Knives are amazingly versatile, they can be extremely useful in dozens of situations. Admittingly, though, sometimes we can go on a camping trip without ever using one! So do we always need to bring a knife for camping? What about those multi-tool knives?
This is a list of 17 uses where a knife is very desirable, as well as some uses for multi-tools also. I’ll throw in a few possible reasons why you may not need or want a camping knife to be fair.
So why do I need a camping knife? Most uses for a knife involve the sharp end of the knife, but some uses are due to the fact that a knife is a piece of steel. A list of some of the most critical uses are the following:
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- Primitive Fire Creation
- Tinder and Kindling
- Flint and Steel
- Meat & Vegetables
- Cleaning Fish
- Fishing Line
- Gutting Game
- Reflective Signal
- For When You Need a Screwdriver
- Dislodging a Hook
- Can Opener
- Cool Factor
17 Reasons Why You Need a Camping Knife
To be clear, you can start a fire without a knife, provided you have all the necessary equipment and fuel sizes. Starting a fire is 100% about having correctly sized tinder, kindling, and fuel. If your logs and sticks are too big to start with, it can be very difficult or even impossible to start a fire. In summary, you need 2 things to start a fire.
- A method of igniting the fire
- Correctly-sized Fuel
This means, if you have a box of dry matches, and you are able to scrounge up tiny twigs, or pine needles, or if you bring your own fire starters, then you can ignite a fire without a knife. If you’re car camping, the bundle of firewood you get from the store might have all you need if you’re lucky.
Starting a fire without matches is very difficult, and it’s almost impossible without a knife. The next few uses are about making fires without one of the two things listed above.
1. Primitive Fire Creation
There are several designs for starting a fire without matches, and many of them involve friction. A knife makes things much simpler for creating tools such as a bow drill, a fire plow, or even a stick you spin with your hands that creates friction on another piece of wood. Carving off the bark of your fire ignition tools will save your hands from rough bark as you are going to be using friction to start a fire.
Angle is also important. Using a knife, you can sharpen your sticks for rubbing into an indentation allowing for more surface area, which means more friction. Also, where is that indentation going to come from? A knife is extremely helpful for all parts of primitive fire creation.
2. Tinder and Kindling
Even if you have matches or a lighter, sometimes tinder and kindling are hard to come by. Again, if you don’t have tinder or kindling (tiny to small pieces of wood), starting a fire can be almost impossible. Many times you can collect twigs or use toilet paper, or some other substance that catches fire very easily, but you can also create tinder by using your knife to create shavings from larger pieces of wood.
Kindling are larger twigs that will burn for a few minutes rather than a few seconds, and kindling is more difficult to make with a knife. You can feasibly create enough tinder to make up for not enough kindling by carving tons of wood shavings, but in reality, a hatchet or an ax makes this job much easier.
On the bright side, you won’t always find great tinder, but usually in nature you will be able to find kindling, although sometimes you have to hunt around the bases of trees under some undergrowth to find kindling that isn’t wet if it has been raining.
3. Flint and Steel
Using very hard rocks such as flint combined with a strong glancing blow from your trusty knife, you can create sparks. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, but with good tinder, it’s probably 5037x easier than starting a fire with just wood and friction.
There are many survival fire striking kits out there. Some of them have magnesium on one side which you can scrape off with your knife. These kits are made for using sparks to ignite the magnesium. Magnesium burns hot, and burns fast, and is an excellent fire starter in combination with other tinder that burns more slowly.
On the other side of a fire strike kit is often a rod made of ferrocerium, which you then scrape with your knife to create a massive amount of sparks to ignite the magnesium. This is not as easy as it sounds, but probably 453x easier than starting a fire with flint and steel. (like my scientific easiness rating system? *wink wink*)
Typically, we arrive at our campsites with tents, tarps, hammocks, and sleeping bags. We essentially bring our shelter with us. If you have your shelter already, then a knife becomes an accessory rather than essential for creating a shelter.
