Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Backpacking Gear Choices: Which Knife?

Small jackknifeYouth, inexperience and ignorance were in abundance when I first started backpacking in the Adirondacks many years ago. My knowledge of the proper gear and foods was seriously lacking, not to mention the total ignorance of how to pack effectively all that stuff for a multi-day backpacking adventure. I was not completely clueless though, as I could hike and identify birds. So there was that.

In those early days, my pack weighed in at nearly one-half my meager weight. The pack was too big for me, and it was overflowing with overweight gear. Its weight made my first trip an arduous struggle, with my feet blistered and bloodied by its end. Despite all the difficulties with the heavy gear, it took many years for me to replace it with lighter weight alternatives, which hopefully prolonged my hiking career.

Lightening my load required a lot of reexamination of my gear choices. Some items were abandoned as unnecessary, while lighter weight alternatives replaced others. One of the many items screaming for a lighter option was my knife. I originally carried one of several long hunting knives that I owned at the time. They were long, sharp and impressive looking, not to mention quite heavy.

Did I use these impressive knives to fend off wild beasts, gut fish or whittle wood into impressive furniture? I did not. Primarily, I used them to open the plastic packaging on small food items, clean the dirt under my nails and cut an occasional piece of tape. Did I need to carry such a large knife for that? The more I thought about it, and was ridiculed by companions for it, the more I realized the answer was no, a resounding no.

What did I replace my lethal-looking hunting knife with? A katana sword? No, way too long. A machete? Weighed too much. A Leatherman or other similar multi-use tool? Still too heavy. A jackknife? That sounded just about right. But, what kind of jackknife?

Opening small food packages was always the most common backcountry application for my knife, so it need not be a very large one. My proclivity for lightweight gear at the time made the decision an easy one. Although being microscopic was not one of the criteria, I searched for the smallest one that would meet my needs.

The Victorinox Swiss Army Classic SD pocket knife was my final selection, which is more keychain than anything else. It has only a small knife blade, tiny scissors and a miniature nail file with a flat screwdriver blade on the end. In addition, it comes with a toothpick and tweezers, just the kind of things one might need in the backcountry. The whole package is only 2-1/4 inches long, and weighs just a fraction of an ounce; a lightweight backpacker’s dream indeed.

This cute little jackknife has been my constant companion since. It ventured through the High Peaks numerous times, traveled from Wanakena to Stillwater Reservoir, bushwhacked to Oven Lake and beyond before returning via the Robinson River, and traipsed through the Carpet Spruce Swamp along the West Branch of the Oswegatchie River, in what is some of the most remote parts of the Five Ponds Wilderness. It even traveled outside the Adirondacks, through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across Isle Royale being two of the most noteworthy examples.

On none of those occasions did I feel it was not enough knife for me. That is, until recently. Despite visiting such remote and wild places, and encountering all types of situations, recent events in the news started me thinking that in some situations, an inch and a half long blade just might not cut it.

My new thinking started last year after reading about the young woman attacked on the Northville-Placid Trail by a trio of rogue black bears. Then, this year, a young man was killed by a bear in New Jersey. Another story soon followed, this time in California, where an elderly woman was attacked by a black bear. It left her seriously wounded, but alive.

Black bears rarely attack people, especially in the lower 48 states. So what gives? Have black bears finally gotten fed up with humans encroaching on the few token acres of forestland we have set aside for them and their ilk? Or are they sick and tired of global climate change screwing with their environment?

It is impossible to say why these attacks are occurring. Who can fully understand what goes on in the mind of a black bear, or any other wild animal? I often find it difficult to understand what goes on in my own mind, let alone in an animal’s. Although the reason for these attacks is unknowable, the idea of taking some modest steps to prepare for such a situation keeps floating to the top of my consciousness, especially when I am out bushwhacking through the Adirondack backcountry all by my lonesome.

Did I go too far with lightening my load? Do I need to reevaluate my choice in knives? What should I replace my trusty little jackknife with? A katana sword? Effective against bears and zombies, but still too long. A machete? It is illegal to hack through vegetation on Forest Preserve land, and it still weighs too much. A Leatherman or other multi-use tool contraption? A small one is a possible option. A jackknife? Is it just me or is anyone else feeling a sense of deja vu?

What does everyone else carry into the Adirondack backcountry in the knife department? Do you feel safe with it? Have you ever had to defend yourself against bear, human or undead? What is too much knife (or too little)? Feel free to share your knife experiences below in the comments.

Photo: Victorinox Swiss Army Classic SD pocket Knife by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

15 Responses

  1. dave says:

    This has me laughing, thinking back to the knife I used to carry when I first started hiking.

