We've all been told that a knife is one of those "essentials" we need to take on any hiking or camping trip. Most of the time they get used for slicing dinner ingredients, or maybe cutting off a length of cord for a laundry line - but when things go wrong you may need your knife to help you build a shelter, hunt, or fix your gear.
There are a ridiculous number of options out there when it comes to buying a knife. And today's post comes to you thanks to my partner G, who has spent a lot of time learning about knives and which ones are best for which tasks. He took me through the main types of knives you may take camping or hiking with you, and their pros and cons. If you have a favourite knife to bring along, leave a comment and let me know what it is and why it's the best!
A fixed blade knife is not often the first choice for campers. The fact that it doesn't fold up means that you'll need a sheath or other carrying case - and that means extra weight. But a fixed blade is inherently stronger because there is one piece of metal that continues from the blade straight through the handle (inside the comfort grip) called the "tang". You may not always need that kind of strength - but if you found yourself actually depending on a knife for survival, you'd want one that wasn't likely to snap in half!
The knife pictured on top has a certain "Rambo" appeal with the serrated top and upturned "clipped point" blade. However, it is heavy and the thin tip is likely to break off under pressure. The bottom knife blade has a much stronger and more practical shape for general use, with a "dropped point".
Gimmicks like hollow blades to make the knife lighter also make it weaker, so if you don't want to carry anything heavy, you'll be sacrificing dependability in exchange for weight.
Single folding bladeA knife which folds is more convenient for hitting the trails since it will fit in a pocket and be lighter. The weak point of the folding knife is obviously the hinge. However, a single folding blade like the ones in the photo often come with a locking mechanism to prevent the blade from folding shut while in use. This is a handy feature that often isn't found on inexpensive camping knives.
The blades on the knives pictured are substantially bigger than you would find on a standard Swiss Army or Leatherman type of tool. This makes them more useful for big jobs like cutting branches, gutting fish, skinning an animal, etc. Again, these might not be tasks you need to do on an average camping trip, but if you were lost or hurt, it could be the difference between being able to put together a makeshift leg splint or not.
MultitoolThe multitool (Leatherman is the best known brand) has many uses. Most models come with an array of blades, screwdrivers, pliers, wire cutters etc. for fixing a wide variety of items. However, they are usually not designed with camping in mind. The knife blades tend to be small and narrow, which means that they are not suited to tough jobs. Many of the other tools (screwdrivers come to mind) are unlikely to be needed on a camping or hiking trip.
Where multitools are really handy is a trip with lots of equipment that may need repair. So if you are on a long cycling trek, mountaineering, or on any big expedition, I expect you will want one of these on hand to fix mechanical faults. For general camping, I don't see them being worth their weight, which is significant.
"Swiss Army" knifeFor me, the Swiss Army style of knife has always been a part of camping. The array of models available these days is a bit overwhelming. You can get everything from a magnifying glass to a USB drive on your knife. But the more toys attached to a knife, the heavier it gets.
For my money, the best tools to have on a camping knife of this type are a good blade (all come with 1-2 small blades), a saw for cutting small branches (the knife blades are too small for this) and an awl for punching holes and making small repairs to packs or other gear.
Of course, the can opener can be useful if you cook from cans, and the corkscrew seems to be unavoidable for some reason! The tweezers can also come in handy, although they are not the most effective tweezers around. Usually they'll do in a pinch when a sliver of wood is making life miserable.
Swiss Army knives are probably not great survival tools with their small, easily dulled blades. But their small size, light weight and low price will probably keep them at the top of the popularity charts for most campers and hikers. And as long as nothing goes too badly wrong - they'll certainly do the trick.
Of course a knife is only as good as it is sharp, so in a future post I'll talk about how to sharpen a knife.