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Since 2014, we've purchased and tested over 40 of the best folding knives side by side, with 18 knives in our updated review lineup. Our experts test each knife while exploring backcountry terrain throughout the United States, preparing food, camping, hunting, mountain climbing, and more. In addition to field tests, we compare key characteristics that help us evaluate five metrics, such as blade integrity and portability, which we use to assign a score to each product. Using an objective approach, we have identified top performers, award winners, and products that simply don't make the cut.
Like a high-quality backpack or tent, a knife is an essential for any complete backpacking kit. If you're looking for a little extra function and versatility for your next hunting or camping adventure, our gear experts have also bought and tested the best multi-tools on the market.
Editor's Note: We updated this overview and the individual gear reviews for Pocket Knives on August 25, 2022, with additional information on our in-depth testing process, an unbiased assessment of value versus performance, and a section that highlights products we would recommend to a friend (that includes you!)
Blade-closed lock mechanism requires a learning curve
Built for precision with a design that has helped it maintain its top status for years, the Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585 has a blade that arrives razor-sharp, and its LifeSharp sharpening service sweetens the deal even further. If you cover shipping costs, Benchmade will return the edge to factory specifications throughout the life of the knife. The handle fits in the palm well and tucks easily into a pants pocket. Pocket clip carry is modular; you can wear it on either side. An assisted opening system, deployable by either hand, reliably pulls the blade to ready status. One can safely lock the blade in the closed position while carrying it in a pocket or purse.
The Mini-Barrage 585 is pricey, but you will undoubtedly realize its value over a long lifespan, especially with Benchmade's LifeSharp service. However, the initial investment may be too much if you are someone who easily misplaces items like this. Also, its slightly down-sized stature will be noticeable for heavy tasks and frequent usage. It is better than our other top award winner but is still a little more compact than ideal for super-extended use. Any bigger knife will likely be too heavy to carry daily and everywhere. As long as you aren't using it for hours and hours a day and as long as you can keep track of it long enough to realize the investment, the Mini-Barrage earns our strongest endorsement. This is the knife we recommend most for everyday carry.
The Benchmade 535 Bugout is the best knife we know of for self-propelled outdoor adventures. Long-time top manufacturer Benchmade made this knife precisely for this environment. The Bugout is lightweight and low profile while holding a good quality full-size blade. It opens, closes, and locks with predictably smooth and reliable Benchmade design and hardware.
The low weight comes with a few minor concessions. The handle is a little flexy; it is entirely plastic for most of its length. You won't find great confidence in this tool for regular, intense use. At the same time, you likely won't encounter extended, super intense use in your day-to-day life or outdoor adventures. This low-profile, lighter-weight handle feels a bit small in hand for extended use. If you know you'll use your knife extensively in your day-to-day, we will point you towards the Mini-Barrage. But if you want the best quality knife adapted for outdoor applications in your backcountry kit, we recommend the Bugout, hands down.
The handle doesn't allow a significant transfer of pressure to the blade
The thinner blade is fragile
At roughly half the price of other high-end knives, the Kershaw Leek packs a pedigreed blade into a compact, assisted-opening tool. The blade is made of high-grade steel and comes sharp from the factory. Like the Mini-Barrage's assisted opening, the Leek can be opened with either thumb and can be locked closed. Kershaw has also engineered a tab on the blade's rear that allows you to deploy the blade with your index finger. The blade and handle hold up well for handy carry and light to moderate use.
The narrow handle profile is the primary compromise with the Leek. Compared to the Mini-Barrage, the Leek is similar in many dimensions, but both the blade and the handle are thinner. Some users will appreciate the lower profile for carrying, though edge and handle thinness requires tradeoffs. The thin blade is excellent for soft and light cutting but can deform in heavy use. We had this happen early in testing. The slim handle doesn't comfortably support heavy pushing. Still, this is a beautiful and functional knife; quality steel at a steal.