    It was a Rambo knife, straight out of First Blood. No other way of describing it. Compass in the hilt and everything! These days the thought of strapping that thing to my side or hauling it in my pack seems absurd.

    Now, if I carry a knife at all, it is for opening food packages or cutting rope and is usually a small Spyderco or similar.

    Heck, if I were out in the woods today and happened upon my old self, sporting that Rambo knife on the hip, I think I would back away slowly, trying not to make eye contact… which, just happens to be the recommended method of retreat from a bear encounter.

    So speaking of bear encounters, it is probably a bit of a stretch to call the Northville Placid encounter an attack. Based on the hiker’s very detailed reports of the incident, it sounded more to me like a curious bear who got too nosy for its own good, or possibly a hungry bear who associated humans with food and got a little too brazen with its begging. And good thing for the hiker too! Because a black bear intent on attack isn’t likely to be discouraged by a poke from a pocket knife.

    Regardless, if black bear encounters are actually on the rise, and you were so inclined to worry about them, carrying bear spray would be the answer. Definitely not a knife.

    You are still more likely to be killed by lightning though.

  2. Justin says:

    Any knife is better than no knife, but a simple knife like your Swiss army often leaves me needing more. A pliers has often been used by myself, more so than a screw driver or tweezers. I’ve also needed a file or saw on a few occasions repairing winter gear almost always requires some tools.

    Generally my go to knife is a Leatherman PST2 which hadn’t been made in years and lacks locking blades but is extremely light for a full featured multi tool. I’ve got several multi tools I like better but the PST is the best compromise of weight, size, quality and utility for my needs.

    A good compromise is a Leatherman micra and the pliers version. Both combined weight just 4oz and give you scissors, pliers and multiple knife and driver blades. Lower bulk and you can split them up. But the knife blades are tiny.

  3. Mike says:

    I agree with Dave, if you’re looking for piece of mind against the exceedingly rare chance of a negative encounter with a black bear – bear spray is the best solution. Weight wise – about 8oz (including holster).

  4. Reg says:

    I’ve been carrying the Swiss Army knife SD Classic (I didn’t know it was called that) for what – 25 years now? I’m NEVER without it. Sometimes I also have a Leatherman in addition to the Swiss Army, but I always have the little Swiss Army.

    I recently suffered some trauma with the Swiss Army knife – my trusty toothpick broke. I was beside myself. Would I have to buy a new knife? You see, I’ve been carrying the SAME knife for these 25+ years. But, Amazon to the rescue – a 6 pack of Victorinox exact replacement toothpicks for $4. In the words of one Amazon reviewer, “judging by how long the first toothpick lasted, I’m good for another 150 years.”

  5. Bruce says:

    I’ve been a wearer and user of knives over the last 60 years, and have seen many ideas come and go.

    If I were to distill this knowledge down to its essence, I would say a Swiss Army (with toothpick, tweezers and two cutting blades) is a must have. Other accessories on the knife will be governed by how much you want to carry in your pocket at all times. I’ve been carrying a Swiss Army Explorer every day for the last 40 years or so.

    At the other end of the scale is something for somewhat heavier work, but not too heavy or bulky. Forget about Rambo, Ka-Bar, and large combat and so-called survival knives.

    The number one criteria is quality construction and the following two knives, while well separated by price are some of the best out there for our purpose. One, and the most expensive is a Randall #7-5 Fisherman. It’s 5″ blade is about perfect for whatever. If you feel the bulky military style sheath is a bit much, any competent leather shop can make something less blatant and lighter.

    The other knife is a Genuine Russell Canadian Belt Knife, by Grohmann of Nova Scotia. It’s available in 4 original models from the diminutive #2 to the nice big handful #4, which best serves as a general purpose long term camp knife. The #’s 1, 2, and 3 would serve very well for backpacking. The pouch sheaths they come with are well made and very practical.

    Both the Randall and the Russell are good for stout, handmade, and have proven themselves in the field over many years of use by professionals.

    A type of knife worthy of consideration are the better Scandinavian makes. These simple, strong, lightweight and practical knives have been around for a few centuries, and still going strong. I would go for the laminated blade, but the solid stainless will do well. The Scandi (wide bevel) is the easiest grind to sharpen, because you lay the bevel flat on the stone.

  6. MudRat says:

    Ahem. I have the old buck First Blood knife as well…never carried it though! I started as a child with the typical fixed blade hunting knife on my waist.

    For all practical uses now, I carry an Al Mar ultralight knife ( It’s got enough blade and serrations (a little over 3″) to do what I need in the backcountry. It weighs a little less than 2 oz.–not bad to have strapped to your shoulder!

