Choose a good knife with tips from an experienced hand

WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT tool to take on a camping trip? If you said a good, sharp knife, you agree with the experts. But few of today’s knives are good for camping.MarApr13_GroundR_Knives

The bestsellers have thick blades that work better for cutting through car doors than slicing salami and pine. A camp knife should be thin-bladed, lightweight, and compact. Edge retention is a factor only if you seldom sharpen your knife. Folding knives and sheath knives each have advantages.

Here’s how they compare:

Folders First
For best all-around use, I prefer a folding knife. Its fully protected blade stays harmless till opened, while the hinge pivot, the weakest part of the knife gets the most wear.

Keep the hinge clean and oiled. Use edible vegetable oil, not toxic machine oil on knives used to cut food. Be aware that if you put too much side pressure on the blade or pound the spine to split wood, the blade will loosen. Choose a model with a locking blade if you plan to use your knife in this manner. Otherwise, a standard pressure-spring folder is fine.

Never put pressure on the back of a folding blade that lacks a lock mechanism—the knife could suddenly close on your hand.

Extra tool blades are handy, but the more there are, the heavier and bulkier the knife, and, generally, the higher the price. Don’t think that a low-cost knife with a lot of tools is a bargain—invariably, the blade or tools are junk. Expect to lose any folding knife that doesn’t have a lanyard ring or a secure belt holster.

Fixed-Blade Knives
First, forget the myth that fixed-blade, or sheath, knives are forbidden in the BSA. That’s simply not true. The Guide to Safe Scouting states that “large sheath knives” should be avoided because they are “unnecessary for most camp chores except for cleaning fish.” But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use a sheath knife for specific purposes during your Scouting outings.

Fixed-blade knives work well in more rugged situations than folding knives. You can flex the blade or hammer it with a wooden mallet to split kindling, and you won’t damage a thing. And there’s no folding mechanism that can be gummed up by jam or peanut butter.

Sheath knives can be dangerous, though, not because their blades don’t close, but because the sheaths that manufacturers include with most models are too thin and flimsy. If you insist on a fixed-blade knife, make your own heavy-duty riveted sheath (my book, Camping’s Top Secrets, shows how).

Better yet, carry a folder in your pocket to model safety and pack your sheath knife away.

Remember, knives are prohibited in schools or on airplanes. Plus, some states restrict knife length.

Knife Advice

  • Three to four inches is an ideal blade length. Shorter won’t reach to the bottom of the peanut butter jar; longer is necessary only for tasks such as filleting fish.
  • Maximum blade thickness is one-eighth inch, and thinner is better. Try cutting paper-thin slices from a tomato with a thick-bladed knife and you’ll see why.
  • Knives with serrated edges are good only for cutting seat belts and rope. And you need a special tool to sharpen them.
  • Carbon steel is easier to sharpen than stainless steel, and it tends to take a keener edge.
  • A narrow, straight blade with a central point is best for peeling spuds and whittling kindling.
  • Avoid knives that have a long, unsharpened area near the handle; a dull spot here shortens the cutting edge and reduces cutting leverage near your hand.

You can buy a good knife for under $25. Best buys include American-made pocketknives (with one or two blades), genuine Swiss Army knives (Victorinox and Wenger), and the Official Boy Scout pocketknife. If you want a sheath knife, Canadian survival expert Mors Kochanski recommends the carbon-steel Swedish Mora knife. It comes with a rugged Scandinavian-style sheath and costs under $15.

Choose a knife as you would a friend. Learn to sharpen it, treat it well, and it will last a lifetime.


Don’t miss it: Read more about how to teach Scouts the tricks to safely sharpening their favorite blade.


Cliff Jacobson is a Distinguished Eagle Scout and the author of more than a dozen popular books on the outdoors.


WEIGH IN: Does your unit have its own knife policy? Share your thoughts below.

