On Hiking With A Knife

I wouldn’t be caught dead in the wilderness without a knife.  Plain and simple.  I was always taught that you never go into the woods without a.) telling someone where you are going and b.) a knife.  Which is why I will be carrying one on my hip during my thru-hike this year.  I haven’t quite figured out which knife I will be wearing as I have many to choose from.  However, I do know I will definitely be wearing one.  Here’s why.


My Benchmade 162 Bushcrafter. I HIGHLY recommend this knife.

Who Wears A Knife?

Basically, any outdoorsman worth his/her salt carries a knife.  Horace Kephart, Ray Mears, Dave Canterbury, Cody Lundin, Les Stroud, Matt Graham, Laura Zera, Bear Grylls, Tom Brown… All of these people are better in the back country than you are and none of these folks would EVER go into the wilderness without some sort of edged tool.  Sure, they may not be “hikers” but they share the commonality of the exploring the wilderness with hikers.  And Matt Graham is a damn superhuman.  He RAN the PCT in 58 days.  RAN. IT.  58 Days.  For most people running 58 feet is difficult.  You could start a NOBO of the AT at the same time as this guy, he will complete the NOBO, pass you on the SOBO and then pass you again as he rehikes NOBO.  He’s a silly, freakish man with a amazing beard.


Matt Graham trying to figure out how he can run to the moon and back.  Image courtesy of Pinterest.

What Type Of Knife

When most people think of wilderness or “survival” knives, the first image that pops into their head is the Rambo knife.  You know which one.  It has the big, Bowie shaped blade with a (useless) serrated back and a handle that pops open at the bottom with survival goodies.  No, folks.  Nope.  That knife is crap.  It was designed to be an impressive knife for a bad ass in the movies.  A proper wilderness knife should possess the following features:

  1. A fixed blade.  Folding knives cannot handle the stresses that a fixed blade can due to their mechanical pivot points.  Lateral forces can cause the knife to break at the folding point.
  2. Full tang.  Full tang means that the metal extends the full length of the knife, all the way to the end of the handle.  This makes the blade stronger structurally as you have one solid piece of metal. That Rambo knife had no tang, by the way.
  3. Quality Steel.  Cheap steal can’t hold an edge as well, nor is it as structurally sound as quality steel.  For instance, 400 series stainless steels are used on cheap knives because it’s very easy to sharpen.  But the blade will dull very easily and break a lot sooner under hard use, putting you and others around you in potential danger.

On the subject of steel, each type has it’s advantages and disadvantages. Carbon steels rust easily if not properly maintained, but are generally easier to sharpen and are great to use for striking a ferrocerium rod to make fire.  Stainless steels are more wear resistant and easier to maintain but are often harder to sharpen, as is the case with some of the newer “super steels”.  Some of my favorite types of steel are 1095 (carbon), S30V (stainless steel), VG10 (stainless), D2 or O1 (tool steels), or any of the Swedish Steels such as Sandvik 12C27 and the like.  For the AT, since I will be going for a while in various weather conditions, I will more than likely be using a stainless steel knife.


Overkill? Absolutely not my friend.

Why Wear A Knife?

I know, I know, many folks think it’s overkill carrying a knife on a well worn hiking path such as the AT. I have debated the topic with these people (mostly ultralighters) a few times.  I’ve heard of people carrying everything from a Leatherman or a Swiss Army knife, to a simple razor blade, or absolutely no edged tools at all.  That’s fine.  To each his/her own.  But to me, that’s just crazy.  A Leatherman or Swiss Army Knife is a great tool to have AS A BACKUP to a knife, but as a primary edged tool, they don’t cut it.  Pun intended.

You may not need anything more substantial to open a food bag or cut cordage for a bear bag hang while you are hiking, but spending as much time in the wilderness as you do during a thru-hike, there is always the possibility that you could get lost.  It happens to people all the time and people die.  Not just on the AT but everywhere.  I could list a couple of anecdotes here as examples to that point, but that’s a whole other article in itself.  Simply put, anything and everything can happen and because that possibility (getting lost and dying) exists, I will carry a knife.  I would rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.  I live by the saying “If you’re not always prepared, you’re never prepared.”

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Comments 35

  • TicTac : Feb 25th

    I don’t argue with your contention that a knife is a valuable addition to your backpacking kit, but I will say that wearing a non-folding – and excessively heavy and non-folding – knife in a belt sheath will make it damned near impossible to correctly utilize the hipbelt on your backpack. And without the hipbelt, you will not make it 200 miles on the Trail. Consider a knife that will attach to your backpack shoulder strap or horizontally to your backpack hipbelt instead. My personal belief is that a much smaller folding knife or a neck knife will more conveniently serve your needs and are much more compatible with your actual (rather than anticipated) needs on the Trail. But then, I’m not a guy – whose ego is tied up with the size of my blade…..

