I like knives, I own a lot. I use many different types and sizes on a regular basis. For an ultralight backpacking knife, I have specific requirements that need to be met before I consider adding the weight to my pack. When I’m going on an ultralight backpacking trip or a long thru-hike I’m traveling light and moving fast. Any extra weight just slows me down and contributes to fatigue when hiking twenty plus miles, day after day.
Everything that goes into my pack has passed the “do I really need this” test. In this post I’m going to discuss just how necessary a knife is on an ultralight backpacking trip, what makes for a good UL knife and look at a few options I carry.
In this post, I will NOT be talking about Rambo sized survival knives. Those are fun and they have their uses but not on an Ultralight Backpacking trip.
**Comment below if you want to see me write a post on the best small fixed blade knife**
What I DON’T Use a Knife for on an Ultralight Backpacking Trip
I DON’T use a Knife for Fire Making on a UL Trip
I rarely have fires on thru-hikes and UL backpacking trips so I don’t need a big knife to help me start one. On most trips like this, hiking is the focus and not time spent in camp. I’m hiking from sunrise to sunset and trying to push the mileage. By the time I reach camp and set up my tent I’m usually exhausted and ready for food and sleep. I would NEVER rely on a fire for cooking or to keep me warm. This is asking for trouble and creates more work for me. Instead, I bring a butane stove to cook my food and adequate insulating layers to keep me toasty warm.
Making a fire is very rare for me on a trip like this but If I decide to have one, I have the skills and equipment to make a small fire without a knife.
I DON’T Carry a Knife for a “Survival Situation”
The concept of a “survival situation” on a backpacking trip is weird to me. If I’m hiking in the backcountry then I’m carrying all the things I need for a “survival situation” in my backpack. Bad things happen, but with the gear I carry, proper trip planning and some backcountry skills I’m quite well prepared. If I was plucked from my apartment and dumped in the middle of the forest would I want a fixed blade knife with me? Of course. This is not that situation though. A UL backpacking trip should be a meticulously planned event with very little true risk.
I DON’T Carry a Knife for Food Preparation in the Back Country
If you’ve checked out my recent video series on food for backpacking you’ll know I do very little food preparation on an ultralight backpacking trip. The only food items I need to cut on a backpacking trip are cheese, summer sausage, and bagels if they’re not pre-cut. I discovered that the back of my titanium long-handled spoon does a great job of cutting these food items. I’m already carrying it so it doesn’t contribute extra weight to my backpack. Because of this, I don’t need to carry a knife worthy of food preparation on UL backpacking trips.
Here Are a Couple More Tasks That I Could Use for a Knife and How I Get Around Them
Having short toenails is important for comfortable hiking. If I’m on a short trip I make sure my nails are trimmed up beforehand. On a multiple month hike, I bring a small pair of Tweezerman nail clippers. They do a much better job than a small knife
To Open Packaging
It’s nice to have a small knife to open food packaging but you can almost always use your teeth. If opening resupply boxes from the post office you can usually tear off the tape or rip the box itself.
What I DO use an Ultralight Backpacking Knife for on a Trip
Common uses for my knife on most of my backpacking trips?
Err…there aren’t that many…
Cutting Leukotape for First Aid Purposes
Leukotape can usually be torn from the roll but having a small, sharp blade is useful for cutting smaller pieces. I carry a small amount of Leukotape for blister prevention and treatment on a hiking trip.
Preparing Town Food in Hotels and Hostels
I often pick up veggies or cooked chicken from a supermarket when in towns. A sharp knife can be helpful as plastic knives from the store are useless and harmful to the environment.
To Use in Some of the Roles Above
I’ve mentioned all of the things I DON’T use a knife for above but I do usually carry a small knife and sometimes employ it in one of those roles. If I have a knife on my person I’ll sometimes use it to open a package at the post office, just to make life a little easier.
As you can see there aren’t many uses for my knife on a UL backpacking trip. So why would I dedicate “weight space” in my pack to something heavy?
