If you are a serious backpacker, or plan to be one, your backpacking blade is one of the most essential tools you will carry.
A knife worth it’s salt is a versatile tool that will allow you to perform countless important tasks that will dictate whether you have a successful backpacking trip or not. In this article you will find everything you need to know to select the right knife to take with you on the trail.
Backpacking Knife Types
There are two primary types of knives used by backpackers, fixed blade and lock blade knives.
Swiss army knives will also be a serviceable tool for light backpacking and camping tasks.
Lock Blade Knives
Lock blade knives are the larger of the two types of knives. They are also known as folding hunter knives. These are very safe and useful knives that are perfect for the rigors of even long distance backpacking adventures.
Because of the size of these knives they don’t fit comfortably in the pocket and are generally carried in a belt sheath.
Mechanically the lock blade is very sound, they work with a blade that pivots on a pin. This joint does create a point of weakness which could lead to a break if heavy leverage is placed on it.
Like any folding knife, a lock back blade can accumulate gunk and debris that can inhibit it’s smooth open and close. Luckily they are easy to clean and can be submerged in a stream or lake and dried.
Bolters – Usually are comprised of steel, nickel, silver or brass
Surfaces – All the metal surfaces should be smooth
Spring Action – The spring mechanism should be strong and snappy. It should hold it’s position firmly.
Blade – When locked in the open position the blade should be locked in place and strong. No play should be felt when pressure is applied.
Fixed Blade Knives
Fixed blade knives offer great strength and are a very popular backpacking knife style and have been for many decades.
Because the blade is fixed you can easily reach for and use your knife with one hand unlike the lock blade folding style, which often requires two hands to open.
The simple rigid blade design makes these knives capable of being incredibly strong and a high quality knife will likely last you a lifetime.
These knives are almost always carried in a sheath worn on a belt. On the downside, the length of these knives can get in the way at times when sheathed at your side.
There are countless times my sheathed knife has been caught on a random branch while hiking through the forest. But the overall amazing performance of these knives more than makes up for this relatively minor inconvenience.
Grind Lines – They should be even and parallel on the blades faces
Blade Finish – Blades should be smooth
Fittings – The guards, butt caps, and pins should be defect free and set well
Handle – The handle should be completely flush with the blade guard, butt caps and tang. The handle should be crack free and uniform throughout
Tang – There are many different designs out there. The strongest tangs are fully contoured
Backpacking Blade Types
Choosing your blade type is less a science than an art. Much of what you find desirable in a blade will depend on your personal taste and the type of work you’ll be most using your knife for.
Many backpackers prefer a long blade, usually five to seven inches. These workhorses can perform all but the most delicate of cuts. I use mine for everything from whittling make shift tent poles to field dressing game and preparing dinner.
A smaller blade, two to four inches, will generally offer you greater control over your knife.
I personally carry both a lock back and a fixed blade knife and I rarely find a situation one of these knives cannot handle.
If you want to go with one blade to start I suggest getting a four inch blade as it is the most versatile length when out on the trail.
Most knives you will see are either flat ground or hollow ground. A flat ground knife will have sides that taper inward at the edges of the blade. These knives are very strong.
Hollow ground knives have the look of a concave blade creating a more delicate blade which is usually lighter weight.
There are a number of quality handle materials available. You can find handles in traditional materials such as stag, bone, wood, antler to modern synthetic materials.
I would avoid most metal handles as they can become slippery in outdoor situations.
Backing Knife Maintenance
- Avoid storing your knife in it’s sheath. Some blade materials may turn green or even rust.
- Always wipe your blade down with oil when done using. Folding knives should receive hinge oil on occassion.
- Always keep a sharp edge on your blade. Blades will accumulate microscopic rust spots when in storage. A simple leather stropping is all that is needed to remove these rust spots.
- If you have a leather sheath, oil it occasionally with leather cream or Neatsfoot oil.
A strong backpacking knife is easily the most prized tool in my pack. With the right knife you can survive in the woods with almost no other tools. Because of how frequently you will be using your knife it is important to go with a style that is designed to handle the particular needs of the serious backpacker.