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Backpacking Knives and Multi-Tools by Steve Hanlon (hikezilla)

Burmese Machete
Burmese Machete

I’m a tool guy. I always have been. When I was a kid I was notorious for taking things apart and (sometimes) getting them back together again. I was always building things with saws, hammers, drills, nails using the occasional free sheet of plywood that would fall off a truck. My love of tools also applies to, of course, hiking and backpacking. What follows is an article I’m sure all backpackers can identify with in one way or another. Hopefully my recommendations on the proper choice for backpacking tools make sense to you as much as it does me.

My Burmese Machete

I took my first real backpacking trip in 1973 with a neighborhood youth organization. While I was an active Boy Scout we never did much serious hiking in the woods. In the summer of 1973 about 20 of us went into the NH White Mountains, up the Wilderness Trail to the Franconia Brook campsite. I carried a pack (a cheap Sears external frame special) a pad, synthetic bag (which I finally tossed last year), a few clothes, some cans of food. And a machete. Yes a huge machete. The kind you use to hack a trail in the jungle. One my Dad brought back from his WWII Pacific days.

I brought it because it had a cool look to it and I was 17. I built a scabbard on the pack frame exterior. What set it apart from the other machetes was its broken tip which gave it a menacing scimitar look. Like the one that black-dressed bad guy had in the Indiana Jones movie. Right before Indiana pulled out his revolver. Of course, I never used it. The Wilderness Trail is wide enough for a truck and there was so much dead fall around our campsite there was no need for it. Alas, my beloved 3 pound machete is gone forever from my packlist. And my life.

Buck Model 110
Buck Model 110

The Classic Buck Model 110

I think I got a Buck Model 110 for my 18th birthday. The LLBean version. It oozed cool. I was never geeky enough to need a pocket protector, but I’m sure I swaggered around town with this knife in its leather pouch on my belt. However, it probably belongs more on the set of Sons of Anarchy than on a backpacking excursion. I had it with me on what was probably the hike that got me totally hooked on backpacking and peak bagging. A four day trek in the Whites up the Wilderness Trail (again), 13 Falls, Garfield, Lafayette, Mt Liberty and down the (now abandoned) old Osseo trail which at the time exited on the Kangamangus. For all of it’s cool, my Buck knife just wasn’t that practical. It was too big for fine work. It’s not a real tool. And I got a nasty infection when using it to force out a deep splinter. There had to be something better.

The Leatherman Wave
The Leatherman Wave

The Leatherman Wave

I took a long hiatus from the Whites to raise a family (who preferred constant elevation and minimal sweating) but returned in 2002 with my focus on bagging all 48 of the New Hampshire 4000 footers. For the gadget freak the Leatherman Wave has it all. Remember the magazine ads Leatherman had for the Wave? The one about the bush pilot who used it to fix his downed plane in the Alaskan wilderness? I’m sure I said to myself “I gotta get me one of these!”.

I must have gotten it in the early 80’s and it served me very well. I used it for years backpacking but after a while I, like many other hikers began to focus more on shaving weight from my system. While I loved it in the woods, especially the heft and the solid feel it has, there were too many functions and options I never used, or would ever use in the woods. So the extra weight doomed its utility. The Wave checks in at 8.4 ounces. Over a half pound. It had to go. I’ll only miss the saw blade on the Wave. That feature was awesome!

The Leatherman Squirt
The Leatherman Squirt

The Leatherman Squirt S4

In 1998 I started to seriously consider thru-hiking the AT. I built numerous gear lists and researched about lowering my pack weight. While I still had my Wave, I bought the Leatherman Squirt for personal keychain-like use. For about 10 years I was never 10 feet from one of the many Squirt S4s I owned. I got a nice, small and functional ballistic nylon belt pouch for it that I wore constantly. I must have used that thing 20 times a day. Even at work. My teenage kids were annoyed with my nerdy accessory but no one could argue just how darn useful it is to have a tool like that on your hip.

It didn’t take long before everyone in my family would say: “hey Dad, do you have your knife?”. Ahh, the joys of being prepared. And at 1.8 ounces it was barely there. I took it on my ’06 thru-hike attempt. It served me well. But it had a flaw. It was too small. Since 1998 I have purchased maybe 10 of these. I outright lost 4 of them. And 5 were donated to airport security because I always seemed to have it with me when I would go to the airport. It’s got a lanyard ring but it’s too small unless it’s permanently attached to to something else, like keys, defeating the purpose of its small size. And I don’t usually bring my keys on long hikes. Goodbye my trusty Squirt S4. Say hello to my little (new) friend.

The Leatherman Style CS
The Leatherman Style CS

The Leatherman Style CS

After losing so many of the Squirts I started to think seriously about something different. At the same time I gave thought to exactly what was required to have when hiking. The Squirt S4 had more options that I needed or ever used. In fact the only things I ever used in the Squirt were the scissors, the knife, file and tweezers.

The Leatherman Style CS fit that bill perfectly at 1.4 oz. And it LOOKS like an ultralight piece of gear. It’s got extra weight drilled out and features a really nice carabiner clip that doubles as an opener for above average bottler beer. With that clip I’ve never lost one. It simply doesn’t get any better than the CS. For me anyway. Some might say that a knife can double as a scissor. I disagree. The scissors make certain operations like nail trimming, paper/hair/beard cutting a breeze. A must have. A knife is essential for making other tools in the woods. The nail file is perfect for dealing with callouses. Finally, the Leatherman tweezers have always been finely machined and work flawlessly. You may only need the tweezers once, but when you do need them – they are a godsend.

