UK Knife law – a guide for outdoor enthusiasts

One of the great things about having any hobbies or interests in the internet era is the ability to share views, read information by, and learn from people all over the world. That is especially the case for outdoor enthusiasts like me and, I suspect, many of my readers. To a certain extent the outdoors adventures ‘blogosphere’ is dominated by North Americans which is perhaps not surprising; there are more of them and, let’s face it, they have a bit more wilderness than we do.

All that is fine, and there are plenty of us Brits as well and plenty of British wilderness to be proud of. I raise the point because I think that there are a small number of cases it can be a difficulty and one of those is where local laws are wildly different. Possibly the two main instances where the UK has very different laws to the US, Canada, Australia, much of mainland Europe, and in fact most of the rest of the world are a) wild camping and b) knives. I’m not going to talk about wild camping here because it’s another topic for another day, but the subject of this post is knives. It’s important as a British hiker, hiking in the UK, to understand our local laws and, when reading blog posts and reviews about ‘essential tools’ and ‘everyday carry’ written by non-Brits, to do so with the knowledge that much of it simply can’t be applied here because our laws are so much more restrictive.

I should say, our general tendency to nanny the populace and ban anything that makes people a bit uncomfortable, punishing the sensible and law-abiding majority for the actions of a tiny number, makes me livid and our knife law in particular is bafflingly restrictive. I imagine that many of my US readers will read this with mouths agape. However, it is what it is, and I’ll try my best to just explain the law as it stands, and not overlay it with too much of my own personal feelings.

So, without any further ado. Here’s what you need to understand.

Offensive weapons

The first thing to know is that ‘offensive weapons’ are banned in a public place. UK law (Prevention of Crime Act 1953) defines three types of offensive weapons:

  • Made offensive weapons – being anything specifically designed to cause injury. This includes truncheons and batons; flick knives and butterfly knives; knuckledusters; and combat knives including, yes, kukris, commando daggers and bayonets. As well as many other things. As a hiker, it’s important to be cautious about what you are buying – the difference between a hunting knife (which is not an offensive weapon) and a combat knife (which is) may be fairly subtle, but it is your responsibility to be clear. Most offensive weapons are also illegal to import, sell or hire in the UK so you are very unlikely to be able to purchase them legally anyway, but you might be able to do so abroad, including in mainland Europe.
  • Adapted offensive weapons – any item which has been adapted for use to cause injury. Examples might include a snooker ball put into a sock, a baseball bat with nails hammered into it, or even a shard of glass with tape around it to make a handle. I hope none of this is particularly an issue for hikers though so I will move on.
  • Intended offensive weapons – any item, literally any item at all that you intend to use to cause injury. Technically if you intend to cut someone with a piece of paper and you carry that paper in public, you are committing an offence. On a more serious note, this means that everyday items like sports bats, tools, tire irons and so on cannot be carried with any intent to use them to cause injury even in self defence. I can’t make that clear enough – in the UK you have no right to carry any item, no matter how innocuous, in anticipation, no matter how improbable, of using it in self-defence. To do so would make it an intended offensive weapon. In reality police mind-reading powers are of course limited (for now), but they may consider whether the presence and location of the item is reasonable – for example a tire iron in the wheel well is to be expected, a tire iron in the drivers door pocket might suggest it has an alternate use intended.

Key points for hikers:

  • If you carry a knife, especially a fixed-bladed knife or something unusual and of uncertain origin, be very careful that it is not an offensive weapon, and therefore specifically illegal in public.
  • Be very cautious when purchasing knives abroad. Even mainland Europe has very different laws to us, and you can buy things there that it would be illegal to bring back with you.
  • You should not carry any item at all with even the thought at the back of your mind that it might be used for self-defence.

Points and blades

I suspect that for most UK hikers, the offensive weapons issue isn’t a big one. Although we might regret that, unlike many of our American friends, we can’t strap a combat knife to our thigh when going for a walk in the Peak District, we also probably recognise that we don’t particularly need to. And we definitely don’t need butterfly knives, knuckle-dusters or ‘push-knives’.

We do need some kind of knife though. Carrying a knife or multitool when hiking is just common sense, and it’s here that UK law really comes to bite us.

So, the law (Criminal Justice Act 1988) says that it is an offence to carry any sharply pointed or bladed item in public, except a folding pocketknife.

Yep. Pretty blunt, if you’ll excuse the pun. There is some good news in that there are a couple of exceptions. One is for religious reasons, which isn’t really a concern to hikers and I won’t go into further. The second is if you can prove that you had ‘good reason or lawful authority’.

There’s a fair bit to unpack here, so let me start with the easy bit and the small shining light of common sense in this shitshow of knee-jerk banning.

