Fix anything, anywhere. That's the multitool promise, but buying the wrong one can leave you stranded. Here's how to get the right one, the first time.
Step One: How Will You Carry It? You're hanging out at the beach when the screw falls out of your prescription eyeglasses, again. Don't worry, your multitool's got the perfect driver for that tiny little screw! But wait, you had to leave it at home because it weighs two pounds and your swimsuit doesn't have any pockets….
A multitool is only as good as your ability and willingness to carry it. Owning one with 127 tools is great and all, but if those 127 tools aren't with you, they're useless. The first step in picking the perfect multitool is to figure out how it's going to best fit into your life. Luckily, you've got a few options.
Keychain Multitools: These tend to be smaller, but you take your keys with you absolutely everywhere, right? The idea is to sacrifice some outright ability in the name of easy, universal portability. The most rugged, versatile keychain multitool is the Leatherman PS4.
Pocket Multitools: Bigger and heavier, but still easily pocketable, these tools are designed to ride in a pants pocket or in your backpack/messenger bag/purse/briefcase. By going larger, you gain capability in the form of heavier duty tools (especially the pliers) and pocket multitools also tend to come with larger tool sets. The idea here is to package a lot of capability into a manageable size with good overall tool strength. The Leatherman Juice has defined the category.
Belt Multitools: The big daddies. Full size pliers, replaceable wire cutters and real tools, all in a transportable package. These can sometimes fit in your pocket, but are big enough that wearing them in a sheath on your hip works better. Full-size multitools are designed to be a rugged go-to even for big jobs and may not carry more tools that their smaller, pocket-friendly equivalents, but make up for it with strength and longevity. We like the SOG Powerlock 2.0 for reasons we'll go into later.
An Atwood Pry Baby, shot by Bret. Swoon.
One-Piece Multitools: First made by cottage craftsman like Peter Atwood and later popularized by Piranha, that company has now been acquired by Leatherman, which is making one-pieces in more types, for more applications. Slim, flat and made from a single piece of steel, these can be clipped onto keys, a belt loop, a bag, a bike or virtually anything else. But, as a static lump of metal, their capability doesn't go much further than providing a convenient box wrench in a few common sizes and maybe a flat driver-cum-scraper.
The Leatherman MUT is purpose-built to service guns in the field.
Step Two: Identify Specific Needs. Do you need something to help you fix your bike? Fix your eyeglasses? Open packages? Fix electronics? Service a gun in the field? Make a list of what your most common field repairs are going to be and a list of important emergencies you'd like your tool to be able to help with. Then, shop accordingly.
For more specialized needs, like fixing a bicycle, dedicated tools may exist. Leatherman just launched one specifically designed for cleaning and servicing firearms and adjusting their sights. Here's one for maintaining a bow and another my buddy designed for working on his skateboard. Work in or around a field in which you might need to rescue people from crashed vehicles or want to keep a tool in your car to help you and your passengers get out after a crash? The Leatherman Z-Rex combines a strap cutter with a window breaker.
If a specialized tool doesn't fit the bill, try and find a a toolset that closely matches your needs. Going back to that glasses example, the TSA-approved Leatherman Style PS has a little flathead driver that perfectly fits most of those annoying little screws. It also has scissors that can come in handy if you need to trim a torn fingernail (a common use for me) and a bottle opener, saving you an extra slot on your keychain. Spend a lot of time outdoors or buying a multitool just for that purpose? A saw might be handy.
Mark Kenny's much-loved Wave.
Step Three: Multitool Or Real Tools? Multitools are great at packaging a lot of handy capability in a single, portable package. They're not great at replicating the ability of a real tool kit. I need a 12mm Allen wrench to remove the wheels on my bicycle — a common and important capability while out on a ride. Instead of relying on a weak multitool optimized for cost and performing lots of small jobs, I just stuff a 12mm Allen wrench in my pocket. It won't break and it won't strip nuts, even when I'm putting a ton of force through it on the side of the road, at night, in the rain.
Don't attempt to rely on a multitool to carry out substantial, heavy work, especially when something as portable as that single Allen wrench can get the job done so much better. Make a multitool a layer in a larger tool system if you have a need to perform big jobs. One makes a killer addition to a tool kit kept in the trunk of your car or nicely supplements specialty bicycle tools. You wouldn't want to try and chop wood for a fire with one, but carrying a small multitool along with a survival knife adds the ability for you to repair your tent, pack and clothing while in the outdoors.
If you're already carrying a dedicated tool, you can remove that from the list of things you need or want on your multitool, allowing you to carry something smaller and lighter or something with a list of capabilities branching in another direction.
Don't, just don't.
Step Four: Avoid The Bullshit. If you see anything that incorporates a flashlight, steer clear. The same goes for anything purporting to fit in your wallet, that's sold at a gas station or which comes from any brand you don't recognize. With the exception of specialty, custom or semi-custom tools, you want a tool that comes from Leatherman, SOG, Victorinox, Gerber or other recognizable brands. You don't want to find out your pliers are made from weak tin as you're stranded on the side of the road, trying to fix your car with them.
The kind of dinky little flashlights they incorporate into cheap multitools are just very limited in their battery life, performance and quality. You're better off buying a separate, quality light for your keychain. Doing so is quite cheap.
Those cheesy credit card tools are too small and too weak to hold up to even moderate use and their tiny dimensions and sharp edges will hurt or cut your hands when it comes time to use one.
Knock offs and other cheap tools are a false economy. You'll feel great about saving a few bucks right up until the time that you need to use your tool, only to have it fail. Then you'll feel silly.
