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