When you don't really need it, but . . .

Sometimes quality—and the money you spend for it—is a must when outfitting a vehicle for backcountry travel. 

For example, most people would agree it’s stupid to economize on tires. They are your connection to the road and trail, and your life literally rides on them. Another: I’ve long (probably too long for some readers) pontificated on the value of high-quality tools, arguing that if you have brought out the tools something has already gone wrong, and it would be foolish to risk compounding the situation by using a cheap tool that might not do its job or even break. Likewise, I stand by my stance that you should by the best tent you can afford (read why here). Same goes for air compressors, winches, and many other things for which poor quality can be inconvenient if not downright hazardous.

For other gear, economizing has few if any disadvantages. For example, I own a superb Western Mountaineering goose down sleeping bag that weighs less than two pounds, is comfortable to 25ºF, and stuffs to the size of a loaf of bread. For motorcycle travel or sea kayaking, where weight and bulk are vital considerations, it’s perfect. But for travel in a 4,000-pound truck, why spend $400 when a $90 synthetic-fill rectangular bag from L.L. Bean will be roomier, keep you warm at the same temperature, and have a cozy flannel lining with jumping deer printed on it? Yeah, it weighs five pounds, so what? Or there’s the $35 Lifetime folding table my friend Graham found at WalMart while doing an exhaustive magazine test of camping tables; it won not just the value award but overall as well. We just took it across Australia, and it performed perfectly.

There’s a third category, and it applies when a particular passion is involved and the item in question might not need to be the best—you simply prefer the best. Example: It’s useful to have a pair of binoculars in the vehicle, for identifying distant landmarks, scouting, watching animals, or stargazing. There are plenty of $150 models available that will suffice nicely. But if you’re a passionate birder and naturalist, as Roseann and I are, you’ll want the sharpest, brightest, and most weatherproof instrument you can get. We spent—well, move the decimal point right on the above price and you’ll get the idea—on ours, but every time we look through them we appreciate the superior technology and craftsmanship. They’ve proven worth the expense over and over.

What about cooking in the field? One fellow might be happy to dump a tin of Dinty Moore stew into a cheap aluminum pot sitting in a fire, then eat it out of the pot with a plastic spoon. Dinner takes 15 minutes from lighting a match to finishing. The sign of a cheapskate with no passion? Who knows—he might keep the evening meal simple so he can set up a 5-inch Takahashi astronomical telescope that cost as much as his truck, and split binary stars all night long. 

For many other people, though, one of the high points of each journey is the challenge of creating and serving gourmet meals from a compact traveling kitchen or chuck box—and doing so with an eye on aesthetics. The fridge will be stocked with fresh vegetables and meats, the spice kit will be a kit and not a reversible salt/pepper shaker, and nary a plastic utensil will appear on the table. Table? Sure, that WalMart number might hold up your food, but wouldn’t slatted oak be much more satisfying (at least a tablecloth . . .)? 

And what about kitchen knives? Sure, a blister-pack “chef’s knife” from the grocery store might work, but anyone serious about cooking from scratch is going to want something sharper and better balanced. And probably not just one—a deep-bladed chef’s knife should rightfully be accompanied by a smaller paring knife, and perhaps a longer slicing knife. 

The problem is that within the limited confines of a chuck box, full-size knives can steal a lot of space, and if left loose—and properly sharpened—can be a real hazard, and the edges easily chipped. This conundrum was on the mind of Carl Jonsson, of Tools for Adventure, when he designed the Tiktaalik Field Knife set. It comprises a chef’s knife with a versatile 6 1/2-inch blade, a paring knife, and a serrated slicing knife. The trio—along with two useful high-density plastic cutting boards—fits in a metal case 5 1/2 inches wide by 11 inches long by just 5/8ths of an inch thick. How did he accomplish that? Simple: He left off the handles.

That’s not as odd as it might seem. Each Tiktaalik knife is made from a single piece of Sandvik 12C27 steel. The grip area, normally beefed up by plastic or wood scales (to use the correct term), while flat, is rounded and polished, and surprisingly comfortable and secure to hold, not to mention being effortless to clean. The chef’s knife balances right at the rear of the blade. Each knife fits into a precise cutout in the base of the case, but is easily popped out by pressing down on the tip of the blade. The base, as well as the plastic slab that captures the knives on top, doubles as a very decent cutting board. The closest comparison I know of is the Snow Peak chef’s knife, which comes in a wood case that hinges open to double as a cutting board—however, you have to use the outside of the case, which quickly gets stained and scarred. The Tiktaalik set gives you two cutting boards, and the metal case remains clean. (One suggestion: Fingernail grooves in the top cutting board would make it easier to lift out.)

Sandvik’s 12C27 is, on paper, a fairly ordinary stain-resistant steel, containing about the same amount of carbon (.6%) but less chromium (13.5%) than, say, 440A, which is widely used in moderately priced knives. However, bladesmiths report that 12C27 seems to be remarkably pure, and easily heat treated to 57-59 on the Rockwell (HRC) scale. We’ve been using the Tiktaalik chef’s knife for some time now, both in the field and at home, and the edge hasn’t needed touching up yet—a good sign. 

The Tiktaalik Field Knife set takes up scant room in either our Kanz Field Kitchen or the older, smaller chuck box I made years ago. Yet in use the knives perform virtually as well as much bulkier standard models would. (Roseann says that if she were doing a lot of cooking for a large group she would probably bring a standard chef’s knife—a fair caveat.) At $199 the price is reasonable (the knives alone are available for $149). Could you make do with something less? Certainly. It just depends on your level of passion. 

Tools for Adventure is here. Many other interesting products as well.