    I sometimes carry another fixed blade by Cold Steel. It’s still light at around 4 oz. and has a straighter blade (tanto style) that’s easier for me to sharpen.

  7. Bob Meyer says:

    good ?
    i always carry a slightly bigger Swiss Army knide with a 2 1/2″ blade, 2nd smaller blade, sissors,can opener, screw driver, punch, cork screw, tweezere, tooth pick… wondering if i should start carryoing my 5″ Buck knife.. bear spray or what?

    FYI: this Summer, near Pottersville i had a close encounter [6ft or less] with what looked like a small bear. only saw a disappearing rump. we surprised each other in some thick bush & before i could so anything it was gone. 🙂

  8. Hawthorn says:

    Whatever knife you carry it needs the scissors and the corkscrew. I don’t know how many times my Swiss Army corkscrew has saved the day (no, I don’t carry bottles into the woods). For that matter, the leather awl, the file, the screwdrivers, the tweezers, and the toothpick have all proven to be essential at one time or another. I do now carry a nice Gerber multi-tool my dad gave me. The locking blades, the pliers, and the serrated knife are all very useful. There are some places worth saving ounces, but I have had to fix so many things in the backcountry that I consider a multi-tool or at least a Swiss army knife nearly essential.

  9. John Tiernan says:

    Having hiked, climbed, and backpacked all over the Northeast, Sierra Nevada, and European Alps since the late 1960s, I’ve never needed a weapon anywhere. The closest encounter with a black bear was on the floor of Yosemite Valley at night, but he was preoccupied with the garbage cans between us. I do carry a knife for the very occasional need, and my Gerber 2-inch single stainless-steel lockblade has answered every need including opening food cans. The model I have, from LL Bean, has an orange plastic handle and weighs 1/2 oz.

  10. John M. says:

    I’m with Bruce , I have the Randall Fisherman, and the Russell Canadian, My Swiss Army, which always tags along, is the Tinker, full size but about the thinnest of the lot.
    I actually lost my Tinker for a year, went back up to Middle Saranac Lake and found it exactly where I thought I might have left it. Almost never carry the Randall but the Russell comes along on occasion.

  11. Jim Frenette Sr. says:

    Well my solution to the problem of what tools to carry is this..After the first of our several journeys from Inlet to Stillwater I realized that my friend and guide was really the McGiver of Childwood and his ability to reach into his pack and come up with the tool to solve any problem was the solution as to what I should carry..It goes like this..”Hey Butch I need a —— to fix this..and out of his pack it would appear. Now this might seem to be improper on my part but he knows me and my limitations and has learned that not only I would not have the whatever to fix whatever but that he would end up doing it anyway. And after over 20 years of experiences we are still tracelling together and are best friends.

  12. Hawthorn says:

    OT, but I think it would be the subject of an article. I’m not antique (at least I don’t think so), but when we went hiking and camping all over the Daks in the late 60s early 70s we almost never carried packs that weighed more than 30 pounds, and we prided ourselves on often carrying in the low 20s even when out for several days. Today I see people struggling down the trail with mountains of lightweight gear piled into ginormous packs that make everyone look like Everest Sherpas. What happened? My pet theory is that it is all the gadgets and gizmos that everyone now carries that are all super lightweight but eventually add up to many pounds and lots of volume. We just didn’t carry as much junk back in the day: no gps, no cell phone, no multi-layered state of the art clothing, no tent (used a light tarp), no sleeping pad, no fancy rain gear (plastic poncho), no gaiters (wore high waterproof boots), no etc. etc. And no we weren’t uncomfortable, wet and cold, as some seem to believe. We still had down, wool, lightweight bags, and nylon. We just didn’t carry as much of it. Just a thought.

    • Bruce says:

      The 19th century guru of “go light” was George Washington Sears, otherwise known as Nessmuk. On his last voyage into the Adirondaks his total weight including himself, his boat, and his gear was some 140lbs. He could stay alone in the woods for days at a time with no hardship. Of course he lived mostly off the land when stuck in the woods overnight, stayed with guides, or in hotels.

      Times have changed of course, but how many “go lighters” today can top his total weight? He had a 2-blade, folding “trapper” style pocket knife, a sheath knife with a “butcher” style blade and a small, lightweight double-bladed axe.

      • troutstalker says:

        I have his book”Woodcraft”. More “outdoorsmen” should read about Nessmuck. I paddle,camp and portage in the “Dacks” and time after time I see so many people carrying too much gear. I watched two guys with a canoe make 6 trips on 1 carry! Why do they need so much gear and create more work than it is worth? They had 3 coolers,lawn chairs and other unnecessary gear!

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