33 thoughts on “Choose a good knife with tips from an experienced hand

  1. Finally! A scouter that has common sense when it comes to knives. A fixed blade knife has a real place in a daypack and has many uses when it comes to bush crafting. Recently, our troop had weekend campout that focused on winter survival. The weather had been rainy in the days leading up to our outing and remained gloomy and damp throughout. Almost any scout can build a fire in optimal conditions but it takes skill and the proper tools to be able to build and sustain a fire when the weather turns against you. I was easily able to succeed by proper wood selection and using my Ka-Bar and a baton to split the wood to get at the dry insides. Practically every scout (and most of my colleagues) had never seen this done before! Excellent article!

  2. Here is a copy of the Daniel Webster Council (NH), knife policy:

    DWC KNIFE POLICY
    For youth and adult leaders, folding knives with a
    blade length not exceeding 3 ½” are appropriate for
    legal and practical uses at Daniel Webster Council
    activities including summer camp. Therefore sheath
    knives (i.e. fixed blades of any length) including
    machetes, bayonets, swords, cleavers, death stars,
    stilettos, switchblades etc. are not allowed for youth
    or adult use at DWC functions. The only exception
    to this rule is the use of a chef’s knife for the sole
    purpose of food preparation.

    This policy is only for council events. So on a unit event they may be allowed depending on the Troop.

    I only bring this up because councils and units can be more restrictive then what is posted in the guide to safe scouting.

    I personally like this policy. There are not many council events that would make such a knife a practical item to bring. It also gives individual troops the flexibility to decide for themselves what to do.

    • What’s with machetes? I’ve used one in place of a hatchet for decades. In fact, I think they’re safer than a hatchet.

  3. Has anyone ever seen an article explaining the functional purpose of the different points on knife blades? For example, look at the different style points on the following knives that BSA sells: a tanto knife (Cat. No. 613437), a Summit Stoickman knife (Cat. No. 613434), a barlow knife (Cat. No. 24075), and a Swiss Army knife (Cat. No. 1253). Besides appearance, I am certain each of these points has a functional purpose that makes each ideal for certain applications. If anyone knows of such an article, please post the source URL or name of the book.

    • Well, the americized tanto, and even the Japanese tanto both had the same purpose to go in between ceramic armor, a clip point is for when you need to have a pokey blade, swiss army, knife, the tip can be whatever, but I would use it for opening a plastic package, and whittling. The barlow is a clip point swiss army knife. I have no idea what the stockman is for.

      • The “americanized” tanto was designed to pierce Kevlar. And the original Japanese tanto was designed to find it’s way between Samurai armor.

  4. Ok, while I commend the author for making a valid attempt at an accurate statement, I have to bring up some serious issues with what has been said. We’ll start from the top down.

    First up:
    “The bestsellers have thick blades that work better for cutting through car doors than slicing salami and pine. A camp knife should be *thin-bladed*, lightweight, and compact. Edge retention is a factor only if you seldom sharpen your knife. Folding knives and sheath knives each have advantages.”

    Thin blades are great for filleting fish. However, their use ends there. The comment later on about paper-thin tomato slices is, by extension, false. I can, and have, sharpened my KA-BAR BK-2 (1/4” thick) to a proper edge and sliced tomatoes paper-thin without any issue.

    And while we’re talking about edges, here’s a quote from the above paragraph.
    *“Edge retention is a factor only if you seldom sharpen your knife.”*
    Sharpening your knife wears down the amount of steel. The process of sharpening your knife requires the removal of “old” steel that has moved out of line to be replaced by “new” steel behind it.

    Now, let us address the utter abuse of folding knives, locking or otherwise.
    “Keep the hinge clean and oiled. Use edible vegetable oil, not toxic machine oil on knives used to cut food. *Be aware that if you put too much side pressure on the blade or pound the spine to split wood, the blade will loosen.* Choose a model with a locking blade if you plan to use your knife in this manner. Otherwise, a standard pressure-spring folder is fine.”
    Let me make this abundantly clear; YOU DO NOT EVER POUND ON ANY FOLDING KNIFE OF ANY GRADE, LOCKING OR OTHERWISE!
    As hard as knife grade steel may be, it’s still soft, and if it’s not soft, it is most certainly very brittle. Pounding will produce the same effect as throwing an open folder at a concrete wall. That damage includes, but is far from limited to, rendering the locking mechanism completely inoperable.

