How Much Knife Do You Need?

SOG in a tree

When it comes to knives there are only two types of people – knife fanatics and everyone else. As much as I like my knives, I probably still fall into the “everyone else” category. If you are a knife fanatic, then everything I am about to say will most likely upset or offend you, but please hear me out.

I’ve reviewed quite a lot of different makes and models of knives on my blog over the last few years and my posts about knives continue to attract a lot of my overall web traffic (I mentioned the fanatics right?). However, my use and demands of a knife or cutting tool in general have changed significantly over that time too, to point where I am now taking a more careful look at weight vs functionality, something I was never too concerned with (read as ‘willing to compromise’) when it came to my trusty blade.

I’m not going to provide a detailed review of each and every knife that I mention in this post, I’ve done that with several of them already and many of the others have been reviewed extensively elsewhere (and better than I ever could – check out nutnfancy on YouTube). Instead, I want to give you some background on the knives I’ve used and how I arrived at the point I am currently at.

A Little Background
When I began backpacking gear was much heavier. My pack, my tent, my sleeping bag, everything was heavier than it is now. The technologies and materials that enable much the ultralight gear that we all now have and lust after were not around. I didn’t obsess about shaving ounces off of my gear like I do now. Back then I used to carry a sheath knife as my primary cutting tool. It was a medium sized no-name brand knife that I probably picked up at an army surplus store somewhere. It did the job, wasn’t light weight, but it was what I had and was always with me.

About the same time as I started getting more into backpacking, the first Rambo movie was released. Do you remember that? Suddenly knives got a lot bigger and the survivalist mentality started to seep into the outdoor community. Everyone thought that they needed a huge knife to survive in the woods despite having never been in a situation where they had done much more than open a packet of food or cut rope with their knife. My handy sheath knife was now much more than a piece of gear, it was a tool, a weapon, it was my life line.

Sheath Knives

That was a very long time ago, but I mention it because it is a mentality that has stuck with me for a very long time and has been extremely hard to shake off. For so many years I’ve favored full tang knives and survival knives over smaller or folding knives simply because I’ve been concerned that in a life or death situation I may need a knife that can penetrate a car door or be used to pry apart thick wooden beams and still like a tomato without squashing it. But guess what? I’ve never been in a situation where I have needed to do that in over thirty years!

That quite recent realization has forced me to take another look at what I really need a knife or cutting tool to do for me while I’m out on the trail. So for the last few months I’ve kept careful track of when and what I used my knife to do while backpacking. The results were quite surprising, to me at least.

Revelation
I discovered that my most frequent use of a knife, while backpacking at least, was to cut/slice open a packet of something. That could be a packet of freeze dried food, some small packets of food ingredients, or other sealed packs generally food related. Quite the manly task eh? My next most common use of a knife was to cut cord. Spectra cord, paracord, Triptease, or Dacron line. After those two top activities the rest of my cutting needs included things like sharpening my pencil, digging out splinters or just plain whittling for fun. Not a whole lot of heavy duty tasks.

Pocket Knives & Multitools

That blew my mind. No slicing through carcasses, making spears, or splitting limb sized logs – just very small, precise cutting tasks. So why was I so fixated with large, robust, bomb-proof knives? Who knows. The data just didn’t support my need to carry around such a huge blade.

There will probably come a time where I genuinely do need a substantial, strong knife to perform some gnarly task that a smaller knife can’t do, but will it be a life or death situation? I hope not. I may be going out on a limb, but I’ve come to the conclusion (supported by a little bit of data) that I can carry a much smaller knife when backpacking and still be perfectly safe and prepared.

So How Much Knife is Enough?
I decided to take a closer look at the knives that I use on a regular basis (I own quite a few more than these) in order to determine what best suited my newly discovered cutting requirements. I put together two simple lists to help with my pseudo research. First I weighed my knives, then I compared their functions and blade lengths. Here’s what I came up with.

