One thing I appreciate as a swiftwater safety instructor is that I get to witness patterns with equipment successes and failures. River knives are a popular topic for discussion!
Do you need a knife?
A good rule of thumb is … If you carry a rope, you should carry a knife.
A knife can be convenient for many applications on and off the water. But in terms of safety and rescue … I’m most concerned about needing to quickly cut myself, or someone else, out of tangled rope, cord, or straps.
How often does this need to happen? Fortunately, not very often. But entanglement has been a factor in many paddlesport fatalities and near-misses. The American Whitewater accident database lists 66 equipment entrapment incidents that might have been resolved with knives, since 1983. The majority (38) were due to entanglement in rope or perimeter line.
In a course earlier this summer, Louise L. described receiving 70 feet of rope while she was close to shore but in a deep recirculating hole.
“That extra rope wrapped me up like a mummy!”
Louise was more concerned about the rope than the recirculating water. This is where you might want/need to cut yourself free with a rescue knife. (Throwing Louise a shorter length of rope would have been better.)
Life vest attachment points and snagging
PFD manufacturers have struggled to find convenient attachment plates for knives. Or, rather, the plates are convenient for access, but in positions that commonly snag on equipment. This contradicts the general river outfitting policy of ‘clean lines’ … outfitting your personal protective equipment and boat to minimize opportunities to snag and tangle. The challenge of finding a convenient attachment plate has led some paddlers to come up with creative solutions … some are improvements, and others introduce new hazards.
Knife attachment points are an even greater concern for paddlers that can re-enter their craft from the water (raft, packraft, IK, etc.). The knife handle or sheath frequently snags on a tube, coaming, or perimeter line during the attempted wet re-entry.
I watched a friend lose his knife while practicing wet re-entries in a packraft course a few years ago. We gave up on trying to spot the knife on the riverbed, but when he got to shore he found it loose inside the boat’s cockpit! Yikes! Good thing it was blunt-tipped.
One solution is to carry a knife inside a vest pocket. In fact, some vests are designed with only this option (e.g., the Palm Nevis). The sleeve is designed to hold a folding knife. In theory, the knife can be removed and opened with one hand, but in my practice, this is challenging.
The “cut-out scenario,” and my knife recommendation
My attention to knife access and design came into sharp focus during an instructor training refresher with the Swiftwater Safety Institute. We ran a “cut-out scenario” to build muscle memory for a real cut-out. The scenario goes like this: tie a rope around your leg and lay down in a swift current. While underwater, climb your leg to reach the rope, get your knife, and cut yourself free. NOTE: This is a high-risk exercise that requires expertise, thorough assessment, and a solid safety team. This should only be done in a professional course.
Based on my experience during the cut-out scenario and experience with packrafts, I recommend attaching an asymmetrical, blunt-tipped knife to the PFD lapel. In this position, the knife is easy to access, even underwater, and also less likely to snag on equipment.
My preferred asymmetrical knife is the CRKT Bear Claw (official page). The curved handle, textured thumb press, and finger hole provide a secure grip—you know exactly where the cutting edge is. The serrated blade is very effective at cutting rope and webbing, and I’ve even used it to saw through branches.
Here’s the catch. The Bear Claw doesn’t fit a PFD knife attachment plate, so you have to make a custom attachment.
- Place the knife in a position on the lapel so that the front of the PFD is as ‘clean’ as possible. But don’t place the knife up at your neck, where the sheath will be difficult to see when placing the blade back in.
- Orient the knife so that the cutting edge is away from your body.
- Attach the knife in a way that it can’t slide up or down the lapel.
Attaching to daisy chain webbing
Some life vests have daisy chain webbing along the shoulder lapel (e.g., Astral GreenJacket, Kokatat Maximus Centurion). Simply tie the sheath into the daisy chain webbing. Some people use zip-ties, but it seems like they might degrade due to UV damage?
Attachment with a wrap-tie
For vests without lapel webbing, the best option is to wrap-tie the sheath in place. I used ~3 feet (1 m) of 1.4 mm cord to wrap the sheath onto the lapel in the photos below. Pull the wraps tight and test the knife (especially after being in the water) to ensure that it doesn’t slide up the lapel.
Attachment by sewing
If you can’t wrap-tie the sheath in place, you might consider sewing it. But be aware: Non-factory sewing violates the manufacturer’s guidelines and warranty, and is prohibited on some rivers (e.g., the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River).
Left-handers: The CRKT Bear Claw can be gripped in either hand, but the sheath is designed for right-handers. This sheath modification might be an option for lefties: use a Dremel or similar tool to remove material so that you can mount the sheath backward.
Releasability: The finger hole is somewhat blocked by the sheath, which prevents you from getting a deep finger grip on the knife while it is in the sheath. As with the left-handed solution shown above, the sheath can be modified by cutting material out at the finger hole.
Additional grip: Some users find the Bear Claw plastic to be slippery, especially in wet and cold conditions (i.e., rivers!). You can add texture with coarse sandpaper, a soldering iron, or a Dremel tool.
Securing the knife: With much use, the knife’s detent will erode the plastic of the sheath. When this happens, the knife can come out of the sheath more easily than you want. Some people use a low-strength zip-tie to secure the knife in the sheath, expecting the zip-tie to break when you pull the knife. I don’t love this solution. I purchase a new knife/sheath when mine gets too loose (~two or three years).
Elderid Rescue Canyoneering Knife: The Elderid Rescue Canyoneering Knife is very similar to the CRKT Bear Claw with an asymmetrical grip, finger hole, and blunt tip. It is more affordable, but heavier.
The RCF doesn’t get my vote because I find it harder to release from the sheath and get a secure grip. The handle tapers away, which makes it hard to secure, and the finger hole is inaccessible while in the sheath. But if the Bear Claw is unavailable, this is my second choice.
Eezycut Trilobite: This clever device provides a lightweight cutting tool that attaches to the PFD lapel without tieing or sewing. It is very effective at cutting rope or webbing up to 8 mm thick. The Trilobite isn’t my top recommendation because the grip doesn’t feel as secure—I don’t know exactly where the cutting edge is, and I’m less confident that I could feed the concerning rope or webbing into the slot while underwater and blind.
Disclaimers: I stock and sell the CRKT Bear Claw because I like it. Neither myself nor this post is compensated or sponsored by CRKT.
The opinions in this post are mine alone and not those of Swiftwater Safety Institute or other parties.
CRKT Bear Claw ER knife
Please read the full post about this knife, which includes photos of mounting options.
This knife does not use the standard PFD docking plate, which is why I like it. Docking plates are generally in a position that interferes with our self-rescue attempts (wet re-entry). Make sure the knife can be mounted on your vest in a position where it can’t slide up or down. Daisy-chain webbing on the shoulder strap is ideal. See photos.