Survival and Outdoors

Best Knives For River-Running: Tested And Reviewed



Few things are more thrilling than a kayak, or canoe ride through some fast-water. But, without proper preparation and planning, it can be a nightmare. Most people understand about wearing a PFD (Personal Flotation Device, for those who are uninitiated….), and maybe even having an emergency whistle, but one often over-looked item is a knife. On the river, a knife can save your life, or even someone else’s. Mishaps on rivers are very common, and you need to be able to free yourself, or another, from obstructions and hazards. You may have to extract someone from their boat, with time of the essence (such as if they are underwater…). You may have to modify or repair your boat. In these situations, you have to make a compromise between size and practicality.

Our Knives Of Choice:

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A River Runs Through It…

kayak on river

Before we get into blades, let’s talk a little about river-running, so you can get a feel for what may be needed. There are all kinds of rivers, in all kinds of places. I break them into several types. Note, I am not talking about the water, just the river itself. We’ll get into types of water next.
Rivers come in 3 basic types:

  1. Main Rivers – these are the major large rivers that run through countries, In the US, these would be the Mississippi, Yukon, Rio Grande, Colorado, St.
    Lawrence, Brazos, Columbia, etc…. The common factor in these rivers is that they all flow directly to the sea from their sources. As a rule, they are large, and the large amount of water causes the flow and characteristics to change rapidly. A rivers course can alter in as little as a day or two. These rivers are also prone to massive floods, sometimes without much warning. They have swallowed whole towns, at times. But, if you keep your wits about you, they make for some great paddling adventures.
  2. Tributaries – These rivers flow into the main rivers, and do not go to the sea by themselves. While still rather large and long, they are smaller than the main rivers. But they still are prone to the same hazards, even more so. Water levels can fluctuate rapidly, and without warning, creating fast water, or leaving you high and dry, making portaging necessary until it gets deeper again. Many lakes are created by damming tributaries, so you may have to go through locks, or portage around them. The water below locks and dams can be very fast, and dangerous.
  3. Streams – these flow from a source into tributaries, which flow to the main rivers, then out to sea. They can be largish, down to small enough to jump across. The smaller ones are sometimes referred to as brooks. When paddling streams, you need to be prepared to portage, handle very fast water with lots of bad obstacles such as rocks, fallen trees, whirlpools, and more. A nice peaceful stream can turn into a raging torrent just around the next bend. Also, many waterfalls are not charted, and can give you a nasty surprise.

Streams and rivers can be further broken down in to sub-types. The first sub-type type of river is what I call an Urban River. These run through cities, villages,kayak safety knife towns, and communities along much of their length. These are great for novices, because with any luck, help is not too far away. The second sub-type is Rural. These run through farms, and other agricultural areas. In an emergency, with any luck, you can find a house or a business within a few miles, or so, but don’t count on it. A lot of this shoreline will be private property, and some farmers and land owners are a little snarky about people walking along their waterways, regardless of why. Be careful, and courteous to them…. The third sub-type is Wilderness. These waterways go through some of the most beautiful country imaginable, and you can paddle for days without seeing another person, or even so much as a telephone pole. They run through National Forests, Wilderness Areas, and Wildlife Sanctuaries. They are largely undeveloped, and can turn into serious rapids, with little warning. Help can be along way off, so it is advisable to not paddle these sub-types of water without companions in other boats. These rivers and streams are patrolled by Rangers, and Game Wardens, but they are few, and spread really thin, so you can’t count on that in an emergency. Be prepared to take care of yourself. Extraction can also be very difficult.