Comparison sorted by overall weight:

Comparison sorted by primary blade length:

As you would expect, the fixed blade, full-tang knives easily topped the list for weight and the small folding knives had the smallest blades. I wanted to find the best trade-off between weight and blade/functions.

I decided to stop carrying my fixed blade knives for the time being. They’re heavy and definitely overkill for the tasks I typically have to perform on the trail. That left me with the folding knives and two multi-tools. I should mention that my current every day carry (EDC) knife is a Benchmade Mini-Griptillian, but it’s not listed because I tend not to take it with me when I go hiking.

Of the folding knives that I have carried backpacking, the Spyderco Delica 4 is by far my favorite. Superb quality, reliability, and edge retention. I’ve carried a Delica as my EDC for the past 14 years without a problem. But even as good as my folding knives are, I like having the additional functions that come with my multi-tools – specifically the scissors and pliers.

Multi-Tools

The super small and lightweight Victorinox (Swiss Army) Classic has a great quality main blade albeit tiny. It’s also the only folding knife that I have that comes with a neat little pair of scissors, ideal for my primary task of opening up packets! I know other backpackers, such as Philip Werner (Sectionhiker), that carry the Victorinox Classic as their primary blade/tool, but I’m still not quite at the point where I can go that small with my primary knife. I do like to carry one on my car keys though :-)

Once I had made the decision that I wanted a blade plus other tools like pliers and scissors it narrowed the field down to just two. My Leatherman Juice S2 and my smaller Gerber Clutch. As I said the Victorinox Classic has a great little pair of scissors, but it’s just too small IMHO.

Pocket Multitools

The Gerber Clutch is a nice smaller sized multi-tool, I was given this one as a present, but it’s not particularly high quality – an issue I have with a lot of Gerber knives in general. The Clutch also does not have a pair of scissors. The Leatherman Juice S2 on the other hand is exceptionally well made. It has a decent size primary blade at 2.6 inches made from reasonably good quality steel. It has a full size pair of pliers with wire cutters and because I have the S2 model, it comes has a really good pair of scissors with a cutting length of 1.25 inches!

The Juice S2 is definitely not the lightest option that I could carry, but based on the jobs that I need a knife to perform on a regular basis it’s the most perfectly suited to the task, at least based on the knives that I own. Who knows what other knives I might buy in the future, it’s a dirty habit.

So I’ve settled on the Juice S2 as my go to knife/cutting tool for the foreseeable future. Is it truly an ultralight option, nope! But it is a significant move in the right direction for me and about as far as I’m willing to go at this point.  If my needs of a knife continue to stay simple I may adjust further. I have my eye on the smaller Leatherman Squirt PS4 as a potential successor to the Juice and my REI dividend check just arrived – but we’ll see! What type of knife or multi-tool do you carry with you as your primary backpacking knife?

Be Sociable, Share!
  • http://www.takealonghike.com/ Ray Anderson

    I’ll save this as my last reference on knives. Good job.
    I love my small, blue, “Leatherman Micra.” It has scissors, tweezers, philips/regular screw drivers, picks, opener, file, and a sharp blade. Plus an english and metric scale inscribed on the outside finish, which can be useful with maps. I used in on the A.T. and PCT, and it is still in excellent condition.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08943032032409466718 Patrick

    Ahhh…I love knives. My brother custom designs and makes knives. Of course you need a horse to carry one of them. I have always ad a knife close to me at all times. I carry a small folding Gerber in my pocket. I keep Ka-Bar “Last-Ditch” boot knife in the backpack I carry everywhere. I keep a police issued Rescue Knife with a seat belt cutter and window break. And I carry a Mora #2 in the woods. I am of the opinion that as with most things, culure drives what people carry. Is the Mora to much knife? Probably! Is it cool to show off? Oh yeah! Practical? Some. All the “bushcrafties” carry them. Why? Is it a standard? No, it’s a culture. Yesterday it may have been the Military Ka-Bar or the “Rambo” knife, today it’s the Mora and tomorrow? Who knows…but you can believe I will have one! :)If that made any sense. I believe what people carry is driven my culture more than practicality, usefulness or preference. Basically…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09364636677279037964 Mattexian

