Every person needs to carry at least one knife, preferably in the form of a multi-tool or Swiss Army-style knife.
I consider a knife as probably the most important Ten Essential-Category-related item. A good multi-tool or Swiss Army-style knife can do so many things. There’s no substitute that has the same capability.
A pocket saw (mentioned further below) can cut through larger pieces of wood more efficiently than smaller multi-tool or Swiss Army-style saw blades. Note that a pocket saw supplements rather than replaces a knife in the tool kit.
Back in the day, when I was first introduced to the “Ten Essential Items”, the knife of choice was a Boy Scout knife. I still have it. Nothing particularly fancy, just no-nonsense utility. The Scout knife has a basic blade, awl, can opener, bottle opener/screwdriver, and lanyard bail.
My first college summer job on a Forest Service fire crew prompted a knife upgrade.
Swiss Army knives were very much in vogue, and I found a good one at a hardware store closeout sale.
Made by Victorinox of Switzerland, it was called the “Farmer”. The Farmer was an improvement over the Scout knife with some tool modifications and the addition of a very handy wood saw.
I carried that knife for years, and never needed anything else. It did everything from strip wire to field dress deer.
Swiss Army knives exist in many configurations and tool combinations that rival multi-tool capability.
Ultralightists take note: If you don’t need pliers, Swiss Army-style knives are generally lighter and more compact, depending on configuration, than multi-tools.
I retired the Farmer when Leatherman Tool Group came out with their “Super Tool” multi-tool. It has eighteen tool functions (including pliers!), and has been my knife companion up to the present.
The Super Tool’s robust enough to handle many chores, yet is compact and easy to carry in a belt sheath. I can’t think of going anywhere in the outdoors without it.
Multi-tools have become very popular, and there are other manufacturers and designs out there. Some are lighter, some have more tools, and I have several added to my collection. Yet, the Super Tool is what I still carry.
The Super Tool, as do the best multi-tools, has folding pliers, two knife blades (one straight, one serrated), file, saw, awl, can and bottle openers (the can opener is sharp, counts as an extra blade!), and a variety of screw drivers, etc.
The saw, similar to that of the Swiss Army Knife, is larger and particularly handy.
Multi-tools, especially larger examples, are much stronger than Swiss Army knives.
In the winter (sort of off the hiking subject), I work around snowmobiles, cargo sleds, and the like. Stuff breaks all the time, and carrying the Super Tool means not having to dig into the tool kit. Someone’s always hollering, “Gimme your Leatherman”, during trailside equipment checks.
I also carry a very lightweight, medium-size, one-handed, locking-single-blade knife with a pocket clip.
It serves the purpose for most blade-related chores without having to get the multi-tool out. This is the “go-to” knife in day-to-day activity that gets the most use.
Note the multi-purpose, half-serrated blade design for cutting cord and rope.
Ultralightists take note: At 3 ounces, this is the bare minimum (no tools, just the blade)! If cutting weight’s your goal and you can forgo additional tool functionality, this is the knife for you.
Carrying a fixed-blade knife is completely optional. Most hikers try to keep weight to a minimum, and will opt for the options discussed above. Ultralightists can skip to the next section below. HOWEVER, for the sake of discussion, we need to at least talk about fixed-blades. Why?
Knives in this category are sturdy, carried in a sheath, with blades 4″ to 8″ long. 5″ to 6″ blade length is generally considered the best compromise between size, weight, and capability.
Fixed-blades are useful for hacking and splitting wood (think firewood, shelter, etc.), in addition to regular knife chores. Unless I’m going ultralight, I carry a fixed-blade, since it can do more and in less time than a smaller knife. I usually keep it sheathed, inside my pack in a secure location.
Choose your fixed-blade wisely. It’ll sustain more abuse when pressed into service, so quality and function is essential. Your knife should have a complete full-tang, where the knife is made out of the same piece of steel from the tip to the exposed lanyard hole at the butt-end. The handle material is attached by screws or rivets on either side of the knife steel. This construction makes the knife very strong in comparison to other knives. The exposed metal at the butt end can be used for pounding or prying.
Knives of this caliber should have a strong nylon sheath with plastic insert to keep the blade safe.
