Knives for Canoe Camping

I've been in canoes my entire life, and have been interested in knives even longer. Wait. Well, the point is: I love working with a good knife as much as I love gliding over placid wilderness lakes and riding through roaring rapids in canoes. 

There is no tool more useful in the backcountry than a knife...For the full range of jobs it will be put to, no one knife is perfect for everything. For this reason you should ideally carry two or more knives.
— Ray Mears, The Survival Handbook, A Practical Guide to Woodcraft and Woodlore

After decades of camping, paddling, and wilderness treks, I've developed some opinions on knives and tools for canoe camping trips. You have a multitude of options, but these are my basic recommendations for a functional crew kit—a reliable set-up that allows you to live like a king in the woods, whether you're paddling down The Allagash, through the Adirondacks or Algonquin, or fighting mosquitos on the Northern Highlands-American Legion canoe routes!

 

What to Look for in a Canoe Camping Knife

When I'm choosing a knife for my canoe camping trips, I look for a few specific features: 

  • Great Design and Function. There are a lot of junky knives on the market. Avoid the Ninja Death Star models and make sure the blade will work for you. So many knives come with serrated edges these days. That's good for some rough-cutting duties, but not for the many finer camp tasks. When I'm on a canoe trip, I'm typically cutting lines and rope, opening packages, doing kitchen work, making dry shavings or feather sticks for fire lighting, and cleaning fish and game. There are also times when screws need to be tightened, stoves adjusted, and cans or bottles opened (but not in the BWCA, of course!). Having tools that can easily handle these tasks and are a pleasure to use is top priority.
  • High Value. I don't mind paying for quality, but I'm also careful about paying more than necessary. This list is primarily focused on high-value options. There are custom knives which are incredible pieces of functional art, but many also cost as much or more than what I spend for a week-long trip to the Boundary Waters. I don't want to have to go through grief counseling if my knife accidentally torpedoes to the bottom of a lake. So, for the most part, the choices on this list are pretty basic. Don't worry, you can get some great steel at a decent price.
  • Minimal Maintenance. The knife must be sturdy, dependable, able to hold a good edge, and relatively low maintenance. I take care of my gear, but if you're working hard day in and day out, covering miles afloat and afoot, packing and setting up camp each day, and preparing food, you don't always have the time or energy to mess around with a lot of other details--like cleaning and caring for your knife. There'll be days when you're really whipped and just getting camp up, water purified, and food in your belly will be enough of a challenge. You don't want to be balanced on some slippery rock, cleaning walleye in the fading light, mosquitos attacking your wrist and ankles or black flies crawling up your nostrils, and find the edge of your knife dull. It's not just on the trail either; there's often a long drive home, followed by work the next day, and my bags might not get unpacked until the next weekend. For this reason, even though I typically prefer carbon steel blades, I don't mind a good stainless steel knife for the continuously wet environment of canoe camping.  
  • Lightweight. While weight isn't too much of a concern when floating, on a multi-day trip with portages, sagging wet pants and belt, every ounce counts! If you keep weight in mind, you'll have a knife to take backpacking as well.

great Knives for Canoe Camping 

I made many early trips with my Official Boy Scout pocket knife and then later with a basic Tinker model Victorinox Swiss Army knife. When paddling in lake country today, I usually:

A set of cutting tools that will help keep a canoe crew in business.

A set of cutting tools that will help keep a canoe crew in business.

  • Wear a multi-tool on my belt
  • Have a fixed-blade primary knife stowed in my day pack
  • Carry a good fish and food knife in the utensil roll of my food pack

I enjoy a campfire at night, and unless I'm on a trip where making serious distance is the priority, I like the challenge and skill involved with cooking on a fire. Handled properly in the heavily forested northwoods, cooking on a fire with locally sourced, naturally renewable wood, makes more sense all-around than trucking in cans of stove fuel. So, I'll also have an axe and saw to handle the big chopping.

On rivers, where there's a risk of entanglement and possible rescue situations, I'll carry the same as above, but:

  • Move the fixed blade knife to my belt OR 
  • Carry a substantial one-handed opening folder knife clipped in my pocket

I'll also keep a folding pruning saw handy in my day pack. I haven't added one of the stubby rescue knives to my PFD, yet.  

Specifically, here's what I'm packing:

Multi-tool

Leatherman Wave 300 multi-tool. Externally accessible, one-handed opening blades. I really like the leather sheath, which I picked up separately, as well as a removable pocket clip.  

Leatherman Wave 300 multi-tool. Externally accessible, one-handed opening blades. I really like the leather sheath, which I picked up separately, as well as a removable pocket clip.  