The Sanrenmu 7010 is a great, affordable everyday knife. The construction quality is tight, and the blade is made from excellent value 8CR13MoV steel. Virtually all of the high-scoring models we've tested for less than fifty dollars use this steel because it works well. Some knives well over that price threshold use the same steel. The locking mechanism is sound, and the one-handed opening function works from either side. If the pocket clip orientation works for you (right pocket, tip down), the stiff steel clip and deep carry are just right.
Unfortunately, the Sanrenmu 7010 isn't customizable if that pocket clip orientation doesn't work. You get it this way and this way only. The whole package is just a little smaller than some of our favorite knives, and ergonomics suffer slightly. For the size, lack of assisted opening, and limited modularity, 3.2 ounces is pretty hefty. These minor drawbacks are hardly enough to steer us away from this super affordable yet reliable quality pocket knife. The price almost takes all decision-making out of the equation.
The Petzl Spatha is a unique offering in our test lineup. Most of our tested knives are made by traditional knife makers. Petzl is better known as a climbing company. Their knife, though, is great. It has surprisingly good steel, like a knife from a dedicated knife company. On the other hand, Petzl isn't bound by convention or tradition in other design matters. They built this thing specifically for climbing. We like the serrated portion of the blade for cutting rope and webbing but don't like the difficulty of sharpening serrations.
The hinge of the Spatha is unique. It is a huge diameter with a big hole in the middle for carabiner attachment. That hole is lined with a ridge-textured ring that you can use with gloves on to deploy the blade. This is cool. On the flip side, the huge hinge holds the blade closed with just friction. While our testing has shown no issues, we fear the friction could degrade with time, allowing the blade to open inadvertently. Finally, the primitive "lockback" blade lock makes sense but is a little outdated and prone to degradation. If you're looking for a purpose-built climbing knife to keep on your harness that you'll likely use for more than just cutting rope and cordage, this model is a fantastic find.
Significantly more compact than your car's key fob, the Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army is discreet and ready for action. When needed, the small blade rises to most occasions. Our lead tester's first pocket knife 30 odd years ago was a Victorinox Classic. His whittling, prying, and poking never bent or broke the blade. Adults love the Classic for its grooming tools and compactness. The scissors appear toy-like but can cut things as stout as rock climbing webbing. For light tasks like paper or fingernails, the scissors excel.
While we never had issues with the Classic SD's durability, it is not as robust as the more substantial and heavier knives we test. Similarly, the tiny blade is a few definite steps down from something like the full-sized knives. If this is okay with you, and you have room on your keychain for another little piece of equipment, the Victorinox Classic SD will find daily use in your world.
Hunters need a darn good reason not to use the Havalon Piranta Original for field dressing and home skinning. Processing of any but the smallest of wild game will dull any blade at least once partway through the process. You can, and many do, forge on, working with a duller blade. Or you can carry multiple sharpened knives. Or you can bring a full sharpening kit. Or, much simpler than all the above, you can carry a Piranta and a few extra blades. This knife comes with 12 spare blades, and more are available as accessory purchases.
There isn't anything like a well-done factory-honed blade edge. You won't match the edge on a fresh blade no matter how good you are with your home sharpening system. You certainly won't get a narrow blade repolished to a narrow edge angle. With the Piranta's scalpel-style interchangeable blades, you can have an edge way finer than any reusable blade and swap it in much easier than any sort of effective resharpening. It's this simple; the interchangeable blades of the Piranta change the game of dressing game.
Aside from testing gear, Senior Review Editor Jediah Porter's main thing is guiding skiing and climbing in the mountains as a certified American Mountain Guide. Outside of climbing and guiding, he can be found mountain biking, canoeing, hunting, fishing, and trail running. Jed calls Wydaho's Tetons home but frequents Alaska and South America for larger mountain objectives. Jed has been testing pocket knives (and related multi-tools) for five years now and has hands-on testing experience with over 40 knives.
