Different countries in Europe are famed for their own style of the camping knife or pocket tool and in this month’s Gear Matters blog article, John takes you on a tour to learn about the various types of blades, potential usage of pocket knives on a cycling or walking trip, EU law, and maintenance.
Some people don't use them, others can't live without them on a walking or trekking holiday. They may be left alone in their pouches for the whole trip or maybe used several times in a single day. A camping knife or pocket tool is available in all sorts of shapes and sizes. With Christmas fast approaching, a new knife or multi-tool could make for a beautiful compact gift. Often you can even have them inscribed for the Ray Mears, Bear Grylls or Mykel Hawke in your life.
Most of us get attached to our knives over time, but the stories of people leaving their forgotten prized piece of cutlery in their hand luggage when taking a flight and losing it going through security are legion. For me especially on camping trips, a good knife or multitool combo is more or less essential.
Knives with a Tang
A good quality knife should have a sharpened edge on one side and be made of high carbon or stainless steel. I think it is best to avoid ceramics, they can shatter and break easily. The finest forged knives (e.g. from Norway or Sweden) have a cutting edge of differing hardened steel which is sandwiched in a layer of softer steel. A good outdoor or bush knife will have a 'tang' (the handle end) that extends into the end of the handle and that can be heavy duty plastic, wood or even horn. This will then be attached via brass rivets which will resist oxidation. Knives like these are superb for cutting and wood carving; the handles offer good grip to be used quite safely for controlled cutting. The Swedish Fällkniven forest knife can even be used for splitting small pieces of wood in lieu of an axe and some have claimed that these are the best bush knives in the world. Similarly, Norwegian Helle knives are great for carving. These can be bought in Flam on Sherpa's Fjordland trip. The camping knives of this brand are great for bush-craft and they make an excellent range including a beautiful model with curly birch, leather and antler handles. Their blades come in different lengths, materials and thicknesses and are handmade.
Folding & Multitools
Then we have the category of folding knives and multitools. These are generally a sandwich of aluminium and steel plates. The main blades are always a bit of a compromise, as they will never be as strong as a full tanged knife. Swiss army knives are rightly very popular; being very compact and having some wonderful useful features. They are ubiquitously available on all of our walking holidays in Switzerland an in every town in various guises. They have been used in the Swiss military since 1897. I have personally possessed three Victorinox Swiss Champ knives in the past 35 years. Two, you've guessed it, lost going through the customs x-ray in hand baggage by accident. I have used every blade for all manner of things including clearing ice from cross country ski binding cleats, to removing ticks, making holes in leather belts, opening cans and bottles, and even filing down bike spoke ends. There is a tiny driver that tightens all those minute screws that people always lose from their glasses and take it or leave it, the standard toothpick! The main blades are 'Inox' steel and very good quality, the scissors are the best of any multitool that I have seen and the can opener works really well. The downside is that with most Swiss army knives (and there are some exceptions) the blades do not lock, so you have to be very careful during any cutting activity that the knife doesn't fold onto the fingers. Also the classic acrylic side panels of the handle engraved with the Swiss flag, can scratch easily, although they are surprisingly durable.
Then there are the multitools based upon pliers, the most famous ones being from manufacturers such as Leatherman and Gerber. These normally have a main plier with the auxiliary blades and tools folding neatly into the handles of the body. The better ones have mostly or all locking blades. These are great, but I have sometimes been a little disappointed with the quality of some models: flimsy knives, scissors with poor action and hard to use tin and bottle openers. The hinges can loosen over time and you may need to remember to take a specialised tool to tighten them.
Simple Folding Knives
Some people are very happy with a simple folding knife on their travels, such as the Victorinox 'Hunter' or even the more basic and popular French made 'Opinel.' These are great for cutting cheese and salami on picnics. The latter one has a nice wooden handle with a simple twist lock that kind of half locks the blade, so some care is needed. Recently, Opinel have jazzed up the camping knife with coloured handles including a built-in whistle and a main blade with an unusual spanner aperture for tightening sail shackle pins of all things!
Some walkers may like to carry a beautiful French handmade knife and on our Way of St James walking holiday in France, you will go very near to where the Laguiole knives are being manufactured. Several village shops in the region will sell this charming model and it makes a great memento of your trip.
Camping Knife Maintenance
All knives and multitools require periodical maintenance: wash and dry them thoroughly and use a light machine oil on hinges and smeared on blades, especially if you will store your knife for some time. Vaseline is also quite useful in this regard. Wooden handles, leather pouches or sleeves should also be waxed occasionally. Follow the manufacturer’s sharpening instructions; knives should be sharp and without burrs.
Knives & EU Law
Most countries in the EU have their own laws on knives. The UK, quite rightly, has enforced laws over carrying knives, although it is pretty vague. The basic rule is that 'you cannot carry a knife in public without good reason, unless it has a folding blade with a cutting edge 3 inches long or less.' If you have a long fixed bladed knife or a multitool with a locking mechanism on the blades (which just about covers all multitools sold from outdoor or tool shop), they 'are not classed as folding knives and are illegal to carry in public without good reason.'
The 'without good reason' part explains it all; it's about perceived intended use. For example, you can buy a 20-inch carving knife from a hardware shop (a public place) and walk with it back home through a high street or mall (another public place). It is unlikely that you will ever be inquisitioned. Although police can be arbitrary at times; it is a question of being sensible if you are on a walking, backpacking or cycling holiday. To make things simpler your camping knife should be sheathed and in your backpack not about your person.
For more advice on the gear to bring on a cycling or walking holiday, contact our team of travel experts.
For more in John’s series of Gear Matters blog posts and tips and advice for cycling and walking gear, see the full overview of outdoor gear articles from the past months.