    Now for the utter abuse of fixed blades. If the blade is so thin that you can flex it, then you’re not using it safely at all.
    “Fixed-blade knives work well in more rugged situations than folding knives. *You can flex the blade or hammer it with a wooden mallet to split kindling, and you won’t damage a thing.* And there’s no folding mechanism that can be gummed up by jam or peanut butter.”
    If you manage to flex a fixed blade knife of any size, then you already have done damage to it on the microscopic scale. Micro-fractures are the number 1 cause of fixed blade breakages. Bending and flexing are the top causes of micro-fractures.
    KA-BAR’s BK&T line used to have brand and model markings roll-stamped onto them, which would occasionally bend or flex them before they were tempered, and those that did bend or flex would require “unbending”. If bending and flexing didn’t cause a micro-fracture, unbending did. These are knives that are traditionally on the thick side, being designed by a die-hard bush-crafter, so the micro-fractures went unnoticed in a small number of them.
    Those that did slip by quality control eventually broke (and were replaced, because KA-BAR understood their mistake), because of being “flexed” during manufacturing. If flexing before being tempered can cause a problem as serious as breaking, don’t you think the same is possible after being tempered? How about more so? After a knife is tempered it becomes more brittle (so that it can retain a decent edge), logic dictates that anything brittle is more prone to breaking.

    Now that we’ve been through the use, we can move onto another topic. Carrying of knives.
    “Sheath knives can be dangerous, though, not because their blades don’t close, but because the sheaths that manufacturers include with most models are too thin and flimsy. *If you insist on a fixed-blade knife, make your own heavy-duty riveted sheath* (my book, Camping’s Top Secrets, shows how).”
    Most if not all quality manufacturers provide sheaths more than adequate for anything short of jumping out of a plain. Quality manufacturers are those with the following: Warranty standing behind product, reputation for quality product designed to avoid warranting use of warranty, useful and human (or humane is some circumstances) customer service.
    Without those three qualifications, I would not buy any knife or other tool from a company.
    Let’s use the same example I’ve been using since the beginning of the comment: KA-BAR.
    KA-BARs products, specifically fixed blades, come with one of the following:
    – a stacked leather sheath (problems with this type of sheath include drying out and cracking),
    – a glass filled nylon sheath (problems with this type of sheath including dulling of knife edge),
    – a ballistic nylon sheath with a plastic insert (problems with this type of sheath are lesser manufacturers forgoing the plastic insert, resulting in a flimsy sheath).
    Now, as for the “heavy-duty riveted sheath” you described, these sheaths are mostly known as custom Kydex sheaths (Kydex is also used for some holsters for handguns), and are far from easy or cheap to make.
    To make a custom Kydex sheath, you need tools, including:
    – Kydex press (home made or commercially available)
    – Drill of some sort or another (to make the holes for rivets)
    – Sand paper (or belt sanders are preferred by most customer Kydex “benders”
    – Toaster oven (or similarly sized box designed for generating heat)
    – Clippers (to trim before sanding)
    – Rivet dye (to stamp the rivets)
    In addition, supplies include:
    – Kydex
    – Rivets
    If however your “heavy-duty riveted sheaths” are made out of leather, then please explain to me how they are any more heavy duty than a regular leather sheath?

    “Better yet, carry a folder in your pocket to model safety and *pack your sheath knife away*.”
    Some states (Florida is a good example) do not allow conceal carry of fixed blade knives without a Concealed Carry Permit. Packing away, last I checked, is considered concealed carry. Doing so for anyone without such permit in those states would instantly make them felons.

    As for the various pieces of “Knife Advice” towards the end, I only found issue with three of them.
    “Three to four inches is an ideal blade length. Shorter won’t reach to the bottom of the peanut butter jar; longer is necessary only for tasks such as filleting fish.”

    I agree, anything shorter than 3” should be reserved for opening letters or cutting up boxes. However, a better average size is 3-5”, 4” is the minimum size for bush crafting, with either fixed or folding. In addition, for wood splitting (A.K.A. Batoning), 5” is the bare minimum.

