It may seem strange to some, but hiking, as a sport, is a fairly recent innovation. Of course, people have always walked through the woods, but until the 20th century, in the US at least, hiking was regarded as merely a form of transportation. For most of our history, the US was largely rural, and most of it’s people were pretty humble, financially-speaking. Stagecoaches, trains, and wagon trains were expensive undertakings, both in money and resources. Until the mid-19th century, the majority of people could not even afford to buy and take care of horses for themselves. So most people walked to wherever they had to go. Riding horses was limited to the ‘upper-classes’, and people that had to ride for their job.
After the Civil War, there were floods of surplus horses available at reasonable prices, and the costs of other forms of transportation lowered to within the means of the average working person, at least for occasional trips. More railroads, and stage lines lowered the costs even more. Major cities were flooded with war veterans, displaced families, and immigrants. To ease the burden on metropolitan areas, the government passed the Homestead Act, which encouraged people to relocate to more remote areas on the promise of land grants. This spurred the creation of more cities, especially when gold, silver, and other valuable resources were discovered in these regions.
The advent of the bicycle, and the automobile prompted the construction of permanent state and national highway systems, and by the turn of the 20th century, hardly anyone had to walk anywhere, except for short local trips. The government began establishing Parks and Wilderness Areas to preserve and protect some of our original ecosystems from further development. In 1933, hiking was officially listed as a sport, for the first time. People were now hiking simply for the pleasure and experience of being part of the various aspects of nature. An entire new industry was built, and today, hiking is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the country, with well over a million people participating annually.
One of the appeals of hiking is the idea of self-sufficiency. For all practical purposes, when hiking, you are on your own, with only what you take with you. Of course, now we have cell phones, but they often do not work in remote areas, and even of they do, it can take help a good bit of time to reach you. There is something empowering about being on your own. Of course, this will require you to carry certain things with you, and one of the most important items is a suitable knife. I consider a knife to be the most important thing you can have on you, in almost any endeavor. In this article, I will be discussing why a knife is so important, what you will need it to do, and what makes a good trail knife, in addition to spotlighting some of the more popular knives available. As always, these are just my opinions, and may differ from yours, so take this information for what it is worth.
There are many, many things that you need a knife for on the trail, but we can say one thing with some certainty. While most of us fantasize about being able to build a log cabin with nothing but a pocket knife, or be victorious in a hand-to-hand battle with the world’s largest grizzly bear, using nothing but a case slip-joint knife, the reality is that none of us are Rambo, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Mike Fink, Jim Bridger, etc…., and there is no need for us to be. The chances of you having to do any of the aforementioned tasks exist only in dime novels. After all, the most effective weapon you have is your brain. No, the reality is that your trail knife will be used for nothing more glamorous than opening packets of food, cutting string, rope or strapping, shaving wood for tender, cutting smallish branches and tree limbs for firewood, popping blisters, cutting first aid tape, and in more extreme circumstances, making traps, fishing poles, tent stakes, etc…
There is no one-size-fits-all knife. You should always carry several knives with you, especially when hiking. Never use your knife to open cans, as it can damage the blade. Always carry a few P-38, or P-51 can openers, one of the most reliable and successful tools the US Military has ever come up with. They have hundreds of uses, and are near 100% reliable under all conditions. You also should carry at least one Swiss Army Knife, or better yet, a good multi-tool. And lastly, you need to always carry a good hatchet or hand axe.
The best hiking knife in the world will do you no good at all if your knife skills are not honed. You need to practice a lot before you go hiking, to be sure you can properly complete essential tasks on the trail. Some of them are:
- Feathering – this is the process of using your knife to shave thin slices of wood, usually to be used as kindling to start a fire with. Feathering is also used for shaping wood for stakes, poles, pins, etc….
- Shaving – this has nothing to do with your face. Shaving is the process of using the back of the blade to create thinner slivers of wood than can be made by feathering. This is very useful for starting fires under difficult conditions, as well as for fine shaping when you don’t want to remove much wood from the main piece.
- Carving/Whittling – the process of using your knife to shape wood, for making traps, decoys, pins, stakes, clothespins, spoons, forks, etc…
- Batoning – using a larger piece of wood to hammer your knife blade through tough wood, for splitting. This is one of the hardest things on a knife, and should only be done in an emergency. which is why you should always carry a hatchet.
- First Aid – in addition to opening packages and cutting tape, string, etc… you may have to pop a blister, lance a boil, set broken bones, splinting, make crutches, a travois, or other more involved procedures. You should learn how to perform some of the more basic and essential medical procedures in an emergency.
As you can see, these are tall orders for any one knife. Each of these tasks requires a different set of features for it to work well. Your trail knife needs to be able to handle all of these tasks, maybe not perfectly, but good enough.
