When it comes to knives there are only two types of people - knife fanatics and everyone else. As much as I like my knives, I probably still fall into the "everyone else" category. If you are a knife fanatic, then everything I am about to say will most likely upset or offend you, but please hear me out.
I've reviewed quite a lot of different makes and models of knives on my blog over the last few years and my posts about knives continue to attract a lot of my overall web traffic (I mentioned the fanatics right?). However, my use and demands of a knife or cutting tool in general have changed significantly over that time too, to point where I am now taking a more careful look at weight vs functionality, something I was never too concerned with (read as 'willing to compromise') when it came to my trusty blade.
I'm not going to provide a detailed review of each and every knife that I mention in this post, I've done that with several of them already and many of the others have been reviewed extensively elsewhere (and better than I ever could - check out nutnfancy on YouTube). Instead, I want to give you some background on the knives I've used and how I arrived at the point I am currently at.
A Little Background
When I began backpacking gear was much heavier. My pack, my tent, my sleeping bag, everything was heavier than it is now. The technologies and materials that enable much the ultralight gear that we all now have and lust after were not around. I didn't obsess about shaving ounces off of my gear like I do now. Back then I used to carry a sheath knife as my primary cutting tool. It was a medium sized no-name brand knife that I probably picked up at an army surplus store somewhere. It did the job, wasn't light weight, but it was what I had and was always with me.
About the same time as I started getting more into backpacking, the first Rambo movie was released. Do you remember that? Suddenly knives got a lot bigger and the survivalist mentality started to seep into the outdoor community. Everyone thought that they needed a huge knife to survive in the woods despite having never been in a situation where they had done much more than open a packet of food or cut rope with their knife. My handy sheath knife was now much more than a piece of gear, it was a tool, a weapon, it was my life line.
That was a very long time ago, but I mention it because it is a mentality that has stuck with me for a very long time and has been extremely hard to shake off. For so many years I've favored full tang knives and survival knives over smaller or folding knives simply because I've been concerned that in a life or death situation I may need a knife that can penetrate a car door or be used to pry apart thick wooden beams and still like a tomato without squashing it. But guess what? I've never been in a situation where I have needed to do that in over thirty years!
That quite recent realization has forced me to take another look at what I really need a knife or cutting tool to do for me while I'm out on the trail. So for the last few months I've kept careful track of when and what I used my knife to do while backpacking. The results were quite surprising, to me at least.
I discovered that my most frequent use of a knife, while backpacking at least, was to cut/slice open a packet of something. That could be a packet of freeze dried food, some small packets of food ingredients, or other sealed packs generally food related. Quite the manly task eh? My next most common use of a knife was to cut cord. Spectra cord, paracord, Triptease, or Dacron line. After those two top activities the rest of my cutting needs included things like sharpening my pencil, digging out splinters or just plain whittling for fun. Not a whole lot of heavy duty tasks.
That blew my mind. No slicing through carcasses, making spears, or splitting limb sized logs - just very small, precise cutting tasks. So why was I so fixated with large, robust, bomb-proof knives? Who knows. The data just didn't support my need to carry around such a huge blade.
There will probably come a time where I genuinely do need a substantial, strong knife to perform some gnarly task that a smaller knife can't do, but will it be a life or death situation? I hope not. I may be going out on a limb, but I've come to the conclusion (supported by a little bit of data) that I can carry a much smaller knife when backpacking and still be perfectly safe and prepared.
So How Much Knife is Enough?
I decided to take a closer look at the knives that I use on a regular basis (I own quite a few more than these) in order to determine what best suited my newly discovered cutting requirements. I put together two simple lists to help with my pseudo research. First I weighed my knives, then I compared their functions and blade lengths. Here's what I came up with.
Comparison sorted by overall weight:
Comparison sorted by primary blade length:
As you would expect, the fixed blade, full-tang knives easily topped the list for weight and the small folding knives had the smallest blades. I wanted to find the best trade-off between weight and blade/functions.
I decided to stop carrying my fixed blade knives for the time being. They're heavy and definitely overkill for the tasks I typically have to perform on the trail. That left me with the folding knives and two multi-tools. I should mention that my current every day carry (EDC) knife is a Benchmade Mini-Griptillian, but it's not listed because I tend not to take it with me when I go hiking.
Of the folding knives that I have carried backpacking, the Spyderco Delica 4 is by far my favorite. Superb quality, reliability, and edge retention. I've carried a Delica as my EDC for the past 14 years without a problem. But even as good as my folding knives are, I like having the additional functions that come with my multi-tools - specifically the scissors and pliers.
The super small and lightweight Victorinox (Swiss Army) Classic has a great quality main blade albeit tiny. It's also the only folding knife that I have that comes with a neat little pair of scissors, ideal for my primary task of opening up packets! I know other backpackers, such as Philip Werner (Sectionhiker), that carry the Victorinox Classic as their primary blade/tool, but I'm still not quite at the point where I can go that small with my primary knife. I do like to carry one on my car keys though :-)
Once I had made the decision that I wanted a blade plus other tools like pliers and scissors it narrowed the field down to just two. My Leatherman Juice S2 and my smaller Gerber Clutch. As I said the Victorinox Classic has a great little pair of scissors, but it's just too small IMHO.
The Gerber Clutch is a nice smaller sized multi-tool, I was given this one as a present, but it's not particularly high quality - an issue I have with a lot of Gerber knives in general. The Clutch also does not have a pair of scissors. The Leatherman Juice S2 on the other hand is exceptionally well made. It has a decent size primary blade at 2.6 inches made from reasonably good quality steel. It has a full size pair of pliers with wire cutters and because I have the S2 model, it comes has a really good pair of scissors with a cutting length of 1.25 inches!
The Juice S2 is definitely not the lightest option that I could carry, but based on the jobs that I need a knife to perform on a regular basis it's the most perfectly suited to the task, at least based on the knives that I own. Who knows what other knives I might buy in the future, it's a dirty habit.
So I've settled on the Juice S2 as my go to knife/cutting tool for the foreseeable future. Is it truly an ultralight option, nope! But it is a significant move in the right direction for me and about as far as I'm willing to go at this point. If my needs of a knife continue to stay simple I may adjust further. I have my eye on the smaller Leatherman Squirt PS4 as a potential successor to the Juice and my REI dividend check just arrived - but we'll see! What type of knife or multi-tool do you carry with you as your primary backpacking knife?
Brian is a Charlotte based backpacker, gear junkie, runner, and CrossFit(er). Originally from Southampton, England, Brian has lived in the US for over 20 years, finally settling in North Carolina. He spends as much time backpacking as his busy work schedule and family life will allow.