So, the weather’s getting nice, you’re tired of being indoors, and you want to set foot into the great outdoors, get a little dirt on your hiking boots instead of staring at your phone screen while the world descends into chaos. But if you’re going hiking or backpacking, you’ve got to make sure you have the proper gear. It’s a big wild world out there, and as they say – if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. You’re going to need a good pair of boots and socks, food, water, proper protection from the elements including sunscreen, a first-aid kit, a compass and a map, a light or headlamp, firestarter, and shelter. Oh, and a knife. Hiking is one of the most knife-dependent activities out there, from food prep to whittling or preparing kindling to first aid or as a firestarter.
In this buyer’s guide we’ll be looking at the best knives to take hiking or backpacking. The concept of a backpacking knife seems similar but is quite different from a camping or hunting knife, due to the potential use case as well as the general requirements that taking a knife backpacking entails.
Our Top Picks
So what do you look for in a knife for backpacking? Here are the main factors to consider:
- Weight – this seems like a no-brainer, but you want to pack as much functionality into as weight of a blade as possible. Every ounce adds up when you’re hiking as you’re shuttling potentially a lot of gear with you and any additional weight is extra strain on your body. So, the lighter a knife is while still achieving its goal, the better.
- Size – seems obvious as you don’t want a knife that takes up a ton of room – whether it’s in your pocket or in your pack. This means in its closed or sheathed position, obviously – which tilts the scales towards folding knives since they inherently take up less room. That’s not to say there’s no use case for a fixed blade in backpacking – some of our choices on this list will be fixed blades, but in terms of utility provided versus space consumed, a folding knife usually wins.
- Safety – you want a knife that’s not going to fold closed on your finger when you’re out on the middle of the Appalachian trail. You also want a knife that has solid, confident ergonomics.
- One Hand Opening – This a feature that’s useful in basically any situation and that’s also true for backpacking and hiking – not needing both hands to open and close a blade is much more convenient, especially if you need your other hand to hold something.
- Square Spine – Not strictly necessary, but it’s a bonus if your knife has a squared-off spine that can be used to strike a ferrocerium rod, and more so if the spine is exposed in the closed position since it’s safer to use that way.
- Folding vs Fixed – It’s up to you to decide if the extra strength of a fixed blade is worth the additional space it takes up as well as the added weight of a sheath. If you are thinking you’ll use your knife to baton firewood, a fixed blade may be a better choice.
- Consider a Multitool – think about your needs and what other tools you may be carrying – if you can reduce your loadout by combining several things into a single multitool you may be better off, and some multitools are specifically designed for camping or hiking.
The Bugout was purpose-built for this type of work: it was designed from the outset to be as slim, light, and compact as possible. The original Bugout features a 3.2” long drop point blade in CPM-S30V stainless powdered metallurgy steel, cut from extra-thin 0.09” blade stock, with a 3” cutting edge. It uses a shrunken-down version of the AXIS lock, the original spring-powered sliding bar lock that’s become more and more popular among other manufacturers lately.
It uses several tricks to cut weight, including titanium thumb studs, shrunken and nested stainless liners that only span the part of the handle with the lock, slim 0.42” wide Grivory (a trademarked name for a plastic made by EMS-Grivory) handles and even a shortened pocket clip. As a result, the Bugout – which stretches 7.46” long when fully opened – only weighs 1.85 ounces. That’s insane, considering most lightweight knives around that size are at least 50% heavier. It’s not without downsides – the handles flex noticeably when you grip them hard, and it’s very pricey at ~$160 at time of writing. But Benchmade had a hit on their hands with this knife when it launched a few years back.
They’ve since expanded the line to include a 2.875” blade version called the Mini Bugout (~$150, 6.5” overall length, 1.5 ounces) as well as upgraded versions with CF Elite handles which are noticeably stiffer, cost $10 more, and somehow decrease the weight to 1.8 ounces. The range-topping Carbon Fiber Bugout includes carbon fiber handles and a CPM-S90V blade for a hefty ~$300. There’s also the strange Bailout variant, with a tanto blade and 3V tool steel for nearly $300, none of which makes sense on an ultralight knife like this.
Check out our full review of the Benchmade Bugout.
SPYDERCO NATIVE 5 SALT
The Spyderco Native series has been a fan favorite for years, but the introduction of a Salt variant of the Native – Spyderco’s name for their most corrosion-resistant line of knives – was a big deal. Previous Salt knives used H1 steel, which was basically impervious to rust, but it was also impervious to actually holding a usable edge for any period of time. H1 is very soft and requires frequent touchups to stay sharp, whereas LC200N approximates the edge retention capabilities of a regular stainless steel like 14c28n or AEB-L. It replaced part of its carbon content with Nitrogen, giving it similar hardness and toughness qualities while having much higher corrosion resistance – it’s a very unique alloy.
