I love knives.
I love high performance knives, I love custom knives and I love heirloom knives. Someday I will own that Damascus-bladed, sheep-horn-handled, hunting blade that I've always dreamed about.
In the real world, however, I rely on two knives to do 97% of my in-the-field skinning, caping, fleshing and butchering.
Often when preparing for long or remote hunts, I throw in a third knife as a general purpose every day carry type knife.
There are many great knives that can get the job done, but below are the two go-to, do-everything knives that I use for 7 + months of guiding everything in Alaska from moose and brown bears to fox and harlequin ducks. In addition to my two go-to knives, I've included my favorite general purpose folding knife.
I have used a Havalon Piranta for breaking down almost every animal that I have killed or guided in the past six years including everything from a 1500 lb moose to a 22 oz harlequin duck.
If you have ever heard someone say that you cannot break down a large big game animal with only a replaceable surgical-blade style knife like the Havalon, I would like to respectfully but adamantly disagree.
I have completely broken down moose, bison and elk with nothing but a Havalon Piranta and a few #60 blades. Yes, I have broken a blade or two in the process, but surprisingly it is the exception not the norm. This includes removing the skull from the spine, removing quarters and forelegs and filleting backstraps from the backbone.
I have found my experience to be supported from the experience of other guides as well. What I have found is that the usefulness of any tool has just as much to do with the skill of the user than it does with the design of the tool itself.
I typically plan on using 2 - 4 blades for an elk and 4 - 7 blades for an entire moose or bison, depending on how much sharpening I do. Often I cary an ultralight sharpener that I run the blade over a few times to keep it razor sharp until I can't keep it sharp with minimal effort, then I replace the blade.
To skin trophy sea ducks and emperor geese for taxidermy, I prefer the #10 carbon steel blades. These blades are much smaller than the #60s and allow for more delicate and precise blade work. They are also great for detailed caping and fleshing work.
WEIGHT - My Havalon Piranta with one #60 blade weighs 1.6 ounces.
I first bought this knife because one of the Havalon Piranta's greatest shortcomings is that it is not a great skinner. This knife is an AWESOME skinning and fleshing tool.
I only pack this knife for brown bear, moose and bison hunts...basically big stuff that I will need to do a lot of skinning on.
The thin blade is very easy to keep sharp with a small, lightweight diamond sharpener as long as it is razor sharp before you begin skinning and you hit the sharpener before you notice it getting dull.
I also use this knife quite a bit when butchering just because its so comfortable, I always keep it razor sharp, and the blade seems to be just about the right size for general meat cutting, even though its shape is designed to be a skinner.
WEIGHT - My Victorinox 5" Skinner weighs 3.9 ounces. With a makeshift sheath, the combination weighs 4.4 ounces.
3. Buck Vantage Pro S30V - $85
The Vantage Pro is my favorite folding knife. I use it as a versatile everyday carry and a backpacking survival-type knife if I think I might need more blade strength than a Havalon Piranta.
It is actually a pretty decent skinner too, but not quite as good as the purpose-built Victorinox 5" Skinner.
The S30V steel is a hard blade material which is nice for banging around camp, but it comes with some added challenge when sharpening.
Overall the knife is a solidly build folding knife that feels burly in the hand without being overbuilt.
WEIGHT - My Buck Vantage Pro S30V weighs 4.4 ounces.
COMBINED WEIGHT - The combined carry weight of all three knives is 10.4 ounces.
Sadly, my Havalon Piranta has taken some wear and tear over the years. The handle has cracked in a couple places and its time to retire the knife from guide work.
In its place, this season I am testing the Tyto 1.1. The 1.1 is a titanium handled, minimalist, fixed surgical replacement blade knife that comes with a sheath.
WEIGHT - The advertised weight for the Tyto 1.1, one blade and sheath is 1.5 ounces.
NOTE: One option to lighten weight is to carry the 1.1 without a blade attached so that the sheath could be left at home.
There are a couple of interesting ultralight knives that have hit them market in the past few years and one that I am definitely interested in is the Kestrel Skeleton Skinner.
The Kestrel Skeleton Skinner is a stainless steel skeleton handled knife with a shorter blade than the Victorinox, but with a radically curved and deep-bellied blade design.
WEIGHT - The advertised weight of the Skeleton Skinner with sheath is 1.7 ounces.
The last knife I'm considering for use this fall is also a Kestrel - the Skeleton EDC (Every Day Carry).
There is really no reason to want or need this knife as long as I am carrying a replaceable blade knife like the Havalon Piranta or the Tyto 1.1 and a good skinner...BUT...this is an all purpose stainless steel knife that weighs less than one ounce. That alone seems pretty dang cool.
WEIGHT - The EDC blade and sheath combined weighs 1.4 ounces.
If that isn't tempting enough, Kestrel offers the same knife design in a titanium blade, called the Titanium Skeleton EDC. I have never used a titanium bladed knife before and even Kestrel admits on their website that it isn't great at cutting through animal skin, but cuts meat nicely.
I'm still trying to decide if there is room in my pack for one more knife to test out...
WEIGHT - The crazy thing is that the titanium EDC weighs in at just a hair over .5 ounces (15 grams advertised weight)!
It is difficult to determine what the sheath weights are for the EDC knives on the Kestrel website. Assuming the EDC sheath weighs the same as the Skeleton Skinner sheath, the combined knife and sheath weight for the Ti EDC would be .64 ounces.
COMBINED WEIGHT - The combined carry weight of the Tyto 1.1, Kestrel Skeleton Skinner and the Kestrel Stainless Steel EDC is 4.6 ounces. Amazingly that include sheaths for all three knives.
COMBINED WEIGHT - The combined carry weight of the Tyto 1.1, Kestrel Skeleton Skinner and Kestrel Titanium EDC, plus sheaths, is 3.9 ounces!
While weight certainly does not trump functionality while in the field, the more I hunt in the backcountry, the more I am convinced that reducing weight is a critical aspect of increasing the odds of success while hunting.
These knives from Tyto and Kestrel are a tempting solution to reducing the weight of any kill kit and total pack weight as a result.
What knife or knives do you rely on in the backcountry? Comment below...I'd love to hear your favorites!