If you are in a rush and need to know the best backpacking knife available, I would recommend the Gerber Bear Grylls Ultimate Pro Knife.
An iconic symbol of the outdoorsman, the knife is one of the most versatile tools available to backpackers, campers, day-hikers, hunters, fishermen, and climbers. While knives have a history that spans ages, only recently have they been refined to suit the needs of backpackers and others looking for a lightweight, long-lasting, practical blade.
In this article, I will cover the basic characteristics of knives, what makes a quality knife, and how to choose the best backpacking knife to suit your needs. Then, I will offer some suggestions and make a personal recommendation based on my experience.
Backpacking Knives Reviewed in this Article
- MORAKNIV Companion Knife
- SMITH & WESSON Extreme Ops Folding Knife
- GRAND WAY Spring Assisted Knife
- GERBER Bear Grylls Ultimate Knife
How to Choose the Right Backpacking Knife
For the serious backpacker, the weight of the knife will be the first thing you need to consider. When carrying all of your food and gear on your back, you feel every ounce, so it is important to find a lightweight knife that retains strength and sharpness, while being comfortable to use.
Folding knives tend to be lighter than fixed-blade knives, because with a fixed-blade, the tang will extend into the handle and add weight. Also, fixed-blade knives usually come with a sheath for carrying. While you might gain some durability with a fixed-blade, you will be adding weight to your gear.
Backpacking knives can range in weight from less than an ounce to around 12 ounces, but in general, competition between manufacturers keeps the best backpacking knives around 3 to 5 ounces, which seems to be the right weight for balancing utility, comfort, and practicality.
You will find that backpacking knives fall into two main categories: fixed-blade and foldable.
In fixed-blade knives, the tang will extend into the handle of the knife so that it cannot be folded for carry. If the tang extends through the entire handle, it is called “full-tang,” and the knife will usually be more durable and well-balanced than a knife that possesses a partial tang, which extends only part-way into the handle.
In foldable knives, the tang does not extend beyond the hinge of the knife. Foldable knives offer some advantages over fixed-blade knives, such as in carry size and weight (being smaller), but the hinge can present a weak point under pressure and the pin or screw may loosen over time. Additionally, the blade sometimes weighs more than the handle, which can make the knife feel unbalanced in your hand.
Foldable knives can come as manual-open or assisted-open. Manual knives require the user to move the blade from the folded, carry position to the open position. Assisted-open knives contain a spring mechanism that snaps the blade into the open position at the push of a button. While spring-assisted knives are very convenient, keep in mind that extra parts may wear out over time, and the mechanism within the knife might rust or become clogged with sand or dirt.
The typical backpacking blade will be made from either stainless steel, high-carbon steel, or titanium. When choosing a blade, I would recommend stainless steel, as it is resistant to rust and corrosion and will offer comparable strength to high-carbon steel.
Stainless steel is an alloy of iron and other metals which add hardness and resistance to corrosion. As a result, there are many different types of stainless steel, but you will commonly find grades such as 440A and 304 (sometimes referred to as A2 Stainless Steel). Both of these grades contain high percentages of chromium, but 440A contains more carbon whereas 304 also includes about 8% nickel. (If you want to learn more about the composition of stainless steel, check out this article in the Britannica.)
Blades that contain more carbon will be stronger and retain their edge longer, but the metal will corrode quickly if not oiled. Damascus steel is popular for looks, and while it possesses greater edge retention (because of its high carbon content), it would not be practical for most backpacking trips given its tendency to rust.
Titanium has frequently been used as an alternative to steel due to its strength and lightweight. It is also less sensitive to extreme temperatures, so that in deep cold or heat, a titanium blade would be less likely to chip, crack, or break. However, titanium blades do not hold their edge for very long compared to hardened steel, and titanium folding knives have been known to bind at the hinge. Even so, if you are primarily concerned about corrosion, titanium is an excellent choice for wet and salty environments.
To many people, it might seem like there are as many blade shapes as there are accents in the English language. While this might be a slight exaggeration, the truth is that you only need to know a few basic blade shapes in order to make an informed decision about the kind of knife you need.
This traditional blade shape has a straight spine with a gentle sloping cutting edge. It is a versatile shape that is also comfortable to use, and many straight back knives will lend themselves to filleting fish as well as everyday needs.
One of the more common shapes, the drop point blade gives the knife durability in heavy duty situations. The broad tip with a slight angle in the spine helps make this blade stable when cutting or slicing, while avoiding accidental puncturing.
