Marines have an institutional and cultural aversion to the term “bug out.” We’re taught at boot camp and Officer Candidate School that bug out is an Army phrase that means to run away — and that Marines always stand and fight. The term bug out first entered the military lexicon during World War II, and became popularized during the Korean War to mean a hasty retreat, which the South Korean and United States forces did a lot of during the summer and fall of 1950 as position after position collapsed onto the Pusan perimeter. Hell, the North Koreans almost ran us entirely off the peninsula into the sea early in the war, and it was a desperate situation until the Marines of the 1st Provisional Brigade arrived and the legendary Chesty Puller walked on stage.
Today, the term bug out has found its way into the parlance of doomsday preppers and survivalists who seem particularly fixated on assembling the perfect bug out bag. There are hundreds of videos on YouTube about what essential survival items one should always have on hand in case of societal collapse, zombie apocalypse, or alien invasion. While I’m not a prepper or survivalist obsessed with planning for the end of the world, I am obsessed with finding the lightest, most durable, and most effective backcountry gear at the lowest possible cost.
For many years, my go to favorite has been the Spyderco Para Military 2, but today I’m taking a hard look at the Benchmade Bugout for multi-day long-distance backpacking. Here’s how it stands up to the test.
The Benchmade Bugout arrived in a fetching navy blue box with silver lettering. On one end was an ominous safety warning to, “Handle with care. Benchmade knives are packaged extremely sharp.” I liked that the box was made of 75 percent post-consumer waste. Upon opening, I found a little unnecessary black sack containing the Bugout and a set of instructions resting atop a not-so-environmentally-friendly closed cell foam box bedding. The more I read about plastic waste in our oceans (and bodies), the more attuned I am to unnecessary plastic packaging materials.
I hefted the black sack in my hand and was amazed at the lightness of the knife. I slipped back the plastic barrel cord lock, and pulled out the Bugout. It immediately reminded me of another small, heavier Benchmade knife I received as a Marine Corps Birthday Ball gift a decade ago. I really liked that knife but lost it, so I was pretty stoked to have another Benchmade come into my life again — a massive good karma vibe.
I flicked open the blade effortlessly with the tip of my thumb on the anodized blue ambidextrous thumb lug. It locked into place with a satisfying click. Wanting to test the warning label, I shaved a few hairs off of my left forearm and was impressed with the out-of-the-box sharpness of the blade. I also held back the axis lock with the tips of my thumb and index finger and opened it and closed it a few times easily with a flick of the wrist.
How we tested the Benchmade Bugout
Test 1: The carry. I like to live for a while with the knives I evaluate to get a good feel for them. One remarkable aspect of the Benchmade Bugout is its almost unnoticeable weight for a full-sized folding knife. At 52.45 grams (1.85 ounces), the Bugout is ridiculously light — about 50 percent lighter than my Spyderco Para Military 2 EDC knife. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a lighter full-sized knife with the same capabilities.
Over the past week, I passed the Benchmade Bugout around to friends and family to check out, and the very first thing everyone remarked about was the lightness of the knife. The Bugout rides comfortably and securely in a pocket, and the pocket clip can be configured for right or left tip-up carry. Benchmade also was very intentional about the design of the lanyard hole in the end of the handle. While I don’t use a lanyard on my knives, there are some out there (Marines in training) who like to dummy cord every piece of gear to their bodies.
Test 2: Ergonomics. I have fairly large hands, but the Benchmade Bugout fit mine comfortably and I was able to easily get all four fingers around the handle securely. The curve of the handle near the blade provides a reasonable finger choil and the textured Grivory handles allow for a confident grip. Grivory is the trade name for a Swiss-made thermoplastic known for its stiffness and strength. I also appreciated the jimping cut into the top of the metal liners under where the thumb rests to help prevent one’s hand from sliding forward on the blade when carving with the knife.
Test 3: The construction. At first, I was a bit concerned that the lightness I felt in the heft of the knife would be an early indicator of suboptimal construction. Upon inspection, I found the Bugout to be well-made, but not as rigid as knives with full steel liners. The Bugout has a partial steel liner that runs about an inch and a quarter into the handle. The designer also placed a hex bolted spacer about three inches back from the blade along the back of the handle for additional rigidity. Clearly, when pursuing an ultra light full-sized knife, something had to give and that was full-sized handle liners and increased rigidity. The Bugout’s blade has rock solid up and down stability yet travels a bit from side to side. When the blade is fully extended, I was able to press the sides of the plastic handle together in the middle of the handle. While the handle is flexier than most knives I’ve owned, I unsuccessfully tried to make it fail by twisting and compression. Rest assured, the Bugout’s handles are solid enough for everyday use.