Any capabilities or "features" beyond a basic, metal toolset are just a bad idea, adding complication and potential points of failure. An exception is replaceable components such as wire cutter blades and saws. These parts are often a compromise, requiring the maker to spec something that's not ideal for the job, but is capable of longevity. Making them replaceable allows an ideal spec, just one that will wear out.
The Leatherman Charge wears a quality blade, but most multitools don't bother. Photo: Kou Wang.
Step Five: Blade Or No Blade? There's a couple good reasons to keep knife blades out of your tools. For one, the included blades are almost always of very low quality, bending breaking and dulling with surprising ease. You'll also find that a multitool makes a very poor knife handle. If you're using a knife hard, your ability to hold it comfortably, in a variety of grips, is crucial. Deploying a knife from a multitool is also often a slow and laborious affair; not good in an emergency. Carrying a separate, quality knife is simply a better idea for most people.
Perhaps the best argument for keeping the knife out of tool is that it gives you the ability to take that tool virtually anywhere. Large tools and ones with large scissors won't be allowed on planes, but you may be able to carry them into government buildings and they avoid any regulations you may have at work, school or in a specific locality like Chicago, which bans any blades with assisted opening or over 2.5 inches.
I frequently carry my bladeless Leatherman Style PS on flights both domestic and abroad.
Step Six: Pick Your Tool.
One of the best there is, by Andreas Knudsen.
Tools For Everyone (Keychain and Pocket Carry):
Leatherman PS4 — $30 You'll be shocked at how capable this little guy is. Good pliers, good wire cutters, a big flat head and a small one (which can also fit Phillip's) and a surprisingly decent little knife blade, all packed into one strong little keychain tool with a metal body. Most people will be adequately served by this tool.
Leatherman Style PS — $20 Over the PS4, you lose the knife and the big driver, but retain most of the tool's functional ability and quality. This is what I carry, it's not quite as capable as the PS4, but you can take it on a plane.
Leatherman Juice CS4 — $50 Plan on using your tool regularly? Going up to pocket size nets you a stronger tool and larger, hand-size handles. This thing packs anything a casual tool user is likely to need, including a corkscrew (with a real assist lever), a little wood saw and a real Phillip's driver.
Leatherman Wave — $78 Without the corkscrew and with swappable bit drivers in two sizes, the Wave is a little more repair-focused than the more casual-use Juice. If you need a compact, pocket-size tool with real capability, this is a great option.
Leatherman Wave, by Andreas Knudsen.
Tools For The Outdoors (Belt Carry):
Leatherman Charge TTi —$120 Larger than the Wave with a very sturdy toolset, the Charge TTi uses titanium handles and features a quality knife blade made from flashy S30V stainless steel. That'll hold an edge like nobody's business, but be relatively difficult to sharpen. Its main tools are also accessible from the outside of the handles, meaning you won't have to open the tool to access the knife, saw, rescue hook or large file.
Victorinox SwissTool — $90 Made in Switzerland, it's no surprise the Swisstool feels so well-built. Compared to other tools on this list, it doesn't feature a fancy shape or zany toolset, but it will stand up to hard use in the outdoors, which is versatility in and of itself.
Tools For Specific Jobs:
Leatherman Thruster — $25 Specifically engineered for surfers, the Thruster comes clipped in a floating "sheath" and is able to adjust fins, comb wax and handle other little jobs you might need to tackle on the sand.
Leatherman Hail — $25 Clip this thing to a jacket or pants pocket and take it to the slopes. There, you'll be able to adjust your binding and service your snowboard in the field. Includes a bottle opener for good measure.
Crank Brothers Multi 17 — $20 Ride a bike? This thing's basically a pocket Allen key set that's ruggedly built and includes a chain breaker. It'll last much longer than the cheesy ones that come built into prepackaged tool kits.
Gerber Cable Dawg — $200 Do you service fiber optic, telecoms or military cables for a living? Gerber's got a special tool just for you, featuring a hefty, spring-loaded wire cutter and crimper, along with a magnetic driver.
There's many others tools designed around many specific jobs. We just wanted to highlight some of the range that's available.
Not sure where Thinh H got a gold one, but here you can clearly see the gears that give the SOG Powerlock its compound leverage.
Tools For The Perpetually Handy (Belt Carry):
SOG Powerlock 2.0 — $65 This is our favorite full-size multitool for two reasons: 1) its compound leverage gears double the force you squeeze with by the time it reaches the pliers/wire cutters. You can cut a quarter in half with the force of a firm handshake; that makes your purchase on stuck or slippery bolts extremely secure. 2) its entire toolset is replaceable and user-configurable with extra tools costing only a few bucks. That means you can ditch the blade and instead pack all sorts of useful additional capabilities like a bit driver and wire strippers in five different sizes. Make sure you go for the "2.0" it's tool locks are a piano-key design, locking each tool individually, making it much easier to open and close individual tools without moving the rest.
Leatherman Crunch — $85 A vice grip you can wear on your belt. If you're serious about being handy, you know how useful that's going to be. A friend once used one of these as a makeshift gear lever on his motorcycle, enabling him to ride instead of walk home.
Victorinox SwissTool CS Plus — $120 All the Swiss-made quality of the SwissTool, just with a few extra, very useful tools that fit in the sheath, including a neat little bit wrench complete with 90-degree bend!
Gerber Pro-Scout Needlenose — $50 Most of Gerber's smaller tools aren't great quality, but its larger tools like this Pro-Scout and the similar Multi-Plier 600 are pretty good. This one's easy to use with independently rotating, locking tools, one-handed opening pliers and a replaceable saw blade that can, you know, actually saw stuff.
What multitool do you carry?
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Lead Photo: Zorin Denu