpacking knife choice for $75. At 3.2 oz, it is heavier than the Honeybee but has a longer 1095 carbon steel blade (2.63”). You can remove the handle of this knife and reduce the weight by replacing it with a paracord wrap.
The ESEE 6 ($175) and the Ka-Bar Becker BK2 Campanion ($135) offer excellent value. The ESEE 6 blade is 5.75” and is made out of 1095 carbon steel adding to the overall strength that this knife provides. At 12 oz, this is more of a wilderness survival situation and a tactical blade than what you would picture as a backpacking knife. So, it depends on where you are backpacking.
The Becker Campanion is similar in style to the ESEE 6P but is heavier (16oz) with a slightly shorter blade (5.25”). The glass-filled lightweight nylon sheath sets this blade apart. Both blades are great for camping chores such as splitting kindling.
What Is the Best?
All considerations aside, the best backpacking knife is a personal choice. It is one that you will regularly use and carry. Perhaps, like me, you have a sentimental knife given to you by dad that you’ve used daily for ten years. It might weigh more than an ounce, as deemed proper by ultralight hiking standards, but it is one that you pay attention to where you place it and look forward to using. That is the best backpacking knife for you.
Of course, you have the support of Curated Camping & Hiking experts standing by to help you make this decision. When ready to get your backpacking knife or multi-tool, reach out and let us help find the perfect knife for you.