Backpacking for Beginners: What Knife Should You Choose?

* Sometimes we like to post guest articles by gear experts to help you make the best outdoor gear buying decisions possible. Let’s welcome our special guest Clayton Ensminger, here to tell us all about how to choose the best knife for backpacking.

Take it away Clayton.

wildernessIf you’re a first time backpacker, one concern you may have is which knife to bring with you on your trip. Going out into the wilderness without one at all is a little … well, incomprehensible. The answer comes from the functions you need it to perform; not everyone hikes the backcountry the same way. There’s choice when it comes to choosing the right knife.

Choose your knife based on what type and size you can comfortably handle, and what you need it to do. Experienced backpackers tend to focus on weight above all else, so over-the-top Rambo-esque 14-inch Bowie style blades are not the usual choice. Most of the time you only need a lightweight knife to tackle some pretty mundane tasks, not a big survival/tactical knife.

What Are the Main Uses for a Knife When Backpacking?

The chances of you having to use your knife to fend off an animal attack, or finding yourself sawing off your own limbs like James Franco did in 127 Hours are slim to none. And even he managed with just a pocket knife. The truth is that worst-case scenarios rarely happen out in the wilderness, and even when they do, a knife with a 3-inch blade can typically handle the situation. In fact, the reasons you need a knife when backpacking are pretty banal. Here is a list of what most backpackers say they use their knives for:

  • Gear repair
  • Splitting wood, making kindling
  • Opening packages
  • Cutting rope
  • Sharpening and carving
  • Starting a spark
  • Cooking, filleting
  • Spreading condiments like peanut butter
  • Slicing food such as salami and cheese

Could you need your knife in order to fend off a bear, or amputate a limb? Sure, but, again, it’s rare. So the question becomes should you choose a fixed blade with a sheath, or a folding knife? And, again, the answer isn’t going to be the same for everyone; it depends on if you value toughness and durability in your knife or weight and carrying ease. Here are the nuts and bolts of their features to better help you decide.

knifeSingle Blade Folders

The majority of backpackers choose a fixed blade knife, but a select few opt for single blade folders, and the reasons are pretty straightforward. These knives tend to be more lightweight than their fixed blade counterparts.

When you are not using a fixed blade, a folder is easily and safely tucked away. Some prefer the best of both worlds and choose a folder that acts like as a fixed blade. These folder models offer a lock blade. This simply means that when the folder knife is open you can lock it in place, and it essentially works as a fixed blade, allowing you to handle tougher tasks, while still remaining lightweight. The only downside is that not all countries and localities allow you to carry a lock blade knife, so be sure you check the local laws before you choose this style of knife.

Two Folding Knives Perfect for Backpacking

Reate Knives Liong Mah Ace Titanium Flipper

This 5.5-ounce knife is perfect for the lightweight backpacker; with a blade that is 3.5” and a closed length of 4.75”, it fits nicely in your pocket. Featuring a titanium stonewash handle, and CPM-S35VN Barong plain steel blade with a stonewash finish, it’s a blade you can be proud of. The quality flipper with a zippered pouch made by custom knife designer Liong Mah locks in place when open, providing you all the strength you get in a fixed blade.

Doc Shiffer Knives Custom Recon Bronze GITD

If you’re looking for little more bang for your buck, Doc Shiffer may have an answer for you. With an overall length of 8.5”, and a blade length of 3.5”, this steel N690 stonewash blade can handle just about anything. The unique handle of milled titanium anodized bronze with glow in the dark inserts offers you a finish that will make your fellow backpackers jealous. As a bowie style knife with a flipper frame lock you get all the sturdiness you need, and more, in a backpacking knife.

Fixed Blade Knives: Should You Go Neck or Sheath?

Fixed blade knives are the more popular choice among backpackers, due to the fact they are sturdier and stronger than foldable knives. There is only one downside to this type of knife, and that is they are not as lightweight and therefore can be more difficult to carry. With that said, this type of knife gets the job done every time. If fixed blade is your choice, do you want a neck knife or a sheath knife for easy carry?

Neck Knives

Both types of fixed blade knives are actually sheathed; the real difference is one hangs from your neck while the other can be on your person or in your backpack. Neck knives are perfect for backpackers who want the ability to have their knife at the ready. This type of fixed blade knife typically has a smaller blade you’d see on a foldable knife.

The great thing about these knives is you can get to them quickly; they hang upside down around your neck and a firm tug will release them. They also have sheaths made of hard plastics such as Kydex, which make them safe to wear. They’re a perfect blend of lightweight and rugged strength, with brands like Izula having the ability to split firewood. If you’re heading out on a tough trek, this is an excellent choice for all your backpacking needs.

sunsetSheath Knives

These knives are usually the largest of the choices, and the most recommended, because they can handle any situation, from the mundane to the truly scary. Typically they are worn on your belt, but in some cases backpackers will simply leave them in their packs due to their size. The best option is to mount them to your pack’s hip belt; that way, they’re out of the way, but still easily accessible. These heavy duty knives are the preferred choice for versatility and strength. If you’re unsure about the surprises you may encounter on your trek, choose this fixed blade knife.

The Best Fixed Blade Knife for Backpackers

Microtech Arbiter Fixed Blade Black Serrated

This is a beast of a knife with an overall length of 14.25” and a blade length of 8.5”. This USA made blade is a backpacker’s first choice, if your type of trekking truly calls for a survival/tactical knife. It offers both a smooth and serrated blade, allowing you to accomplish a multitude of tasks. The 5.6” Micarta Black handle provides optimum comfort and a sleek look, while the Kydex-Molle Lok sheath keeps your knife secure.

As you can see, the best really means the best for your individual situation. For the casual beginner backpacker, lighter and smaller is better. For the rugged long-term trekker on unpredictable trails, go with a knife that can handle anything.

If you’re a seasoned backpacker, which knife would you recommend for beginners?

By Guest Author Clayton Ensminger

An avid knife enthusiast, Clayton Ensminger operates eKnives, a small family owned and operated business out of Chattanooga, TN. His father gave him his first survival knife for his birthday after First Blood hit the theaters in 1982. He runs eKnives with his wife, Courtney, and they are joined every day by Elle and Knox, their beloved French bulldogs and shop companions. Elle and Knox help out by basically trying to disrupt anything and everything and enjoy a high success rate at playful hijinks.

5 thoughts on “Backpacking for Beginners: What Knife Should You Choose?”

  1. Great article! So many good knives on the market, but my personal favorite for backpacking is the Esse 4. Great knife all around and wins on the size/weight/practical balance in my book.


Leave a Comment