Our in-depth testing process of space heaters breaks down into five rating metrics:
Blade and Edge Integrity (30% of overall score rating)
Ergonomics (20% of overall score)
Portability (20% of overall score)
Construction Quality (20% of overall score)
Other Features (10% of overall score)
We combed through the marketplace and considered well over one hundred models before selecting 18 of the best pocket knives for side-by-side testing. Each year we reassess the market and select new options to add and some to omit. We tested with a combination of controlled tests and daily use – each model undergoes 21 individual tests across all five metrics. Daily use ranged from routine tasks like simple food preparation and opening packages to more specialized applications like home improvements and automotive repairs. Controlled tests included cutting materials like rope and webbing, whittling, and even boring holes with the blade's tip. In the end, we conducted more than 350 individual tests to help you find the perfect knife to match your needs and budget.
Analysis and Test Results
The pocket knife landscape is incredibly broad and deep. There are knives with single-digit prices; if you wish, you could spend five digits and more on a collectible-grade knife. We focus on the huge middle of this range. We omit unbranded, "knock-off" knives from convenience stores, souvenir shops, promotional retailers, and the deeper corners of internet retail. At the other end of the spectrum, we omit connoisseur and collector products from boutique direct sellers and custom makers.
Our test lineup includes knives that fold for easy carry, have blades between 1 and 4 inches in length, are commonly available at various retail outlets, and are optimized for daily or outdoor carry. We put a slight focus on human-powered outdoor adventure pursuits. We also comment extensively on a knife's utility in day-to-day life.
Price and quality can vary, even within this range of products. Your purchase price, generally, should correlate with how much you plan on using your knife. If you use it hours a day for decades, spending more will get you better steel material for the blade and hinges. You'll also get locking mechanisms that last longer and carry options that blend seamlessly with your life. Less expensive options will probably be a better value for more occasional use or those prone to misplacing smaller possessions.
The best values will appear at various price points and functions and hinge on your intended use and budget. The Kershaw Leek is pretty spendy to most, but it comes with materials, ergonomics, and functionality well above its price range, competing with higher-end products. The Sanrenmu 7010, though priced like a convenience store impulse buy, has adequate enough quality to earn a spot in our main list. It's much better than what you'd find in a checkout line next to the Skittles. Other good deals in our test selection include the featherweight Gerber Ultralight LST and the lifelong interchangeable blade of the Havalon Piranta. Even the higher initial investment of the top-performing knives listed here would become a good value over decades of use and with periodic and affordable factory maintenance.
Blade and Edge Integrity (Sharpness, More or Less)
There isn't a consumer choice more perplexing than the sharpness of a knife. You might just want to know, "is this knife sharp?" Unfortunately, it isn't that easy. Sharpness, at any point, is a function of the raw materials, material treatment, knife geometry, and blade maintenance. These things balance to deliver actual performance and sharpness.
First of all, you must re-sharpen every knife after some amount of regular use. Different materials and designs will hold a sharp edge longer, but all will eventually need some TLC. There are professional knife sharpening services and many commercially available sharpening kits for home use. Additionally, the manufacturer of Benchmade Mini-Barrage 585, the Benchmade Bugout, and a whole line of other knives will sharpen these knives for the life of the product for a small handling fee each time.
The process of designing a blade starts with the raw material. All of our reviewed knives have blades made of some variety of steel. Steel is a metal made mainly of iron. The iron is mixed ("alloyed") with small amounts of carbon and often other elements, with endless possible variations. Steel for a knife must be hard enough to resist the abrasion and deflection of the material it is cutting. However, it must also be soft enough to deflect (rather than break or crack) at least slightly in the face of significant forces and to respond to commonly available sharpening methods. Too hard, and the brittle steel would be nearly impossible to sharpen. Too soft, and the steel will lose its edge rapidly. It must resist corrosion in the face of a wide array of commonly encountered substances, and water alone is a common corrosive agent that must be protected against.
The decent knife steel is inexpensive enough that all branded knives (but not truck stop or flea market knives) are made with good enough metal. Most manufacturers of high-quality knives advertise the type of steel they use. It is a general assumption, but we've found that it is pretty safe to say that if the manufacturer is willing to tell you what the blade steel is, that steel will suffice. The opposite is often true, too; if the actual materials aren't listed, it is probably really, really poor stuff. The steel hardening method is just as important as the raw material. Once a manufacturer chooses the steel for a knife, it is shaped and then hardened in some variation of a heating-and-cooling process.