    Since Blogger ate my comment, I’ll try to summarize it again.
    My only knife for many years in Scouts was a Victorinox Adventurer sidelock, and it served me well on many trips, including opening cans of cobbler filling on the trail that we’d won for a field contest. Now it’s been updated to the OH Soldier, with the added convenience of a one-handed opening main blade.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10286816493637692728 Andrew

    I too had a well thought out and linked comment get eaten by blogger [shaking fist]. I am a semi-reformed knife fanatic that used to carry either a Cold Steel Magnum Tanto II or a Gerber Mark II fighting knife and a Gerber Applegate-Fairbairn folder while being all I could be (Army sniper). Since then, I have pared down to carrying a mini Ka-bar and a SOG multi-tool when I go into the field. I can’t give up my sheath knife :-)

    However, tomorrow I am going pheasant hunting and taking just my Benchmade 690 wood/carbon fiber folder. Well, maybe my SOG too :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10286816493637692728 Andrew

    Oh, I forgot to mention, great post Brian. Your attention to detail is second-to-none.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    Ray, thanks. I know it was a bit of a ramble and possibly too much of an insight into my way of thinking, but I wanted to explain how I reached the decision I have. Of course that could all change tomorrow with a random knife purchase. I’ve never used the Micra, but based on what you’ve said I’ll check it out.

    Patrick, yes it makes sense. I’ve carried at least one knife with me at all times (with the exception of a few domestic flights) for the last 20 years. I feel naked without a knife of some sort. I’m doing my best to carry less, but for some reason this is one of those areas that is hard to compromise on :-)

    Matt, sorry about your comment getting gobbled up. Is the OH Soldier still a Swiss Army/Victorinox? I’ll have to Google that one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    What’s with the comments getting eaten up by Blogger – I apologize guys!

    Andrew, I love you closing comment – proof positive that you are only “semi-reformed” :-)

    As I said to Patrick, this is one of the hardest areas of backpacking gear to radically cut back on. Going to a single (small bladed) multi-tool is a huge leap of faith for me and one that will take some getting used to.

    I’m loving my Benchmade Mini-Grip too much right now to not carry it. But I’m trying, I really am…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08943032032409466718 Patrick

    Yeah, my comment got eaten as well the first time. I thought it was because I tried to send it from my Droid X though. I am rather new to backpacking. I have spent…literally a couple grand over the last year on gear…5 backpacks, 5 tents and everything in between. Some for car camping, some light weight and some ultralight. I am not 100% sold on the UL culture yet. Close though. I finally got my ULA Circuit this week and will try it out next weekend. It’s great start to UL. I weighed in at 24 lbs today. That’s without food & water. So, I will need to cut weight somewhere. My goal is to always stay under 30 lbs. Preferably between 26-28 (including food and water). So, the Mora just may have to go one day…but it’s not technically part of my pack because it’s around my neck! Ha! Loop hole! I just haven’t found the need for any “utility” knife on the trail yet. Never need a cork screw, screw driver, or steal tooth-pick (lol), etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17106432593950504039 Cody

    I have to say I am a fan of a medium knife and a small knife when I am outdoors. I like a medium sized(roughly 4″ blade) fixed blade knife for making kindling for fires, kitchen duties, etc. I then like a smaller blade(again, usually fixed) for any fine work I want to do, along with any carving I do. I also have the S2 juice, which is a FANTASTIC multi tool, wouldn’t be caught out of the house without it. :)

    Thank you for another well thought out and clearly written article. I enjoyed reading it, not just because I am a “knife guy” :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05364570358170256284 Sticky Thicket

    I’m a longtime reader, but this is my first comment (I think). I’m a bushcrafty type. I use my fixed blade (ESEE 4) for so many things that I would feel useless without it, but that is also said of my pocket knife (Case Jr. Scout). Together they give me all I need. I can understand the idea of going UL, and I started lightening several portions of my kit, but my tools will not be one of them. My axe would go before my fixed blade. Then again… We’re two different schools, you know? Backpacking and bushcraft drift into each other, marry well, but we both have different philosophies. I look forward to reading how this works out for you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    Sticky Thicket, hey thanks for taking the plunge and posting a comment. I hear you about bushcraft knives and fixed blades in general. My approach to UL backpacking isn’t to loose every possible gram and have a miserable time outdoors. I prefer to carefully consider my options and try to cut weight where it makes sense.

