UK Knife Law – A Guide for the Outdoors

The use of knives and other cutting tools in ‘The Great Outdoors’ is sometimes a contentious subject in the UK. While for some activities there is a close link between the activity or the environment itself and carrying a bladed article as an essential tool, anyone looking to use a knife, axe or other cutting tool in the UK should spend some time looking at the laws of Knife carriage and use in the England, Wales and Scotland.

In the blog we discuss several of the basics of UK knife law:

What type of knives is it legal to own in the UK?
Can you carry a knife in a public place?
What is a reasonable excuse for carrying a knife in England, Scotland and Wales?

The Letter of the Law

When delivering outdoor skills training for Original Outdoors I often run a short session on understanding the basics of knife law in the UK. These sessions often start with me holding two items – one a Victorinox penknife, the other a Gerber multitool. I then ask “what’s the difference?”

The penknife has a folding, non-locking blade with a cutting edge of less than 7.62cm (3 inches). The multitool has a shorter blade – but has a locking mechanism that holds the blade in place when opened. This minor, but legally very important difference, is the key to understanding what you can carry, where and how.

The Criminal Justice Act (1988) states quite clearly (in Section 139) that “any person who has an article to which this section applies with him in a public place shall be guilty of an offence.” Further down there is the following text “this section applies to any article which has a blade or is sharply pointed except a folding pocketknife” and “applies to a folding pocketknife if the cutting edge of its blade exceeds 3 inches”. 

So anything with a cutting edge longer than three inches (7.62cm) is completely illegal to carry in public, right?

Aaaactually… no. A little further down in the same section there is the crucial line “It shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that he had good reason or lawful authority for having the article with him in a public place”

What then is a ‘good reason’ for carrying a locking blade, fixed blade or similar item in a public place in England, Wales and Scotland? There is some accompanying text in Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act (1988) that lists the following as reasons for carrying the knife or cutting tool:

For work
For religious reasons
Or as part of any national costume

The examples often given as reasonable interpretation of this part of the Criminal Justice Act (1988) are along the lines of ‘a chef carrying a roll of kitchen knives to work on the bus’ or a Scotsman carrying the traditional sgian dubh knife along with their kilt and sporran to a formal function.

There are other versions of the above for Northern Ireland, and I would urge any reader to check on what is legal for their part of the United Kingdom.

None of which, however, makes it any clearer for the bushcrafter, hiker, paddler or other outdoor enthusiast!

Knives, Axes and The Great Outdoors

As outdoor recreation does not have a specific reference in the criminal Justice Act relating to cutting tools it is up to each of us as individuals to make a choice – what tool will I carry, where, and how? 

One test you can give yourself is imagining trying to explain why you have that item, in that place, at that time to a police officer who knows absolutely nothing about your hobby or activity. Would they agree with you that what is in your rucksack or in your pocket is a reasonable item to carry, or would they disagree and think it was potentially an offensive weapon?

There are almost limitless cases and examples I could draw from, so instead I will pick three real-world examples about how I use knives both in my work as an outdoor instructor and on my ‘days off’.

1. Climbing Snowdon. For this, or indeed hiking in any mountain or moorland area of the UK, I will probably carry nothing more than a Swiss Army knife, possibly a multitool. In nearly 20 years of climbing mountains in the UK I have yet to find a good use for a fixed-blade sheath knife, and I don’t think I could reasonably explain why it was necessary for that activity alone. In winter, or when climbing with ropes, I always carry a knife on my harness. 

2.C anoeing down the River Wye. I love boats, I love canoeing, I don’t like getting tangled up in discarded bit of rope and drowning in such a picturesque section of the Welsh borders. For that reason I have two knives on my PFD (lifejacket/flotation device) – a folding rope knife and a fixed blade general purpose knife. Years spent in Mountain Rescue, as an outdoor instructor and as a paddler has shown me that it’s common to panic when dealing with emergencies in the water, and it would be all too easy to drop that first knife. However – unless I am moving on the edge of the water or in the boat then I don’t wear the PFD, and I certainly wouldn’t be still wearing those knives when I duck into the chip shop after a day (or week) of river travelling and adventure.

3. Wild Camping in a Scottish forest. This one is a little trickier – wild camping is legal in Scotland under the Land Reform Act and there would conceivably be several good reasons for carrying a fixed-blade knife such as a Mora Bushcraft knife, or even a small hatchet. I could justify to myself that carrying those items was ‘reasonable’, and I have carried knives and hatchets in those situations. What I chose to do in those situations was to put the knife and axe inside my rucksack when travelling, and only bringing them out to use when necessary. I didn’t just wear the knife on my belt “because it’s allowed”. 

I do realise that this might be a slightly unsatisfying answer if you came here looking to discover if your camping knife was ‘legal’. Sadly, as in so many cases where UK law is concerned, the answer is “it depends”. 

If you exercise good judgement, think about your actions and consider how your use of that tool in that place, at that time and in that way would appear to someone else then you should stay on the right side of the law.

Just remember- ignorance of the law is no defence – it is up to you to learn, and understand, what your legal responsibilities are.

UK Knife Law Key Points:

The legal length for a non-locking, folding blade is 3inches or 7.62cm

A knife with legal length can still be deemed an offensive weapon if it can perceived as such by someone else

Locking folding knives, fixed blade knives and knives longer than 3inches/7.62cm are all illegal for carry in a public place without a further defence

It is the duty of the person carrying the knife to know and understand the law – ignorance is not a defence

Access land and public footpaths are also public places

Age Verification is required at time of order for a non UK EDC knife - we do this automatically with, if we get a positive result we post your knife out no problem and email you tracking details. If we don't get a positive result we will email you asking for proof of age. Age Verification on delivery is also required since April 2022, this doesn't have to be the person that ordered the knife but the courier will have to hand it to somebody over 18. 

The full UK legislation on Knife Law can be found here

Produced in partnership with Original Outdoors, the outdoors experts for all your Bushcraft, Foraging and Navigation courses.