    • Glenn Burns : Feb 25th

      You said, “Simply put, anything and everything can happen and because that possibility (getting lost and dying) exists, I will carry a knife. I would rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. I live by the saying “If you’re not always prepared, you’re never prepared.”

      This statement reinforces the believe that we pack our fears. My contention is that if you get lost on the AT and you die it will be from something that your knife will not help you avoid. Lack of water or food, falling and breaking a leg or your neck.

      You will be better served to carry an emergency device such as SPOT or InReach.

      • Sean Kearns : Feb 25th

        I respect your opinion but I do not believe being prepared is packing your fears at all. If I were packing my fears, I’d have 5 different outfits, a full blown first aid kit, 2 extra pairs of shoes and a months supply of food. No, carrying a knife in the event that I need one is being prepared, not being afraid. If I’m lost, on the AT, the PCT, the CDT, the Sierras, the Ozarks or where ever, having a knife will improve my chances of surviving exponentially over NOT having one.

      • JJ : Jan 8th

        /// My contention is that if you get lost on the AT and you die it will be from something that your knife will not help you avoid. /// Well, your contention is wrong. A knife will help you catch food (spears and traps). It will help you process the food. It will help you make a fire. It will defend you. If you do break a leg then a knife will help make a walking stick or even crutches. It will help make a giant signal fire and shelter until help arrives.

        I’m bewildered at how many people are attacking the author over the issue of carrying a knife when any true backwoodsmen knows how essential a knife is.

        That you people don’t see the need for one says more about how you choose to interact with Nature than it does about the utility of a sharp blade.

        Try letting go. get off the trail. Set a compass heading, find a point on the horizon on that heading and go there. Go where the people, roads, towns and phone service are not.

        It sounds to me that we’ve become such a dependent society that even simple tasks like living in the backwoods are well beyond us . . . . gotta have that phone and GPS. LOL

    • Sean Kearns : Feb 25th

      To address your points:

      1. Most bushcraft knives are worn with what is called a dangler attachment to the sheath. With a dangler, the knife would hang well below my belt line, thus allowing me to use my hip belt effectively. No issue there. If you would like to see what I mean, here is a prime example:


      Scroll down a ways and you will see the reviewer wearing a pack, with a hip belt, with the knife in my article. The sheath is on a dangler.

      2. Also, most of the knives that I carry DO NOT have a large blade and are in the 3 – 4 inch range. As a matter of fact I don’t own a knife with a blade over 5 inches. And I only own ONE of those. I own many folders and neck knives. Believe me, there is no “ego” here and I don’t need a knife with a long blade to boost it.

    • Geno : Nov 25th

      Just a few things to consider. Over the last 45 years I have spent a great deal of time in the Michigan woods, Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and locations all over Europe and Africa. I have never walked a single step without a fixed blade with me. Sometimes I wear the knife on my belt (if you carry your knife in a dangler sheath it rides below your hip belt and does not interfere with your comfort). Generally I carry it on the outside of my pack hooked to a Molle. If you carry a Swedish Mora they only weigh a few ounces, are high quality and very inexpensive ($12-15). I have used my knife to build shelters, start fires, chop food, cut paracord, for protection, making a fishing pole, and a hundred other chores.
      To hike the AT you probably could get along fine with a quality Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman multitool (which I also carry). There are more conveniences along the trail. With a long career in (still in progress) in an occupation that requires a lot of vigilance and preparation I can tell you if you need a tool badly you would offer someone a 100 times more than it’s worth to buy if from him. Better to spend the $12 up front.
      Regarding the size of the tool being an ego thing I’ll just assume that you’re being witty with a comment that fits nicely into your posting. Everyone enjoys a timely laugh.
      Given the choice of driving 75mph on an interstate I’ll pick an Escalade over a Fiat any day of the week. Happy trails and stay safe.

    • AL : May 19th

      Bigger IS Better when it comes to Self Defense. A folding knife would just draw girly sounding giggles from an armed attacker intent on dismembering and eating your carcass. No more deaths on the AT!! WAY MORE ALARMING are the people who simply VANISH FOREVER hiking the AT. Wise Up People. Embrace the Boy Scout Motto…”Be Prepared”!

