A comprehensive guide to the best small pocket knives on the market today.
Pocket knives are backcountry essentials. They offer a single knife blade that can be used for simple cutting tasks like cutting threads, opening a package and cutting or cooking food. They are usually lightweight and compact, making them ideal for ounce-counting thru-hikers. Their utility lies in their simplicity; they do one thing and they do it well.
Because they only have one blade, they are easy to use as compared to the Swiss army knives or multitools which pack other tools along with the knife blade. Though multitools have their place (I use one for my mountain bike), they are overkill for backpacking where you are more likely to need a knife to cut things and not five different tools to fix stuff. We break down what goes into a good pocket knife and review 13 of our favorite models.
The tanto blade has a straight edge that is angled upwards at the tip of the blade. They are strong and durable at the tip making them excellent for piercing items like canvas, but they are not good at slicing.
The sheepsfoot blade is the opposite of a normal blade. It has a sharp straight edge and a dull back that curves at the end to meet the tip of the blade. Unlike most blades, this design does not produce a sharp point for piercing items and was originally used to trim sheep hooves. Sheepsfoot blades are excellent for chopping or slicing. You can use them without accidentally stabbing yourself, so they are great for kids or those new to handling knives.
The straight-back or normal blade is your standard knife blade. It has a dull, flat back with a curved edge that meets at a sharp tip. It is excellent for slicing or chopping. Because the back is dull, you can use your fingers to apply more pressure while using the knife.
The clip point blade is a variation of the normal blade that clips off a portion of the back towards the tip of the blade. It creates a thin tip that provides more control when cutting and can be used to cut in hard-to-reach places. The popular bowie knife uses a clip point blade.
The trailing point blade is angled upward so the blade edge and back edge curve upwards into a sharp tip. This produces a long knife edge that is ideal for slicing, skinning, and filleting. The trailing point knife is often used while hunting for processing game.
A spear point blade is a symmetrical, sometimes double-edged blade where both the top and bottom edges meet together in the center line of the knife. It creates a robust and sharp tip that is ideal for piercing and is used primarily in fighting or throwing knives.
The hawkbill or talon blade gets its name from its claw-like shape. Both the knife edge and back curve downwards to create a downwards pointing tip. This blade shows up mostly in combat knives because of its ability to pierce and slash. It is also used in knives for cutting carpet or linoleum because the point grabs the material and slices smoothly when pulling backward to cut.
Dagger (needle point):
The dagger is another double-edged blade where the two edges meet in the centerline of the knife. This knife tapers more sharply than the spear point producing a significantly thinner tip. The tip is not very strong, but it is very sharp making it ideal for stabbing. This blade type is often used on knives designed for close combat situations.
The drop point blade is the opposite of the clip point blade. Instead of curving upwards at the tip, the drop point knife curves slightly downward along the back edge. This creates a durable tip that is useful for cutting or piercing and is easy to control. The drop point blade is popular on pocket knives and fixed blade knives.
Originating from Gurkha people of Nepal and India, the Kukri has a distinctive inward curve much like a machete. These knives are utility knives that are durable and excel at chopping.
The Wharncliffe blade is similar to the sheepsfoot blade, but the curve on the back of the knife extends from the handle to the tip. This design produces a blade that is ideal for slicing because of its minimal tip. It also reduces the chance you'll accidentally stab yourself while using the knife.
When shopping for a pocket knife, there are a handful of options that you need to consider before finalizing your purchase. We break down some of the essential features you'll find in a pocket knife.
Folding vs. fixed Blade
Folding: A folding blade folds into a casing making it compact to carry. It is more complicated to use because the blade has to slide out of the housing before you can use it. Some blades lock when they are open allowing you to use some force while cutting. While others don't lock creating a potential safety issue if they close on your fingers while you are using them. The folding mechanism also can wear down over time.
Fixed: The fixed blade remains extended and is simpler to use, but it is larger and requires a sheath so you don't accidentally cut yourself or your gear. Because it doesn't have a folding mechanism to break, the fixed blade knife will last a long time.
Automatic: An automatic opening knife is opened by pressing a button that allows the knife to open on its own. The blade opens lightning fast and has a "wow" factor. Just like assisted opening knives, there are some questions about the legality of these knives. They also tend to fail more often because of the complicated opening mechanism.
Flipper: The flipper is a small tab at the base of a blade that protrudes from the back of the knife when the blade is closed. It allows you to flip out the blade quickly and can be used by either left- or right-handed people.
