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Opinion: Knives Are Overrated For Hiking

Author: Jaeger Shaw

March 18, 2019

Preface: The author is not suggesting that you don’t bring a knife into the backcountry and acknowledges that knives have many valuable and specific uses in many outdoor activities.

In 2018, I spent 54 days hiking in the backcountry, and not once did I require a knife. In fact, I’ve stopped bringing knives hiking entirely. Why? Science, of course! I’m conducting a little experiment. How long can I go before I need one? It all started with losing a blade via airport security, followed by forgetting to buy a replacement. Pretty soon, I stopped missing knives altogether and it became a non-issue. And that got me thinking.

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Society values knives so highly in the pantheon of outdoor gear, but why? They’re one of the very first things people think to pack when prepping for a wilderness adventure. We seem to associate them with ruggedness, preparedness, self-reliance and explorers from the days of yore. Long have they held a coveted slot in the classic 10 Essentials list. 

But people rarely have the same outdoor skill sets that they used to in decades past. The average outdoorsperson does not know how to use their knife to start a fire, whittle tools, harvest meat, cut off their arm, make a shelter, hunt, or fend off a bear or assailant. If you do, that’s cool, please continue packing your knife. Especially if traditional bushcraft brings you joy. And heck, knives do come in handy sometimes. But outside of activity-specific demand, knife skills are semi-obsolete. We bring our own food, shelter, fire starters and essentials. And the wildernesses we adventure in are often, arguably, safer than the cities where we live.

Do you find lots of uses for your knife on the trail? As gear goes, knives are pretty exciting. So I get it. But maybe we’re experiencing the “Law of the Instrument.” It’s a classic psychology term, referring to a cognitive bias towards using a familiar tool, or one that’s in hand. As the age-old saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Ergo, some percentage of knife-uses stem from wanting, consciously or subconsciously, to use the knife simply because we have it, rather than from an actual need to use the knife. 

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But what about the knife’s most practical use, food prep? I acknowledge that there is some pretty legit application here when it comes to backcountry cooking, especially when you don’t have complete control over your food sources. Thru-hikers and international travelers might need a knife to prep food that they couldn’t chop in advance back home. Backcountry anglers might need to fillet a fish. But for the rest of us, we can easily chop everything in the kitchen and bring it with us pre-prepared and portioned in bags. Plus, it’s much easier and more sanitary that way. Do you use a knife to open packaging? I promise a car key, pointy stick, or rock will do the job almost as well.

In fact, when it comes to overall safety and disaster mitigation for the outdoorsy masses, I argue that most efforts to learn the art of the knife would be better spent mastering the art and uses of modern smartphone GPS technology and satellite communicator devices. An ounce of disaster avoidance is worth a pound of emergency survival skills. And when it comes to the knife-wielding masses, which is most of us, it’s a safe bet that the number of self-inflicted wounds is orders of magnitude larger than the number of lives saved. Get my point?

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Should you stop packing a knife? Probably not—it might come in handy. But should you walk into the woods feeling safer and more prepared because you have one on hand? No. Just know that when it comes to probability, your knife is more likely to cut you than save you, and that mastering other outdoor skills and technologies should be a much higher priority in your personal advancement. For now, I’ll keep running my experiment and report back when a knife finally would have come in handy for me. That is, assuming I live to tell the tale… Happy (and safe) hiking to all!

Jaeger Shaw

Lost in the mountains and sandwiched for warmth between three friends in a two-person tent, Jaeger thought to himself, “I need better gear.” His tent leaked. His rain jacket was rubber. And his pack weighed 60 pounds. But no longer! Since that fateful trip, Jaeger has overhauled his entire kit, and now considers himself to be a gear snob, an ultralight backpacker, and an ultra heavy-duty snacker. He is on a decade-long quest to hike every trail in a guidebook to backpacking Washington State, and proudly invented his own system for rating scenic views.