  • Jim McNelis : Feb 25th

    a knife isn’t going to save you from a bear or a snake. if you get lost, even a little, you have a phone with gps to get you back on trail. a mobile phone is lighter than a knife (at least a fixed blade), and more useful on a trail like the AT. it will do more to keep you alive and save your life than a large knife. you aren’t taking this journey alone, even if you go solo. almost 4k people set out to thru hike the AT last year, not to mention the weekend and section hikers. the same dangers that would exist if you went camping in remote wilderness, where not a lot of people go, do not exist on the AT. this is a different type of wilderness journey. one with towns every couple days and a lot of people around. shelters to camp at everynight, if you wish. bathrooms in the woods. trail angels. instead of looking to wilderness survival experts here (many of which i also admire), i suggest looking at what gear successful thru hikers carry, and what they have to say (or don’t) about fixed-blade knives on a long thru hike. spoiler alert: most carry very small knives or scissors, if anything at all. also, if you look at the 2016 thru hiker survey (https://thetrek.co/appalachian-trail/the-top-backpacks-on-the-appalachian-trail-2016-at-thru-hiker-survey/), you will see more people dropping knives than picking them up along the way. even then, we are likely talking about the smallest knife possible. just some information to consider as you finalize your gear. thanks for sharing and good luck on your journey!

    • JJ : Jan 8th

      Not all people who venture into the woods go on “through hikes.” A “through hike” (to me) is one step up from taking a walk in the local park. It IS NOT the kind of backwoods experience many of us want to have.

      When I go out, I follow an azimuth. I see no people. I hit a river or a lake, follow it to a point and take off on the next azimuth. I do see bears. I do hear things in the night. I’m sure there are pot growers, ginsengers and moonshiners nearby.

      Your experience is very limited, thus making your advice worthless. Try hiking like a man.

      • MR : Jan 9th

        Here’s some advice that’s not worthless – stop projecting your insecurities on others and deriving your sense of self-worth from being a classic case of the “internet tough guy”. No one cares how you hike. Literally no one. You shouldn’t care how he hikes (and, if he is a man, however he hikes is by definition “like a man”). I happen to agree with the article that a knife is an essential tool for the back country, and I wouldn’t go out without one, but seriously…grow up a little. Or a lot.

        • Christopher Dickerman : Jul 14th

          An outstanding reply to an emotionally and psychologically challenged little person.

    • Paul Hogan : Dec 3rd

      Not necessarily. If you get too dependent on your phone, and it ends up dying, you’re screwed. Bring a compass, learn to use the stars, whatever navigational tool other than a battery-powered device. But in my experience, a knife is always a major help. Even a little knife, though I prefer something close to a 10 inch. You can do almost anything in the wilderness with a few supplies and a big knife. It has nothing to do with an ego, but everything to do with protection and preparation. And actually, a knife could save you from a bear or a snake, if you know how to use it.

  • Tony Barber : Feb 27th

    Why carry a knife? I don’t know. Mr Kearns asks the question but it must have been rhetorical for he never gives a specific reason. Because you may get lost? Seriously?
    And I love his list of outdoorsmen. Leave NO Trace be damned.

    But I do appreciate the article as I now get to disregard any future articles with his byline.


    Tony B.

    • Sean Kearns : Feb 27th

      Thanks for the comment, Tony. I’ll try not to lose any sleep because you will be disregarding further articles from me. Say “hey” if you ever see me on the trail!

    • JJ : Jan 8th

      Those ARE the true outdoorsmen. You modern hikers are basically just taking a walk in the woods like my grandparents used to do after dinner. You have no idea what the TRUE outdoors is all about.

      • Paul Hogan : Dec 3rd

        Thank you! I am 17, and going on the Appalachian next fall. Many people tell me not to bring a knife, but instead to bring a good phone. What’s my phone going to do when I come across a venomous snake. “Please wait Mr Snake, I have to look up how to get away from you!”
        Or I can pull my knife out slow, get along stick, and pin it own with the stick! Then decapitate it before it has the chance to escape!
        I grew up in Florida. I know about snakes and hunting. Not how my phone is going to help me survive.

  • Gunslinger : Mar 3rd

    Wow! Who would’ve thought people would get so worked up over a knife!! It’s like you were asking them to carry one…or worse…carry yours! LOL! I for one appreciate the advice and would provide the same to anyone/everyone I care about. The choice is still there, but I would recommend being prepared as well. It is readily apparent that none of the responders have ever been in situations or scenarios where they had to be self sufficient for longer than an hour! Use your phone? LOL! Mine was practically useless in many places on the trail, and that was provided I could keep it charged the entire time! No sweat Sean…keep up the great advice that people can take or leave as they see fit! Best wishes on your adventure…It sounds like you will be one of the few who will be prepared for anything OUT OF THE ORDINARY…well done!!

