When you are preparing for a trip into the great outdoors, no doubt a knife of some sort is high on your list of priorities. But, you have so much stuff to bring along, and in the world of backpacking every ounce counts. That’s why it’s so important to choose the gear best suited for the journey ahead. You might fantasize about slashing through brush with a machete but will you really need that much blade? Wouldn’t you be better off with a quality folding knife? But what about a multitool – those pliers and saw blades might come in handy, right? Those are the questions that inspired us to do a bit of digging to find the best backpacking knife (or multi-tool) for your needs.
If you run through a list of outdoors scenarios in your head, chances are you’ll focus on the more dramatic obstacles. Fighting a bear. Sawing off your own limb to escape a fallen boulder, or chopping down a tree to feed the fire. Those are definitely interesting, extreme, and highly unlikely scenarios. But, what do people actually use their knives for on a day to day basis while backpacking? We turned to the people of the Internet to find out…
In reality (thankfully) the stories of actual backpacker’s paint a much more practical and less horrifying picture. Especially compared to the amputation and bear fighting scenarios. Most people seem to use their knives for much less story-worthy tasks. The most common uses are – preparing food, whittling tent pegs, poking mysterious objects (really – a few people said this), cleaning nails and trimming dead skin (shudder), tightening loose screws, repairing equipment, and cutting cord and loose threads.
In everyday life, people used their EDC for all of the above plus opening boxes, packaging, and letters. Using these as criteria, let’s assess which might be the best tools to have in your pack.
Pocket/Folding Backpacking Knives
- Non-threatening (important when you use the knife in mixed company)
- Most have solid locking mechanisms
- Ergonomics favor a pocket knife over a multitool
- A knife is likely to have a better quality blade than a multitool at the same price
- Less versatile than a multitool
- Some models may not have a good grip, making whittling, and other tasks more hazardous
- Mediocre bottle openers and almost useless on canned goods
- Some don’t have locking mechanisms, meaning the blade might snap shut on precious digits (we don’t recommend these)
Spyderco Delica4 Lightweight FRN Flat Ground PlainEdge Knife
Spyderco’s Delica line might just be the best pocket knife for backpackers seeking quality in a small lightweight package. It tips the scales at a scant 2.5 ounces, but boasts one of the best blade steels available; VG-10. They’re also a great value and if you maintain the edge, they’ll outperform knives costing three times as much.
Available in bright colors, choosing an orange or purple version will help you to find the knife easily; should you misplace it.
How does it perform when faced with the tasks we mentioned earlier. When sharp it slices with the best of them. However, if you neglect the edge cutting cordage and rope might be challenging. A longer blade makes food prep easier, but for most backpacking meals the Delica is more than enough. It will feather and whittle like a pro, but don’t expect it to do any heavy duty bushcraft tasks. Finally – the bear encounter we imagined earlier. Any self-respecting bear (even a baby one) would just laugh when confronted with this, but then we aren’t going to be in that situation, with a bit of luck. Plus making noise is while backpacking is the most effective way to prevent bear encounters.
Spyderco C91SBK Pacific Salt Knife
Made by Spyderco, who have a reputation for manufacturing quality knives, the Pacific Salt Knife weighs in at just 3 ounces, so is light enough to carry anywhere. It folds down to just under 5 inches long, but the 3.8 inch H1 steel blade is long enough to handle most general outdoors jobs.
The trademark ‘Spyderedge’ on this blade will need a bit of skill to keep sharp, but serrated blades keep their edge longer, as the points initiate the cut, which is continued by the curves inside the serrations. We typically recommend against serrations, but for the average backpacker serrations might provide a sharper blade with less maintenance.
How will this model cope with the jobs listed above? Even though the grippy diamond pattern handle looks the part, it probably isn’t going to help with the fingernails and dead skin. However, the blade is more than adequate for cutting cord and other tough tasks. The internal parts of the Pacific Salt are treated for corrosion resistance too, so if you use this knife for preparing food, it should be able to cope with any bits of sticky residue that find their way inside. If you think you’ll spend more time prepping meals than cutting tough materials, you might want to consider a knife without serrations. We use a straight-edged Spyderco Endura while backpacking
Where this knife may struggle is in the whittling department. Serrations are not good for whittling – they are designed for slicing, so if you want to avoid injuries, you’ll need to use another knife for crafting yourself a tent peg. On the plus side, though, this knife has an oversized blade hole, making one handed opening easy, for those limb-amputating emergencies.
Cold Steel 27TLCTH Hunting Folding Knife
Cold Steel knives have a reputation for dependability and strength, so this model’s DLC coated Carpenter CTS XHP blade will be much better than anything you will find as part of a multi-tool. There are different blade lengths on offer, too, from a very compact 2 inches up to 5.5 inches. Finding a size to suit your needs should be easy.
These knives are used by fire and rescue crews, too, so you can be sure that they can handle many of the situations that might come up when backpacking. Is it good for slicing cheese? It won’t be pretty but, yes, this knife will help in the camp kitchen, although it is made for greater things.
With both a straight and a serrated section, sawing off a length of wood and then fashioning a feather-stick should be no problem. Opening this knife might require two hands, but its strong locking mechanism will ensure that you keep all your fingers for next time. The Cold Steel Folding Knife handles all the common uses we covered above, but use caution if you decide to clean your nails with this beast.
