Nearly every water bottle, cooler, key chain, casual shoe, and iPhone case seems to come with an embedded bottle opener. The best multi-tools endeavor either to a. replace traditional collections of individual tools for the space- and budget-constrained user or b. take a version of them on the road. In either case, their ability to get to work is paramount.
Active Junky selected products readily available to non-military personnel, many of which are rooted in difficult rescue and wilderness guiding experiences. Some were created to be pocket- or belt-carried. All likely find a suitable place in day pack, travel luggage or vehicle along with a drawer back at home. Check out our top picks, and don’t forget to sign up for Active Junky for exclusive deals and cashback on your gear purchases.
Active Junky’s Goal is connecting you with a tool worth its weight and the purchase price attached to it. Many include sharp and abrasive tools that demand informed use, safe operating distances from others, and eye protection even in the backcountry.
Because these compact, under-$200 toolkits aren’t designed for full-on, full-time use, there’s no substitute for a dedicated knife, pry bar or saw if you’ve got aspirations to erect semi-permanent shelters, keep complex equipment running smoothly or fashion black bear sculptures from salvaged tree trunks.
While “we’re with you” in spirit as you choose and use them, trust the manufacturers’ recommendations and a healthy dose of common sense to succeed. That said, five considerations can help guide your selection, each offered as a question to answer –
#1. What ACTIVITIES do you love? For example, mountain bikers can lean on general purpose multi-tools for some secondary, on-trail tune-up functions but rarely can rely upon them to build or repair major systems such as brakes and shifters.
#2. Which FUNCTIONS become most essential? In reality, fewer than six tools in a multi-tool get the majority of use. And make it worthwhile taking the entire assembly on the road. For example, a corkscrew is essential in Tuscany and highly optional in the Chugach’s steep couloirs.
#3. What SITUATIONS are attached to your favorite pursuits? Using a screwdriver in a garage or prying rusted metal on a dry truck tailgate bear no resemblance to taking apart a spinning reel on a rainy, overgrown riverbank or tightening a stove fitting in the middle of a snowstorm.
#4. Is OPERATION obvious, safe and efficient for your circumstances? If it takes several steps to put key tools in play and they can be used reliably when you’re hungry, cold and don’t have loads of time, excellent. Otherwise, flipping them out quickly but with uncertainty in their performance is not a good approach.
#5. Is there REDUNDANCY (or back-up functionality) in the multi-tool? Once again, if you’re relying on the product primarily to cut nylon cord, smaller branches, canvas fabric or fillet a fish, can you keep going after one tool (blade, in this case) bends, breaks or becomes dull.
Take a run through the products put forward by Active Junky. Narrow it down to 2-3 favorites before going back through these five questions. Don’t be surprised if one multi-tool stands out as the best fit for you.
After all, isn’t that the whole point?
Performance Trials included six tool-wrenching tests of agility, strength and adaptability. And that was from the testers. All multi-tools were pushed, many to the near breaking-point, to separate good-looking individual tools from those capable of delivering results.
Given local conditions in Colorado, ambient temperatures ranged from 50-75 degrees with humidity averaging under 45%. As such, tensile and dynamic strength at sub-freezing temperatures was not evaluated. However, the ability to access and control individual tools with large, wet or lightly-gloved hands was considered.
All tools received pre-test manual sharpening on a common, diamond bench sharpener. Both sides of straight-edged blades were tuned up, as were the non-serrated portions of combo blades.
Key Attributes, found in all multi-tools evaluated but expressed more strongly in individual models, are at the center of the team’s selections.
- Performance: Challenging in all-in-one tools but defined by Active Junky as able to execute five core functions; 1. cut and bend mid-gauge wire, 2. cut sheathed nylon cordage, 3. drive and tighten slotted and Phillips screws, 4. pry tightly-connected surfaces apart – in relative safety, and 5. carve and saw wood.
- Versatility: Assumed by the “multi” designation and herein characterized as suitable use in 1. daily assembly and repairs, 2. travel equipment adjustment and repairs, and 3. outdoor and backcountry tasks, repairs, first aid and survival scenarios.
- Durability: Both repeated use (frequency) as well as extraordinary demands (mechanical force) warrant evaluation, with Active Junky’s testing centered on 90 days of use in the test conditions previously detailed.
- Total Utility: Builds beyond the five core functions to complete practical tasks and enhance the product’s “must carry” value to the owner.
- Value: Combines the testers’ assessment of the other four Key Attributes with the retail pricing, warranty and brand reputation attached to each multi-tool.
