Campers cutting bread with a camping knife

How To Choose the Right Camping Knife

Select the best knife, multi-tool, or hatchet, no matter your outdoor sport of choice.

Camping knives come in all shapes, styles, and sizes, with thousands of different models on the market. That seemingly endless variety can make it tough to sift through all the options and zero in on what you actually need. Still, it’s worth doing a little legwork. A high-quality camping knife will not only be safer to use, but it’s also more likely to hold its edge, require less maintenance, and withstand the rigors of outdoor use for years to come.

Any knife you choose should be strong, durable and versatile—able to do everything from carving steaks off the grill to whittling stakes for your tent. It should also have the features you need for your preferred style of outdoor living, whether that be survivalist base-camping or ultralight backpacking. 

Here are a few, ahem, pointers on picking the right blade.  

Camping Knives 101 

Many camping knives are designed first and foremost to help you cook, usually with a focus on cutting vegetables, fruits, meat, and other items. But they can also be used for camp chores like cutting cord, spreading peanut butter, trimming gear patches, or cleaning fish. Sturdier fixed-blade knives are also handy for heavy-duty chores like splitting wood. Your knife’s potential uses will depend on its materials and construction style.

Materials

The most common metal used in camping knives is stainless steel—a metal alloy made of at least 11% chromium, iron, nickel, molybdenum, and sometimes carbon. Stainless is a great option for its durability and resistance to rust and corrosion. 

Carbon steel and ceramic blades, used in many hunting and survival knives, can be sharper, but carbon steel’s lack of chromium makes it more susceptible to rust and corrosion. Ceramic blades are rust-resistant and hold their edge longer, but they can be difficult to sharpen on your own. 

Titanium is another strong material that’s more rust-resistant than carbon steel. While backpackers prize titanium for its light weight, many knife veterans prefer a tool with a heavier feel. Titanium is also a tad softer and not as sharp as steel. For that reason, titanium blades are often coated with another material. Most titanium camping knives only feature a titanium handle; the actual blade is generally steel.

Fixed vs. Folding 

Fixed-blade knives are more common among survival and bushcraft enthusiasts, hunters, and wilderness campers. Unlike most pocket knives and switch-blades, the metal portion of a fixed-blade knife is embedded directly into the handle, providing enough strength for heavy-duty use. Because there are no joints, hinges, or springs, fixed-blade knives are also much harder to break than folding knives. They’re also easy to clean and sharpen. 

Most campers find that fixed-blade knives result in fewer injuries than folding knives, since there’s no danger of slipping while fiddling with the opening or closing mechanism. Just make sure your knife has a sheath and keep it on whenever the knife is not in use. Also ensure the handle has an ergonomic and secure grip. 

Folding knives are generally less sturdy than fixed blades, but they’re lighter-weight and take up less room in a pack. That makes them better for most human-powered transport, including hiking, backpacking, or backcountry skiing. Because they fold up when not in use, they’re also safer to travel with—even if they’re not necessarily safer to use. 

The downside is that their moving mechanisms can get dirty and capture moisture. They’re also harder to clean than fixed blades. Folding knives cannot be used for survivalist tasks like building shelter or splitting wood because they tend to be smaller and easier to break.

Multi-tools 

While you can probably trim your nails, open a beer, and tighten ski-boot bindings with just a knife, it can be easier (and safer) to use purpose-made tools for certain tasks. Enter the Swiss Army Knife and its brethren, a category of camping tools known as “utility knives” or “multi-tools.” While there are a variety of options on the market, most have a few common components and perform a variety of different tasks well. Popular features include:

  • Multiple knife blades
  • Saw blade
  • Screw drivers (flathead and Phillips)
  • Scissors
  • Awl
  • Can opener or bottle opener
  • Pliers
  • Scissors

Note that not all multi-tools are created equal. If you know you need a wrench or Allen key for your skiing, bike or climbing gear, make sure your multi-tool has one (and in the right size). If you love having a tiny pair of scissors to cut out gear patches or trim your nails, prioritize finding a multi-tool with that feature. 

Also keep in mind that more features are not necessarily better. A multi-tool cluttered with lots of things you don’t need can be difficult and frustrating to use. Plus, all that weight adds up—and no one wants to carry a half-pound of metal in their pack unless they plan to use it. 

A close up of a camping knife cutting a stick

Axes

Axes are heavy chopping implements designed to be used with two hands. While much less versatile than fixed-blade knives, axes can come in handy if you need to split firewood to make tinder, or if you need to chop scavenged wood. (Keep in mind that some campsites and national parks allow campers to harvest downed wood, while others require you to bring your own. Few areas, however, permit the felling of live trees without a permit.) 