If you don’t have your shelter with you, or you want to take a crack at creating your own shelter, then you will want your knife.
A knife can be used to whittle away at branches, and can be used for cutting vines, which can be bound tightly together to create a base for your shelter. This is not an easy task even if your knife has a saw. But, you’ll probably be the coolest person your friends know if you manage to pull off a decent shelter.
Rope is one of those basic things we take for granted, but it is truly marvelous in how useful it is.
In a survival situation, lashing ropes to make a raft or a shelter, a knife is pivotal to getting your ropes to be a proper length.
Even if you aren’t in a survival situation, if you’re rigging up a tarp or a hammock, sometimes your 150 feet of para-cord is unwieldy at best, and just needs to be trimmed down to more useful lengths. A knife works much better than your teeth in these scenarios.
So, we talked about how a knife is helpful in survival situations, but their uses extend much further. Let’s talk about cooking.
6. Meat & Vegetables
When you’re camping, sometimes you burn the steak. You just have to forgive the cook because it’s hard to control the temperature of an open fire, and it happens. A knife can be a useful to tool to make that extremely tough meat easier to chew.
In all seriousness, though. Having a good knife for cutting your vegetables and for general food prep is much more convenient than trying to cook those vegetables whole.
If you’re not in a survival situation, then the most common use cases for knives are for hunting. In reality, you can’t live without a knife if you’re fishing or hunting.
7. Cleaning Fish
It’s the job that nobody wants to do (or at least I always tried to get out of it as a kid), but that needs to be done. Cleaning your fish requires a good knife. Cleaning a fish with a dull or unwieldy blade is dangerous (almost everything is dangerous with a dull or unwieldy blade), and not very easy, besides.
I’m sure if you didn’t have your knife and you’ve caught a fish… and you’re super hungry, you can just take a bite out of the fish without cleaning it. But, really, you need a knife for cleaning fish.
Most knives are very versatile and you can use them for lots of scenarios, but if you want to filet your fish, a filet knife’s shape and razor sharpness make this much easier to do.
8. Fishing Line
So, if you need to cut your line for any reason, a knife is a nice to have. I say that because my dad would just use his teeth if he needed to cut his line. Because of my childhood friendship with a son of a dentist, I can’t really recommend that method, but I will just say that your teeth do work. Otherwise, a knife makes this much easier on your mouth.
9. Gutting Game
Hunters rely on specialty knives (such as knives with gut hooks) for gutting their game. Animals, especially big game, can very heavy, and sometimes hunters will have hiked for miles to be able to find their prey--therefore, hunters will clean their game on location so as to take as much weight off as possible.
A quick safety note.
Using a knife, especially with significant force is very dangerous. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine released a study in 2007 showing that cuts (usually from a knife while field dressing) were the most common reason hunters visited the hospital for trauma.
If you find yourself using a lot of force on a knife for any reason, be extremely careful and take your time.
Besides the shelter section above, there are a couple other helpful ways that knives aid survival.
10. Reflective Signal
SOS, the worldwide signal for help: dit dit dit, dah dah dah, dit dit dit. Three short pulses with little gap in between, three longer pulses with longer gap in between, and finally three more short pulses with a little gap in between.
A knife is typically made of a reflective metal that can be used to signal for help. This method relies on line of sight, and of course, the sun, and also that your knife is big and shiny enough to make this communication.
Although I do not personally carry a knife for this purpose, this is a reason why many people carry knives while trekking or camping.
I want to mention that knives are not always the best self-defense, as they can be just as dangerous to the person wielding the knife. Make sure you do not rely on a knife as self-defense if you have no training or experience.
My dad carried around a Leatherman multi-tool knife for most of my remembered childhood. He eventually switched to a Gerber and I got to inherit his Leatherman. These tools are amazingly versatile. Swiss Army Knives are another type of multi-tool knives that most people are familiar with.
What types of tools come with these multi-tool knives?