Multi-Tool Reviews include seven products ranging from 12 to 26 functions, all under 10oz in carry weight and with solid base ratings on the Five Key Attributes. In addition, and evaluated in its own category, one Specialty Multi-Tool product was included based upon market interest, tester curiosity, and its merit for active lifestyle users.
Leatherman Signal: Globe-trotting companion
Here’s a case where big features are pushed into a small footprint with some tools shining forth brighter than others. A full 19 functions compress into 7.5oz of cutting, wrench, sawing, driving and opening capability. Of significant note is the ferro firestarting rod that provided testers with much-needed back-up in recent South American travels.
In addition, the hammering surface, integrated with a reliable carabiner clip, is a major advantage with Signal. Yes, sometimes direct impact is employed to unfreeze a locked-up water pump, cable winch or snowshoe binding. Depending upon the function being employed, Signal handles solidly at 4.5” closed with a 2.73” blade length. Straight-up cutting power proved formidable in test scenarios, as did slot-head screwdriver torque even burrowing into tight-grained wood.
Leatherman pitches it as a day hiker’s essential as well as an expedition member’s best friend. Active Junky puts into into the always-keep-it-close category, more for year-round utility than as an Alaskan bush pilot’s survival tool. A beautiful bonus: Clipped-on, diamond-coated sharpener for blades – and battered fish hooks.
Tester Comments: “The key to Signal is not expecting superior performance across all functions. The pliers are a prime example, where wire-cutting prowess is nominal even as the jaws’ strength at grab-and-bend is impressive. In another case, a superior, safety-inducing locking system (while tools are in use) eclipses the saw blade’s productivity, in part because the Signal’s streamlined build precludes a blade large enough to harbor bigger, hungrier teeth.”
Key Attribute: Versatility
Best For: Local and international adventure travel, non-technical pursuits that would mandate specialist tools (e.g., mountain bike chains and snowboard bindings)
- Point Break: Substandard performance as over three attempts needed while changing cutting orientation. Double-handed squeeze required for any progress
- Around the Bend: Sticky plier operation but little jaw deflection (two halves twisting) with hard effort needed to complete the “S” bend
- Rope ‘Em In: Excellent hand control and stability, moderate slicing power and cut cleanliness that never felt frantic or tentative
- No Turning Back: Two-handed control yielded exceptional torque for a compact tool. Structural integrity high where the tool connects to Signal’s body
- Eyes on the Pries: Short blade is a good option for smaller chores, reasonably strong with superior penetration between two attached surfaces
- Lumberjack Olympics: Combo blade and saw blade employed. Combo blade carved deep but was tough to grip because of the Signal’s exterior frame and clip. Locking mechanism solid while the saw blade’s finer teeth were slow and better suited to cutting cordage
Victorinox RangerGrip 74 Swiss Army Knife: Duty-bound
Victorinox upholds a storied tradition in cutlery and multi-tools, scaled for settings ranging from key chains to tool chests. RangerGrip is headed more to the large size to defy stealth carrying with a long, wide and substantial package for 14 tools. Unlike other models, this one comes ready to get at it with a focus on more universal functions rather than an array of wrenches or driver heads.
Testers expected the 5.1” tool’s bulk and heft would translate into tank-like power but were surprised to the contrary. While pliers presented low potential to accidentally squeeze palms or fingers, the cutting and bending power of metal wire under-delivered for 74’s enlarged footprint. Likewise, the 3.9” blade (with serrations) struggled to penetrate beyond superficial cutting depth or saw as if productivity mattered.
Handling took total concentration to make progress with screwdrivers or come up with a clean-edged slice. Ergonomic grips helped but were not enough to compensate. Among the easiest operating when it came to unfolding and switching tools, Active Junky sees this one more as a starter or back-up toolset that’s built well – and to last – when used for lighter-duty challenges.
Tester Comments: “If a multi-tool can have a Fun Factor, then this model from Victorinox wins. With streamlined blade deployment and a solid array of functions, 74 is a mid-tier offering from the company. The plier system – with separate, single-lever squeezing – is extremely clever. Openers and drivers are generous in size for a package of meaningful utility. Some disappointments, no big surprises and easy use characterize this model.”