There are many cheap, imported “Rambo-Wannabe” look-alikes out there that are all flash and pizazz. Often sold at discount stores or chain sporting goods stores, they look good but will potentially fail when in use. Avoid anything with one or more “features” like a hollow handle, compass at the butt end, or saw teeth on top of the blade. An extremely low price is another indication of low quality.
Personally, I look for fixed-blade knives that are “Made in USA” from reputable manufacturers. Such knives cost more, but won’t fail the purpose they were designed for.
Carry something to keep your knife blade sharp. It’ll get dull if you use it extensively, and a dull knife is harder and more dangerous to use than a sharp knife.
I have a small, lightweight diamond rod with round, flat, and tapered surfaces that’s also grooved for sharpening fish hooks. Works great for knife blades. The tapered or cone-shaped end sharpens serrated blade edges and multi-tool tool-edges (like wire stripper or can opener edges).
Diamond sharpeners are found in sporting goods stores. Check the fishing section.
…sometimes don’t mix. Knives are dangerous when not used properly. Adults need to determine if children are sufficiently mature to keep and use a knife safely. Knives (and multi-tools) are obviously not toys, yet become play objects if use isn’t properly supervised. Discretion is advised.
Certain accident-prone adults also require a safety “heads-up”. The first time I got my hands on a Super Tool, I stuck the smallest screwdriver (very sharp!) in my finger while trying to get the screwdriver blade unlocked. Took awhile to stop the bleeding.
The moral is this: Knives and other sharp, pointy objects can be dangerous. Regardless of who you are or where you are. Practice with, and be familiar with, what you carry. Use caution.
A knife is easy to drop or fumble while in use, damaging the blade or possibly causing injury. Worse, you may lose the knife altogether if it sails down steep terrain, or if you drop it in deep snow (goes straight to the bottom). Use a lanyard to prevent this from happening.
A lanyard is a 6 ft. long loop of rope or cord (military 550 cord is the best) attached to the end of the knife, usually through a hole or split-ring intended for that purpose.
Hanging a knife-in-use around your neck with a 6 ft. loop (or any loop) isn’t very safe, and isn’t recommended. In addition to flopping around without control, an open loop could strangle you if it hangs up when you stumble or fall.
You want to make the loop shorter for regular use. I knot my knife lanyards in slip-knot-chain fashion so the actual lanyard length is around 6 in. long. I leave a 2 in. loop at the end which allows me to put the last two fingers (ring and pinky) snugly through the loop while holding the knife. If I fumble or drop the knife, it hangs by the lanyard on my fingers, and isn’t lost or dropped on the ground.
Why the big 6 ft. loop, then? It’s a handy way to carry a supply of emergency cord…you can undo part or all of it and quickly use it for other purposes.
When your knife isn’t being used, the lanyard end-loop can be secured with a carabiner to pockets, belt loops, and such for added security from loss.
Note: Lanyards work good for any smaller item, not just knives! Use your imagination; improvise based on need. Think whistle, signal mirror, GPS, flashlight…
As mentioned at the top of this page, a saw can cut through larger pieces of wood faster and more efficiently than any knife or multi-tool-equipped saw blade.
A saw supplements, rather than replaces a knife, and in most tool kits, gets used very little.
Most hikers carry stoves for convenience, and there’s no need to conduct a mini-logging operation at every camp. Depending on where your trip takes you, there may be wood-cutting restrictions in alpine areas.
BUT, during an emergency, a saw is a critical tool when you need to cut firewood and/or shelter materials.
Packable saws are available as fixed-blades (carried much like a fixed-blade knife), folding blades (like a large folding knife), and wire varieties. I favor a pocket or wire saw for personal, individual carry.
A wire saw rolls up into a very small, lightweight coil. The cutting surface is designed to be safely handled (it cuts wood, not fingers and such). I carry mine in a plastic container that contains my Repair Kit.
If you’re really into survival, note the wire saw is readily adaptable for use as a game snare. Sort of beyond the scope of this presentation, however my saw came with instructions to make it a small-game gathering device. Rodents, small mammals, etc. Not for the squeamish, but worth noting as another food source if you want to pursue it further.