    “Maximum blade thickness is one-eighth inch, and thinner is better. Try cutting paper-thin slices from a tomato with a thick-bladed knife and you’ll see why.”
    I addressed this earlier. While for a small folder, 1/8” is a good thickness; my everyday folder is 3/16” or so. In addition, my everyday fixed (open carried by law, never sits in my pack regardless of allowing concealed carry) is still thicker, and it’s actually shorter than my everyday folder.

    “Avoid knives that have a long, unsharpened area near the handle; a dull spot here shortens the cutting edge and reduces cutting leverage near your hand.”
    This one doesn’t cause near the same dispute as the others, it requires clarification. Some knives have an unsharpened area in front of the handle cut out so that you can choke up on the knife while whittling with the belly. This area is called a choil.

    “*You can buy a good knife for under $25.* Best buys include American-made pocketknives (with one or two blades), genuine Swiss Army knives (Victorinox and Wenger), and the Official Boy Scout pocketknife. If you want a sheath knife, Canadian survival expert Mors Kochanski recommends the carbon-steel Swedish Mora knife. It comes with a rugged Scandinavian-style sheath and costs under $15.”
    I have yet to find any decent knife other than some very small KA-BAR Dozier Mini Folders and even smaller Gerber (iffy brand) folders for less than $25.

    The only exception to any of what I said is the one knife you did call by name, and that would be any Mora knife. Mora knives are relatively thin, but are still capable of batoning.

    Thank you for reading my overly long response.

    • Good post but a correction on tempering, it does not make the blade more brittle as it (tempering) brings the hardness down a bit, reduces stresses from the additional hot work (austenitizing and quench process) and overall increases toughness which counters the bittleness of martensite steel (condition of the blade after quenching which is extremely brittle).

  5. Hello All. I’m a Troop Scouter (aka Scoutmaster) in Canada. We promote small locking blades to the youth as they will not fold on their fingers if the knife ever gets stuck. In fact, we have a knife safety permit that each Scout must earn prior to using a Scout knife. Here are the requirements:

    http://wiki.scouts.ca/en/Knives

    I’ve been a Scouter for 20 years and have never had an issue with a locking blade. I also agree that a larger fixed blade is good for your pack. Bring it out when you need it.

  6. I wish the official BSA knives were quality knives! Every knife I looked at on scoutstuff.org is a cheap Chinese made stainless steel blade. Why can’t the BSA offer a quality American made carbon steel blade instead of cheap Chinese made stainless? I guess it isn’t surprising considering you can’t even buy an American made scout uniform shirt from the BSA.

    • I understand your problem. I assume your looking for folders, which rarely if ever come in carbon steel. Can I recommend looking for a couple specific knives?

      Knowing how many folders I went through to find any good ones, I recommend any made of AUS8 stainless. It’s got the same retention as my high carbon 1095CV blades from KA-BAR, and will take the same edge. Two knives I recommend in this steel are the KA-BAR Dozier line folders and the Ontario RAT-1. The Rat-1 is 3-/12″, and the Dozier line goes from about 2-/12″ to about 3″.

      The Dozier mini hunter (lockback) can be had in many colors for about $20, while the Rat-1 can be had in a couple different blade finishes (coated or satin finish) for about $28.

    • the reason the BSA has cheap china made knives is, Camillus, the last American made cutlery company with a BSA contract went bankrupt thanks to steel workers union strike, and the company got bought by buyers for the chinese. this is a sad statement for both the US and BSA. I still carry my old Ulster made scout pocket knife, and Western cutlery leather handled BSA official sheath knife, had both for well over 45years, sheath is still good, blades are still sharp.
      Maybe one day, common sense about “official” scout knives made in the USA will return to the BSA.

    • BSA sells cheap knives because they are cheap and the customers want cheap knives. A Scout pattern knife of the quality sold by BSA before WWII would cost well over $100. Queen sells such, as does A.G. Russell.

      After Camillus went under:

      – BSA tried Bear & Sons, but their made-in-USA quality is very uneven – famously so – and 3-5 x the CHINA price for better quality..

      – BSA tried Colonial, but their made-in-USA knives were not made in USA. Too bad, they were nice. Italy does good work. Maybe the best Cub pattern ever.