    For example I love my knives and still use my bushcraft knives on a regular basis, I just don’t carry them for longer hikes any more because I don’t need them. I still practice basic bushcraft skills because I enjoy it and so do my kids.

    I’ll post an update on how this works out later in the year. We’ll see how it goes :-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    Just connecting the dots. There are some great reader comments to this post happening on my Facebook fan page if you’re interested. People sure are passionate (fanatical) about their knives. Join in the conversation there too!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09364636677279037964 Mattexian

    Yes Brian, the OH Soldier is the current issue Swiss Army’s knife made by Victorinox, even stamped with the manufacture/issue year (mine’s “10″). I’d probably have more than *just* the OH Soldier on my person, as I tend to pair it with my Vic Signature Lite (a Classic with LED and pen in the scales instead of toothpick and tweezers) on my mini-tool keyring of P-38, Photon LED, Hotspark, and Sliver Grippers. This combo serves almost all of my day-to-day needs. I agree that the scissors on a Vic Classic (and similar small models, like my SigLite and others) are nearly indispensable on the trail, for the reasons you cited. Colin Fletcher recommends it for this, in his Complete Walker books, tho he sometimes thought of breaking off the nailfile in one of his UL moments of ounce-paring madness.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03497497119537996582 roleytherockstar

    Due to the good ol’ UK law, I have to carry a sub 3 inch non locking knife, I won’t spend £106.00 for Spyderco’s UK penknife in orange which is what i really want!
    I recently retired my 20 year old Victorinox Camper for the Spyderco Kiwi, I am thinking about a Boker Plus XS, which at £35.00, I think is quite reasonable.
    Any other suggestions?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    Matt, thanks for the extra information. I can’t believe that Colin would consider breaking off the nail file to save weight. That is extreme madness.

    Roley, I am originally from England (Southampton) so I am all too familiar with this “law”. Before I moved to the US in 1997, I carried an original Spyderco Delica that I had purchased online from a US dealer. I’m not suggesting you do the same, but that’s just what I carried as my EDC. I even brought it with me when I moved State side and carried it daily for another ten plus years.

    The new line of Spyderco slip-its are superb, but I have no idea why they are so expensive (captive UK market maybe?), but they are excellent quality and will last you a life time – if you can stick to just one knife :-p

    I’m a big fan of the Spyderco Wharncliffe Slip-It model, but that’s not cheap either. Boker make excellent knives at a very affordable price point.

    Do any of our other UK readers have suggestions to share?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15329904923638392138 James

    The Swiss Army Classic Knife has super handy tweezers that work fantastic for getting splinters out, a toothpick for getting out bits of beef jerky from your teeth and a handy pair of scissors. The nail file is handy to prevent yourself from accidentally ripping that $300 down sleeping bag on a hangnail. The knife blade is tiny and thin but is sufficient for what I need it for when backpacking. I prefer a stouter blade as this one is useless for even whittling IMO. That said; the durability of these knives isn’t huge – I’ve been through several of them – the scissors break eventually. Luckily they can be gotten at Wal-Mart for $10~15 so they’re essentially disposable. The larger versions of this knife are filled with useless (for backpacking) junk and are heavier and the knife blades on them are very poor quality.

  • http://sticksblog.com/ Stick

    Great review of the knives. I am not a big knife guy, so my knowledge of them are pretty limited…I know one end is to hold onto and the other is pointed (or at least should be).