It’s also well suited to backpacking or camping where you have less time or capability to clean, maintain, and oil your equipment than you do at home. Also, if you’re spending any time camping, rafting, or generally being in damp climates, it’s one less thing to worry about. It doesn’t hurt that the basic Native is such a great design – a practical full flat-ground drop point blade with a thumb hole opener, a solid forward finger choil grip, and a reliable back-lock. Coming it at 6.875” open, it only weighs 2.5 ounces thanks to nested skeletonized stainless liners and grippy bi-directional textured FRN scales, which are drilled and tapped for a four-position pocket clip. You have your choice of plain edge or fully serrated for ~$150. Pricey but worth it.
The Esee Izula might be the definitive outdoor survival fixed blade. It’s at least the first thing that comes to mind in the category of fixed blades you’d want to take backpacking, thanks to its hyper-minimalist construction: a basic Izula is just a 2.875” drop point blade with the bare outline of a handle, made from one piece of coated 1095 high-carbon tool steel. If you want, there are micarta handle scales available for $18 that bolt together for a more comfortable grip, or you could also wrap the Izula’s handle with a layer of paracord – or even better, SurvivorCord. It looks like regular 550 or 750 Paracord but includes three additional strands inside – fishing line, utility wire, and waterproof tinder. It’s just an additional tool kit hidden in the handle of your knife. The regular Izula weighs a scant 1.9 ounces.
Speaking of handles, carrying a fixed blade means you must carry a sheath, so the downside of the Izula is the bulk of that sheath – although it’s Kydex so weight will be minimal, it will take up additional space. There are provisions on the sheath for lanyard carry (to use it as a neck knife) as well as MOLLE connections, depending on your preference. ESEE also sells a stainless version of the Izula with S35VN steel for $90, which won’t be as tough as 1095 high-carbon but also with no concerns of corrosion. If you’ve got bigger hands there’s the Izula II with 0.50” of length added to the handle, bringing the total length up to 6.75” from 6.25” (they share the same blade length) as well as pre-installed Micarta handle scales. The Izula is named after the most dangerous ant in the world, the Bullet Ant, but it won’t be as painful to add this to your gear loadout – I promise. Then again, nearly nothing else is that painful.
A multitool is generally heavier than most folding knives, and this is certainly true of the Leatherman Signal – which weighs in at a robust 7.5 ounces, or roughly 3 times that of the Spyderco Native 5 Salt mentioned earlier. Then again, it does a lot more than just cut things. The Signal is Leatherman’s version of an outdoor survival tool, based around the familiar framework of a folding pliers-based multitool but with some special adaptations for outdoor use. Most obvious of which are the removable tools on the sides: one contains a loud whistle and a ferrocerium firestarter rod, the other a tiny diamond-coated knife sharpener, both of which nest in the outer edges of the handles.
Also accessible from the outside is a 2.75” drop point blade in 420HC stainless steel, with a partially serrated edge, as well as a sharp pull-cut wood saw. Inside, there’s a sharpened awl with a thread loop for making rudimentary cloth repairs, a can/bottle opener with a wire stripper at its base, and Leatherman’s proprietary 2D bit driver that accepts double-sided flat bits. The pliers don’t scrimp either, with replaceable hard-wire cutters at the base, needle nose pliers at the tip and a regular set of rounded pliers in the center. Finally, the far end of the handle functions as a hammer, ¼” box wrench and hex bit driver, a 3/16” box wrench and a sprung carabiner clip. You can do quite a lot with a Signal, from pounding in tent stakes to food prep to starting a fire.
So, while it’s heavy, it’s at least useful – and it comes with an excellent ballistic nylon carry sheath that allows you to bring a bit kit as well. Leatherman has started making the Signal in some funky colors in addition to the original black and yellow variant, including a Crimson handle with black coated blades, Cobalt blue handles with satin blades, Aqua blue with black blades, and a silver handle with black blades model all for the same price as the standard Signal. The Signal’s only real weakness is the half-serrated blade in a relatively soft steel, but Leatherman’s have never really been about the knife. It’s a purpose-built multitool for exploring the great outdoors.
AL MAR ULTRALIGHT HAWK
Al Mar is a name that should get more recognition in the knife world. After all, Al Mar spent a decade as the head designer at a brand you may have heard of – Gerber. He then formed his own brand in 1979, producing knives in Japan and China. He passed away in 1992 but Al Mar still makes knives today, many of them with a focus on light weight and function. Such is the case with the Ultralight variants of the Hawk and Falcon, two different lengths of the same basic design- the Hawk being a 2.75” blade and the Falcon a 3.25”.
