Many activities requires cutting things. Cutting needs varies: food preparation, opening packaging, trimming material to cover a blister, or hacking branches off a tree to build an emergency shelter.
My every day carry (EDC) knife is a Victorinox Rambler Pocket Knife which is the smallest tool I have found which has all the features I desire: a phillips head & flat screwdriver, scissors, and a sharp blade. I also get a bottle opener and nail file. When flying I switch to a Swiss+Tech Utili-Key which is not as usable as the Rambler, but for years has made it through TSA checkpoints without being confiscated. When backpacking with others I bring a SOG Flash 1 folding lock blade because I find the blade on the Rambler to be too small for group food prep. When I expect to do wood craft, building fires for groups, or in remote back country when a knife might be required for survival I bring a Fallkniven F1. Our family go/car camping bag has an original Leatherman.
A “pocket” knife is one of the most used tools while camping and backpacking, but there are many different styles selected by people. Ultra-light backpackers often make do with a tiny Swiss pocket knife like the Victorinox Classic which have a small blade, scissors, a nail file, tweezers, and a toothpick. These tiny knives are more than adequate for basic “housekeeping” tasks.
I think the best balance of features and size is the classic Camillus boy scout pocket knife and it’s cousin, the medium size Swiss knife from Victorinox which contain a can opener, bottle opener/screw driver, 1-2 blades, and maybe a few other options such as: an awe, corkscrew, and/or phillips head screwdriver.
Alas, the tendency of bloated “more is better” led to the creation of large Swiss “pocket” knives with their 10s of tools in a package that really doesn’t fit comfortably in a pocket anymore. In general I don’t like these knives since they are expensive, bulky, and I expect I will use less than 50% of the tools. There are also the super light (and not that durable) derma safe utility razor and backknife.
Folding Lock Blades
Folding lock blades are often a good compromise. By locking the blade they are safer to use than typical pocket knives and are more compact than fixed blade knives. The most common locking mechanism is a liner lock. It’s cheap, but not super reliable. In recent years there are a number of locking mechanisms which are significantly stronger and easier to use such as my favorite, the the AXIS lock originally developed by Benchmade and now being used by others since the patent expired in 2016.
I think that Benchmade is one of the best manufacturers of folding knives. If I had to purchase a general use lock blade now, my first choice would be the Benchmade Mini Bugout. It’s not cheap, but it very well designed, made from excellent materials, with great attention to detail, and substantial enough to depend on in emergency situations. I haven’t purchased one because my current knife meets my needs. In the past I have used a Buck 110 Hunter, Benchmade 531 and Ritter RSK Mk1 Knife. The Chris Reeve Sebenza might be the ultimate folder, but I could never bring myself to pay so much for a pocket knife. My knife loving friends also recommend Spyderco and the higher end knives from Kershaw and SOG. Decent lock blades at a more reasonable price point are made by Buck, CRKT, Gerber, And the Kabar / Dozier Folder. Ganzo sells a number of Benchmade clones which are 5-10x cheaper (average price $20) but but are lower quality. Good enough for around town, but not something I would want my life to depend on. Opinel makes a number of folding knives which have good quality carbon steel blades, adequate wooden handles, and cost around $10 making them a great value. Just be careful to dry them well or the blade will rust and the handle will swell. I generally prefer the simplicity of a single blade locking knife, but there are some multi-blade pocket knives that lock such as the Victorinox Hunter.
Finally there are some people who really like fixed blade knives because of their ability to stand up to serious abuse (chopping, digging, etc). You should stick with knives with a full tang for maximum durability. Keep in mind that you don’t need a huge / heavy blade, 3-4″ is actually plenty for tasks as described in the book Bushcraft, and a short article in field&stream about The Wilderness Blade. My favorite fixed blade knife for the back country is the Fallkniven F1. This is a high quality knife that is durable and functional.
There are a number of other high quality, reasonably light weight fix blades which are up to taking serious abuse. I don’t use them, but I have friends who like fix blades from ESEE, SOG and the Benchmade 162. The classic Kabar and USAF Survival Knife are also popular, but heavier than I would want to carry. Others have noted the the quality of the Kabar and the USAF Survival knife is much lower than the beloved knives from 1970s and before. The Chris Reeve One Piece knives like the Aviator have been very well regarded, but are now discontinued so will likely be even more expensive as they become collectors items. These knives are very well crafted, but I found that I didn’t like the round textured metal handles. I much prefer the feel of the Fallkniven knives. If you are around salt water a lot you might look at the Gerber Silver Trident or the titanium knives made by Mission.
There are also a number of minimalist fixed blades which aren’t up to heavy abuse, but are reasonably priced and provide a better blade than they typical pocket knife such as the Ka-Bar BK14 Eskabar, Ka-Bar Becker Remora, the Buck Hartsook, AG Russell Hunter Scalpel, or even an inexpensive kitchen paring knife such as the Little Vicky.
Most sheaths provided with knives are pretty heavy. Ultimate Edge Bladesaver can be the basis of an effective and light weight sheath or you can get a nicer but more expensive custom sheath from Cleveland Kydex.
At the minimalist extreme is the CardShark and the pricy Lynx cardblade. These knives are so light that they are easy to be damaged. While I might uses these around town, I would want something more substantial in the back country where a knife might make be critical to surviving something unexpected.
Growing in popularity are the multi-tools first introduced by Leatherman. These are typically fold-able piers or scissors with a number of blades hidden away in the two handles. If you expect to be repairing machinery, these are a great option since it is like having a small toolbox in small package. Of course having a single package can be an issue since you can’t hold a bolt with the pliers and use a screw driver at the same time. The Leatherman Squirt seems to be one of the more popular multi-tools among backpackers.
Some people have found that all their cutting jobs are easily handled with just a small pair of scissors. Super ultralight folks tear apart the Victorinox Classic, use the scissors from the Victorinox Swiss Army Swiss Card, or use the small blunt-end kid scissors.
There are a large variety of knives in the marketplace today. Options includes basic type (pocket, fixed blade, etc), type of ground used on the blade, blade material, blade shape and craftsmanship. Doug Ritter’s Sharp Stuff page has a good discussion of knife choices with an eye on survival. You can checkout Knife Forums, Blade Forums and EDC Forum’s knives topic to see what knife enthusiasts have to say.
The very cheapest option is the $2.50 derma safe utility razor. You can get 2 YAODHAOD Ceramic Pocket knives for $8. They are sharp but ceramic blades are much easier to destroy than steel. The small Victorinox Classic can often be found for $10 and are often given away with someone’s logo on the side. If you want a larger pocket knife, it is possible to find the classic Victorinox Recruit for around $15. If you want a locking blade folder, then you should be able to pick up a Opinel folding knife for less than $15.