    I have my 2 Mora’s that I am happy with, but honestly I have not found myself needing that much knife while on the trail. Once it comes time for my thru I will probably go with my smaller (and a little lighter) Gerber Paraframe. It is my every day knife and I have been happy with it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    James, I do like the little SAK Classic, but wouldn’t want to have to rely on it for anything more than occasional use. Like you said they do wear out fairly quickly but are affordable to replace. The Juice has much more durability – well at least I’ll be testing it to find out.

    Stick, I’m not a huge Gerber fan, but do own some of their knives. At 4.2oz the Paraframe is almost the same weight as a Mora. There are certainly lighter options, but if you’re happy with it that’s all that should count :-)

  • RW Cook

    My favorite daily carry knife is the Victorinox Soldier. For hiking/backpacking is the Vic. Farmer, essentially the same as the Soldier with the addition of a saw blade. I also carry the Becker Necker in my pack for a more substantial single blade. I will carry a Leatherman for backcountry skiing when I may need some mechanical tools for binding repairs or whatever. Otherwise I don’t see a need to carry a multi-tool in the summer.

  • RW Cook

    My favorite daily carry knife is the Victorinox Soldier. For hiking/backpacking is the Vic. Farmer, essentially the same as the Soldier with the addition of a saw blade. I also carry the Becker Necker in my pack for a more substantial single blade. I will carry a Leatherman for backcountry skiing when I may need some mechanical tools for binding repairs or whatever. Otherwise I don’t see a need to carry a multi-tool in the summer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    Matt, thanks for the extra information. I can’t believe that Colin would consider breaking off the nail file to save weight. That is extreme madness.

    Roley, I am originally from England (Southampton) so I am all too familiar with this “law”. Before I moved to the US in 1997, I carried an original Spyderco Delica that I had purchased online from a US dealer. I’m not suggesting you do the same, but that’s just what I carried as my EDC. I even brought it with me when I moved State side and carried it daily for another ten plus years.

    The new line of Spyderco slip-its are superb, but I have no idea why they are so expensive (captive UK market maybe?), but they are excellent quality and will last you a life time – if you can stick to just one knife :-p

    I’m a big fan of the Spyderco Wharncliffe Slip-It model, but that’s not cheap either. Boker make excellent knives at a very affordable price point.

    Do any of our other UK readers have suggestions to share?

  • http://profiles.google.com/garfieldmlogan Garfield Logan

    I’ve had a gerber applegate for a couple of years now, and it’s a great tool. I use it just about every day.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      You’re the first person that I know of to carry a double edged blade. How do you like it? I looked it up via the link you sent and it’s a nice looking knife.

  • http://profiles.google.com/garfieldmlogan Garfield Logan

    I’ve had a gerber applegate for a couple of years now, and it’s a great tool. I use it just about every day.

  • bfgreen

    You’re the first person that I know of to carry a double edged blade. How do you like it? I looked it up via the link you sent and it’s a nice looking knife.

  • Jonathan

     
    you just said exactly what I’ve been thinking…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ev9138jrVI

  • Jonathan

     
    you just said exactly what I’ve been thinking…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ev9138jrVI

  • Unica_hija_aq

    Hi Brian and everyone…it looks like you really like knives….well since you love outdoor…i can recommend a very good knife…i work as a sales representative for CUTCO.. CUTCO is a line of high quality kitchen cutlery and a few outdoor items….anyway..i could recommend the CUTCO/KA-BAR EXPLORER for you… this knife is made from 440A high-carbon stainless steel for optimum balance between hardness, toughness and corrosion resistance, and its ability to hold a sharp edge…it has full tang that gives added strength and made of durable kraton handle that gives you a sure grip in wet conditions…it has epoxy powder coating on blade, guard and pommel for increased corrosion resistance…it is a combination straight and double d-edge blade maximizes cutting potential..pommel has a hole for lanyard…leather sheath is included for safe, rugged storage(made in Mexico)..7 1/16″ blade from handle to tip…1 3/4″ Double D edge at base of blade…12 1/16″ overall length…this knife is well built, fearless and ready to work just as hard as you are.Conquer the bush, set up camp and prep the stew for a fireside meal. When you’re outdoors your outdoors you want a knife that works with you. Something that moves like it’s an extension of your hand. This knife is easy to use but never backs down from a challenge and I’m sure you will love it. Please contact me if you’re interested..my email address is unica_hija_aq@yahoo.com….thank you