Folding vs Fixed Blade Hiking Knives
Any discussion of knives will invariably lead to the argument; which is better; fixed blades or folding blades? This question will probably never be settled to anyone’ satisfaction, because each faction is extremely loyal to their position. There are few middle-of-the-road opinions. I am something of an anomaly, because I like and carry both. As to which is actually ‘better’, we will have to examine the attributes, and advantages of each. Due to advances in modern technology, metallurgy, and engineering, the line between what used to be considered ‘best’ has blurred somewhat.
In days past, fixed blades were considered to be much stronger than folders because they were, for the most part, a solid piece of steel with a handle wrapped around them. Since folders, by nature, have to have a pivot in order to fold, this was considered a weak point, because the knife had to have at least 4 or 5 parts. But, with modern mechanisms like Cold Steel’s Triad, and Ram-Safe locks, the locks are at least as strong as the steel they are made from. Another very strong lock is Opinels Ring Lock, which is as strong as the material used in the locking collar. Other companies have new, strong locking methods as well. Modern good quality folders approach the reliability of fixed blades, with the convenience of being foldable for easy carry.
With that being said, what you have to do is decide which is best for you. We’ve already listed the most common things your knife will be used for. So how much knife do you really need? Remember, every ounce you take will have to be carried 8, 10, 12 or more hours a day, uphill, and down. A few ounces may not sound like much, but when you add this to all the other gear you will be carrying, over the course of a day, it will add up. My advice is to go with the strongest, but lightest compromise possible. It’s better to have more knife than you need, than to need more knife, and not have it. My reason is this; one task that is not mentioned very often is unanticipated situations. Many times, I have been climbing a hill or mountain, and began to slide back. I stop myself by stabbing my knife into the ground, holding me in position until I can stabilize myself. I weight over 200 pounds + my gear, so this takes a strong knife. There are other situations that cannot be planned for, where a knife might save your life.
Fixed Blade Hiking Knives
The advantages of a fixed blade knife are:
- Solid one-piece construction
- Strength (providing it is made from good materials)
- Easy deployment, usually with one-hand
- Allows comfortable carry of larger blades.
- Most can be safely used for batoning.
The disadvantages are:
- Fixed blades tend weigh a lot more than folders.
- Limited carry options
- Limited blade styles
- Since they must be carried on your belt, or outside your pack, they can become hung up in brush and undergrowth.
Folding Hiking Knives
Advantages of folders:
- Carry options are limited only your imagination, from neck carry, to inside-the-pants, belt sheath, etc…
- Modern top-of-the-line lock mechanisms are more than strong enough for anything you would realistically use the knife for.
- A myriad of blade and scale styles available
- Easy to carry concealed
- More parts = more chances of potential failure, although this is rare in most better knives.
- Difficult to keep really clean without disassembly.
- Anything with a blade much larger than 4-1/2″ to 5-1/2″ can be uncomfortable to carry.
- Some may not hold up to batoning, which is why you carry more than one knife.
So, now you can see the differences between the two types of knives. As I said earlier, I carry both, and have no particular preference for one over the other, depending on the task at hand. There are outstanding models of both types. It comes down to a matter of personal preference, more than functionality.
Features To Look For In A Hiking Knife
Without question, the very first thing to look for in any knife is the blade steel. Any decent knife manufacturer will be proud to list what their knives are made from. The steel is the knife. Everything else is an accessory. And there is a huge difference in steels, but price is not necessarily a good indicator. There are outstanding blade steels that are very reasonably priced. Some of the very best steel for the money comes from China, which makes perfect sense, since they are the inventors of steel in the first place. Granted, they also make some junk steel, but their good steels is as good as it gets for the price.
Before we discuss the various steels, you should decide whether you want stainless steel, or high carbon. There are some advantages to both, but the trend nowadays is overwhelmingly for stainless steels. Most high carbon steel fans are older knife enthusiasts, like myself, who remember the days when stainless steels were hard and brittle, difficult to sharpen to a very fine edge. This is no longer the case. Some modern stainless steels can be sharpened to a nightmarish edge on a normal stone with little trouble. Unless you like doing frequent maintenance on your knives (and some of us do), stainless steel is the way to go, under most circumstances. The exception would be for heavy-use knives, that may be used for throwing, severe chopping, and batoning. These are best made from high carbon tool steel, which will flex under stress, rather than break.
Some of the more common steels are:
- 420C and HC, which is junk, in my opinion, is soft and does not hold a good edge. Used on a lot of Buck and Gerber knives.
- 440C is the absolute minimum you should accept in a trail blade. It takes an OK edge, holds it reasonably well, and it is not overly expensive.
