A penknife or multitool will top most traveller’s packing list. Considering the range of blades, saws, openers, punches and drives available from the best pocket knife and tool brands, you can see why. The big question is, should you go for penknife or multitool and what brands can you trust?
While not ideal for carving out the hull of a canoe or cutting your way through the jungles of Sarawak, a good model is as much a survival tool as it is an executive nail file. Here’s what to look for when buying, plus some help in deciding whether you need a penknife or multitool.
Penknife or multitool?
There’s a grey area here, as some penknives are pretty much the same as multitools, with many folding blades and functions. The difference being: a penknife – also be classified as a folding knife or pocket knife – can have just one blade, whereas a multitool will always have several tools – one of which is likely to be a ‘blade’.
To keep it simple: a penknife is a small folding knife commonly with more than one blade. To choose between a penknife or multitool, all you need do is ask yourself what might you need it for?
If there’s little or no chance you’ll need to fix wiring, strip cables, cut out shapes or thread needles, there’s little point in carrying a multitool. And if all you’ll ever need is a sharp edge to cut, occasional screwdriver, a bottle opening, corkscrew and can opener then you’ll be fine with a penknife.
Too many tools, not enough knife?
It’s when the penknives have as many functions as the multitools things get confused. And to choose, it’s all about compromise: If what you really need is a strong blade – for cutting, paring, skinning or survival, then you should make your decision based on this and shouldn’t compromise just to get functions you’ll never use.
Equally, if you need a pair of pliers, it has to be the multitool, as a penknife rarely packs a decent pair. Both are compromises: The blade on a penknife won’t ever be as effective as that on a sheath knife, nor will the mini-socket on the multitool replace your garage tool kit.
So, decide how much you can compromise and then look for the models that feature the best quality tools that are important to you. Oh and remember, when flying, do not leave it in your hand luggage!
Best pocket knife and tool brands
When it comes to choosing your penknife or multitool it is good to stick with well known brands with reliable products. So here are what we consider to be the best pocket knife and tool brands.
Victorinox / Wenger (Swiss Army Knife)
Makers of the Swiss Army knife, first issued in 1897 to the Swiss Army, victorinox penknives are commonly referred to as ‘Swiss Army knives’. Much of this is due to their similarity to the classic red pocket knife which became the company’s standard design.
Yet there’s many more models – and a few excellent choices. By complete coincidence, one of the best models in their range is their ‘new’ Swiss Army knife which is pictured above and has been issued to the Swiss Army since 2008.
Sister company Wenger also has a great, but similar range. You can tell the difference as Victorinox knives have a shield around the Swiss Cross – Wenger’s have a square.
Victorinox also make the Swisstool. To be honest there’s very little to differentiate it from a Leatherman and as a Leatherman fan I’m struggling to see why they bothered – other than to get a piece of the multitool market. But they are certainly one of the best pocket knife and tool brands.
Makers of quality multitools since 1983, Leatherman is a US company (established by Tim Leatherman) whose products are seen everywhere – and frequently imitated by cheap, frankly shoddy copies.
Full-size models are huge, with up to 21 tools and include driver sets. Traditional styles are long, flat, sport a graduated ruler on the back side of the handles and fold out and squeeze closed with a very distinctive action.
Previously awkward to close a single blade – you needed to open an additional tool first – the company has moved with the times and has several new design elements, including titanium handles on some models. When opened tools snap into place securely and with both handles joined you’ve a very sturdy work tool.
I like the ‘Skeletool’ (pictured), but check the ‘Super Tool 300’ for its classic Leatherman action. Leatherman are the original multitool and still one of the best pocket knife and tool brands.
Gerber was originally a knife company – again holding the name of its founder in the same way Leatherman does –established by Joseph R. Gerber in 1939. Now as well known for its multitools and survival gear, it’s the other big name in this field.
My first Gerber differed from Leathermans of the time as its pliers slid out without having to open it. Today’s range contains several traditional designs, but also a few more interesting approaches.
Such as the ‘Crucial’ model pictured above, which is very compact and ultralight, looking more like a penknife when folded but sporting most of the tools you’d need. And the ‘Octane’ which has a clever one-handed opening mechanism and doesn’t over do it on tools.
SOG are a US company that started making knives in 1986. They now provide knives and tools for the US Military including special forces. Although some of their knives are folding, they don’t fall under the penknife category as typically they are just be a blade.
Their multitools are similar to in style to a Leatherman, but as SOG were originally a knife manufacturer, the emphasis is often the blades. Many of their multitool products offer a substantial blade and a range of other cutting devices suitable for a range of jobs.
MOD Issue pocket knife (by Sheffield Made)
Back to the penknifes. After all those functions and fancies, it’s really about time to get back to basics. In most cases when trekking or travelling you’ll only need a couple of tools, and you can find these on a quality lock blade such as this British Army pocket knife.
Trekking anywhere you can’t get into a multi-day survival situation, you’re best to cut weight, go for quality and keep it simple. In this case you get a blade that sharpens well, a can-opener, bottle opener and a screwdriver. Simple and lightweight, and my all-time favourite!
We hope this article helped you to decide if you need a penknife or multitool. What ever you choose, if you go with one of the best pocket knife and tool brands above you are sure to have a great bit of gear. If you enjoyed this check out our other adventure travel gear articles.