Various types of hardening result in different characteristics. The steel's edge-holding qualities are well established after hardening — provided the blade isn't exposed to enough heat to reverse (or even further) the hardening process. We especially like budget knives produced by companies that also make high-end knives. A company like this might downgrade the steel to hit a price point, but it doesn't make sense to tool up an independent heat treatment infrastructure.
Once a blade is shaped and hardened, the cutting-edge receives its final grind and can be tuned for optimum performance for different tasks. The blade of the hybrid tactical Kershaw Blur Glassbreaker is also sharpened to a steeper angle. On the other hand, the Victorinox Classic SD's tiny blade starts thin and is sharpened thinner, making for a very sharp yet fragile edge. The CRKT Drifter, Opinel No. 8, Benchmade Bugout, and Petzl Spatha are similarly slender. Modern knives like the Sanrenmu 7010, Spyderco Tenacious G-10, Ontario Knife Company RAT II, and the Benchmade Mini-Barrage have blade geometry that splits the difference between the above extremes. This middle-of-the-road blade geometry is, predictably, versatile and functional. The procedures, facets, and angles used to finish an edge further influence the blade's initial sharpness and edge-holding ability.
The Havalon Piranta Original's interchangeable blade is the thinnest – with the lowest edge angle – of any knife we test here. They can do this because it doesn't need to be resharpened at home, and if it breaks in use, you can just slide on a new one.
As with steel hardness, there is no single perfect edge finish. Too narrow of an angle, and the blade's leading edge is too thin to resist deflection and dulling, while too steep of an angle on that leading edge doesn't feel nearly as sharp in actual use. Rest assured that knife manufacturers have this largely figured out. Follow their instructions for proper care, and your knife should serve you for years and years. You probably don't need this review if you know edge angles better than the knife manufacturer.
In summary, knife sharpness is a function of a wide array of variables. A user's long-term experience with the pocket knife depends as much on its maintenance as it does on the materials and initial manufacturing. The pocket knives we tested demonstrate more-than-adequate edge integrity and sharpness, as the manufacturer has balanced numerous conflicting criteria at every step in the process.
All the knives we tested have some type of drop-point or clip point shaped blades; these two are the most versatile blade shapes, similar but subtly different. Also, note that many blades in our test and elsewhere can be straight or serrated. Serrated blades cut tough materials more efficiently, especially rope and webbing, while straight blades are easier to sharpen. The GearLab team generally prefers straight blades. Hybrid blades, partially straight and partially serrated, can address various needs or be the worst of all worlds. The one setting in which we approve of serrated blades or hybrid blades is for climbing use. The Petzl Spatha has a hybrid blade, which we appreciate on that tool. Use and sharpen the straight portion regularly and save the serrated portion for tougher tasks like cutting carpet or rope. There are many common blade shapes. Some are utterly more general, and some are quite specific.
Regardless of the blade shape or sharpness, heavy cutting requires a sturdy handle that doesn't pinch or pressure the user's hand. In many ways, portability and ergonomics are direct competitors. The most ergonomic knife has an elongated rounded-profile handle that fills a loosely clenched fist, while the most portable knife is the smallest and thinnest. Our scoring reflects that tradeoff. The most user-friendly knives were the least portable, and vice versa. It is up to you to evaluate your needs and choose a blade that strikes the balance you seek. The tool needs to be easy to open and smooth to deploy and stow. The locking mechanisms should be intuitive and straightforward, and one-handed blade deployment is best.
So-called "assisted opening knives" are even easier to use. In most cases, we prefer the assisted opening blades of knives like the Mini-Barrage and two Kershaw products, among others. Backcountry use might be the one exception to our preference for assisted-opening function. More accurately, we recommend that if you intend to carry your knife extensively somewhere other than clipped to your pants pocket, steer clear of assisted opening function. An assisted opening knife is more likely to come open inadvertently in any setting – unless you deploy its lock-closed function, but doing so, of course, negates any of the convenience of assisted opening. Clipped to the edge of your pants pocket, the likelihood of an accidental opening is very low. In that very common carry mode, we can't think of a reason not to choose an assisted opening knife. If, on the other hand, it will float around extensively in a backpack, assisted opening function is more of a liability than it is worth.