Key Attribute: Durability
Best For: Home, car, camper and campground help for less-experienced (and demanding) tool and blade users
- Point Break: Low potential for pinching hands during cutting. Two squeezes cleanly severed the wire
- Around the Bend: Jaws failed with major deflection that threatened to break the pair in half
- Rope ‘Em In: Moderate to high blade pressure needed to produce a substandard cut
- No Turning Back: Super hard to handle without losing control as the driver head is off-center on one of the two grip ends. Poor performance after repeated attempts
- Eyes on the Pries: Slotted driver head failed, folding under pressure as no locking mechanism present. Unexpected in an “oversized jackknife” footprint
- Lumberjack Olympics: Monster blade carved to moderate depth only with high pressure and using the thumb guide on the blade’s back. Not the powerful sawing machine testers expected with a blade that’s difficult to unlock
Victorinox SwissTool Spirit X: Hands-on contender
Upon first examination, testers considered this an improbable performer. Unfolding with 26 functions in a 4”, pocket-tugging 8.7oz package, Spirit X seemed more show than go. Active Junky was proven wrong in trial after trial, use after use. And when comparing the product against others under evaluation.
No red plastic grips, not even an enameled debossed Swiss cross logo in evidence. Stripped of the iconic color, this tool is pure business as it puts stainless steel on the line throughout. While it lacks one-handed blade deployment, tools such as the Phillips driver, wiring cable insulation strippers, metal saw (really?) and awl are first-string additions to any pack, vehicle console or tool drawer. Even the normally-symbolic, requisite scissors earn their keep with Spirit X.
As testing results revealed, this multi-tool consistently powers through grueling situations better than competitive options with half the number of functions. Selecting, unlocking and unfolding specific tools takes some practice, particularly for big-handed users, as they’re nested tightly together. In addition, be cognizant of the hand pinch potential when cutting wire as narrower handles can trap palms.
Tester Comments: “Still in shock on this one – even after coming back to it over the course of nearly a month. Completely different than expected with a package that elevates the brand beyond toothpicks and nail files (my past experience). While a more tactical appearance would garner greater attention, Spirit X is my first choice among all products tested. Side-by-side trials don’t lie. This Victorinox is the one to swear by in an uncertain world. No question.”
Key Attribute: Performance
Best For: Personal and professional use including demanding backcountry travel, rescue and survival scenarios
- Point Break: Easily cut through in two, single-handed squeezes. Control adequate but caution on getting palms pinched in the process
- Around the Bend: No noticeable jaw deflection, relatively easy manipulation with above-average power
- Rope ‘Em In: Thinner blade with the cleanest cut of all multi-tools. Little effort required to slice or maintain control
- No Turning Back: Consistent turning torque with stable handling. Mid-level screw depth with little blade slippage on the screw head
- Eyes on the Pries: Short, multi-function sharpened blade used that locks reliably to transfer power. Patience needed because of the blade tip’s smaller width
- Lumberjack OlympicsL: Bombproof blade locking to carve cleanly to somewhat shallow depths (minimal wood penetration). Saw blade made steady progress thanks to its tooth configuration
Gerber Multi-Plier 600 Bluntnose Stainless Steel/Carbide Insert: Chomp down
If you got miles to go before dark (or dawn) and some heavy snipping, bending, driving or prying to do, here’s the multi-tool for you. Much is made of the single-handed, wrist-snap deployable pliers, a practical maneuver that becomes more automatic with practice (and getting the 9oz 600 grooved in, mechanically). Testers pictured this one onboard a disabled fishing boat miles off the Pacific Coast – with a deadly storm approaching.
“Bam” and the normally-quiet deck hand breaks out the bluntnose like some repair ninja. Motor rises from the dead to a deep-throated rumble, steering linkages snap into position and the storm is outrun. To wit, this untethered, 4.9” (closed) tool is more like an unpowered mash-up version of pneumatic metal cutters, electric screwdrivers and bench-mounted bending jigs.
In fact, the tungsten wire cutter heads can be rotated three times to maintain sharpness before mandating replacement. Handling metal is this product’s forte as test results didn’t favor it for straight-up rope cutting, wood carving and sawing. Testers rated the file, smallest slotted driver head and can opener as exceptional contributions to the tool’s overall value.
Tester Comments: “With field-proven architecture born from military applications, expectations were high for this Gerber series (and specific 600 model featuring carbide cutters). While all the pieces seemed to fit, including sure-locking tool positioning, test performance on the wood cutting and sawing trials – along with rope cutting -- failed to match its stratospheric results with metal. As a result, we need to slot it as more of a specialist tool than anticipated.”
