James is an avid outdoor enthusiast, author, and speaker who regularly chronicles his adventures: hiking, camping, and canoeing.
Bladed tools can be traced to ancient, stone age humans who lived 2.6 million years ago. Early examples of knives were made of sharpened flint and later from smelting bronze, copper and iron. Bladed tools were used to aid in the process of gathering food, building shelters, hunting, fishing, and self defense. The knife was one of the most important inventions in history because it revolutionized every aspect of life, allowing humans to become the dominant species. Some historians believe the invention of the knife represented a technological advance, comparable in consequence, to the modern discoveries of electricity and the internet.
The ideal knife for hikers and backpackers is designed for multiple chores which may include: food preparation, fishing, hunting, cutting cordage, and tape, creating fire sticks, and light batoning to split firewood. Characteristics of a well suited knife include durability, low maintenance, portability, and a reasonable cost. In my experience, a small to medium size knife is preferred by most hikers who place a premium on size and weight. Large blades such as those branded as survival knives are best suited to collectors or the military. Heavy bushcraft duties, such as cutting up firewood or clearing brush is accomplished more efficiently with a portable saw, ax, or machete. A stout hiking staff and bear spray provide far better self defense than a knife which should only be used as a last resort.
Primary Knife Types
There are three primary types of knives most suited to hiking and backpacking: fixed blades, pocket knives, and multi-tools.
- Fixed blades with a full tang that extends the length of the handle, are larger and the most durable knives suited for moderate bushcraft. Typical blade size ranges from 3-8” and weights vary from 5- 14 oz. Fixed blades are carried in a fitted sheath, worn on a belt or attached to a backpack.
- Pocket knives are designed for light duty. They are typically smaller, light weight, and fit easily in a pants pocket. Most “folders” have 1-4 folding blades and some models have a few tools such as a screwdriver or can opener.
- Multi-tools offer a wide range of blades and tools often including needle nose pliers, screw drivers, can openers and scissors. Many models exist, varying in size and weight that can meet a hiker’s need for a flexible utility tool. Multi- tools are carried in a belt holster or stowed in a pack.
Knife Blade Material
Blade steel is one of the most important factors when it comes to determining the quality and cost of knives. The material content of the knife blade determines durability, hardness, corrosion resistance, and how easy it is to sharpen and how well it holds an edge. Knife blades can be made from a number of materials, most commonly carbon steel or stainless steel alloys which combine features of hardness, resistance to rust and appearance.
Carbon Steel is generally made for hard use where toughness and durability are important. These blades hold a sharp edge and are relatively easy to re-sharpen in the field. However, carbon steel is prone to discoloration and corrosion requiring regular drying, cleaning, and oiling. Common grades of carbon steel for knife making include C1045, C1075, and C1090.
Stainless Steel is basically carbon steel with added chromium to resist corrosion and other harsh elements. True stainless steel contains at least 13% chromium content. Popular stainless steels in this group are classified in the 200 ,300 and 400 series.
Four of the most popular blade designs are straight back, clip point, drop point, and spear point.
- Straight back: This blade is the most durable, has a large cutting surface, and is least likely to break because it has the fewest curves in the cutting surface.
- Clip point: The top or unsharpened edge of this knife blade begins at the hilt and continues to a point about one third of the blade length. The blade then recurves to the knife's point creating an area that appears clipped off. The thinner edge of the clip may be sharpened to form a second cutting edge increasing the knife's effectiveness in piercing.
- Drop point: This blade angles in a convex curve down from the handle to the tip.
- Spear point: This blade tapers into a spear point for piercing.
The latter three designs allow the tip of the blade to remain close to the center of the blade and the end of the hilt, affording greater control over the knife than the simple straight-back knife design.
The ideal handle for the bushcraft knife is comfortable to grip and prevents slipping. A quality handle is resistant to deterioration from water or temperature changes. Fiber-reinforced plastic or textured rubber compounds work well in the outside environment. Handles made from leather, wood, bone, aluminum and metal alloys can be slippery or require excessive maintenance.
Pocket knives contain folding blades that make them a popular choice for hikers and backpackers. They are light, small, and easily fit in a pocket. When folded, the sharpened edge of the knife nests in the handle so you do not need a sheath. Some pocket knives are equipped with a locking blade or a mechanism that assists in opening.
Among my favorite hiking knives are several budget friendly examples of both fixed blades and folding knives including:
- Morakniv (“Mora”) Companion: heavy duty fixed blade, 8.8 in length, 4.8oz., 4.1 in. carbon or stainless steel blade, extra-large ergonomic handle with patterned, high-friction grip that makes the knife comfortable to hold and easy to handle.Note: Mora knives are all rated highly and come in a variety of designs, sizes and price points.
- Extremus Camping Knife, fixed, 3.5 inch, stainless steel blade, with firestarter, TPR Molded Non-Slip Handle.
- Victorinox Swiss Army Tinker pocket folding knife, classic, high quality multi- tool., stainless steel with 12 functional tools.
Bladed, flint tools, used to aid in the process of gathering food, building shelters, hunting, fishing, and self defense can be traced to ancient, stone age humans who lived 2.6 million years ago. Modern knife designs and materials have evolved into a wide variety of sophisticated fixed blades, folding models and multi-tools. Hikers and backpackers have a wide variety of knife designs to choose from that are durable, reliable and cost effective.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 James W Siddall