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How to Choose Knives and Tools
Knives and multi-tools come in a variety of styles and materials. Read this article to get tips on how to choose one that works for you.
One of the most useful items to keep in your pack, a sturdy knife or multi-tool will help you prepare food, cut cord, make repairs, fashion a roasting stick—or even save your life in an emergency.
Knives and multi-tools come in a wide variety of styles, designs and materials. The knife or tool you choose will be based on your intended use and activities. The best option for ultralight backpacking may differ from what you need for car camping or everyday use.
Knives range from no-nonsense, fixed blades to compact pocket knives, and specialized knives for scenarios such as water rescue or woodcarving. Since no one knife will suit every task, some people carry multiple knives. However, with some careful consideration you can select a single knife that will handle most of your needs.
With folding blades, pocket knives don’t take up much space and are ideal for hiking, backpacking and everyday tasks. They also keep the sharp edge protected inside the handle when not in use. However, smaller folding knives tend to lack the ergonomics and stability of fixed-blade knives, and a non-locking blade may accidentally fold down on your fingers while in use.
Fixed blades offer more strength, heft and ergonomic comfort than folding knives. They are easier to clean, but also weigh more, take up more space and require a sheath to carry safely.
A locking blade combines the stability of a fixed-blade knife and the convenience of a folding knife. The blade folds down for compact, protected carrying, but locks into place when you open it to keep the blade from accidentally folding down while in use.
Some folding blades are designed to open quickly with one hand. A smooth folding mechanism and a stud, notch or cutout on the blade make it easy to push the knife open with your thumb. An ambidextrous knife can be opened easily with either hand.
When you start to open the blade, an assisted-opening mechanism engages and fully opens the knife. Assisted-opening knives feature a safety lock that disengages the mechanism when the knife is closed to prevent the blade from opening accidentally.
There are many types of knife blades; here are a few of the more common ones you’ll find for camping and outdoor use:
Strong and versatile, a drop-point blade has a thick point that is perfect for a wide variety of heavytasks and general knife work. The blade’s spine drops toward the tip, creating a shape that reduces accidental puncturing.
A clip-point blade features a crescent drop on the top of the blade that creates a thin, sharp point. Clip-point blades are ideal for puncturing and offer enhanced control for exacting, detailed work, but lack the strength of broader drop-point blades.
A heavy-duty tanto blade features an angular tip and a strong point that offers extra strength for prying, scraping and piercing tough materials.
Needle-point and spear-point blades typically feature double edges and symmetrical points. Ideal for survival situations, they are designed primarily for puncturing and throwing.
Sheepsfoot and Santuko blades are great for food preparation. They feature a spine that rounds off steeply to the point and the cutting edge is straight from the handle to the point, rather than curved. This shape makes it easy to cut, chop and slice while minimizing the risk of accidentally piercing with the point.
Ideally, a knife blade should resist corrosion, retain a sharp edge through sustained use and sharpen easily. However, there are trade-offs to consider: Harder steel holds a better edge and is less resistant to rust, but is also more difficult to sharpen. Softer steel may have higher corrosion resistance and is easier to sharpen, but usually doesn’t hold an edge as well.
Most blades are made of stainless steel, an alloy that resists rust and corrosion. Three popular examples of stainless steel used for knife blades include:
420HC: This affordable stainless steelresists corrosion, sharpens easily and features fair edge retention.
154CM: Higher-grade stainless steel contains a higher amount of carbon for more hardness and good edge retention.
S30V: Premium stainless steel contains a high amount of vanadium (a rust-resistant carbide that adds wear-resistance and toughness to a blade) for superior edge retention.
Some knives are made with non-stainless high-carbon steel. These blades feature outstanding hardness and edge retention, but are much more vulnerable to corrosion than stainless-steel blades.
Often textured for improved grip and shaped for ergonomic comfort, knife handles are made of a wide variety of materials to suit your intended environment, aesthetic tastes and preferences for feel.
Wood handles are beautiful and provide good grip, but are susceptible to water damage.
Plastic handles are affordable and resist water damage, but can be slippery.
Rubber handles offer great grip and water resistance, but can lack durability.
Stainless-steel and aluminum handles are durable, but can feel cold and slippery in your hand.