  • Leatherman Wave 300 Multi-tool. I’ve had a few multi-pliers over the years, and most of them have been pretty good. I've misplaced one or two, crammed other okay models in glove boxes and junk drawers, but I keep this Leatherman tuned up and at the ready. It's a bit more expensive, but has quickly became my favorite multi-tool. I really like the option to access the two cutting blades (one serrated and one plain edge) with one hand and without opening the tool. The only serious flaw is the lack of a true bottle opener on this model--an implement I use a lot!
You can get along very well with a jackknife; but if you need to make a paddle, a sheath knife makes a better draw knife and the filleting of fish needs more length than the jackknife blade. Select a sheath knife with a fairly thin blade. The thick, chisel-like, pig-sticking type of knife so abundant on the market is only a handicap tool.
— Calvin Rutstrum, "North American Canoe Country, The Classic Guide to Canoe Technique"

Primary Blade

Rutstrum wrote that quote on the right more than 50 years ago. Well, the thick pig-stickers are all the rage again now. Some of the high-quality heavy-duty bushcraft and survival knives are amazing, and can be used to split substantial logs, but if you're already carrying an axe and saw and will be portaging a lot, I'd save the extra weight and choose a light, yet strong, very sharp, fined-edged fixed blade for your primary camp knife.

Mora fixed-blade knife (top) and a traditional Scandinavian knife.

Mora fixed-blade knife (top) and a traditional Scandinavian knife.

  • Mora Fixed-blade Knife. Mora's fixed-blade knives are so light, cheap, and reliable, there’s no reason not to have one on a trip. Maybe even two. When I was developing the Expedition Canoeing School and Wilderness Survival Schools for Northern Star Council, I made sure each participant was issued a Mora. With some basic bushcraft skills, you can put this knife up to a wide array of tasks. I've used mine to build lean-tos and feed all-night fires on Winter survival courses in Maine and Minnesota. It's helped process three Alaskan moose back-to-back. It cut bait in the sweaty swamps of Florida. It even sliced tropical fruit in Kauai. The Mora's stick tang (blade metal continuing into the handle) allows for medium duty splitting (a task that will readily break most folding knives), and it's Scandinavian grind (the edge comes down in one large "V") allows it to perfectly plane off wood shavings for fire starting—a tremendous aid in wet weather! This edge design is also very easy to sharpen and takes a wicked edge. The cheap-looking plastic handles are comfortable and fill your hand, allowing you to carve at length without cramping or developing blisters. I typically carry the carbon steel version, but there's also an excellent stainless steel version, which may be better suited for many canoe campers who are looking for low maintenance. 

Fish and Food Blade

"There are arguments for and against knives in the camp kitchen. Knives make cutting a few select items in the kitchen easier, but they also risk cutting hands or fingers, which you want to avoid at all cost on a canoe expedition." -Alexander Martin, "NOLS Canoeing"

Ummm...[scratching my head]…what? I understand the safety concern, but I really wonder if someone who can't safely cut salami should be allowed on a canoe expedition in the first place? (Martin's above comment aside, I thought his book was excellent, and I highly recommend it.) I'm not going to try and fillet fish with the edge of a spatula or use the edge of my compass to slice cheese. Here's my favorite knife for fish and food:

Forschner boning knife (Victorinox).

Forschner boning knife (Victorinox).

  • Forschner Boning Knife (Victorinox). I learned about this knife from Cliff JacobsonThis is the single most useful knife on a canoe trip! It's cheap, is wickedly sharp, exceptional for preparing dinner in camp, and has just enough flex and the right shape to fillet fish. Remarkably, it’s also stiff enough to baton through kindling (don’t go overboard here, Rambo, it’s not a 3-pound survival knife!) and makes wood shavings, no problem. After some experimentation with sharpening to a convex edge, I now leave the boning knife with a small "v" edge, or secondary bevel. This allows for quick touch up field sharpening after you fillet the walleyes, but before you slice the tomatoes. This knife is so dependable, I may leave my fillet knife at home on my upcoming Quetico trip (where I plan on eating a lot of fish!) and just rely on the Forschner knife

Other Canoe Camping Knife Options

The knives listed above are my basic recommendations for canoe camping knives. Here are some other great options:

Multi-Tool Runner Up

Gerber one-handed multi-tool.

Gerber one-handed multi-tool.

Swiss Army one-handed folding Trekker.

Swiss Army one-handed folding Trekker.

  • Gerber One-handed Multi-tool. For canoe camping, I’d give a second place nod to the Gerber one-handed multi-tool because you can shuck out the pliers with one hand, which is very useful when you’re juggling a paddle and trying to handle a sharp toothed northern pike thrashing on the end of your lightweight pack rod!
  • Swiss Army One-handed Folding Trekker. This is the most useful Swiss Army Knife (SAK) model. Sized so you can easily carry it in your pocket for day-to-day living, yet beefier than the typical pocket knife, it's built to handle real work. I’ve had the serrated blade version for about 10 years, and it's seen it's fair share of action. A one-handed opening and locking main blade, a handy set of tools, including the diminutive, but oh-so-useful toothpick and tweezers. If I were buying a new one, I’d get the less common, non-serrated blade version, which would be much better for making wood shavings, camp kitchen work, and cleaning fish and game. 

NOTE: If you have a basic SAK or Boy Scout knife and don’t want to buy something new, I suggest picking up a pair of needle nose pliers—very useful for camp cooking, taking out fish hooks, and repairing gear.