    • Sean Kearns : Mar 3rd

      Finally! Someone with some sense!!! LOL! Seriously, though, thank you. I definitely appreciate it. You got what I was trying to say EXACTLY – it’s just my opinion based on my beliefs and experiences, take it or leave it. I like to be prepared for anything and everything. If you don’t want to hike with a knife, so be it; however, technology can and will fail you LONG before a quality edged tool will (your phone example). It’s funny to me that this is such a sensitive topic with (thru) hikers and one that sparks a debate almost every time it gets brought up. The person who says “hike your own hike” is the first to get worked up over why you shouldn’t carry a knife on a hike. But I digress. Anyway, thank you very much for the response and the well wishes!

      • Gunslinger : Apr 18th

        You got it brother! I have been enjoying your posts and, even though I have been long distance hiking for near 15 years now, I am tweaking my kit based on a lot of your gear suggestions. You are dragging me slowly out of the stone age! Keep up the good work! Best wishes out there!

      • David Causey : May 9th

        Enjoying and look forward to your posts. Il be sobo in 2018 and will have my trusty esee 4 on my hip. to heavy yep does it make me happy yep. Carry what you like to each his own its your journey.

        • Sean Kearns : Sep 25th

          Hell yeah man! I’ve got the 4 with the green coating and orange scales. Have a great SOBO!

    • John barnette : Jul 31st

      Spot on!

  • Ken : Jul 29th

    However, when I was last on the AT (last week) the Dept of Interior has prominent signs advising Weapons are Prohibited. It’d be really a sad way to end a hike by having some bored Park Police Officer or Ranger arrest you for bringing you knife on the AT. Noting also a Buck (or other folder) in your pocket risks adding a second charge of CCW. I think you would be better off with a good cell phone and a canteen of water and leave the knives at home.

    • Joshua Johnson : Sep 22nd

      Short reply: Ken, this borderlines on fear mongering and is not an accurate representation of law. You can carry knives, people.

      Long reply: Ken, I encourage you to research law a little better in this department. Almost all of the knives that backpackers carry do not classify as prohibited by law. The United Kingdom boasts much stricter laws than the U.S. (including New York City etc.) and even the Brits are allowed small, folding pocket knives. To be fair, the knife pictured here is not the typical knife, so anyone wanting to carry anything over 3″ blade length should also research state and local laws. There are DEFINITELY knives you can carry the entire length of the A.T. without violating any laws the length of the trail.

      Respectfully, Please do a little research to avoid these unsubstantiated fears.

  • Doctari : Jul 29th

    In the last 55 years I have not had a knife on me a total of 6 weeks. Mostly cause I forgot one. Too many reasons for having a knife to list here, but to not have one: cutting food (cheese, salami,etc.) Cutting rop or cord for repairs, etc.
    I cannot imagine thinking no knife is a good idea! Have heard hikers carrying half a razorblade,,,, seems nearly as useless as no cutting tool. Would you use half a hammer as a carpenter? Weather you get lost or not, have a propper cutting tool!

  • Doctari : Jul 30th

    FYI: if you choose to not carry a knife, you can’t borrow mine!!! I don’t care how badly you need it! That goes for any other piece of gear you chose to not carry, at least the second time you want to borrow it!

  • Joshua Johnson : Sep 22nd

    Even though i’m late to this party, I wanted to chime in and say I back you 100% on carrying a knife while hiking. In fact, i can’t understand the comments above de-crying the knife as useless in survival. Look up any “essentials” list for survival and “knife” will most certainly be on it. The most experienced outdoor organizations (Boy Scouts etc.) list “knife” on the essentials list. I also agree that it will always be a bit of “too each their own” in the knife department. There is not one blade that is 100% perfect for everyone, but everyone should 100% carry a knife.

    • Sean Kearns : Sep 25th

      ABSOLUTELY. And I like the points you made above to Ken. A cell phone battery will die and if you’re lost, there’s only so many charges left in that portable battery charger you brought. A cell phone can’t process food, cut cordage, build you a shelter, etc. And the term “weapon” is almost always outlined and defined in state laws as it pertains to knives. Going into that would be a whole other article in itself, but you are correct; there are knives you can carry the length of the AT. There’s a difference between a weapon and a tool and if you’re hiking and carrying a knife as a TOOL, I don’t know of any ranger who would arrest you for it.

