Serrated Knives: When They’re Great and When They’re Not

Serrated knives are well suited to tasks that involve tearing and sawing. Compared to a traditional knife blade, the zigzag edge of a serrated hunting knife provides more surface area for cutting. This means serrated knives often stay sharp longer than their smooth-edge counterparts. However, it is difficult to sharpen serrated knives in the wilderness; all but the most experienced knife owners must take their serrated camping knives to a professional for sharpening.

As you can see, serrated knives pose both advantages and disadvantages. These characteristics make serrated camping knives well suited to certain activities and difficult to use in others, as outlined below.

When Serrated Knives are Handy

1. Slicing quickly through nylon, clothing, synthetic materials, and rope. Emergency professionals rely on serrated knives for cutting through seatbelts. Rock climbers also prefer serrated camping knives for their ability to cut through rope and climbing harnesses. If you become trapped in a safety harness, a serrated hunting knife will typically free you much more quickly than a smooth-edge blade.

2. Cutting through flesh and bone. In extreme emergencies, serrated knives may be used to cut through bone and flesh. As depicted in the film “127 Hours,” there are times when extreme adventurers must perform auto-amputations. That movie tells the true story of Aron Lee Ralston, whose right forearm became pinned under an 800-pound bolder that had become dislodged as he climbed it. Ralston amputated his own arm using torque and a two-inch dull knife, the kind you would get “if you bought a $15 flashlight and got a free multi-use tool,” he has said. Ralston’s gruesome task would have been much easier if he’d had a serrated hunting knife.

Fortunately, it is extremely rare for adventurers to be forced to use their serrated knives in this way. However, it isn’t unusual for outdoor enthusiasts to use serrated camping knives to cut through animal bone and flesh. From slicing open fish to cutting up large quantities of elk meat, serrated camping knives are functional in certain steps of game preparation.

3. As a backup blade. Because serrated knives are usable even when extremely dull, they make good spare camping knives.  

4. Trimming firewood and slicing through vines. Serrated blades are better for most purposes requiring sawing action. Natural materials such as wood are harder to cut with a straight-edge blade, which can’t saw back and forth as effectively. So if you’re planning on hacking through the undergrowth, have a serrated knife on hand.

5. Slashing through large quantities of fibrous material. Serrated knives are helpful when you’re ripping through cardboard, carpets and other fibrous materials that just can’t be easily cut with a regular knife blade. Moreover, for jobs that require you to cut through large quantities of materials, a serrated knife will usually finish the job more quickly than a flat-edge blade.

When Serrated Knives are Awkward

1. Situations that require precision. Any surgeon will tell you that a serrated edge is less precise than a smooth edge, mainly because a traditional blade can be honed to a much sharper edge. For instance, if you’re looking for camping knives that can slice through a deer’s underbelly, effectively unzipping the skin while leaving the guts intact, a serrated blade is not the way to go. This step in game preparation definitely calls for a smooth blade. Using a serrated knife in this instance could result in the venison being tainted with liquids from the intestines.

2. Preparing food. Because straight blades are easier to sharpen than serrated blades, it’s best to use a traditional blade for chopping vegetables and during other steps of food preparation.

3. When sharpness matters. Hunters often prefer to keep a perfect edge on their knives. Many of them sharpen their blades in the field. Although it is possible, it’s very difficult to sharpen a serrated blade when you’re out in the wilderness. Therefore, if your cutting tasks require an extremely sharp edge, a serrated knife is not a good idea.

Many people prefer the flexibility of having both a serrated and a straight-edge knife. If you’re one of those types, a combination hunting knife is your best option. Sometimes called a “combo edge,” this variety of knife features one section of plain edge and another of serrated blade.  Alternatively, a multi-tool containing both varieties of blades provides high usability over the long haul.

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