Before you purchase an ax, consider the length, weight, head style, handle material, and price. Also make sure you actually need one, as most campers make do without. Axes tend to be too heavy for hiking or backpacking use. Some backpackers will carry a small hatchet for specific trips, but few take a full-on ax.

If you do need an ax, there are basically two types: those for splitting wood (essentially tapping along the grain to pry off a long splinter) and those for cutting and chopping against the grain. Splitting axes have heavier heads and a sharp angle to drive wood fibers apart. Chopping axes have heads with a shallower angle, which require less force to go deeper and are better for cutting against the grain.

If you mostly car-camp in places where you’ll need to bring your own firewood, opt for a splitting ax or a hatchet (see below). If you plan to scavenge wood from fallen trees, go with a chopping ax.

Hatchets 

A hatchet is basically a smaller ax. While most axes are designed to be used with two hands, hatchets are typically designed to be used with one. They also have a flat, rectangular butt (aka poll) that can be used as a hammer (or be hammered against to assist with splitting). Unlike axes, hatchets don’t have a wedge through the eye; instead, the entire blade is made of metal. Because they’re lighter, they’re better for carrying on backcountry outings like canoe trips.

Survival knives 

Survival knives are meant to be used for a variety of survivalist tasks, from building shelters and skinning game to splitting firewood and cutting rope to opening cans. If all that sounds like your cup of tea, look for these features:

  • A fixed blade
  • A full tang (i.e., the metal part of the knife that extends the length of the handle)High-carbon steel
  • A 4- to 8-inch blade 
  • Blade thickness of 0.15 to 0.25 inches
  • An ergonomic, synthetic handle

Folding saws 

Folding saws are most often used to cut wood for fuel, build shelters, clear brush, or cut through bone (when hunting). They’re also lighter than axes and hatchets, so they’re often better for carrying in your pack or paddlecraft. 

Consider how you’ll most likely use a saw before making your purchase. If you’ll be carrying it with you, look for a lightweight option that’s relatively packable—a blade around 5 to 10 inches is best. If you’re doing trail work or serious bushcraft, you may want a longer blade—up to 15 inches. 

The more teeth per inch a saw has, the smoother the cutting action tends to be. If you’re assessing multiple options, this is a good stat to compare. Also make sure the saw has a secure locking mechanism (especially if you have kids around), and check to see whether or not it admits replacement blades. 

Knives by category 

One of the best ways to narrow down your knife choices is to consider what you’ll be using it for.

Hunting 

Hunting knives are unique in that they need to stay extremely sharp for as long as possible. Many are made from carbon steel or ceramic so that they maintain their edge while skinning an animal. Many hunters also prefer fixed blades for their sturdiness. Some hunting knives are designed for specific tasks, while others can be used for everything from skinning and cleaning to boning and shredding. 

Fishing 

The knife you choose to take fishing will depend on the species you’re going after and if you intend to keep your catch. For catch and release, most any blade or multi-tool will do, with many anglers opting for 3- to 4-inch folding blades that stash well inside a fishing vest. If you’re planning to keep and clean your catch, you enter the world of filet blades, whose upward curve and curved tip facilitate long, steady cuts. In general, look for a long, thin-bladed knife to better cut through scales and meat. Hints: For panfish (crappie, perch and bluegills), a 6-inch blade works well; bass and small trout, a 7.5-inch blade; and pike, salmon and larger fish, a 9-inch blade at minimum. 

Hiking 

For casual hiking, it’s best to carry a small, lightweight folding knife so the blade stays safe and protected inside the handle when not in use. Look for a blade that’s 2 to 3 inches in length. These types of knives don’t take up much space and can be stored in a pants or pack pocket easily. Many hikers prefer bringing pocket knives or multi-tools for their versatility.  

Backpacking 

A good blade is considered essential gear for most backpacking trips. Backpackers use knives for trimming patches for repair tasks, cutting bandages or blister pads for first-aid use, and occasionally creating tinder to start a fire

Some backpackers prefer fixed blades for cooking tasks, especially if they’re processing a lot of fresh food—common when cooking for big groups. Others prefer folding knives or multi-tools for their packability. Many bring one of each

Ultralight hikers may choose especially small blades—just 1 to 2 inches in length—and prefer knives made of titanium or other lightweight materials. However, most casual backpackers tend to prefer a slightly larger multi-tool or knife for more versatility. 

Paddling 

If you’re paddling in moving water—whether that’s kayaking, canoeing, or rafting—a river knife can help ensure you don’t get tangled in ropes or rigging when rescuing gear or people. Many river knives, also called “rescue knives”—include a plastic sheath that attaches to your PFD for quick, one-handed access. They have a sharp, serrated edge specifically designed for cutting rope, and they’re made of rust-resistant metal like stainless steel. River knives also tend to have grippy handles that are easy to hold when wet and a blunt tip, which makes them less likely to puncture a raft or skin.  

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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