 

Primary Blade Runner Up

While it's widely acknowledged that fixed-blade knives with a substantial tang are stronger than folding knives (big advantage in being able to split into the dry center of wet wood) and may offer other advantages, there are good reasons to choose a folder as your primary blade. As crazy as it sounds, some people don't want to buy a whole bunch of knives, and instead want one that can be carried in day-to-day life, as well as into the bush. Even in the woods, folders won't get tangled up with pack straps and brush along the portage trail, as dangling fixed blades often do. Also, while not restricted by the national BSA, many individual Boy Scout troops and camps and other youth organizations, ban fixed-blade knives, thinking they are somehow more dangerous. Ironically, many survival instructors ban folding knives, knowing their tendency to break and potentially injure students. So, here are some big locking folders I really like as primary blades:

EKA 60 (top), EKA 92 (bottom)

EKA 60 (top), EKA 92 (bottom)

  • EKA 92 Stainless. I've quickly become a big fan of the simple and robust EKA folders with their great Swedish design and steel! I have the plastic-handled model 60 and the handsome EKA 92 in curly birch, both handles allow for great control and extended work. These knives were formerly sold under the Normark name as the "Big Swede" and "Super Swede." They have a high-quality stainless steel (Sandvik 12C27, also available in carbon steel) with a great, functional blade shape. The profile on either could be modified into a Scandi grind, making it an awesome bushcraft-type folder (it’ll shave feather sticks just fine and can be used to split light kindling). The EKA folders are light and can be taken apart in the field for cleaning, which allows you to get out fish scales, peanut butter, salami, and other junk.

    A recently posted video on YouTube shows John "Lofty" Wiseman, internationally reknown SAS survival instructor and author, making feather sticks, traps, cleaning ducks, rabbits, and fish. He could've chosen any knife, but he's using an EKA 60! This somewhat dated video is well worth the watch!
Opinel folder knives (carbon steel version).

Opinel folder knives (carbon steel version).

  • Opinel Folder Knives. Opinel folders are often recommended as a bushman’s folder. They certainly take the budget option prize. While camping with legendary Maine Guide, Garrett Connover, I noticed he carried the Opinel. If you've read any of Garrett's work, you know this is quite the endorsement! Opinel knives take an awesome edge, can be used to tap through decent-sized kindling, and can shave and slice like crazy! However, take care of them because the wood handle can swell when it gets wet, and the standard carbon steel blade (there is a fine stainless option) requires care. On an early BWCA Boy Scout trip, my brother had an Opinel folder. It got wet and the handle swelled shut making it difficult to use. The trick to getting the blade out is to turn it around and hit the end of the grip to get the tip of the blade to pop out. Keep it oiled and dry, don't abuse it, and you'll love this simple knife.

    Both the EKA and Opinel folders lack pocket clips and one-handed opening mechanisms—two things that have become standard on many modern folders. I do find both of those features worthwhile, but the pocket clips can irritate my hand with extended work, and the thumb studs can potentially get in the way on certain cuts, but they are certainly useful in emergency situations.
Spyderco Endura 4 Full Flat Grind (top), Benchmade Griptillian (bottom).

Spyderco Endura 4 Full Flat Grind (top), Benchmade Griptillian (bottom).

  • Spyderco Endura 4 Full Flat Grind. If you're looking for a modern-styled folder for canoe tripping, this beauty is a good choice. So light and thin, you won't even notice it clipped in your pocket, and with just a flick of your thumb, you have access to a beautiful slicing blade that passes Cliff Jacobson's "will it reach the bottom of the peanut butter jar" test. The downside is that since the Spyderco Endura 4 is so skinny, this knife almost feels 2D and doesn't fill my hand, so it wouldn't be my first choice for extended carving.

    The Benchmade Griptillian is a pretty awesome folder, however, it's not nearly the slicer the flat ground Endura is, and while the handle is fuller, it works like a cheese grater against my knuckles every time I reach in my pocket, so it's not currently ranking as well as the Spyderco. It does seem to be a more robust folder though, and you could always remove the clip and carry it in your pocket or a sheath.

For the True Northern Bushman!

  • Crooked Knife. The ultimate in fun and function, I'll be taking my crooked knife into the wilds of Canada this year. This is the tool the natives used to make their birchbark canoes, snowshoes, toboggans, and other daily living items. My skill level is basic, so don't expect me to come paddling my way out of Canada in a freshly-carved birchbark canoe, but I can make wicked shavings for the fire and have fun with some basic bushcraft. I wish I’d had my crooked knife with me on the Kopka River a few years ago. A canoe wrapped around a rock in the rapids on the first day of this fly-in trip. The result was a cracked canoe thwart and a cracked bone in the foot of our leader. I used my Norlund hatchet, Bahco folding saw, and Mora knife (as a drawknife, just as Rutstrum described) to craft some makeshift crutches and was working on ripping out a piece of wood to lash on and buddy splint the broken thwart, but I ran out of time. The crooked knife would’ve made both tasks much easier and faster. 
Crooked knife (right), awesome book (above)

Crooked knife (right), awesome book (above)

The Leatherman Wave 300 multi-tool, Mora fixed-blade knife, and Forschner boning knife form the begining of a great, economical, tool set for canoe camping. What are you carrying when paddling out into the wilderness?