Test 4: The blade. The Benchmade 535S Bugout is made from premium quality CPM S30V American-made steel, which is known for excellent toughness, edge retention and rust resistance. Although I pooh-poohed the warning on the box about the extreme sharpness of the blade, I was amazed at its edge. Out of the box, the edge is fine enough to shave with. The blade is thinner than most full-sized knives at 2.29 mm (0.09 in), which adds to the weight savings in the design but doesn’t take away from the rigidity of the knife. The side-to-side flexing I felt when applying pressure to the tip of the blade expressed itself in the plastic handle. The overall blade length is 3.24 inches and semi-serrated. The first inch of the blade past the handle and choil is serrated and the remaining two inches to the drop point tip are plain-edged. Aesthetically, the designer did a nice job with the blade design. It’s graceful and clean.
Test 5: Cutting. Over the period of a week, I used the Benchmade Bugout for every cutting need. It easily opened cardboard boxes arriving in the mail, cut hemp rope for garden trellising, and surgically cut away sucker shoots on my tomato plants with the finesse of a surgeon’s scalpel. I used it to cut through tough bolted Swiss chard stems and also tested it against inch-thick carrots while prepping salads for dinner, which the Bugout easily sliced into 1/16 inch rounds. Unlike my review of the CRKT M21-04G, I didn’t baton with the Benchmade 535S Bugout; however, I did find a YouTube video of a guy who did baton with the Bugout, and the knife held up without lock failure or blade loosening.
What we like about the Benchmade Bugout
There’s a lot to like about the Benchmade Bugout. First, it’s exceptionally lightweight for a full-sized knife and you’d be hard pressed to find a lighter knife with the same capabilities. It’s so light and compact that I barely noticed it in my pocket. I’m definitely throwing this one in my pack for my next multi-day backpacking trip as it weighs half as much as my current EDC knife.
Second, Benchmade used great steel in the construction of the blade. The CPMS30V steel is sharp as hell, so pay attention to the warning label. They didn’t lie.
Third, I really love the ergonomics of the handle and aesthetics of the blade. The Bugout is visually appealing and I appreciate simple, clean designs. The AXIS(R) opening and closing mechanism works smoothly and the knife is very easy to open and close one-handed — either using the thumb lugs or by holding back the locking mechanism and flicking one’s wrist.
Fourth, I liked the open back design of the handle which makes it easy to clean and maintain.
What we don’t like about the Benchmade Bugout
There’s a few things about the Benchmade Bugout that might give you the heebie jeebies. If your knife paradigm is that heavy equals rugged, then you’ll probably not like the flex in the Bugout’s Grivory handles. While I appreciate the lightweight design, the handles could benefit from increased rigidity. Because of this, I’d restrict my use of the Bugout to light and medium cutting tasks.
Second, at $155 MSRP, the Bugout is fairly pricey for an ultra-lightweight knife. If you’re not looking for an ultra-lightweight option, there are cheaper and equally capable (albeit heavier) options available.
Third, I prefer plain-edged knives over serrated knives for most cutting purposes. Plain-edged knives are much easier to sharpen. Benchmade does make other variants of the Bugout with plain blades, and you can check out more on the Bugout family of knives here.
Fourth, I don’t like the name. It’s ridiculous. Bugout connotes retreat, and I really dig this knife and felt myself moving towards it. One should think of its name more along the lines of the classic Beastie Boys lyric from Mike on the Mic:
Keepin’ my friends around so I have someone to talk to
I play my music loud because you know it’s got clout to it
It’s a trip, it’s got a funky beat, and I can bug out to it
Yes, my friend, you can bug out to the Bugout.
The Benchmade Bugout is a buy in my opinion. It’s the lightest full-sized knife I’ve been able to find and is an ideal choice for activities where weight is a concern, like long-distance, multi-day backpacking and climbing. Ounce for ounce, the Bugout delivers excellent utility and I’ll be taking it along on my next long backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail.
FAQs about the Benchmade Bugout
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q. How much does the Benchmade Bugout cost?
A. MSRP is $155.00.
Q. How is the action on opening and closing the blade?
A. It’s fast. Benchmade used phosphor bronze washers on either side of the blade pivot which adds to smooth deployment of the blade. The AXIS lock is easy to manipulate and, when held back, enables the blade to open quickly with the flick of a wrist.
Q. What colors does the Benchmade 535S Bugout come in?
A. The Bugout comes in blue. That’s it. Basic blue.
Q. Why are you so against extraneous plastic packaging?
A. Bruh, we’re dumping so much plastic into the environment, it’s insane. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, more than 11 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean each year. According to recent research, this amount is expected to triple by 2040. We need to reverse that global trend.
Got questions? Comment below & talk with T&P’s editors
Joe Plenzler is a Marine Corps veteran who served from 1995 to 2015. He is a backcountry expert, long-distance backpacker, rock climber, kayaker, cyclist, wannabe mountaineer, and the world’s OK-est guitar player. He supports his outdoor addiction by working as a human communication consultant, teaching at the College of Southern Maryland, and helping start-up companies with their public relations and marketing efforts.
Task & Purpose and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. Learn more about our product review process.