Clip points, on the other hand, are intended for more precise cutting and piercing. They look similar to the drop point, with the exception of a distinct, concave curve from the spine to the tip. This spine shape creates a thinner tip that, while great for detailed cutting, can be weaker than the drop point.
The sharp angles of the tanto blade make it great for rugged use, such as scraping and prying. However, since the blade does not have a smooth curve, it can be difficult to use when cutting food on a cutting board (or flat stone…). If you plan to go hunting, I would also not recommend this blade type for skinning or field dressing an animal.
While the spear point is great for piercing due to its needle or spear-like shape (long and thin), it does not lend itself to many of the tasks you might have in the woods. Spear point knives are generally not comfortable to hold for slicing food, and since they possess thin tips, I would not expect them to hold up to rougher tasks such as whittling a stick.
The sheepsfoot blade offers greater maneuverability and stability when cutting food, especially vegetables and greens. Its straight, or nearly straight, cutting edge combined with a convex spine at the tip help this kind of knife avoid accidental piercing. I would not recommend the sheepsfoot for cleaning a fish or animal, but you will find it useful in other basic tasks beside food preparation.
When choosing the right blade length, you will find that there are blades just over an inch, or as long as a foot, but the ideal backpacking knife lies around 2-4 inches. This length provides sufficient width for cutting stability and enough length for heavier tasks, while remaining small enough for more intricate uses. Shorter blades will lack strength and comfort, whereas longer blades can be heavy and awkward to carry.
The handle will provide the leverage for your knife, so you should consider both the shape and the material that it is made with. The shape should allow sufficient grip on the knife and provide ergonomic comfort. Some fixed-blade knives save weight by wrapping the tang in paracord. While more efficient, these knives can feel thin, especially if you have large hands. You should choose a knife that feels comfortable in a variety of hand positions. With lower quality folding knives, there will sometimes be play in the hinge, which can be dangerous when stripping the bark off a stick or batoning (splitting) a piece of wood.
You should also be careful when choosing a knife with a hard, smooth handle. Whether on a backpacking journey or spending the day at your favorite trout stream, you will encounter tasks where your hands get wet or slippery. I would recommend finding a handle with rubber incorporated into the design, or at the very least, some kind of texture that promotes grip, in addition to a finger groove.
Knives often come with additional features to make them even more practical.
Both fixed and folding knives will often have jimping. Jimping is the term for the small grooves on the spine of the knife that promote better grip, as when you are pushing hard with your thumb. I have also seen jimping on the underside of the knife handle, where the pinky and ring finger wrap around. In some knives, the jimping starts on the top of the handle and continues onto the spine of the blade as a saw. This is most common in survival knives and can be a great feature on a backpacking knife.
At the heel of the blade, you will occasionally find a finger choil. This unsharpened section of the blade near the handle is an additional grip point and is intended for your index finger. If the knife has a finger choil, it will be adjacent to the finger groove, which is part of the handle.
In some knives, the pommel (the butt of the knife) will be broad and flat for pounding. In fixed-blades, the pommel will often be the exposed end of the tang. Some brands will include a lanyard hole as well.
You may also find a knife with a removable ferrocerium rod designed into the handle, but even if you buy your ferro rod separately, the spine should be partially flat and square for easier fire starting. Joe with Savage Citizen explains this in more detail in this video:
The lock is an important feature of folding knives. Without a lock, the knife is able to shut easily and this presents a danger to your fingers.
Many knives have a back lock, which is released by pressing the lock into the handle. Another version would be the liner lock, similar to the frame lock, which uses a piece of metal inside the handle to hold the blade in place. This permits single-hand closing and is released by moving the liner to the side with your thumb. The ring lock locks the blade in either the open or closed position using a rotating band near the hinge. And the button lock is common in spring-assisted knives. This kind of lock activates when the knife snaps open and requires the user disengage the lock by pressing a button.
Carrying Your Knife
When not using your knife, you will want to ensure that the blade cannot puncture your gear or, worse yet, cut you or someone else.
By design, folding knives have eliminated the need for a sheath, but you may still want one for carrying the knife on your belt. You could also carry a folded knife in your pocket, but in my experience, this method can be uncomfortable because the knife will rub against your leg as you walk. (You also run the risk of the knife dropping out of your pocket.) Or you could carry the knife in your backpack. While this does keep the knife out of easy reach, you probably won’t be using the knife anyway as you hike.
