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If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: A pocket knife is an essential survival tool when you’re in the backcountry. But that’s not the only reason, or even the best reason, to carry a knife when you’re hiking. From cutting food to sharpening stakes to opening resupply packages, having a pocket knife on hand is just, well, handy. Ultralighters may be hesitant to carry another piece of equipment that weighs them down, but there are plenty of featherweight options on the market. Here are 4 of our favorite pocket knives and multitools that you can buy right now. —The Editors
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Lightest Pocket Knife: SOG Ultra XR
Weight: 1.2 oz.
The Ultra XR is one of the slimmest and most compact knives we’ve ever used. SOG upgraded the original version with a higher-quality stainless steel that prolongs the 2.8-inch blade’s edge without sharpening and resists chipping and corrosion. During six months of use, which included cutting kindling, food prep, and box opening, the Ultra XR never dulled and proved adept at detailed work. An XR lock (SOG’s proprietary mechanism) allows single-handed opening, and doesn’t budge under up to 1,500 pounds of pressure (so claims the product manual; we leaned hard on it without feeling it flex). The carbon-fiber handle is thin (6.5 millimeters) but provides a comfortable grip, and the pocket clip doubles as a credit card and cash holder. Buy Now
Most Compact Pocket Knife Multitool: Leatherman FREE K4/K4X
Weight: 5.5 oz.
Most multitools are bulky enough that they end up in your pack rather than your pocket, and are thus harder to deploy when needed. But the FREE K4 is the length of a Snickers bar and slim, so it can stash neatly in the front pocket of your hiking pants (the attached clip helps as well). A 3.3-inch, stainless-steel blade (straight in the K4, serrated in the K4X) is sharp and durable: “It cut through dry, stringy cabbage palm when my bigger blade couldn’t,” one tester said after working trail maintenance in northern California. In addition to the knife, the FREE K4’s handle contains three screwdrivers, a bottle opener, an awl, a package opener, a pry tool, and spring-action scissors. They all open one-handed and stay put when deployed thanks to a magnetic lock, which was crucial for pulling out rusty screws with the Philips screwdriver while we replaced old trail signs in Mt. Tamalpais State Park. “The tools did not wiggle one bit, even after repeated opening and closing over six months,” our tester says. Buy Now
Best Value Multitool: Gerber Suspension-NXT
Weight: 6.7 oz.
Buying a full-featured multitool typically means shelling out about $100. Not the Suspension-NXT: At $37, this is the most affordable one we’ve used that also has a robust toolset and a secure locking mechanism. Our tester carried the Suspension-NXT for a week on the Appalachian Trail and says it never failed him, even when he pushed it beyond normal use. “I attached my bear hang rope to the lanyard hole in the tool to throw it up and over a branch, and after hitting the ground with some force, I was surprised it was in one piece,” he says. He also praised the coarseness of the file for paring down a piece of plastic that was sticking out of his boot, and the beefy spring-loaded pliers and scissors that came in handy for restringing a tent pole. Ding: The tools are a bit difficult to open one-handed. Buy Now
Bargain Fixed-Blade Pocket Knife: Morakniv Eldris LightDuty (S)
Weight: 5 oz.
Our tester had doubts when he unboxed this diminutive knife, but by the end of the testing cycle he was singing its praises. The Eldris LightDuty’s 2.3-inch blade is constructed of Swedish stainless steel and proved ideal for carving tinder from hardwood in Virginia’s Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. Our tester found that the blade’s spine is thick enough to spark a ferro rod (not included), a rare quality in a knife this size. A rubber handle coating gripped well in his hand as he gutted rainbow trout in the Linville Gorge Wilderness, North Carolina, and the knife rinses and wipes off easily; it shows no signs of rust after four-plus months. Bonus: We don’t often highlight sheaths, but we have to give props to the polymer one included with the Eldris LightDuty; its smooth draw action makes the knife exceedingly easy to access, and it holds tight the rest of the time. Buy Now
Choosing the Best Pocket Knife for You
It’s easy to get hung up reading about blade shapes, tangs, and steel types when you’re buying a knife. Most backpackers will be fine sticking to the basics. First, do you need a multitool or just a blade? If you want to be able to repair gear in the backcountry or you’re heading out on a more gear-intensive adventure like backcountry skiing or bikepacking, you might consider bringing a multitool with a screwdriver set, and possible a pliers. If you only need a blade for opening things and emergencies, go for a folding knife. You probably need less blade than you think: A 2- to 2.5-inch blade will be enough for almost anything except for processing firewood.
Published March 2021; updated October 2021