The assisted opening function requires at least a bit of a learning curve. For instance, deploying an assisted opening blade is best done with one hand. Opening one with one hand is easier than opening the same knife with two hands. Further, some prefer that their assisted opening knife be equipped with a locking mechanism. Most have this, but not all. The only assisted opening knife we tested that doesn't lock closed is the Kershaw Blur.
Local Laws & Regulations
Note that assisted opening is a knife qualifier that frequently appears in local knife regulations. Some of the knives we have reviewed are illegal to carry or possess in some jurisdictions. Check state-by-state laws on knife possession and carriage.
The clip is ideally oriented for pocket-clipped knives so that the tool can be pulled from the pocket and thumbed open without regripping. This tip-up carry is the fastest to deploy. Tested Benchmade and Zero Tolerance knives are made this way and can be arranged to work that way in either the left or right pocket. Why other manufacturers do not employ this simple strategy is mystifying. The only reasonable argument against tip-up pocket carry is that the blade can be more likely to fall open in your pocket with gravity. An open or, worse yet, partially open knife in your pocket is terrifying but unlikely. We have never, ever, had this happen. The Spyderco Tenacious G-10, Spyderco Delica 4, and Ontario Knife Company RAT II all have a pocket clip that can be manipulated to hang in your pocket in one of four different configurations: tip-up or down and left or right thumb activation. This attribute alone can favor a Spyderco or Ontario Knife Company for those unclear about how they wish to carry their blade or can't find a knife to match their preference.
The Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army has multiple tools. While you can't open any of the features with one hand, you should be able to engage them with even the most closely trimmed fingernails. The Opinel No. 8 also opens with a fingernail slot. The Gerber Fine Edge LST opens by just pinching the blade between your fingers. In slippery conditions, a fingernail slot would improve this knife. All other knives have some form of one-handed opening.
One-handed opening options include a thumb stud, thumb hole, and index finger pull. All have their pros and cons. Thumb stud is the easiest to work with but adds bulk and protrusions that can snag. Also, two thumb studs need to be affixed to the blade for ambidexterity. A thumbhole, as on the Delica 4 and Petzl Spatha, is inherently ambidextrous and removes material and weight from the blade. It is just a little less ergonomic to deploy. The Petzl Spatha opens with an ambidextrous thumbhole or a unique ribbed ring inside the hinge, with gloved or bare hands. The Leatherman Skeletool KB is the only knife we have tested that has a one-handed opening but is not ambidextrous. Its thumb hole is only accessible from one side. Right-handers will have no problem with it. Lefties will have to adjust. Finally, finger flick opening is unique, inherently ambidextrous, and a little less intuitive than the others. Find a finger-flick opening on the Zero Tolerance 0450CF and as an option on the Kershaw Leek.
The Opinel No. 8 has unique ergonomics. The wooden handle, nearly perfectly round, feels nice in hand and is more than adequate for light-duty tasks like cutting food. A more oval-shaped handle profile, like that of the Benchmade 15031-2 North Fork, is preferred for more substantial use, like extended whittling or cutting of rope and webbing.
The diminutive James Brand Chapter has a simple design that opens with one hand. The user's thumb is a little vulnerable to cutting on the blade while opening due to a slightly sticky blade and the overall dimensions. Users learned to deal with this concern, but our test team had some trouble while riding the learning curve.
With a somewhat outdated shape, the Spyderco Delica 4 is a long-time player on the market. The handle is narrower than ideal, while the wide blade sticks out and takes up pocket space. The wide blade accommodates the thumbhole, which assists in opening the blade. While this is a convenient and ergonomically friendly way to open the knife, it feels more substantial than necessary in our pockets.