Key Attribute: Durability
Best For: Metal repair, wiring projects and medium-duty projects in the field or home rather than backcountry deployment
- Point Break: Single, two-handed squeeze yielded a clean, non-dramatic cut. Using the carbide blade indent is key to success here
- Around the Bend: Task completed easily, minor jaw deflection didn’t slow down bending to meet the standardized challenge
- Rope ‘Em In: Unfortunately, the blade position on the tool handle makes it awkward to get the entire cutting edge in play. Clean and accurate slicing once the blade is jockeyed into position
- No Turning Back: Humbled the competition with torque 25% greater than other tools, productivity attributed to the handle design
- Eyes on the Pries: Large slotted driver selected to deliver prying penetration. Slightly above the average, prying leverage on par with others
- Lumberjack Olympics; Smooth blade cuts on the shallower side, while the saw blade lacks cutting power beyond rope and webbing. Makes this an unreliable tool requiring exceeding patience
Gerber MP1: Wizard with wood
While other Gerber multi-tool models make short work of metal, MP1 goes with – and against – the grain to prevail across multiple challenge scenarios. Among the most visually-beguiling options under test, this model musters a solid array of basic tools (“12 components” as described by Gerber). Larger and gloved hands will favor slide-lock mechanics (“wedge lock”) and less-constrained tool access in this 8oz system. Easy-gripping, rivet-affixed G10 handle plates provide positive traction during both handling and use.
Testers echoed the brand’s enthusiasm for spring-loaded jaws levered by butterfly handles, all in a comfortable, balanced form factor. High carbon steel brings a sense of quality to the piece with 420HC stainless used in fine-edged and serrated blades. Equipped with a magnetic driver bit receiver, MP1 extends long enough to generate meaningful torque with the included #2 Phillips head.
A pry bar reduces the temptation to put the three blades and screwdrivers at risk for unplanned tasks that have no obvious or associated dedicated tool. Active Junky’s experience with Gerber suggests MP1 comes with the same exceptional level of warranty and customer support even for models that are far more complex than fixed-blade knives or folders.
Tester Comments: “Was really pulling for this Portland-assembled model to give its peers a strong challenge across all functions. Wire bending was the soft spot with wire cutting markedly better. Beefy despite being lighter than other models, MP1 takes some practice to handle competently but is well worth the effort. Aside from questions about jaw strength, this multi-tool justifies the price attached to it by cutting, carving, sawing and driving consistently.”
Key Attribute: Performance
Best For: Reliable, basic functionality in home and vehicle repair situations, travel and backcountry group equipment kits
- Point Break: Moderate pinching potential is offset by sure shearing with a single, two-handed squeeze that generates a more “explosive’ resulting snap
- Around the Bend: Failed as jaws deflected under pressure and immediately
- Rope ‘Em In: Pristine cord cutting as the blade unfolds to assume a balanced, powerful position to dominate this trial component. Scores fast slicing with nearly-perfect nylon filament appearance
- No Turning Back: Winner in this trial, barely eclipsing the Gerber Multi-Plier 600 for driving heroics. Slightly-narrow slotted bit takes more concentration to avoid slippage and derive exceptional results
- Eyes on the Pries: Two strong options with slotted driver head and chisel tool, both delivering comparable, above-average prying success at a steady and controlled pace
- Lumberjack Olympics: Full-length smooth and serrated blade options with smooth carving to moderate depth with higher hand pressure. Serrated exceeded others including the formidable PowerAssist but needed more technique and practice to excel
SOG Power Assist: Real-world leverage
SOG easily wins as the Tool Geeks brand of choice, displaying a level of innovation uncommon in any outdoor category. Underpinned by tactical excellence on display in military and rescue teams around the globe, SOG knows where – and how – to apply the laws of physics to blades and tools. PowerAssist flips open with one hand, extending from 4.8” closed to 7” with jaws extended. Rock solid at 9.6oz, the 420 stainless steel build then puts a leverage-compounding system into place.
With shielded interlocking gears, PowerAssist doubles its wire cutting, crimping and holding power. While jaw-related functions are available in an instant, other SOG functions take one or more small-motor unlocking steps. On the positive side, safety improves and tools are protected – and replaceable. A hinged hatch on the file side guards most non-cutting tools. As to concerns, PowerAssist takes plenty of learning to master.
Straight edge and serrated blades get extra love, deployment-wise with lockable manual assist thumb knobs. Test findings put this multi-tool in the “look closer” category for shoppers to make certain its core skills – cutting, sawing and wire bending – warrant the expenditure.
Tester Comments: “Almost a science project, this one could have won the developer a degree in mechanical engineering. Despite its play value – and need to learn locking systems --PowerAssist is more than competent in most application areas. Weight is less important in pack or luggage than in pocket or on belt but is a factor, no doubt. Also, location of some tools on the handle (too close to the outside as with the file’s pry tip) make it hard to fully bear down without concern about breakage or popping off the task.”