Fixed blades require a bit more care when not in use. Typically, a fixed knife will come with a sheath that can be hung on your belt or strapped to your pack. Leather sheaths are tough, but they tend to be heavy and trap moisture. Though less durable than leather, material sheaths will save weight and dry more quickly. But if you are looking for a heavy duty alternative to leather, consider a solid, plastic sheath.
Whether you use a folding or fixed-blade knife, you could also carry it around your neck using a chain or paracord. The advantage of neck-carry is quick access, but it can be annoying to have the knife bouncing on your chest as you walk.
The Best Backpacking Knives Reviewed
Morakniv Companion Knife – 3.9 oz.
If you are not familiar with the Morakniv brand, you might be a little skeptical at first of the Morakniv Companion Fixed-Blade because of its simple design. Yes, it has a plastic handle and plastic sheath, but this knife is by far one of the most reliable knives available.
This 4.1 inch, three-quarter tang, fixed-blade knife comes with a textured handle to prevent slipping. Unfortunately, the handle does not seem to perform well in wet conditions because it is not rubberized. Some users have expressed concern over the lack of a finger guard, which might allow the hand to slide up the blade by accident. However, while there is no ricasso, the bolster does provide some extra grip.
The drop point blade appears thin at first, but the majority of users are surprised by how strong the steel is – which partly contributes to Morakniv’s great reputation. This blade is made of high-carbon steel. While the carbon augments its strength, it also makes the knife more susceptible to rust. Many users have reported that the blade rusts after only a couple of uses, but that is probably due to the fact that the factory oil has worn off and no additional oil was applied. On a separate note, the un-ground spine tends to make sparking with a ferro rod more difficult, but they appear to have changed this in the stainless steel version.
Many people have said that this knife is excellent for batoning wood, and it can also be used for filleting fish or cleaning small game. The knife fits snugly into the sheath, and the sheath can slide and lock on your belt so that you don’t have to remove it. Unfortunately, the sheath is not reversible, and this can present a problem for left-handed customers.
Overall, this knife is well-known to be lightweight, versatile, and tough. As an added bonus, Morakniv offers a lifetime warranty on this product. A note of caution, however, if you decide to purchase this knife: it comes in both carbon steel and stainless steel. The minor differences between the two versions could give you entirely different experiences. The knife I have reviewed here is the carbon steel version (which is imprinted on the knife blade), so make sure you have the right one before buying.
- Life-time warranty
- Patterned grip
- extremely lightweight and useful
- good bushcraft knife, useful for batoning wood
- sheath locks onto the belt
- works to filet fish or gut small game
- stainless steel option available
- sheath fits snug
- strong blade
- 4.1″ blade (104 mm)
- 3/4 tang
- high carbon steel
- simple, uninteresting look
- no finger guard, more dangerous in water or mud
- sheath not reversible, not good for left-handed person
- unground spine makes fire starting more difficult
SMITH & WESSON Extreme Ops Folding Knife – 3.5 oz.
As the lightest backpacking knife reviewed in this article, this knife offers a durable option for people concerned about weight. Its high carbon stainless steel blade resists corrosion while retaining a sharp edge. The blade is 3.1 inches, and although it does not contain a spring for assisted-opening, the thumb knobs on each side make it possible to open the knife with either hand. Also, the blade has a partially serrated edge with jimping on the spine.
Additionally, this knife comes with a knob for the index finger to flip when flicking the blade open with your wrist. Several users expressed frustration when the knife did not flick open easily. This could be due to a design flaw, or simply to over-tight screws.
The aluminum handle helps keep this knife lightweight. Smith & Wesson designed the handle to fit the contour of your fingers, and they added extra jimping on the top for an improved grip. Unfortunately, some customers have commented that the handle gets slippery in wet conditions due to the lack of rubberized material or distinct texture.
This folding knife employs a liner lock to keep the knife safe and secure during use. A few users have reported that the knife opened slightly while in their pocket, which could have been dangerous. However, the majority of users liked how comfortable the knife is to carry when using the clip. The clip keeps the knife stable, but it can make the grip a little uncomfortable.
For the price and weight, the Extreme Ops SWA24S would make an excellent knife for your next wilderness adventure.
