A knife is included on nearly every list of essentials for wilderness travel. Among experienced wilderness travelers, strong feelings are often expressed both ways on the subject of knives. Here are three positions that cover most of the options:

1.    Always carry a substantial knife.

2.    A knife can be useful, but is not essential; however, something quite sharp (e.g., a razor blade) is essential.

3.    It totally depends on the type of trip.

For further analysis, consider the following working definition for a “substantial” knife:

  • more than a razor blade or light utility knife
  • handle large enough to be firmly gripped
  • total length of at least four inches
  • usually weighs more than two ounces.

Sometimes an easily accessible substantial knife is seen as essential for self-defense and for dealing with survival situations. Sometimes having a magnum size sheath knife hung in plain sight on one’s belt is seen as providing a clear “don’t mess with me” message. Sometimes a substantial knife is seen as excess weight and a waste of money. What is your philosophy about carrying a substantial knife (as defined above)?

Some Arguments for Carrying a Substantial Knife

Carrying a substantial knife would be advantageous in the following situations (there might be more):

  • hunting or trapping wild game is a goal of trip
  • survival skills are being practiced without access to one’s regular gear (like those highly-staged episodes seen on TV)
  • some probability of losing my full pack in a fall or in crossing a river
  • some probability of coming face to face with predators (especially of the human kind)
  • high probability I will have time to kill sitting in camp and will want to pass the time by whittling and carving.

 Author’s Experience and Conclusions

In my years of backcountry experience, I have found that a knife is useful to pry, scrape, screw, drill and to slice food. It does not seem essential for emergencies (the specific issue in this section). A single edge razor blade or small utility knife will usually handle most emergency cutting tasks (e.g., preparing bandages, cutting cordage, replacing a shoestring, sewing up a rip). This is not to say that an emergency will never arise where a substantial knife would be highly desirable, but it is doubtful that a knife will make the difference between life and death. Without a knife, other skills and gear can be applied in emergencies. On longer trips into the backcountry, I carry a small combination tool weighing 1.5 ounces that includes a small knife, screwdriver, hole punch and scissors. I find that the scissors are most often used (great for trimming nails, tape and other tasks). The purpose of my small knife or combo tool is utility, not life or death survival. For those concerned with weight, a single-bladed, folding utility knife weighing less than an ounce can be obtained.

Consider that sharp knives are a common source of backcountry injuries. If carrying a substantial knife is an absolute essential, it needs to be properly sheathed. Also, make sure it has a locking mechanism to keep it open when in use.


Legal Disclaimer: Nothing in this website article on the use or non-use of knives can substitute for experience, careful planning, the right equipment, and appropriate training. There is inherent danger hiking and backpacking and viewers must assume full responsibility for their own actions and safety. The Author will not be responsible for the safety of those who visit this site.

Substantial Knife—Essential For Wilderness Travel?