Key Attribute: Value
Best For: Moderate challenges in home and travel environments, motor- or paddle-in camping
- Point Break: Failed after six, double-handed attempts and manipulation of the tools position
- Around the Bend: Jaw deflection inconsequential as PowerAssist held the wire firmly and delivered consummate control
- Rope ‘Em In: Blade locking system reliable while moderate cutting power requires focused energy and technique. Total blade length required with average cut cleanness
- No Turning Back: Awkward balance, staying connect to transfer meaningful power difficult. Torque average at best
- Eyes on the Pries: File tip suited for power delivery to pry. Average but consistent progress across the test surface
- Lumberjack Olympics: Regular blade marginal for carving penetration. Serrated blade musters chainsaw-like cutting prowess that removes material quickly to avoid jamming. Tool elevates the product’s value by itself
SOG Switch Plier 2: Eager plus easy
How much it enough? Not only in the number of functions attached to a multi-tool, but in the performance of each? Switch Plier answers these two questions with the number “12” and “above average.” A plausible alternative to conventional fold-out systems, Switch Plier advances SOG’s leverage-multiplying philosophy.
Testers released the jaws and squeeze grip with a single plunge switch. And did so with cold, wet and gloved hands. Once released, the “2” was the most successful wire cutter under test, penetrating thicker diameter materials with a single squeeze under only moderate, sustained force (with low hand-pinch potential as well).
Functions like driving (screws, that is) and rope cutting take finesse simply because the tool’s frame is somewhat lighter even as individual (replaceable) tools hold their own, dynamic strength-wise. Active Junky finds Switch Plier gets used often because of its play value. Almost squeezable in the same manner as precision pruning sheers, there’s plenty of power here for the taking in addition to admirable cutting capability.
Tester Comments: “SOG saws as if there’s no tomorrow. Or the future will depend upon cutting small branches up by the cord. Deep wood penetration by the smooth ½ serrated blade meant quick carving with only moderate effort. On top of respectable nylon rope cutting and superior prying strength, Switch Plier merits the rating as a superior value among peers.”
Key Attribute: Total Utility
Best For: Everyday utility, emergency preparedness along with adventure travel
- Point Break: Highest performer among tested products. A single, one-handed easy squeeze meant competent shearing time after time
- Around the Bend: Significant power necessary to S-bend the wire despite nominal jaw deflection under pressure
- Rope ‘Em In: Combo straight and serrated blade need solid technique to make progress – and stay safe – as the straight tip section is somewhat ineffective
- No Turning Back: Light duty only, low torque delivery
- Eyes on the Pries: File tip generates moderate penetration. Excellent control and superior strength to pry steadily and confidently
- Lumberjack Olympics: Combo blade tip deflected under pressure but middle of blade carved deep as serrations accelerated aggressively through wood during sawing motions
Specialty Multi-Tool Review is the initial evaluation of products that exchange core Performance functions for other home, travel and adventure use scenarios. As such, the Trials to which mainline products are subjected are suspended in favor of a more overall evaluation. In this initial Buyer’s Guide addendum, a wrist-worn multi-tool was included in light of its unique utilities.
Leatherman Tread: Worn to win
Testers got their hands on – and wrists into – Tread when it was first introduced. Spawned by a company owner who lives to grind through the world’s worst terrain in four-wheelers, this one’s part Iron Man and part Special Forces.
Mix in the speed and agility of an Indy pit crew and you’re on the right track. Here, each of twelve links is a self-contained multi-tool. Together in one hardcore bracelet, Active Junky carried the TSA-passable Tread into fishing reel repair, camp stove adjustment, on-trail mountain bike tuning and, yes, powering through cold, capped beverages.
As some smaller wrists may require link removal, testers did their own hack to keep full capability: Thread a length of paracord through detached links’ wrench holes and attach a Leatherman Juice C2 for cutting, filing and clamping functionality (aka pliers).
Tester Comments: “Two ways to play this under-6oz toolbox. Work through every link before you adjust size or take an educated guess on what’s most valuable to you. We worked it through, removing Link 10 (with 8mm box wrench) before swapping for Link 9 (10mm box wrench). The combination of tools sized for U.S. inches and Metric millimeters, along with the unexpected torque delivered to drive heads, makes Tread essential. Get it, tune it, take it.”
Key Attribute: Versatility
Best For: Single- or multi-sport equipment adjustment and repair, worst-case scenarios including first aid and personal security with the dependability of corrosion-resistant 17-4 stainless steel