Ball-Bearing: The ball-bearing is a manual opening knife that deploys quickly and easily thanks to a set of ball bearing on the knife's pivot point. It can be opened with one hand and is safer than the spring-assisted automatic knives.
Note: An ambidextrous knife is a knife that can be opened by either a left- or right-handed person.
Back Lock: As its name implies, back locks have the locking mechanism along the back of the knife. There is usually a slot on the end of the knife that you push to unlock the blade. Back locks are not flickable and can't be closed quickly with one hand, but they are stable.
Ball Detents: The detent lock is a simple type of lock mechanism that uses two depressions on the knife blade called detents. These detents fit into two sphere-shaped balls on the knife frame, locking the blade into place. It is mainly used to keep the blade secured inside the frame when it is closed.
Frame Lock: the frame lock is one of the most common locks on pocket knives and for a good reason. It is a robust locking system that is durable thanks to its simple construction and few moving parts. The frame lock works just like a liner lock, but it uses part of the frame to lock the blade instead of a standalone liner.
Hawk Lock: The hawk lock uses a steel blade that slides forward using springs to lock the blade. A sliding mechanism on the outside of the handle can be used to disengage the blade and close it. It is a solid lock that can be opened and closed quickly with one hand.
Liner Lock: Liner locks are another common type of lock found on pocket knives. The liner lock engages the base of the blade, securing it in place. To unlock the blade, you have to push the liner out of the way. It is an inexpensive and easy-to-use locking system. Sometimes, the liner can be difficult to push, and you do have to put your fingers in the path of the blade to unlock it.
edge type: SERRATEd vs plain vs combo
Serrated: A serrated edge has saw-like teeth on the knife blade that are useful when slicing, especially through hard materials that require some bite or a sawing motion to cut. They hold their edge for a long time, but they are difficult to sharpen - especially in the field - because sharpening them requires specialized equipment. Serrated edges also can be intimidating which is a look you may or may not want depending on your situation.
Plain: A plain edge lacks teeth and is straight across the edge. It is useful for push cutting where you have to apply steady pressure to cut an item. Plain edges are popular because they are easy to sharpen and are great for basic cutting tasks like preparing food. They also excel at making precise, clean cuts.
Combo: Some knives feature a combo edge that includes both a serrated and plain edge on one blade. While useful on a long knife, a pocket knife is too small for a combo edge. You end up with a slight serration and a short plain edge, both of which are too small to be useful.
A good pocket knife for backpacking should be lightweight. Less than two ounces is ideal.
Blade Material: Steel vs Titanium
Steel: Steel has been used for centuries to make knife blades, so the qualities of these knives are well established. Steel is an alloy made with different ratios of materials which can change the characteristics of the blade. Stainless steel is cheap and readily available, so you can find one to suit your budget. Though versatile, steel can be soft; the knife blade may bend under pressure or dent. They also tend to rust when exposed to moisture.
Titanium: Titanium knives tend not to rust which makes them attractive to divers and other people who are around water. Titanium knives are lighter than their steel counterparts which is an essential factor when counting the ounces that go into your pack. Though lighter, titanium is harder than steel, but it can be brittle and may break when used under pressure. Don't use them for prying. Titanium is more expensive than steel so expect to pay more for a titanium knife.
As a rule of thumb, you want your pocket knife to be 2.75" and under. Longer blades are difficult to carry and to control when cutting. Depending on the state, longer knives also may be illegal to carry concealed. Check the knife laws in your state.
Attachment: pocket clip vs. keyring
Pocket knives are often carried in the pocket of your pants or your backpack. If they are small enough, some pocket knives have a clip that attaches to your waistband or a keyring attachment.
Grip: material and size
Material: The three most common grips material you'll find are metal, synthetic or natural. Metal grips are strong and light, but they can be slippery which is why they are often etched for extra grip. Natural materials include wood and bone, both of which are attractive and feel good in your hand. There are a variety of synthetic materials including carbon fiber, Micarta, and Zytel, a fiberglass-reinforced nylon. Synthetics are durable and lightweight, but they don't have the look or feel of the natural or metal grips.
Size: Handle size is a personal preference but you want a handle that isn't overly small. There should be enough handle so you can grab the knife without it slipping from your hand. Some handles also are shaped to fit your fingers so you can curl your hands around the blade and hold it more securely in your hand.