The penknife exemption – good news and bad

So, the law specifically exempts a ‘folding penknife’ from this ban, although obviously it could still be covered by the section above if you intend to use it to cause injury. Assuming you don’t, a penknife is a folding knife with a blade of less than three inches in length. And subsequent to the original Act of Parliament, a judge has decided that a knife is only ‘a folding knife’ if it can be folded immediately without any other action. So, any locking knife of any kind is not covered by this exemption. Yes, I hear you say, a locking blade is an important safety feature present on almost all good knives and multitools, and which has almost no impact on how dangerous the knife is to anyone except the user. Well, I might well agree with you on that, but we’re not High Court Judges, are we?

Ok, but let’s focus on the good news for now. You can carry a small, folding, non-locking knife such as a classic swiss army knife anywhere (with the exception of schools, airside at airports, and a few other specific locations) without any reason or excuse. This is basically your only option for so-called ‘everyday carry’.

Lawful authority or reasonable excuse

Any other kind of knife you carry, and that includes my brilliant Leatherman Wingman, and a funky knife-fork-spoon set I have, as both of them have locking blades, are illegal to carry in public in the absence of a reasonable excuse.

It’s important to bear in mind here the order things come in. First: all knives (except penknives) are illegal to carry in public. Second: you have a defence if you can prove you had a reasonable excuse (let’s ignore lawful authority as that only applies in a few incredibly niche cases, and mainly to the military carrying bayonets). The point I am making is that the presumption is of illegality and the burden is on you to prove you had an excuse. That’s actually quite a tough barrier, particularly if you are not a legal expert and don’t fully have you head wrapped around what the police and the CPS consider a reasonable excuse. It should, if you have any sense, make you think twice about carrying a knife in public unless you are really confident that you can justify why you have it.

Bear in mind as well that it’s not only about what a magistrate or jury will believe, but also what a random policeman will believe. After all, none of us particularly want to get arrested, and being eventually acquitted or released without charge is scant comfort for the disruption and stress of being arrested in the first place.

So, sadly I can’t tell you exactly what constitutes a lawful excuse. I can say that I personally carry my leatherman when hiking, or travelling to or from hiking, but at no other time, and I don’t carry any more substantial blade that I might find harder to justify. I also take it out of my pocket and bury it deeper in my backpack when travelling to or from my activity. That’s not just about hiding it, it’s also about subtly trying to demonstrate that it is part of my hiking kit and not something I planned to have ready access to while on the train or travelling through central London, for example. One might hope that that would make a difference, though I can’t say for sure if it would or not.

You could even consider putting any knives into a small peli-case that you can lock with a padlock, and using that to transport them. It might seem overkill, and it doesn’t change the fact the knife is in your possession so is somewhat irrelevant from a strict legal point of view, but it does demonstrate that you are being serious about safety and that the knife is only intended to be used during the specific activity.

Of course, it’s not something to be paranoid about – the chances of being searched anywhere are relatively slim, even more so while out hiking in the countryside, and most police officers are unlikely to be too worried about a multitool or other small knife just because the blade locks. However, it’s still important to know the law, think about your justification, and understand what risks you are accepting.

Key points for hikers

  • With the exception of a few specific locations, notably schools, you can always carry a folding, non-locking, knife with a blade of less than three inches, without any justification or excuse.
  • Any other blade requires ‘reasonable excuse’, and this includes even very small knives if their blades lock. Hikers almost certainly do have a reasonable excuse for a multitool, folding knife or small fixed-blade knife.
  • You need to think about whether the type of blade is really justified by the activity and whether you could explain that to a police officer. Don’t be suckered in by outdoorsy shows and think that you need hunting knives and little hatchets. They have specific purposes and most hikers will not be skinning animals or cutting wood, so think very carefully before you take something like that.
  • Ensure you do not carry it any further or more often than is required for the activity and travel either side, and consider putting it well out of reach when you are travelling.

I’d add a final point here for those of you that, like me, maintain a bug-out bag. It’s very easy to think that any time you’d use a bug-out bag, normal laws wouldn’t apply and taking serious knives for survival and self-defence would be a good idea. I’d strongly disagree with that. Sad though it might be to those preppers who like to imagine the full-on collapse of society, the most likely need for a bug-out bag is a short-term and relatively innocuous event like a fire, gas leak or localised terrorist attack. None of those things will change the laws about knives I have explained above, and indeed they may make police all the more jumpy about someone running around with a hatchet in has backpack and no good excuse. Yes, a decent knife is a worthwhile addition to a bug-out bag, and yes if you seriously are going to end up living in the wilderness for a time you’re going to need some more robust tools than a folding penknife, but I would seriously consider having these sorts of tools placed in/near/with your bug-out bag in such a way that you can very quickly and easily decide whether or not to take them depending on the circumstances.

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