A pocket knife is only as good as it is handy. Will it be there for you when you need it? You will probably leave a knife that is too bulky or heavy at home from time to time. Small knives floating around in a glove box or crowded jeans pocket will be too time-consuming to dig out. The most portable knives in our test were either relatively small and equipped to hang on a keychain easily or had a low profile and a tight pocket clip that was, or could be, configured in the user's ideal arrangement.
The Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army Knife and Gerber Ultralight LST are the most portable knives we have tested by far. Both are awarded for their tiny stature and weigh under a single ounce. The Spyderco Tenacious is bulky and cumbersome in comparison. However, bulk and weight can be justified by some in these cases for their function and versatility.
With both large and small knives in the review, the middle of the line Benchmade Mini-Barrage is our overall favorite. For most users, the size is manageable while still being functional. The Sanrenmu 7010 is just a tiny bit smaller than the Kershaw Leek. Both of these are pretty close in size to the Benchmade. The Benchmade Bugout has a blade similar in size to that of these mid-sized options but is much lighter than them all.
Also on the smaller end of the spectrum is the Opinel No. 8. It is similar in overall volume to the Kershaw Leek but differs in shape. Both are easy in the pocket, but the Leek is longer and thinner, while the Opinel No. 8 is super lightweight. Both have very thin blades. The Leatherman Skeletool KB is relatively small. Further, its handle is disproportionately small compared to its blade.
The manufacturing quality of everything but the blade varied far more than the blade's quality in the models we tested. Our evaluation of these knives' construction quality was mainly subjective but equally applied across the board. Does it feel sturdy and confidence-inspiring? When this assessment came up short for a given pocket knife, it inevitably followed that some aspect of the knife's mechanical function would act finicky.
Handle, hinges and locking mechanisms revealed the attention paid to detail. Sturdy parts and materials, tight design, close manufacturing tolerances, and carefully thought-out construction stood out immediately and only increased how much we noticed as time and usage wore on. Overall, construction quality was adequate, with no outright failures or breakages during testing.
Locking mechanisms are the best window to construction quality. Well-made knives like the Kershaw Leek open and close smoothly every time. Some less expensive options cut just fine, but the locking mechanism can be difficult to disengage. The Sanrenmu 7010 feels like it is made to much more expensive standards than its price indicates.
It is generally more difficult to optimize construction quality with a small knife. The miniaturized components don't leave much room for error. A testament to our high selection standards, the small knives we test are better than average for their size. The Gerber Ultralight LST is fantastic, partially because of its tiny stature. Also relatively small, the Victorinox Classic SD seems to escape some of the other small knives' issues — all its components work well and smoothly. None of the features on the Classic lock, which likely saves some hassle. The Leatherman Skeletool KB is right in here too; small but well made.
The Opinel No. 8 has a unique construction. With only five parts (handle, blade, hinge pin, and two collars that serve as the locking mechanism), it's super simple, and its overall build is very clean. The result is light and reliable but a little uninspiring. Opening and locking require two hands.
In our test, only the Victorinox Classic SD, Leatherman Skeletool KB, and Kershaw Blur have functions besides a primary blade.
Tactical knives are designed for rescue usage. Paramedics and firefighters use the stout blade, seatbelt cutter, and glass-breaking punch. The rest of us may fear the need to cut our seatbelts and bash through the window of our car, but we'll probably tire of carrying such a burly pocket knife long before using these features. The Kershaw Blur is a hybrid tactical knife with just a hardened and pointed glass breaker.
The tiny Classic Swiss Army knife packs a versatile punch in a small package. The combination of little tools on this knife could be almost perfect for the day-to-day user. From office tasks to personal grooming to light home maintenance, the Victorinox Classic SD's simple features will get the owner through most of life's challenges.
The only additional feature on the Skeletool KB is a bottle opener. The bottle opener is sufficient but slightly more fiddly than your typical opener. It works just fine for the first few drinks of your evening.
The spectrum of available pocket knives is immense. We have carved out the important features of knives that fall in the middle of this spectrum and always work to organize our findings better. Hopefully, what we have found and shared has helped you make your eventual selection and make it confidently.
A sleeping bag is a cornerstone of your overnight kit...
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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.