River Rescue Knives

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.

A packraft wet re-entry, from The Packraft Handbook.

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 Palm Nevis, with knife sleeve
Palm’s folding river knife with a bite tab to assist one-handed opening.

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.

A Swiftwater Safety Institute instructor demonstrating the cut-out scenario.

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.

Attachment guidelines

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?

The Bear Claw tied to daisy chain webbing on a Kokatat rescue vest.

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).

A sheath sewn to the lapel, which violates the manufacturer’s guidelines and some river regulations.

Limitations

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.

A modified sheath for left-handers. Material was removed from the lower section.

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.

Added texture with sanding and Dremel work

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).

A new sheath (left) and eroded (right). Note the curve on the upper surface of the eroded sheath.

Other options

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.

Elderid Rescue Canyoneering Knife.

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.

Eezycut Trilobite mounted on a PFD lapel.

Thanks to Tom Wetherell for sharing his Bear Claw modifications, Nik White for the Elderid recommendation, and Eric Caravella for his experience with the Eezycut Trilobite.

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.

4 Comments

  1. Good stuff here. A lot of your packrafting content here and on IG has high generalizability to all paddle sports including sea kayaking. I think a lot of kayakers feel they need a fixed blade Bowie knife, not recognizing that a knife of that design poses other safety concerns. I’m not aware of any kayakers doing cut-away drills. Gave me something to think about. Thanks

    1. Thanks Bob. I agree that a lot of what I’ve learned in the packraft world is relevant to other paddle sports. But, I don’t have the ear of those folks. Thanks for your note, it is affirming.

  2. I used to have an NRS Copilot attached to the chest knife plate of my PFD. I broke the sheath doing a wet re-entry and the knife ended up in the boat. That led me to your well-timed post.

    As a result, I bought a Bearclaw and attached it to my PFD shoulder strap as suggested. I’ve had two issues. On one packraft re-entry, I hooked the tip of the knife sheath beneath the coaming and momentarily couldn’t get up into a seated position. This was fairly easily remedied by tying the tip of the sheath down. The other issue was more concerning. I re-entered my packraft and paddled to shore. Upon getting out, I found my knife in the boat – I had been sitting on it. Somehow it popped out during the re-entry. This was with a new sheath. I’m glad that this knife has a blunt tip!

    Not criticizing either the knife or the placement recommendation – just another data point. I think trying to attach it somewhere between layers of foam as one of the photos shows may be the best approach, although it doesn’t work on every PFD design (including mine). No place is going to be perfect.

    It does have me thinking thought about the likelihood of a sheathed knife saving your life in a combat cutout (1 in 100? 1 in 1000?) vs the possible risks posed by a loose knife. These experiences have me wondering about going to a concealed folder, but seems like that’s generally accepted as an inferior approach.

    1. Hi Chris- thanks for sharing this counter-example … I’m way more interested in helping people make a decision rather than selling this product.

      After several years with a lot of re-entries … I have lost one Bear Claw and had it come loose during one re-entry. Even with those cases, I’m convinced that it is the right knife for me.

      I know that other folks have figured out a way to make the sheath a bit stickier, but I don’t know how. Something about beefing up the ‘detent’ … the little knob on the sheath that applies pressure on the knife to keep it in place.

      I agree that a combat cutout is unlikely. The best I can do to provide numbers is the 66 reported AW incidents where a knife would have been the rescue tool of choice. I assume that in all of those cases, instant access would have been preferred to a concealed carry. But that is an assumption.

      Good luck with your risk assessment and risk management plan journey! Sounds like you are asking all of the right questions to me.

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