      No USA manufacturers remain who can make a knife at a price-point parents will tolerate. Spyderco or Queen would make them. Mom won’t pay $100.00+.

      The Scout pattern BSA knives have been stainless for decades. (Too bad BSA teaches they can be used to make sparks with natural flint. Won’t happen.)

      The author of the article, in other writings, advocates sheath knives.

      Who will teach them how to use legally-owned fixed-blade knives? G2SS since 2011 says it’s our responsibility. Again, let’s get at it!

    • You are right about the Chinese made Scout knives and uniforms made in some sweat shop in Pakistan. BSA Supply Division apparently takes great pride in supporting any other country’s economy but the U.S. !

  7. I am a scout leder (aka Scot master) with scouts Australia. Here is Western Austalia this is a copy of our Polcy and Rul regarding knives

    K1. KNIVES. K1.1 Statement.
    The Scout Association of Australia, Western Australian Branch (“the Association”) strongly recommends that all members be aware of, and exercise all possible care in, the use of knives.
    K1.2 A sheath knife should not be worn by any member on, or participating in, Scouting activities.
    K1.2.1 The wearing of a sheath knife is considered being contrary to State Law, particularly where the knife is displayed in a public place such as a street or a point of gathering.
    K1.3 The use of a good quality pocket knife is strongly recommended and the use of such is encouraged under circumstances by all members on, or participating in, Scouting activities.

    However with this in mind I do carry especially on hiking treks my USMC Ka-bar with my backpack but I also have on my utility belt a good quality leatherman with a stone sharpened folding blade

  8. I have some reservations about this article. I would not have any of my scouts read it because is has some bad information in it. I agree that for the vast majority of camping tasks, a folding knife is great. But a folding knife should NEVER be used for batoning wood. Also, using vegetable oil on a folding knife is a recipe for disaster. All vegetable oils dry into a sticky mess that will make the knife almost useless. The best thing you can do is just keep it as clean as possible. Most modern knives use teflon, nylon, or bronze bushings, so no oil should be used.

    As for the sheath vs. folding knife debate: I agree that folding knives are often all you need. They are easier to pack and may have other features and tools that make them more convenient than a sheath knife. However, most of the argument against sheath knives is based more on political correctness than anything else. No quality knife would be sold with an inadequate sheath. If the chore requires a lot of heavy cutting or chopping, then only a sheath knife will do – and will be far safer than a folding knife.

    As for thin bladed knives being “better,” that all depends. I have an absurdly thick Japanese chef’s knife that will slice anything into paper thin sheets. Generally, though, thin bladed knives do slice better, but many camp chores require a stouter blade. Do not baton wood with a thin blade – it will not work well, and may destroy the knife. Most knife companies will tell you that batoning is abusive to a knife – and it is. Few sheath knives and no folding knives can take that abuse. If you are going to baton, get a thick blade with a full tang. Becker knives are a good option. But, aren’t we supposed to “be prepared?” If you know you are going to have to process firewood, why not take something that was designed to chop and split wood, like an axe, hatchet or parang?

    One of the statements in the article was bewildering: “Edge retention is a factor only if you seldom sharpen your knife.” We have knives for their edges. A knife that does not retain it’s edge is worthless. If you are constantly sharpening the knife it will waste away and will often be dull. Dull knives are more dangerous than sharp ones. The article does say that cheap knives with lots of tools are bad – that’s partly because the steel has poor edge retention.

    Most knife injuries are caused by misuse. Teach the boys to safely use a knife and they’ll be safe regardless of the type of knife they own.

    I always recommend that the boys get as good a knife as they can afford. It is hard to go wrong with a genuine Swiss Army knife. Opinel makes a good folding knife for not much money. Mora knives are hard to beat for the price and capability. Boys tend to gravitate toward the flashy “tactical” looking knives. In the real world, such knives are usually cheaply made (the good ones are horribly expensive) and are inferior for camping. Military looking knives may also encourage the boys to use the knives in an unsafe manner.

    It is best to know what you will be using the knife for, and get the knife you need for it’s intended purpose. It’s better to buy one good knife than 2 cheapo chinese knives.