  • Timorms

    I would have to agree, Although I do carry a large knife for brush clearing, wood splitting etc. My most commonly used knife in the back country is a small Mora I carry. I always carry a minimum of 2 knives and sometimes 3, but that’s me I depend on my knives a lot.

  • Timorms

    I would have to agree, Although I do carry a large knife for brush clearing, wood splitting etc. My most commonly used knife in the back country is a small Mora I carry. I always carry a minumum of 2 knives and sometimes 3, but thats me I depend on my knives a lot.

    serious survival for serious situations

  • Rob Davis

    I would feel naked without my Mora Companion, and it’s so light I don’t mind carrying it as a neck knife. That having been said, I have done quite a bit of Desert hiking without carrying a knife at all- however that’s only because I knew how to make a stone cutting tool from rocks in the area.

    Like you, I have found Gerber products to be of questionable quality. I would only carry one if given to me as a gift, and never without a trusted backup!

  • Ralph

    Hey Guys
    Why not carry a Victorinox Swiss Army 91mm Knife. They are small and lightweight, and if weight to functions is your criteria – they win hands down. I always used to carry the Hunstman (edc, but also for climbing and back-packing) – But recently upgraded to a Ranger: blades, can & bottle opener, saw (really good) , file, scissors (much bigger than the Classic), awl, screwdrivers +++ … You canot beat that.
    I was always suspicious of pliers on a SAK (frame too small) and thought that if I might need pliers on a trip, then I’d use one of my Leathermans (Leathermen?). However I recently bought a Victorinox with some pliers – and for those small back packing jobs they would be fine….. I should not have doubted Victorinox :-)
    So if you need pliers too – go for the Handyman.
    The files are pretty decent too and could possibly even sharpen crampons, although I have never tried this. {My L/M PS4 file certainly could not do that.}
    Oh and way cheaper than the equivalent Leatherman Juices.
    Cheers all Ralph
    PS. Very nice article Brian – Thanks – I agree keep your weight down.
    I came across your site by accident – looking forward to reading more!

  • mkm

    Opinel which I carry on my person lately is an honorable mention. Light, utilitarian, high value, simple, on and on…

  • idk

    There is a big difference between going for a weekend hike and staying in the field for long amounts of time.You need a bigger knife to dig,chop,quarter,baton or you can bring a saw,shovel etc which will equal more weight than a knife.I guess if you are just hiking to bird watch a small folder wouldn’t be an issue.Unless you got lost in the back country.When i think of survival i think of a situation where i am doing something ordinary.Then things go south in a bad way.Such as I am a few hundred miles out and lose my pack in the river etc….It is better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Duration, situation, and environment will influence how much knife you need.

  • Nordy Canuk

    I’d be interested to know which environment you’re in. I camp a lot in northern ontario and in all four seasons so I need several blades. I carry a sawvivor, 1.5 lb small axe, condor bushlore, victorinox huntsman, crook knife, and sometimes my esee junglas. Usually I’m carrying anywhere from 2-4 lbs of cutting tools but they are indispensable and depending on the season they mean I can go with much less gear. In summer going with the small axe and bushlore mean I can go without tent, tarp, and many other pieces of gear which can easily be replaced by bushcraft knowledge and blades. In my environment you have to travel fast and light and large blades = less gear. With those 2-4 lbs of steel I can usually drop anywhere from 8-10 lbs or gear and still be quite comfortable. I’m definitely not an ultralight-er but most of what’s in my pack is food and blades.