How to Choose the Best Climbing Knife
It’s well-known that knives are can be incredibly useful for a variety of outdoor pursuits, but did you know that you should always have one with you while climbing?
Although they may seem superfluous in the vertical world, a good knife can be used for a whole host of climbing purposes, such as cutting a stuck rope in a crack, cleaning up old tat at a rappel anchor, or cutting a piece of cord for a v-thread while ice climbing.
That being said, climbers don’t want to choose just any old knife to accompany them on their adventures. Instead, climbers should focus their shopping efforts on purpose-built knives that are specifically designed to be carried on a harness and cut climbing ropes.
Otherwise, if you choose to get any old knife, you might find that it just won’t cut it.
So, as you’re shopping around for a new climbing knife, keep these key features in mind:
The first thing that most people will notice about a climbing knife - or any knife, really - is its size.
These days, pocket knives come in a huge range of sizes, from the very small to the absolutely gigantic.
Climbing knives, as they need to be carried around on a harness, usually have blade lengths that are 4 inches or shorter, making them much more compact and useful for outdoor activity.
That being said, while many people automatically assume that a larger knife blade is a better knife blade, there are plenty of advantages to having a smaller knife, especially while climbing.
For example, smaller blades (those less than 2.75 inches) tend to be compliant with most knife laws around the world and are easy to carry, even when attached to harness.
However, smaller blades usually aren’t as strong or as versatile as larger options and often don’t have locking mechanisms. This means that they might fail during high-pressure use, but this isn’t really a concern when we’re using our knives mostly for cutting rope and cord.
Fixed or Folding
These days, most pocket knives feature a folding design, which allows the blade to be protected by the handle when not in use.
Such a design helps make a knife more compact for carrying on your harness. However, the moving parts of a folding climbing knife do mean that it’s more likely to break or rust prematurely.
On the other hand, fixed climbing knives have no moving parts to break and are stronger than their folding counterparts.
However, their size makes them more difficult to carry around, especially while climbing.
It used to be that there was only one type of knife blade: the plain edge. However, as technology has evolved, many companies have started creating alternative blade types including the serrated edge and the combo edge.
While it might seem like a knife blade is a knife blade, each of the three different kinds of blades works best in particular situations.
The plain edge is the best for people who like to keep their knives sharp, as it is possible to sharpen these blades at home.
A properly sharpened plain edge can be used to cut nearly anything but does take some extra effort to use on tough materials, such as wood or ropes.
Serrated edges, on the other hand, are impossible to sharpen at home, and are best used for cutting wood and cord.
Finally, combo edges feature half of a plain edge and half of a serrated edge, giving you the best of both worlds.
Our recommendation? If you’re not going to be dedicated about keeping your plain edge sharp, you’re probably better off with a serrated edge or a combo edge while climbing, as you’ll most likely be cutting ropes and cord, anyway!
It turns out that not all knife blades are made equal.
Modern pocket knives are made from a variety of different metals, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to long term durability and cutting prowess.
Nearly every climbing knife you can possibly buy will be made from some sort of steel as this is the metal that’s most trusted in the blade industry.
However, there are a few different kinds of steel out there and some manufacturers make it quite difficult to discern which ones are actually worth your money.
Most of the climbing knives you might buy will be made from stainless steel, which is a highly adaptable material that can handle nearly any conditions.
There are a lot of different stainless steel alloys out there, so you’ll want to research the specific alloy before you buy your knife to make sure it’s worth your money.
One kind of steel you’ll want to stay clear of, however, for a climbing knife is carbon steel. While products made with carbon are often quite lightweight (a plus in a climbing environment), carbon steel blades tend to chip and snap more easily than their stainless steel counterparts, they can also corrode.
While carbon steel blades do hold an edge well over time, we can’t recommend them for climbing knives because of their durability concerns.
Check out this in-depth piece from Blade HQ for details on the different steel types.
Handle Material and Design
Most climbing knives will have handles made from either plastic or metal.
While plastic handles are much more lightweight than metal handles, they tend to be the less durable alternative.
Likewise, the added durability of a metal handle comes at the cost of an increase in weight, so it really comes down to what you value in your climbing knife.
It is also worth bearing in mind how well you will be able to grip the knife with cold wet hands or even with gloves on. Overly smooth handles can be a real pain to work with.
Climbers are a weight-conscious bunch - especially when it comes to gear.
When you’re already carrying around dozens of pounds of gear, you’ll do anything you can to lighten your rack. Thus, the best climbing knives are often the ones with the lowest weight.
However, many climbing knives save weight by either using plastic for the handle - which can be a durability concern - or by using a smaller blade.
Thus, you may want to consider adding a few extra ounces to your kit in favour of a larger, more robust climbing knife.
While knives are incredibly useful tools, they are also incredibly dangerous.
A locking mechanism on your folding knife can help you avoid those incidents while you climb.
Simply put, a locking mechanism helps prevent the blade from accidentally closing on you while you use a folding knife.
This can be particularly important when you’re putting a lot of pressure on your knife. Thus, if you are going to choose a folding climbing knife, it’s recommended that you choose one with a lock - however, it is important to note that the locking mechanism can break!
Harness Attachment System
One of the most crucial aspects of a climbing knife is its ability to easily attach to a climbing harness for ease of transportation on routes.
Purpose-built climbing knives often have carabiner-sized holes that make it easy to securely attach them to your harness.
Others require you to thread a piece of accessory cord through a smaller hole and then attach it to your harness.
Whatever type of climbing knife you choose, though, make sure it’s easy to carry around with you - if you don’t carry it, a climbing knife doesn’t do you any good!
Although we’d be stoked to add any of these climbing knives to our rack, if we had to choose just one of them for daily use, we’d pick the Petzl Spatha.
The Spatha combines an affordable price, lightweight, and a durable blade all in one great package, making it our climbing knife of choice.
While there are other great climbing knives out the Spatha’s versatility makes it a great all-around climbing knife for any adventure.