- Straight-edge blade
- Serrated blade
- Miniature Saw
- Flathead and Phillips Screwdrivers
- Bottle/Can Opener
- Miniature Scissors
- Various flat metal bars that I’ve used for probably too many things. Great for prying out things.
Not all of these tools are going to be used all the time, but you’ll always love your multi-tool a little more every time it saves the day.
12. For When You Need a Screwdriver
This admittingly doesn’t happen all that often while camping. Occasionally you will have a gadget that has its batteries locked in place with a plate that requires a Phillips screwdriver. This is very shortsighted in design, but your multi-tool can easily come to the rescue.
13. Dislodging a Hook
Sometimes when catching fish, your fish may unfortunately swallow your hook. This is usually an acceptable loss if it’s just a treble hook with some marshmallow bait, but occasionally it’s your favorite lure. A pair of pliers can be very helpful in allowing you to keep fishing.
If you are catching and releasing, you have to be careful doing this, as sometimes this trauma can end the fish’s chances of survival.
However, I’ve found even if the fish did not swallow your hook and it’s simply in its lip, that pliers makes the job cleaner, less traumatic for the fish, and less likely you cut your hands on the fishes sharp teeth.
14. Can Opener
When car camping, canned food is amazing since it doesn’t need to be refrigerated. What if you forget your actual can opener? (see our post here about keeping a camping kitchen box to make sure you bring all your kitchen stuff next time)
A multi-tool knife has a can opener that is less than ideal for opening cans, to be honest, but still is much better than trying to use a rock to open your canned food.
My Leatherman multi-tool knife has a saw. You might think that for a tool that’s 5 inches long that a saw that size could not be very useful. You’d be surprised. This saw is adequate for sawing pieces of wood 5 inches in diameter.
Because the saw is so short, you do have to use a bit more muscle, but don’t underestimate a saw on a multi-tool knife for their usefulness and strength.
So, even if after all of those reasons you don’t think you need a knife, there’s still one more factor we haven’t talked about, and that’s fun.
There are some fun things you can do with knives, but knives are only fun if you are safe. Take a glance at the requirements for the Boy Scouts of America’s Whittling Chip.
Even if the requirements seem directed towards younger kids, the principles are sound. One example in the guide is to “always cut away from you.” This is an easy thing to skip for convenience, but it can save you from a nasty cut.
16. Cool Factor
Maybe I’m revealing too much about myself, but it’s just cool to have a knife! Even if you never unfold your knife in your entire trip, it still makes you feel cool--kind of like sunglasses.
Whittling is the process of shaving off bits of wood from a stick to form a desired shape. Some people whittle sharper sticks, which can be used for starting fires or even for creating shelters. Click here for an example of some fun whittling projects of varying difficulty.
3 Reasons Why You Do Not Need a Camping Knife
So, that was a lot of reasons! There’s many more--a knife is staple to many people’s camping kits. I wanted to represent a few reasons why you may not need a knife since there are some legitimate reasons.
Ultralight backpackers travel long distances, and many of them decide to ditch heavier knives, including multi-tool knives in favor of a simple pocketknife.
Even though this particular backpacker opted to not carry a bigger knife or a multi-tool knife, she does still insist on a pocketknife for food and various other tasks.
From the reasons I listed above, you saw that many of the reasons above are for building shelters, food prep, rope, or hunting. If you are car camping, then you are likely using a tent or a hammock, and you probably don’t need to cut any additional rope or add on to your shelter. If you are in danger, then you can simply go to your car and drive away.
A simple paring knife from your kitchen can fulfill all your cooking needs in that case, and there’s no reason to buy a special knife for camping.
If you aren’t comfortable with larger knives, then you should definitely not feel compelled to use one. If you’d like to get better at using a knife safely, then look at the Boy Scouts of America’s Whittling Chip guidelines.
That’s it! 17 uses for a knife, and 3 reasons why you could skip using one. Always be safe when using a knife!