Maybe the biggest challenge with camping and spending time outdoors, generally, is not bringing everything.
The goal (and sometimes your survival counts on it) is to be self-sufficient. You’re headed off the grid where access to everyday amenities is limited or a long way off. So you need to have enough with you, whether you’re car camping for a holiday weekend, out day hiking, or backpacking the Appalachian Trail, to keep yourself comfortable and alive.
There’s no doubt that you would be more self-sufficient if you could bring your entire tool collection to fix any piece of gear that might break out on the trail, but that’s obviously not feasible. A good multi-tool is the embodiment of efficiency: Pack as many different useful tools into a single minimal, light, and super packable object. Carry as little as possible, but be able to do as much as possible with that.
A good multi-tool in the backcountry is as critical as any other piece of gear you pack. I have one with me pretty much always: One lives in my truck, one in the brain of my backpack, another in a bike bag. They move with me, from pack to pack depending on what I’m doing, just like the compass and first aid kit. I also have a variety of multi-tools with different individual tools nested within, ideal for different purposes and activities. I’m not carrying my entire toolbox and no single tool can do everything, which means picking the best one for any particular day is important.
The biggest downside to multi-tools might be their variety: Almost any simple tool you can think of can be found in one multi-tool or another; they come in different shapes and sizes, and can be hard to pick from. Start here: These are some of the best multi-tools you could have with you the next time the crap hits the fan while you’re camping.
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The Leatherman Sidekick has literally been my sidekick for a decade, and for good reason. For a clamshell-style multi-tool with sturdy pliers, the main knife (as well as a saw blade) is accessible from the outside, meaning you can flip it open with one hand without opening the pliers. The pliers are spring-loaded which makes them easier to use, and on the inside, there’s a simple but effective set of screwdrivers, a serrated blade, a can opener, and a file. There’s not much more you could ask for from a backcountry repair multi-tool.
The whole concept of the Leatherman Free T4 is that it’s easy to use one-handed. All the tools can be easily flipped out — and packed back up — by pushing down on a collection of notches on either side of the multi-tool. The setup is simple: The standard knife, screwdrivers, and file are complemented by a pair of scissors and tweezers, rather than a big set of pliers, but those everyday tools match the Free’s ease of use.
Sometimes, the size of the knife blade isn’t what counts. When space is limited, this tiny (less than three inches long and weighing under an ounce) multi-tool is the ultimate companion. The admittedly small knife blade in the Victorinox Swiss Army Classic SD is still big enough to do damage and it comes with simple, everyday items like scissors, tweezers, and a toothpick — all small enough to dangle from your car keys.
Somewhere between a beefy tool like the Sidekick and the tiny Swiss Army Classic is the Gerber Dime. Still small enough to fit into the palm of your hand (and with a ring to attach it to keys or a lanyard), the Dime loads pliers, scissors, and a handful of other tools into a small package. Don’t expect to whittle a canoe with the smaller knife blade, but the density of tools here is hard to beat. One of the most useful is the specially-shaped box-opening knife.
The best multi-tool is the one you have with you. You can get into the habit of carrying a bigger one all you want but you’re still going to forget it on days you need it. The Victorinox SwissCard Lite looks like a credit card and is designed to fit into your wallet so that you’re never without. The tools are decidedly pedestrian, but useful in a pinch. Along with the knife, a pair of scissors, and a screwdriver, there’s a ballpoint pen and a needle. Plus the card itself holds a magnifying glass, a ruler, and a small LED light.
It’s tiny, but we know you’re not going to leave your phone at home. The SOG PopGrip Multi-Tool embeds a small set of tools into the PopSocket on the back of your phone, making it easier to hold onto your phone as well as open a beer or turn a hex key. The device features a bottle opener, a mini pry bar, and a couple of different-sized hex bit drivers. And yes, it’s removable.
For most users, a multi-tool’s biggest asset is its main knife blade. For the majority of tools, keeping that blade sharp takes work: It’s on you to sharpen and hone it. The Havalon, however, allows you to swap that blade out like you might a razor blade, so you know it’s always sharp (the knife comes with six replacement blades). This feature is especially useful for fishermen and hunters whose lives are always made easier by having an extremely sharp, reliable knife.