Blade length: 2-inches
Weight: 2.2 ounces
A compact size and ergonomic design make the Ember an excellent choice for backcountry pursuits. Like most Kershaw knives, it is sharp out of the box and solidly constructed.
Blade length: 1.6-inches
Weight: 1.8 ounces
Great for small cutting tasks, the Kershaw Pub Carbon Fiber Multifunction Pocket Knife has a different design. Instead of a standard opening, it has a keyring attachment that doubles as the blade opener. Just push down on the keyring, and the blade will swing into place. More than just a knife, it's a multipurpose tool with five functions including a screwdriver and a bottle opener.
Blade length: 2.22-inches
Weight: 1.4 ounces
The Gerber Paraframe Mini Knife is a small knife that is solidly made and will last forever. It has an integrated belt clip and is light enough that you can attach it to your belt and you won't even notice that it is there.
Blade length: 1.1-inches
Weight: 0.8 ounces
The MAXERI All Purpose Pocket Knife is one of the smallest knives on our list. It measures a mere 1.8-inches when closed (about the size of a key) and is exceptionally sharp. You won't be cutting branches with this baby, but you can cut packaging, trim paracord and other small tasks.
Blade length: 2.028-inches
Weight: 1.3 ounces
The CRKT Jettison Compact boasts of a titanium body that is lightweight and strong. It is easy to operate with one hand and flips open smoothly - so smoothly you'd swear the knife had assisted opening. It's a small knife with a professional appearance, so it won't be intimidating to carry on the trail. The only drawback is that it can be challenging to unlock.
Blade length: 1.75-inches
Weight: 0.9 ounces
The Delilah's P.E.C.K. is a small knife with a variety of carrying options including clipped to a pocket or waistband, as a money-clip knife, on a lanyard or a keychain. It has a two-piece design with a separate frame and blade. When folded, it looks more like a money clip and hardly seems like a knife. It's still a knife and a sharp one at that. Its size, though, limits it to small tasks around the camp.
Blade length: 1.75-inches
Weight: 0.9 ounces
The CRKT Minimalist Bowie Neck Knife is a versatile fixed blade knife that is available in a variety of blade styles. It's excellent for cutting thanks to its ergonomic finger-grooved handle and cord fob that you can use for extra leverage. It comes with a sheath and lanyard so you can wear it around your neck and keep it accessible.
Blade length: 1.38-inches
Weight: 0.85 ounces
The Samior Ultra Small Folding Pocket Knife is small measuring a mere two inches when it is closed. It's a sharp knife with a small (1.38") locking blade that is ideal for small cutting tasks like sectioning off some paracord or slicing some cheese. At less than an ounce, you won't even know it's in your pack.
Blade length: 2.1-inches
Weight: 1.4 ounces
The SOG Centi II is a great knife to throw in your pack for those inevitable moments when you need to cut something lightweight. Maybe it's a shoelace that is about to break or a strap on your backpack that you want to remove. The sharp blade, quality build and secure locking knife are just what you need. It's a small knife so don't plan on using it for heavy-duty tasks.
Blade length: 1.9-inches
Weight: 1.1 ounces
The Instinct Mini Satin is a small fixed blade knife that can be worn on a belt, boot or around the neck on a lanyard. It is a solid knife with indentations for your fingers and serrated areas for extra grip. It comes with a sheath that allows you to wear the knife discreetly under your shirt.
Blade length: 1.625-inches
Weight: 0.56 ounces
The Spyderco HoneyBee S.S. is a micro-sized folding knife with a plain edge. It is incredibly light, weighing about a half ounce. Though lightweight, the blade is rock solid and capable of handling small cutting tasks. It does not lock so you can use it for cutting jobs that require a lot of force.
Blade length: 1.23-inches
The Spyderco Dog Tag folding knife sets itself apart by looking like an actual military dog tag. It is small enough not to scare anyone and fits easily on a keychain, around your neck or in your pocket. It is amazingly solid for such a small knife and handles all small cutting tasks with ease.
Blade length: 1.74-inches
Weight: 1.3 ounces
More than just a knife, the Elko from James is a multitool with a key ring, bottle opener, screwdriver, and pry. It comes in a Loksak waterproof bag to protect it from dirt and moisture, two factors that hasten the demise of a knife.
Final Note: You don't have to spend tons of money on a lightweight knife for backpacking. You can DIY a knife using a razor blade, a stick and some twine. It's not the most substantial or secure knife, but it'll work in a pinch.
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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