On every Rock Climbing Instructor or Lowland, Hill and Moorland or Mountain Leader course at some point someone will ask the perfectly reasonable question ‘should I carry a knife?’ The short answer is maybe!
A knife is a tool like any other item of outdoor equipment and you need to have a think about what you might actually need it for and then pick the best tool for the job. So let’s look at the various activities we might be involved in, the scenarios we may find ourselves in that may need a knife and the best knives for that scenario.
At this stage I think it’s worth saying that in 35+ years of walking, climbing, mountaineering, trekking, camping and bivouacking throughout Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, USA, Patagonia, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Mongolia and the Himalayas I have never needed a fixed blade knife. Everything I’ve needed to do I’ve managed to do with an Opinel, a Swiss Army Knife or a Leatherman.
Walking and Hiking
On an ordinary day walk I struggle to envision a scenario where a knife would be essential. Sometimes people say ‘well I might need to cut up an apple’ really? Is that essential? Can’t you just eat it? At the most you might cut up some tape for a blister, so a small and lightweight Swiss Army knife stashed in your First Aid Kit will cover every eventuality.
On overnight trips, backpacking, wild camping or bivouacs, it will depend on your food preparation. A boil in the bag and a cup of tea won’t require a knife. However if you want to be a little more imaginative in your cooking then a small knife will be good for cutting up some garlic or chopping up the wild food you may have foraged along the way.
A Swiss Army Knife is almost the perfect overnight camp cooking knife. Light, small, sharp and durable, I’ve had mine for 30+ years and its still works perfectly. I think the Victorinox Spartan model, based on the original Swiss Army knife is ideal with just the basic tools (ie two blades, tin opener, bottle opener and the utterly essential corkscrew). If you want a pair of scissors then the Evolution X is a good choice and unusually for a Swiss army knife it has a locking blade.
If you just need a blade to chop up some ingredients then the Opinel No8 Slim is an excellent option. It’s very light at 28 grams and the sharpest knife in this review. It looks good too.
Climbing and Mountaineering
If you’re bouldering at Burbage South or leading single pitch routes at Stanage you probably don’t need a knife. However if you venture onto multi-pitch climbs and into the mountains then a sharp knife is a handy and sometimes essential tool. The main use would be to cut up abseil cord.
Should a Rock Climbing Instructor carry a knife? Yes, but it doesn’t need to be on display hanging off the back of the harness. Stashed in the pack is fine. For winter mountaineering a multitool with pliers can be useful for crampon repairs.
This is the knife issued to the Chamonix Guides and it is an excellent all round outdoor knife. Light and tough with a furiously sharp 8.5cm blade. Locks both closed and open. It can be a bit stiff to open on occasion but you can always resort to the Coup du Savoyard. There is whistle in the handle and it comes with a thin lanyard. This is the knife that lives in the lid of my pack. Opinel Outdoor
Designed for climbing this is a good sharp knife. Easy to open. It has a short locking blade (an improvement on the older model) and a carabiner hole. A little less sturdy than the Opinel or Whitby but it is lighter and does the job it was designed for very well. Petzl Spatha
Whitby Rescue Knife
At £11.95 this is half the price of the Opinel Outdoor and the Petzl Spatha. If you just want a basic knife for cutting stuff in an emergency this will do the job. It isn’t pretty but it’s strong, it locks securely and will slice through tape and rope like butter. Very easy to open one handed and chunky enough for use while wearing thick gloves. Buy it, stick it in the bottom of your pack and forget about it. This would be a great knife to include in a rope courses rescue bag. Whitby Rescue Knife
By expedition I mean an extended journey and objective that involves multiple nights away from roads and other infrastructure. This might be a journey to a Himalayan mountain or a trek, a Kilimanjaro trip or any venture where there is excessive wear and tear on your equipment. Stoves malfunction, crampons break and rucksacks rip. This is where you may consider taking a multitool such as a Leatherman. Pick one with pliers, scissors and various screwdriver sizes.
The Leatherman Wingman is a good strong burly option but if weight was a concern then the Leatherman Skeletool would be my choice. This also has a bit driver so you could take the screwdriver bits you need for your particular stove, crampons or whatever else you think you might need to repair.
A 2nd Opinion
I asked Ed Chard, Head of Operations at Jagged Globe for his thoughts on knives. Ed is a Mountaineering and Rock Climbing instructor with many years’ experience mountaineering, guiding and leading others across the globe.
A personal view. Knives are a tool and like all other tools have been designed for a purpose based on need. My starting point of any activity is to imagine myself undertaking the activity and what I’ll be using as I’m doing it. What do I need?
With experience, we refine our kit, so we end up with exactly the right stuff at the right time and don’t end up with too much stuff and needless weight or bulk. A good example is the first time I ever went on an overnight camp as a child. All my food was in tins, I had three complete sets of clothes and the tent was made of canvas. My rucksack weighed at least 20kg. Today I would do the same trip with around half that weight and be more comfortable.
Clearly that is experience; experience could be defined by having spent many hours ‘doing it’. As humans we naturally fear the unknown and as such often overprepare for any eventuality by using the phrase ‘I might need that’. When it comes to a knife, most of the time you can answer the question ‘I might need that’ by saying; I probably will not!
When do you need a knife? To answer that question, I would ask cutting what, cutting when and how big is the thing to cut?
Just to be clear, if we are discussing knife use in the outdoors in the UK and Ireland, there is not much need for cutting trees, bush, vines or chopping firewood. If you do want to do those things, far better to use a chainsaw, a scythe or an axe.
What knife (if any) do I take? I have (in my pocket or rucksack) a locking knife with a slightly curved 7cm long blade. I’ve never needed anything else in many years of walking, camping, climbing, mountaineering in summer and winter in all conditions in all parts of the British Isles.
My message. Take a small knife if you want to but put it out of view and accept that unless you are preparing food on a camp you will rarely use it.
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