- 3.1 inch blade
- folding knife
- high carbon stainless steel blade
- aluminum handle
- durable pocket clip
- finger flipper
- ambidextrous thumb knobs
- liner lock
- jimping on handle
- finger cut-outs
- screws tend to be too tight, which makes opening one-handed difficult
- clip can get in the way if not using it ( such as just carrying in your pocket)
- clip can make the grip slightly uncomfortable
- handle can be slippery
GRAND WAY Spring Assisted Knife – 4.4 oz.
This spring-assisted folding knife comes with a thumb knob on either side of the blade, making it an excellent every-day-carry (EDC) for both right and left-handed people. Many customers who have bought this knife agree that the blade comes very sharp, and although not quite sharp enough to shave with, it holds its edge well. The blade is made with 440C stainless steel – a very common steel that balances strength, edge-retention, and corrosion-resistance.
At 4.4 ounces, this knife uses an aluminum handle to keep the weight down. Several users have reported that it has a good feel in your hand as far as weight and grip, but slipping can be a problem when your hands are greasy or wet, even with the jimping on the spine and the liner lock. The handle does not have any texture or rubber inlays to improve the grip.
The knife uses a liner lock to keep the blade secure and stable while in use. When the knife is closed, the manufacturer incorporated a safety lock on the back of the handle to keep it from opening accidentally. This appears to be the major drawback of this knife, as many users have complained that the safety lock is made of plastic and tends to slip both when the knife is closed and open.
The handle includes a clip for securing the knife in your pocket or on your waist. Its durable blade makes it a great option for everyday use, and it even comes with a 10-year warranty.
- folding knife with spring assisted opening
- liner lock
- safety lock
- ambidextrous thumb knobs
- 440C Stainless steel
- 10-year warranty
- comes fairly sharp, after a little more sharpening, holds edge well
- aluminum handle can be slippery, no grip
- safety lock tends to slip and loosen after time, even when trying to close
- lock made of plastic
Gerber Bear Grylls Ultimate Pro Knife – 13.7 oz.
For a backpacking knife, this one comes in at the very heavy end just a couple ounces shy of a pound. However, given the number of features and overall quality of this knife, I wanted to include it here, in case knife-weight is not an issue for you.
The drop point blade is 4.8 inches, stainless steel, with no serrations. The tang extends the full length of the handle and ends at a stainless steel pommel. On the spine, a small section has been notched for creating sparks with a ferro rod, and next to the grip, they have incorporated a finger choil.
Many users have said that the blade comes sharp and holds its edge through normal use, but others have reported that it dulls quickly and the included sharpener is not sufficient. I always sharpen my knives at home with medium, fine, and extra fine grit whetstones, but I do like that this knife comes with its own sharpener for when I’m on the trail. If anything, the included sharpener helps straighten the edge.
The rubberized handle contains a finger guard and jimpings along the top near the spine and on the butt. There is also a lanyard hole near the pommel, but Gerber has tied a whistle here, and some users have said that the whistle is not as loud as they expected. (I chose to remove the whistle from the knife since it tended to get in the way when I used the pommel.) Additionally, the bolster contains two holes for strapping the knife to a stick as a spear.
While the Ultimate Pro is well-made and intelligently designed – with improvements over the Ultimate version – it comes with a bigger price tag and is significantly heavier than your typical backpacking knife. Still, for spending a day in the woods or a couple of nights on the trail, it’s hard to find another knife with such efficiently incorporated features.
- smooth edge with choil
- drop point, 4.8″ blade
- finger guard
- rubberized grip
- striking notch on spine for ferro rod
- lanyard hole, with short string and small whistle attached
- jimping on bolster
- two holes in bolster for securing knife to a spear
- stainless steel pommel
- nylon sheath with plastic blade cover
- included fero rod
- sharpener designed into the sheath
- heavy (13.7 oz.)
- sharpener does not sharpen as well as a good whetstone
While all of these knives come with many great features, at the end of the day, my choice for the best all-around backpacking knife is the Gerber Bear Grylls Ultimate Pro Knife. Aside from its weight, this knife comes packed with features that make it both extremely practical and reliable. When I am alone in the wilderness, my priority is having all the tools I need for survival at my disposal.
If you have other suggestions for great backpacking knives, let me know in a comment!
- “Tang (tools).” Wikipedia:The Free Encyclopedia. May 31, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tang_(tools)
- Augustyn, Adam, et. al. “Stainless Steel.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. April 23, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/technology/stainless-steel
- “Knife.” Wikipedia:The Free Encyclopedia. November 14, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knife