Because of the limited uses I have for a knife, I carry something lightweight that handles a few tasks well. I could go without a knife entirely but something very lightweight will help me achieve certain tasks without adding much weight.
What Makes for a Good Ultralight Backpacking Knife?
This is the most important thing we should be looking at because we’ve established the uses for a knife on a UL trip are very few. Something that serves it’s purpose and weighs as little as possible is what you’re looking for. A benchmark to aim for is below 1.5 ounces
The knife you choose needs to serve the purpose you decided to carry it for in the first place. Otherwise, you’ve wasted your time and are carrying dead weight. If you’ve decided you want to carry a knife to cut salami in the backcountry then carry something that works well. Not something too small or serrated or weird shaped. Functionality is key.
If I’m going to allocate “weight space” to a knife inside my pack then it needs to be something high quality and reliable. If you’ve decided you NEED any item inside your pack then it needs to be reliable and serve its purpose.
Just because something’s high quality it doesn’t mean it has to be expensive. Despite what catchy marketing try’s to tell us. I’m not afraid to spend good money on equipment, but something so easily lost as a pocket knife should be affordable.
Multi-function items are something we should always be looking for when backpacking. Below I’ve included a couple of different models of the ever-famous Swiss Army Knife. These mini multi-tools pack in the functions, whilst remaining ultralight and affordable.
Five of my Favourite Knives for Ultralight Backpacking
Victorinox Classic SD
Victorinox has been making multi-function pocket knives since 1884 and the Classic SD is one of their most popular models. Weighing in at 0.75oz/21g makes it a great lightweight option. The Classic SD incorporates 7 functions, the small scissors coming in handy on a backpacking trip. The biggest drawback of the knife is the small blade. Although sharp and functional for most tasks, it is quite undersized if I do want to cut food items.
This French knife maker also has a long heritage of making knives going back to 1890. The smallest of their offerings, the No4 weighs just 0.35oz/10g. The Opinel has a single blade that is larger and more functional than that of the Victorinox Classic SD. If you’re looking for a quality, functional knife blade without any extra features, the Opinel No4 fits the bill.
Think of the bantam as a bigger brother to the Classic SD. At 1.12oz/31g the Bantam is not quite double the weight of the Classic SD. It has a different set of functions, doing away with the scissors but including the always useful bottle opener. The blade is much larger and more functional and the Bantam feels more solid in the hand. If you’re going to be using your knife regularly and are happy to carry a little extra weight then the Bantam may be for you.
Vargo Ti-Carbon Folding Knife
Vargo has been making lightweight titanium products since the early 2000s. The Ti-Carbon folding knife is the only knife on this list with a locking mechanism. Making it feel more solid in heavier cutting tasks. The knife weighs 1.13oz/32g which is virtually identical to the Bantam above. It doesn’t have any extra tools but the blade is a similar length to the bantam. It has a very fine point that is good at intricate cutting tasks. If you’re looking for a decent-sized knife that feels sturdy in the hand grab the Vargo.
If you’re looking for the lightest of the light then a razor blade is the best option. The loose blade weighs 0.12oz/3g and the folding version weighs 0.20oz/6g. Both of these are extremely lightweight. If you don’t plan on using your knife at all you can securely wrap the loose blade with card/tape. Store it with your first aid kit for any situation that requires a sharp blade. For a little extra weight, I recommend the folding option. It’s surprisingly sturdy and can handle lightweight cutting tasks. The blade is sharp and has a fine tip for detailed cutting.
The Knife I’ll be Taking on this Years’ Hiking Trip
Because of the versatility, it offers for such a low weight I’ll be carrying the Victorinox Classic SD on this summer hiking trip. The Classic SD has a small blade but the scissors more than make up for it.
Hopefully, this post helped you figure out the important elements of an ultralight backpacking knife. Thanks for checking out this article and let me know in the comments what knife you bring on a backpacking trip
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