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 “daily carry” knife is a Victorinox Rambler Pocket Knife which is the smallest tool I have found with a phillips head & flat screwdriver, scissors, knife, bottle opener, and nail file. Even though the blade is tiny, TSA will confiscate this knife. 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 camping and backpacking I will sometimes bring a SOG Flash 1 folding lock blade that has a more substantial blade. When I expect to do wood craft (survival or group activities) I will bring a Fallkniven F1.
A 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” cutting.
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, awe, one or two blades, maybe a cord screw 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.
Folding Lock Blades
Folding lock blades are often a good compromise for people who expect to be doing a fair amount of cutting or whittling. 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 the AXIS from Benchmade.
I think that Benchmade is one of the best manufactures of folding knives. The lock blades I have used the most are the Benchmade 531 (great cooking knife) and Ritter RSK Mk1 Knife designed for survival. The Chris Reeve Sebenza might be the ultimate folder, but I could never bring myself to pay so much for a pocket knife. Several of my friends love knives from Spyderco and Coldsteel. Decent lock blades at a more reasonable price point are made by Buck, CRKT, Gerber (for example LST), Kabar / Dozier Folder. I found the Kershaw Chive and SOG Flash 2. to be decent knives, and were a good value when on sale. 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. I generally perfect 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 the ESEE RAT Cutlery RC-3 and SOG Seal Pup. 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.
The most affordable, but decent quality fixed blades I have seen are from the Swedish maker Mora though they typically don’t have a full tang such as the Mora Companion or Bahco 2444. 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 Becker Remora, the Buck Hartsook, AG Russell Hunter Scalpel, or even an inexpensive kitchen paring knife. At the minimalist extreme is the CardShark which weights 13 grams. Backpackers should remember that in addition to the weight of the knife, is the weight of the sheath. 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.
Growing in popularity are the multi-tools first introduced by Leatherman. These are typically foldable 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, quality of the materials, and finally style 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. 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.