When Al Mar says ultralight, they mean it – the FRN handled Falcon Ultralight stretches out 7.10” when open, features FRN handles with a flipper deployment spear point blade on ceramic ball bearings, and only weighs… 1.8 ounces. The 2.75” Hawk, 6” overall, is even lighter at 1.3 ounces. These knives don’t break the bank either, at $24 or $29 for the FRN Hawk and Falcon. There are also Titanium handled variants with an upgrade to D2 blade steel (from 8Cr13MoV) for $74 and $94, respectively. This series of knives – the Hawk, Falcon and Eagle – are modern reinterpretations of the older Al Mar models with the addition of flipper deployment and ball bearings for easier one-handed operation. All versions have a stamped steel pocket clip that’s ambidextrous and configured for tip-up carry. At under $30 and 2 ounces for both FRN variants, you’ll hardly even notice they’re in your pack or pocket.
CRKT FOLTS MINIMALIST
Besides the ubiquitous M16 folder, the Folts Minimalist is one of CRKT’s most popular model lines. With its eye-catching looks, light weight, wide variety of blade shapes, and affordable price tag, the Folts Minimalist is designed to be a neck knife for everyone. When I say variety of blade shapes, I mean it: there’s a total of 9 different blade shapes and 22 different models on Blade HQ at time of writing. If you want a practical blade shape, there’s the drop point, spear point, and bowie. If you want something funky, there’s the cleaver (of course), Persian, wharncliffe, tanto, double-ground Katana(!), or the sinister-looking Keramin karambit.
For actual use, the drop point or spear point are probably the best choice. The standard Minimalist uses 5Cr15MoV steel which isn’t great, but BladeHQ and CRKT have produced a few collabs with D2 steel, and there’s an upgraded version with a 154CM drop point for a hefty $100 that comes with a leather sheath. Regular versions use a molded Kydex sheath that’s designed to hang from a ball chain as a neck knife or stay in your pocket, and all of them feature a distinctive scalloped handle design with three individual finger grooves for a solid grip. With a 2.1” blade length but weighing in at only 1.6 ounces, a standard Minimalist doesn’t add a ton of weight to your carry and is cheap enough that you won’t feel bad beating it up. The variety of blade shapes also means you can pick the Minimalist that suits your particular hiking needs the best.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Kershaw Leek got me into knives in around 2007. The knife has been around even longer than that, debuting in limited numbers in 2000 and even winning Blade Magazine’s “Knife of the Year” award in 2002. Remember magazines? I digress, before I start feeling too old. The Leek is part of Ken Onion’s line of onion-related knives for Kershaw (including the Chive, Scallion, and Shallot) that helped to popularize SpeedSafe technology, the assisted-opening method Kershaw has used since 1998(!) to help make opening knives faster and easier. It uses a bent torsion spring concealed inside the handles to propel the blade open once the first couple degrees of travel have been accomplished manually; it’s the extremely fine line between an “assisted open” knife and a switchblade. I’ve often said it’s a distinction without a difference, but that’s fine – while assisted opening knives aren’t my choice for an EDC knife, they have an appeal when you’re out in the woods and need the convenience and the anti-social nature of AO knives is irrelevant.
Pressing the rounded flipper tab or ambidextrous thumb studs fires the Leek’s super-slim blade out, a 3” Wharncliffe (regular Leek) or reverse Tanto (Random Leek) that’s only 0.09” wide across the spine, giving it fantastic slicing performance. The Random Leek’s reverse tanto shape helps to minimize the big problem with Leeks, namely that it’s very easy to break that razor-sharp needle tip off if you use it wrong.
All Leeks come with a secondary safety, a tip lock that can be manually closed to prevent the knife accidentally opening in your pocket or pack, and at only 3 oz for the full stainless version or as low as 2.41 ounces for the carbon fiber/154CM variant it doesn’t add much weight. There are two basic variations (stainless handles with a framelock, or aluminum scales over stainless liners with a liner lock) with plenty of color choices and special models to choose from. The standard model now uses Sandvik 14c28n stainless steel, which is great for this application. The Leek has been a popular lightweight carry option for more than 20 years now, because it still makes a lot of sense.
Check out our full review of the Kershaw Leek.
COLD STEEL AIR LITE
Cold Steel has a reputation as a brand that makes ridiculous knives designed to be sold at a shopping mall fantasy blades kiosk, which is… true. They do make some very silly knives, like the Espada XL with its 7.5” blade. But the other side of Cold Steel is arguably more interesting, producing some very slim, light, tough folders for reasonable money.