- Chinese CR8 series steels are outstanding, and inexpensive. The CR9 series is almost as good as stainless steel gets. Avoid anything less than CR8.
- AUS 8, from Japan, is a great knife steel with good corrosion-resistance, good edge retention, and is tough. It is equivalent to 440C.
- 4116 Krupp steel, from Germany, is outstanding. It can be sharpened to a wicked edge, hold it well, resharpens easily, and has great corrosion-resistance.
- VG-10 is a marginal Japanese stainless steel similar to 420HC. I would avoid it. It does not take a good edge and chips easily. Used mostly in some Spyderco knives.
- CPM154, andS30V are outstanding new ‘Super-Steels’ that take and hold a wicked edge, and are tough and corrosion-resistant. They are pricey, but as good as it gets.
- 1095 High Carbon is a good tool steel. It is very tough, flexible, and holds an OK edge for tough cutting chores.
- SK-5 High Carbon is absolutely wonderful for heavy-use knives. It is the replacement for the outstanding Carbon V steel, no longer in production. It is a tough tool steel that holds a wicked edge, sharpen very easily, and can stand up to unbelievable abuse.
- D-2 is a new tools steel that surpasses even SK-5 for being tough, sharp and almost bomb-proof.
Four more steels are worth mentioning: Mora’s UHB High Carbon, Sandvik 12C27 Stainless, and Opinel’s XC-90 Carbone steels. These are the finest knife blades made for the money, period. They take an edge approaching that of a straight-razor, hold it well, and stand up to incredible abuse, in addition to being very inexpensive.
For hiking, scale material is not all that critical for the most part. You’ll want something comfortable, that will allow a solid grip when your hands are cold, wet, or wearing gloves. Wood is a classic scale material, and beautiful. However, it does require some upkeep from time to time, and can swell when exposed to moisture. Stacked leather looks great, but will deteriorate over time without a lot of TLC. Bone and horn make nice-looking scales, but can chip and break over time when exposed to shocks. G-2, Grivory, Griv-Ex and Zytel are excellent scale materials because they are element-resistant, shock resistant and can be molded in all kinds of ergonomic shapes. And of course, for fixed knives, there is always the option of just solid steel, as in the Cold Steel Bushman, and similar knives. These can be wrapped with paracord, and since the knife is all one piece, there is little that can go wrong other than total blade failure.
Blade type is up to the user. Some prefer clip points. Others like drop points. Drop points allow for more detailed work, but clip point have more slicing power. As to size, you won’t need anything larger than around 4″, and most of the time, a 3″ blade will be plenty. You should carry a large knife for big jobs like splitting limbs, and a small one for more routine tasks.
Other features that are nice to have are choils that allow you to choke up on the blade for detail work, a lanyard hole so you can avoid dropping your knife in precarious situations, and the ability to lash it to a long pole for distance work, such as cutting high tree limbs, spearing, etc….
All of these features must be balanced by how much you are willing to pay. Some things many ‘outdoor’ knives come with are just junk, such as crappy hollow scales, supposedly to store emergency gear in (So, what is your backpack for???), the exception being the Cold Steel Bushman Series, where the hollow handle is part of the blade itself. Integral fire steels are another thing you can do without. You can buy them separate for a few dollars apiece and keep them in your pack, safe. Compasses in the scales, ruler marks on the blade, serrated spines, etc…, all worthless junk, and just make the knife more expensive. A good rule of thumb is to put your money into the blade first, and worry about the bells and whistles later.
In the next section, I’ll be spotlighting a few knives marketed as hiking, or outdoor knives. I do not include any tactical, fighters, or slip-joint knives, because they fall into different categories. Certainly, you can carry any of these as back-up, and I always advocate carrying a good multiple-bladed slip-joint knife, no matter what else you carry. They are invaluable for small tasks.
Cold Steel Kudu Review
- Length: 6-1/2″
- Blade Length: 4-1/2″
- Blade Material: 4116 Krupp
- Weight: 4.2 oz.
- Scales: Zytel
- Lock: CS Proprietary Ring Lock
For the money, you can’t beat the Cold Steel Kudu, and it’s slightly larger brother, the Eland. It is one of the cheapest knives you can buy, that actually works. In fact, it easily outperforms other knives costing 10+ times as much.
The 4116 blade takes a scary-sharp edge, and comes that way right out of the box. It sharpens easily on any stone or sharpener. It has good corrosion resistance, and the blade it a great compromise between a clip point and drop point blade, with the best features of both.
I have tested the lock mechanism to 100 pounds, and it never showed any signs of failure. I have whacked it on the spine 50 times, as hard as I could. The lock never failed, and there was never any blade play. When open, this knife feels like a fixed blade. It is solid, comfortable, and feels very reliable in the hand. I have filleted fish, dressed out deer and small game, batoned, and even thrown this knife (something you should avoid with any folder), and it never has failed.