- Legal (in most places, but check your local laws to be sure)
- Choose one to fit your exact needs
- Lower quality blade than a knife only
- Can be fiddly to use
Leatherman Juice S2
We think that the Leatherman Juice series is the Goldilocks of multi tools for backpackers. It’s not a behemoth like a full size multi tool, but it is more useful than a keychain size tool. As soon as we picked up this one we retired the Gerber (pictured above). Combined with our Spyderco Endura… we have a large chunk of the knife and multi-tool tasks covered.
The “scale” on the newer versions is a little more stylized, but still looks great. The tools included are very useful and there aren’t any crazy tool that beg the question “what is this for.” It has a few screwdrivers (flat and phillips), a passable knife, scissors, bottle opener, and of course… pliers/wire cutters.
The tool weighs only 131 grams so you don’t need to worry about lugging something overly hefty. Which is great for casual and hardcore through hikers. You probably won’t repair a motorcycle with the Juice, but it will come in handy on the trail. It carries the same 25 year warranty as other Leatherman’s in the line. Oh and one last thing… they make an orange one too. If we pick up another… it will be orange since it’s easy to spot among foliage and rocks.
Leatherman – Style PS
Did you notice that that the Leatherman Style PS is not equipped with a blade? That’s exactly why we think it might be the best backpacking multi-tool available. Well, that and the fact that it’s incredibly small and lightweight. Just 44.7 grams, and small enough to carry on a keychain. It’s also TSA approved so if you’re backpacking trip requires a bit of time in the air, you can carry it with you through security checkpoints.
Back to the blade… or lack thereof. So, why would we recommend that you take a bladeless multi tool into the backcountry? First, we would always pair it with a good light weight folding knife like Spyderco’s Endura. Second, the knife blade on a sub twenty dollar multi-tool would more than likely be a waste of precious ounces.
How does this perform around camp? Well, for cutting cordage and opening the occasional meal or package, the small scissors will do the job without breaking a sweat. The pliers are great for repairs and removing splinters. And, it has a file for in the field manicures. Overall, there isn’t much a backpacker will encounter that this and a nice folding knife cannot handle.
Leatherman – Super Tool 300
This is a little on the large size… like the Gerber pictured above. But, if you’re not in ultralight mode… it might be the way to go. The heavy duty exterior houses pretty much any tool you’ll ever need. Plus Leatherman makes awesome tools.
Leatherman is regarded by many as the king of multi-tools. They make long-lasting, hard-wearing tools that last for years. The Super Tool 300 comes with a 25-year guarantee and will serve you well for many years.
The Super Tool 300 is made from 420 stainless steel and comes equipped with 19 different tools. Well designed, they are easy to deploy and lock strongly into place. This tool can easily cope with all of the jobs on our list, and also comes with a useful awl for making holes, which is great to have when repairing camping equipment.
The wood/metal file is no doubt manicure ready, too, and of course, this tool features the necessary can and bottle openers. There are no scissors on this model, although the saw, knife and serrated blades will cut most things in an outdoors situation.
There are the usual pliers and wire-cutters, along with a handy ruler, for measuring stuff (e.g. umm…bigfoot prints). The handles are designed with both grip and comfort in mind, having rounded edges. This is a very sturdy tool, but that comes at a price. The Super Tool 300 is 4.5 inches long when closed, and is the heaviest of the tools here, at 9.6 ounces.
Leatherman – Squirt PS4 Multi-Tool
If you’d like to carry a Leatherman, but think the Super Tool 300 is just too heavy, maybe the Squirt PS4 is the tool for you. It’s about the same size and weight as the Style, but has a bit more in terms of features and quality.
With the same 420 HC Steel and 25-year guarantee as its bigger brother, the squirt has 9 tools, altogether weighing a hardly noticeable 2 ounces. It is also very compact – just 2.25 inches long when folded.
Is this tiny tool up to the task? While it will never be as good as one of the larger tools or blades, it does have the capability to perform many of the regular tasks we listed. One warning note – the knife on this tiny multi-tool does not lock, so watch those fingers. At this size and weight locking mechanisms just aren’t practical.
The Squirt also features pliers (with needle-nose wire-cutters), scissors (excellent for blister dressing and trimming), 3 screwdrivers, a file and a bottle opener, many of which can be accessed with the tool closed. There is no handy can opener, so you’ll just have to make do with beer for dinner.
This tool won’t be able to do as much as its bigger counterparts, but for sheer ease of carrying it can’t be beaten, making it more likely you’ll be carrying it when you need it.
Which Backpacking Knife or Tool is Best For You?
In order to choose the ideal tool for you, you’ll need to take account of your unique uses. Fishermen will have different needs to horse riders and if you also want to use a tool as EDC you’ll need to factor in your everyday lifestyle. If you travel by 4×4 or ATV you can probably carry more weight and even consider taking more than one tool. But for backpackers, low weight and versatility will top the priority list.
Durability may not be a major concern if you are an occasional camper, but for the serious outdoors enthusiast it is advisable to spend a bit more and buy a tool you can rely on.
If we had to make a recommendation to the average backpacker it would be to use a high quality folding knife alongside a small, lightweight multi tool. They probably weigh about the same as a larger multi-tool, but give you the best of both worlds.