Another version of this tool, the Leatherman Style PS swaps the knife for pliers. I’ve had discussions with others about this trade-off Pliers can be extremely useful for cutting wire, bending/fixing metal grommets and freeing nasty knots. You should take a careful inventory of all your gear and imagine the types of repairs requiring tools you’ll EVER need. Then you can cross off pliers, screwdrivers, saws, etc. from your multi-tool list.

Swiss Tech Utili-Key
Swiss Tech Utili-Key

But Wait – There’s More (or Less)

There is one more option if you want to scale back even more on weight. I’ve carried this on my car key ring for 20 years and airport security has never once taken it. The Ultili-Key from Swiss Tech. This little gem is a marvel of thoughtful design and engineering. When closed it snaps on your key ring and is nearly invisible. To the TSA scanners anyway. When opened it locks at 90 and 180 degrees. It’s got a very scary sharp serrated blade, bottle opener, Philips, standard and eyeglass screw driver ends. A patented wonder.

About Steve Hanlon

This is a guest post from Steve Hanlon, an old friend, aka Hikezilla, who is a regular Section Hiker reader and contributor. See his other guest post:  Alcohol Stoves: Timing Your Boil,

What’s Your Favorite Backpacking Knife or Multi-Tool? (Leave a comment)

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14 comments

  1. I prefer the good ole Swiss army knife. Lots of tools without a lot of weight. Only problem is no pliers! Recently I’ve been carrying the Victorinox camper model.

  2. Ooh! Bright sharp pointy things! The style CS looks like an excellent replacement if I can ever bring myself to let go of my current knife.

    I’ve often coveted a mult-tool, but I’ve not wanted to retire my much loved Swiss Navy knife which I’ve had for more years than I care to mention. It has some useful tools, in particular a marlinspike, shackle bolt spanner, and the 3 ½” serrated blade locks open (unfortunately making it illegal in many places – I tend to ignore that), but no scissors. The tweezers have always disappointed me.

    After it spent a night on the bottom of a lake it is now permanently on a lanyard attached to my belt.

  3. I have a Leatherman Wave for every day use but it’s too heavy for the trail. In the backcountry, I take something similar to the Leatherman PS. I find I use pliers on a daily basis and I already carry a small pair of scissors and tweezers in my medical kit. Also, my grandson is fascinated with scissors and has a Squirt. If he’s along, I don’t need to pack my scissors.

  4. That’s a photo of an original Super Tool, not a Wave.

    • Ahh, True! Somewhere along the line, I must have forgotten the actual one I owned. I have been calling it a Wave for years. When I checked the Leatherman site so I could verify the weight, I never looked close enough to spot the difference. My Super Tool (now retired) comes in at 9oz.

  5. Speaking of Leatherman tools, I bought my original one over twenty years ago, not because I needed it but because I wanted it. Once I had it, I realized how much I needed it and have had one on my side ever since. I’ve also bought them for many friends, family members, and employees. What I liked about the Super Tool over the original was the locking blades–I’d cracked my knuckles a few times on the old one when a tool folded up. My post above said I use the Wave for every day use–actually I use the Blast, however, I’ve used my Wave a few days because I misplaced the Blast somewhere in the car on last week’s hiking/camping expedition with the grandkids. They’re supposed to clean the car today. Hopefully, they’ll find my Blast. I love Leatherman tools.

  6. TSA at Reagan airport in DC spotted and confiscated my Swiss Tech Utili-key. I got a new one, but I never remember that I have it, and it is a pain to use.

    I carry a Gerber LST all the time. It is a nice-sized lock blade, lays flat in my pocket, and weights about 1.5 ounces.

    On the trail, I carry a tiny Swiss Army Knife, because the scissors are part of my repair and first aid supplies. But I carry separate real tweezers.

    I have my dad’s Buck Folding Hunter with the rosewood handle. I still can’t believe how heavy that thing is.

  7. On the trail or around town, I’m never without my Victorinox Climber knife.

    • I pack the Light My Fire Mora knife. But honestly, I use a pair of orthopedic scissors if I have to cut something on the trail. I only bring a knife because everyone says it’s a survival necessity. Honestly, I should take up whittling, or maybe I’m not camping correctly. I do love using the Swedish Mora to spark start my alcohol stove though.

  8. I carried a Leatherman for some time, but discarded it in favor of the Victorinox “Work Champ” which is under publiczied by Victorninox for some reason.

    It has a “locking main blade” which is the main reason I traded in the other Tool due to the main blade always wanting to close when I needed it not too. Cut myself a couple of times with it…

    The Victorinox “Work Champ” has all the tools I have needed for fixing Stoves and Filters and Fishing reels. It has a small and large Phillips Head screwdrivers which most units do not have. The pliers I have used for Medical, Fishing, and Backpacking needs. I’d replace the Metal File/Saw with a Fish Scaler and Hook disengorger if I could, it also has a Saw, Scissors and the normal Victorinox tools. Also a Non-Slip Handle which works really nicely when cleaning Trout and hands get all slimey….

  9. I went through the same process – various big blades, Buck 110, Leatherman Wave (it will pull your pants down to your knees), small blade. I now carry (EDC and woods) a Kershaw Skyline (2.3 oz), great steel (14C28N) with G10 scales. Without question it is the best little knife I own and adequate for trail walking in most cases.

    Off-trail/bushcraft use I pact a Kabar Mark 1 Navy.

    John

  10. I’m so glad I stumbled upon your progressive review of tools you have used for day hikes. Greatly appreciated and helpful in my decision process. Cheers!

  11. Although I’ve seen the Burmese Machete, (or Thai machete is what I actually saw in Thailand) work in more ways than I thought possible, I think I still have to choose my Leatherman Super Tool. Neat list, thanks for sharing.

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