Rivers and streams all have stretches of slower moving water, broken up by faster water, called rapids, or whitewater. This usually happens when the width of a river is restricted, and gets smaller, like the nozzle on a water hose. Rapids are classified by the force, and volume of water going through them.
The classifications are:

  • Class A – Lakes, backwaters, and pond water. No perceptible water movement. Nice for a lazy, no-stress paddle.
  • Class I – very small areas of moving water. Skill level required to safely run is minimal.
  • Class II – short stretches of faster moving water with some minor obstructions, such as small rocks, a few easily seen fallen trees, etc… Anyone with basic paddling skills can run these.
  • Class III – moderately fast water, 3-5 foot drops, small whirlpools, and some obstacles. Requires some maneuvering skills. This is the most common class run by recreational intermediate paddlers. Not particularly dangerous with medium skills.
  • Class IV – Starting to get serious. Fast water, some chutes, larger drops, lots of rocks, strainers (fallen trees), and fairly strong current. Can be dangerous to novice paddlers.
  • Class V – This is the domain of very experienced and professional paddlers. Very fast water, strong currents, whirlpools, high waterfalls, major chutes, lots of strainers….the stuff nightmares are made of. Be prepared for cuts, scrapes, bruises, and damage to your boat. Have plenty of First Aid and rescue equipment on-board. Class V waters are the most extreme waters that can be run.
  • Class VI – These waters are impossible to run in any kind of watercraft, at any skill level. But every once in a while, someone with more cajones than brains will attempt to run them. If they survive, the waters are down-graded to Class V.

The main things you will have to deal with in rivers, are strainers, which are trees that have fallen across the river. The fast water can cause your boat to be sucked underneath them, sometimes becoming stuck. If you get stuck underwater, and can’t bail out, you are in serious trouble. You may have to cut strapping, or branches to free yourself. Sometimes, you might even have to cut through the hull of your boat to get loose (mine are all inflatable, so I fixed that problem). Rocks are also a major hazard, especially if your boat gets stuck between 2 of them. Some whitewater is strong enough to bend your boat in half, trapping you and causing internal injuries, or maybe even cutting you in half. If this happens, you need to exit the boat just a shade faster than instantly, and a good knife can save your life, should you get hung up on seat straps or tie-downs. Other things you might need a knife for is cutting rope or paracord for rescues, towing, trapped clothing, or first-aid.

Choosing The Best Knife For River Running

Bringing the right knife with you can literally save your life.
Bringing the right knife with you can literally save your life.

Now that you know what kinds of waters there are, and what can happen, you’ll better understand why some ‘River’ knives are designed the way they are. Of course, there is no one knife that can cover every eventuality, so you need to have several with you. I carry a Spyderco Byrd Series Cara Cara in my shorts pocket, my US Navy MK III Dive Knife in the pocket behind my seat, along with a Machete and Rescue Tomahawk (it has a pry bar and hammer poll…) under the deck hatch. For the purposes of this article, I will be reviewing only River Knives.
River knives are based on the premise that you will need them to rescue yourself, or another, from being pinned in your boat under strainers, between rocks, stuck in your ‘Yak’, upside-down and unable to roll back up, etc…. Most of them will not have points on them, because people have been seriously injured, and even killed by knife points during rescues. They tend to be small, because there is limited room in the cockpit of most kayaks (Yaks), and they need to be handy for quick deployment. You also do not want a knife hanging up on the gunwale if you need to bail-out. Most are able to be attached to your PFD for quick access.
For this article, I used several knives that were sent to me for testing. I ran the Ocoee River, and the Hiawassee River in SE Tennessee, with two friends, and we put the knives through all the paces we could think of, including cutting nylon strapping, cutting through RAMX hulls, thick paracord, nylon and hemp rope up 1-1/2” thick, brush, vines, branches, clothing, using as a pry-bar, and a hammer. We borrowed several mostly destroyed, former rental kayaks from a local whitewater outfitter to test the knives on the hulls.
2 knives, made specially for river-running (so they said…) were dismal failures, and suffered catastrophic failures almost immediately. They were the Gerber River Shorty, and the NRS Co-Pilot. The cheap 420 HC blades chipped in short order, and the Gerber blade actually snapped off at the hilt on the first tree. I have not bothered to review either of them further….
The knives are in no particular order. In my opinion, all 3 of them are more than suitable for any river-running you might do. Here are the results:

Cold Steel Tuff Lite 20LTS Review

Cold Steel Tuff Lite

• Blade: 2.5”
• Scales: Griv-Ex
• Steel: AUS 8A
• Pocket Clip: yes
• Weight: 2.5 oz.