  • John : Mar 12th

    Good advice. Depending on how remote the hike, I either take my KA-BAR & small axe or just a regular hiking/camping knife. I always bring one — better to have it and not need it than otherwise. Other essentials include 550 cord, foot powder, etc….

  • Michael : Jun 6th

    After searching for hiking/camping knives I found your article. I myself am a photographer and often go out into the woods to shoot alone and would like to have a knife with me for protection or utility. Maybe something that fits on my belt. Any recommendations for a first knife?

    • Dave : Jul 4th

      Finnish puukkos are the best small ultra-sharp utility knives. (Best at wood carving)
      Buck Knives 124 Frontiersman (Made In The USA, Forever Warranty, Rust resistant steel “420HC”)
      Svord VTR Von Tempsky Ranger Knife (Great overall knife, L-6 steel arguably the best & most expensive steel for swords)

      Khukuris on Amazon or Ebay are sold by scammers, order directly from a Genuine website (look for 5160 steel and full tang)

  • Jessica : Jul 15th

    I have been hiking and adventuring for over 20 years. My dad would take us out and taught us survival skills that stuck, including always carry a fixed blade. This past week my husband and I took our two young children to a popular one mile trail to see a waterfall. While on the trail we stumbled upon 3 men who were not all there. They began to come at us and were saying comments like “oh what pretty girls”, “I’ll take her tonight” etc… ON A 1 MILE POPULAR TRAIL! Do you think other hikers came up to try and deffuse the situation or help us with strength in numbers? Nope, not one. They took off running. My husband pulled out an 8in full tang, I took my 6in out and I told them we have a gun. They finally moved out, we reported it and they were eventually escorted out. I will never go on any trail with out protection, you never know who you will run in to. Safety first.

  • Rocket Dog : Sep 11th

    I stumbled upon this post while researching… you guessed it… a knife to carry on a thru-hike. Here are my reasons…

    I am an Eagle Scout from way back when, and no self-respecting Eagle Scout would ever head off into the woods for an extended hike without a reliable knife of some sort. If you don’t know why, look up the Boy Scout motto.

    With a sheathed knife by my bedside I will sleep like a baby, and when encountering any potentially threatening wildlife I will be much more calm and rational with a knife close at hand.

    Just the other night I went to hear a female AT thru-hiker give a talk at my local REI. She related 4 stories where a knife might have come in handy for self-defense purposes:

    1) She encountered a mother bear and her cubs along the trail (and yes, a knife will be a huge asset if you are attacked by a bear… or perhaps you’d rather fight one with your bare hands?)

    2) She encountered a large rattlesnake crossing the trail in front of her (a knife would have been unlikely to help in this circumstance, but do not disregard the psychological benefit of having it during such an encounter regardless of its actual utility).

    3) She was hiking alone after her trail mates all dropped off the trail, and a pack of coyotes or wild dogs began circling her position and closing in on her. She was forced to stand on top of the picnic table at a shelter with her knife in one hand and a hiking pole in the other as the pack approached. She managed to get away and run down the trail with one of the dogs giving chase for a ways, but she was lucky and it gave up the pursuit.

    4) She was warned by other hikers headed in the opposite direction that a mentally unstable hiker was about 2 days away and headed in her direction. She spent the next 2 days on edge wondering when she would encounter this individual. When she saw him coming up the trail, she stepped aside and began carving a stick with her knife conspicuously, making it abundantly clear than she was armed and prepared to defend herself if necessary. The suspect continued on his way and she never saw him again.

    So yes, I will be carrying a knife on all my back country adventures whether I need one or not. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it, as I’m often fond of saying myself. 😉

  • Joe Rowell : Apr 11th

    If knives are not allowed on the AT I’m never going on the AT! A cell phone is better in the woods than a knife? That’s simply out of touch with reality. A good knife is the most basic & important piece of equipment for going out where the wild things are. It always has been & always will be. Every survival expert or experienced outdoorsman will tell you. I don’t understand why this is controversial.

  • John Wesley-Knox : Sep 24th

    I’m almost irresistibly compelled to ask the “cell phone instead of knife” proponents to take even a brief amount of time to consider what their answer would be in the purely hypothetical situation in which “a still, small voice” enquired: “What will you do when the batteries run out”? I’m reminded of a poster from one of last century’s World Wars, in which a child asks his grandfather, “What did YOU do during the war”? and the grandfather looks out at the viewer with the extremely awkward expression of one who knows that you know that he knows you both know he was really hoping his grandson wouldn’t bring that up.


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