  9. I would discourage the boys from buying a knife with camouflage pattern on the handle. This is a sure-fire way to lose a knife. The blaze orange camo pattern is a little better, but still easy to lose during the fall.

  10. Cliff writes elsewhere endorsing sheath knives.

    Boy’s Life has identified the “short” sheath knife as the ideal knife for the outdoors. (June 2008) In that, BSA is consistent with almost every expert on outdoor activities.

    Can you imagine a boy who will not, sometime in his life, use a fixed-blade knife? Who will teach them when political correctness and paranoia bars fixed-blade knives and ignores them in the Handbook?

  11. All these recent articles “pushing” the BSA’s almost “no knife restriction” policies are making it harder for units to enforce their own policies. Unit bylaws and such are already subject to being questioned more and more, and competing against these type of articles just make it tougher.

  12. Oil the hinge of a folding knife? What is he crazy. I have in my pocket EVERY day a 1971 Boy Scout Stainless Steel folding pocket knife. I have not “oiled” the hinge even once in the 43 years I have had it. It works great today. The belt loop fell off years ago. The can opener tip broke off, so we ground on a new tip many years ago. the blade stays sharp even with infrequent sharpenings. Somewhere I have a Boy scout sheath knife too. also about 40 years old. The sheath it came with is heavy duty and the knife is still in good shape and useable. So, the answer would appear to be e-bay once again for those old HIGH Quality knives, instead of the crap from “author”

  13. From BSA Web Site

    Sheath Knives
    Q. What is the official BSA regulation on carrying sheath knives?
    A. Sheath knives are not prohibited by the BSA, but they may be regulated by state or local ordinances and/or by camp “rules.” We recommend that the right tool for the job be used (cutting branches or ropes). We do not encourage wearing them at the waist as injury could occur during falls.

  14. From Guide to Safe Scouting

    Knives
    A sharp pocketknife with a can opener on it is an invaluable backcountry tool. Keep it clean, sharp, and handy. Avoid large sheath knives. They are heavy and awkward to carry, and unnecessary for most camp chores except for cleaning fish. Since its inception, Boy Scouting has relied heavily on an outdoor program to achieve its objectives. This program meets more of the purposes of Scouting than any other single feature. We believe we have a duty to instill in our members, youth and adult, the knowledge of how to use, handle, and store legally owned knives with the highest concern for safety and responsibility.
    Remember—knives are not allowed on school premises, nor can they be taken aboard commercial aircraft.
    References: Boy Scout Handbook, Fieldbook, Bear Handbook, and Wolf Handbook

  15. As a long time Scoutmaster it has been my own policy to restrict our Scouts to using only folding utility type knives during our activities. We do use other knives in the kitchen of course and we teach our scouts how to be safe with both. Erie Shores Council prohibits the use of sheath knives at our camps, however, we know that our Scouts may be exposed to them at some point (if not curious) so we also teach them how and when they should be cared and used safely. For the record we use two “official” BSA sheath knives for that purpose.

  16. I buy old school official BSA pocket knives off ebay. The quality back then is outstanding.

    I show my Scouts the knives and tell them they are 40, 50 years old and are in like new condition.

    They cannot believe it. So far I’ve got about 40 BSA pocket knives that I use all the time. I give them away to Scouts from time to time, along with the old Scout hatchet.

    Old Scout stuff is usually the best items out there, and are highly collectible.

    Wish BSA would make a decent uniform that Scouts could wear for every event like the old days.

  17. I have found Case Whittlers to be a great choice for scouts. They have two small thin blades great for whittling. I have done some great whittling projects solely with these blades. I teach a whittling class and many show up with thick hunting blades. Most scouts want to whittle in their down time at camp so why not recommend a thin sharp blade. My first three rules of my redwood club is to start with a sharp blade. I also teach scouts how to make a strop from a piece of wood with leather glued to it. If you maintain your edge you will never need to re-grind an edge with a whet stone. I find if the blade is not easily moving through the wood you need it strop. Typically I polish the edge every 20 minutes of carving. It also makes sense to teach small shallow controlled passes when whittling. It’d not about the destination but rather the journey of a whittling project that provides the joy. Happy whittling.

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