The only down-side I can think of is that it is difficult and slow to open one-handed, but it is not a tactical knife, so this isn’t really an issue. I own several Kudus and Elands, and they stay in my pack, my car, boat and tackle box. For most chores, this is one of my go-to knives.
Mora Companion Review
- Length: 9.25″
- Blade Length: 4″
- Weight (with sheath): 6 oz.
- Blade Material: Sandvik 12C27, or UHB High Carbone
- Scales: Molded hard rubber
Another outstanding, but inexpensive knife. Moras take the sharpest edge of any knife I have ever used, and hold it well. They are tough, and reliable. The plastic sheaths may look cheap, but they get the job done, and work surprisingly well. The molded rubber scales provide an excellent secure grip under all conditions.
I can’t think of any down-side to owning several Mora’s. I have at least 5, in different models, and all are outstanding. The Mora, in my opinion, is the standard for hiking.outdoor knives. At its price, it’s another knife that just can’t be beat.
Gerber Bear Grylls
- Length: 8.5″
- Blade Length: 3.5″
- Weight: 4.3 oz.
- Blade Material: 420 HC
- Scales: Molded Rubber
I received 2 of these for testing and review. To start with, I do not like serrated blades, and I dislike partially-serrated blades even more. It means you are only getting 1-1/2″ of useful cutting length with either the serrated or straight section. Using both results in a ragged tear, rather than a clean cut.
This knife is marketed as a folding “Survival Knife“, but it falls far short of living up to it’s hype. The 420 HC blade refused to take anything more than a utility edge, and lost it quickly. Because of the partially serrated blade, it does not shave wood good at all, and just makes ragged sawdust.The blade actually chipped on the 3rd try at feathering an oak stick. Batoning is out of the question, because of the tests I will describe shortly. The rubber handle started separating after a few uses, probably because of the wet weather, so this can only be used in good weather. Not much of a recommendation for a survival knife.
In bench testing, the lock on Gerber #1 failed at just 45 lbs. Gerber #2 failed after just one whack on the spine. Neither knife survived even the most gentle testing.
If you are looking for something that looks cool to carry around, then this knife may work for you. If you need a knife you can actually use for something other than a letter opener, this isn’t it.
Opinel Outdoor #8 Review
- Length: 7-3/4″
- Blade Length: 3.25″
- Weight: 2. 2 oz.
- Blade Material: Sandvik 12C27 Stainless Steel
- Scales: Polymer
Another great knife from one of the greatest knife manufacturers in the world. It shares all the wonderful features of the other classic Opinel knives, such as a scary-sharp Sandvik 12C27 Stainless Steel Blade, a Scandi-grind to the blade which provides an unbelievably keen edge, and a super-strong, but simple ring-lock. What sets this knife apart is the addition of element-proof polymer scales, an integrated whistle that can be heard several hundred yards away, and a 1/2 serrated blade that slices through anything like hot butter.
As a rule, I despise serrated blades, but in this case, I make an exception. The serrations are designed so they they facilitate slicing, rather than rip, like most other designs. The serrations actually make feathering and shaving wood easier. And, the serrations sharpen on a regular sharpener or stone. At a mere 2.oz., you may need to remind yourself that you are carrying this knife. I own 1 of these, and I have even batoned wood with it with no trouble at all. Heck, I have even thrown it at trees with no problems.
On bench tests, the ring lock held a whopping 110 lbs before failing, and the good part is that even with that, the knife was easily repaired by bending the ring back in position with pliers, and the knife was back in action (of course, I would recommend replacing the ring as soon as possible, but in an emergency, you can still use your knife….). Replacement parts are available at very reasonable costs. It is possible that Opinel may soon offer this knife in other sizes, like maybe a #10, or #11. But the 3-1/4″ blade is plenty large enough for most things you will need to do on the trail.
This is a tough, dependable knife that outperforms other knives at 10 times the cost. Everyone needs at least 1 Opinel.
There are so many wonderful trail knives out there that it was not possible to test more of them, but a few deserve Honorable Mention: the Cold Steel Finn Wolf folder, the CRKT M-21, KABAR Mule, Spyderco Bushcraft, Cold Steel Bushman, Cold Steel Pocket Bushman, Cold Steel Finn Bear, Canadian Belt Knife, and Roach Belly, and ESSE 4. All of these are outstanding hiking knives, and more than worth the money.
I hope this has helped you in your quest to find the right hiking knife for you. As always, these are just my opinions. Your mileage may vary. Check back with us often for more interesting articles.