My pick of the litter is the Air Lite, a knife that puts a lot of strength and capability into a very slim, light package. The knife stretches out 8” when open, with a 3.5” long blade, but the handles themselves are only 0.35” wide. Like the American Lawman, the handles are made of G10 without liners, keeping the weight down to only 3.2 ounces. You have your choice of blade shapes, with either a drop point or a tanto, as well as an option of OD Green or Black G10 handles. The Tri-Ad lock keeps the blade open, a modified version of a lockback that uses a stop pin to distribute force between the lock bar and the face of the blade tang. All versions use AUS-10A steel, an upgrade to the older AUS-8 stainless steel Cold Steel used to frequently equip on their knives. The Air Lite is a good choice if you prefer a longer blade on your hiking knife but don’t want to take up a lot of space or add unnecessary weight.
Fallkniven is a brand that doesn’t garner a lot of attention in the social-media heavy world of today. A brief glance at the U2 shows why: it’s really not much to look at. But under the surface, the U2 is a pretty radical knife. With a 2.5” blade and 5.875” overall length, the total weight of the U2 is only 1.4 ounces. A lot of that’s from what it leaves out: no liners, no pocket clip, no thumb studs, just grippy Zytel scales and a full-flat ground blade made from laminated SGPS (Super Gold Powdered Steel) from Takefu. Laminated steels are very uncommon – the last knife we reviewed with one was the now-discontinued Spyderco Caly 3 with its laminted ZDP-189 blade. The SGPS blade is laminated in a layer of softer stainless steel to protect the super-hard Super Gold from corrosion.
The blade shape is pure practicality, a full flat ground drop point in a smooth satin finish with a nail nick for deployment. Although the U2 lacks one-handed deployment, it makes up for it in extreme light weight and remarkable practicality. There’s also an Elmax-blade version of the U2, another high-end powdered metallurgy steel that’s stainless, but the laminated steel gives you a chance to try out a very rare high-performance alloy at a reasonable price, all while taking up very little room and weight in your gear.
VICTORINOX ONE HAND TREKKER
We reviewed the One Hand Trekker a while back, and while it didn’t make a strong case for itself as an everyday-carry multitool, it makes more sense as a backpacking knife. At 4.8 ounces, it’s a good bit lighter than the other multitool on the list – the Leatherman Signal. At that sub five-ounce weight it includes a full sized, half-serrated blade that locks and can be opened with one hand, a large wood saw, a locking bottle opener/screwdriver/wire stripper, a can opener, a sharpened awl, and a 3D Phillips screwdriver. It also includes a set of metal tweezers and a plastic toothpick inside the handle scales, both of which can be quite useful off the grid – a way to get splinters out of your fingers has a lot of value out in the woods.
As with almost all Victorinox SAK’s, if there’s a slightly different combination of tools you’d prefer, chances are that they make it. For instance, if you like the OH Trekker but prefer a corkscrew instead of a Phillips driver there’s the OH Forester which is otherwise identical other than the swapped out screwdriver. The Locksmith includes a plain-edged OH locking blade, and adds a metal file in another layer, while keeping the Phillips driver and awl. Swiss Army knives are a natural fit for outdoor activities, and the more modern 111mm body of the Trekker gives you a much more solid ergonomic grip in use and the benefit of locking tools for safety over earlier, smaller SAK’s. For the weight and price it adds a lot of utility to your carry.
Things to Avoid
Things to avoid for a backpacking knife are fairly simple.
- Excess weight that doesn’t at least serve a purpose – weight is fine if the tool provides lots of functions. But you don’t necessarily need a Becker BK9 when you go hiking; it’s going to take up a lot of space and weigh you down, leading to extra exertion and frustration over a long hike.
- Non-locking folding knives: while a slipjoint pen knife is great for opening letters in the office, the potential consequences of a blade folding on your fingers when you’re out hiking in the woods are much higher. A solid, safe lock or a fixed blade is a good choice
- Non-stainless steels that aren’t coated to prevent rust: while you can avoid this problem with cleaning and prevention, it’s better to not have to worry about it when you’re backpacking.
- Odd blade shapes that aren’t useful for actually doing things: leave your Karambit at home. What are you doing with that?
- Rounded spines: not a big deal, but you might as well have a good ferro-striking surface built into the back of your knife.
Hopefully this guide helps you find the perfect knife to add to your backpacking carry, and if not, at least it points you in the right direction for finding the right type of knife for your next backpacking trip. Keep it light, keep it safe, and happy travels!