Normally, I would not recommend a folder for a river knife, but the CS Tuff Lite is the exception to the rule. There are no rivets. The construction is all screws
and pins, making it easy to disassemble and clean when the opportunity presents itself. At a mere 2.5 oz., you can’t even feel it, either on a PFD or in a pocket. The 2-1/2” AUS 8 serrated blade is sharp and robust. It sliced through branches, strapping, paracord and clothing like hot butter, with no danger of accidentally cutting flesh, thanks to the hawkbill blade. It punched through both RAMX and ROYALX poly hulls with little trouble, and was able to saw through the material fairly quickly. The handle was very comfortable, and surprisingly, felt very stable, for such a small knife. The lock was strong, and felt as secure as a non-folding knife. It fits perfectly in a PFD pocket, and has a slot for a strap and quick-release snap. For the price, this is a lot of bang in a little package.

Spyderco Assist Rescue Knife C790R Review

Spyderco Assist Combo Knife

• Blade: about 3-1/2”
• Scales: FRN polymer
• Steel: VG-10
• Pocket Clip: yes
• Weight: 4 oz.

Surprise! Another folder… The Assist has so many great features that it was my favorite out of all the knives we tested. If I could only have 1 utility knife, I think this one might be it. While not exactly a ‘River’ knife, this rescue tool turned out to be just the thing for a wild ride in whitewater. VG-10 is excellent steel for river-use, and the knife can be disassembled for easy cleaning. The FRN scales felt very comfortable and secure. The lock was solid and tight. Now for the features….the first thing I noticed was it had a ‘Cobra-Hood’ over the thumbhole, meaning it can be deployed easily even when wearing paddling gloves. It also provides extra leverage when choking up on the blade. The blade has finger notches on the spine, which I thought was strange, until I figured out that this was so you can partially open the blade, then squeeze rope, clothing, or cable between the blade and handle, and it cuts it like scissors through jello, with absolutely no danger of accidentally cutting flesh. This was way too cool… But, there’s more…Squeezing the handle into the scales causes a carbide glass-break tip to pop out of the bottom of the grips, that punched through kayak hulls like they were cardboard. The serrated blade glided through brush, branches, nylon and hemp rope, and even sawed through RAMX easily. To top it off, it even has a built-in Emergency Whistle, which was extremely loud and high-pitched. It could be heard more than a quarter of a mile away, even over the noise of the water. This is handy for when you need help or get lost on the water. It has a robust pocket clip, and a place to attach a lanyard and quick-release snap. This could be one of the best knives you’ll ever own. Since I received this for testing, I have been carrying it with me everywhere.

CRKT ABC Aqua Review

aqua columbia river knife

• Blade: 3.75” serrated on one side, and plain on the other
• Scales: Glass-Filled Nylon
• Steel: AUS 8
• Weight: 4.6 oz.

The Aqua is a wonderful river knife that gives you the option of using a serrated, or a plain blade, all on the same knife. The grips are very comfortable and the knife was very secure in the hand. It cut through everything, including boat hulls, with ease. The really neat thing about this knife is its sheath. It is held together by brass Chicago screws, can be easily disassembled for cleaning, and can be carried in just about any position you can think of…on a PFD, around the neck, on the belt, clipped to strapping or webbing, vertically, horizontally, tip-up or down…and any variation of the above.

What Knives To Avoid

Others tested were my personal knives, that I thought would work just as good….erroneously, as I quickly discovered. They were my Cold Steel Bushman, which was much too large and unwieldy, causing it to actually get in the way, my US Navy MK III Dive Knife, again, with the same problems, My Kabar Marine Corps Knife…same problems, and my Mora Companion, which worked marginally, but the ultra-sharp blade and point made it very tricky to use without cutting myself, or the person I was trying to rescue. The lack of serrations also made it impossible to saw through a hull with it. I humbly learned that you need the right tool for the right job, and these river knives are absolutely the right tool. Hey, you never get too old to learn something new, right?


There may be more knives out there designed for river-running, but it did seem that there is a definite shortage of models made with the kayaker/canoeist in mind. If you know of any, please let us know, and we will review them as soon as possible. Keep checking back with us for more great knife reviews…..


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