Why a Multi-Tool is Never My First Choice

General Purpose Doesn’t Equal Multi-purpose for Our Purpose

The virtue and use of multi-purpose gear is often flogged as essential by many outdoor enthusiasts, but I often see confusion regarding overlapping paradigms. When multi-purpose gear is talked about, what many people are referring to is really general purpose gear. For example, a rope, tarp, nails, container, and the like, are all general purpose items whose uses can be extended with a little imagination. When it comes to multi-purpose gear, ask yourself, why was this item built? If it’s a knife, saw, flashlight, and fire starter all rolled into one – that is multi-purpose. It was specifically designed and constructed with those uses in mind. Terms such as multi-use and multi-function further complicate matters.

I usually find such semantics eye-rolling and more a matter of perspective, so why the distinction? Because, I personally prefer not to use multi-purpose equipment for critical applications. Such gear is often clumsy, and by extension, slow, uncomfortable, or compromising is some way.

Multi-purpose Never My First Choice

What constitutes a critical application will vary widely. If I’m hiking at night, being able to see is critical. When the purpose of my trip is fishing or photography, those activities become critical. If such a piece of gear could adversely affect performance at a critical time, impacting my safety and/or enjoyment, it becomes a matter of personal import. I don’t use a hiking pole with eyelets as a fishing rod, and I don’t use my stove with a popup reflector attachment as a source of illumination for night travel. Can it be done? Very likely, but I’m not willing to try, or go through the hassle, just to save a bit of space and a few ounces. These are ridiculous, flippant examples, but are meant to illustrate a point. Multi-purpose gear is seldom able to function as effectively as a single-purpose built item. The strongly qualitative nature of multi-purpose gear makes this highly subjective.

Enter stage right a poncho tarp. Great to have for a day outing that unexpectedly turns into an overnighter. Would I choose it as a primary shelter for a two week stay in the backcountry, when clouds of mosquitoes, or ongoing heavy rain, are likely? Never, but that’s me.

Variables such as comfort and speed (i.e. convenience) are often important considerations for me. When fishing for a few meals a day for a week straight, I always bring an appropriate rod, reel, and cleaning knife. Can I prepare a fish with a multi-tool? Yes, of course. But it’s not the most efficient tool for cleaning or filleting. It doesn’t have the most comfortable grip. And afterwards, all the nooks and crannies need to be rinsed and air dried. So, even though I wouldn’t consider a knife purpose built, I would bring one best suited for my needs, and not a do it all tool.
Does convenience always matter? No, but that’s up to the individual.

Occasional Use and Backup

Continuing with the above example, if fishing isn’t the primary purpose of my trip, and I have opportunistically caught my supper, I am more than happy to use my Victorinox mini classic to prepare the meal. I have no problems using multipurpose tools as backup or for occasional use. There are many quality pieces of gear that I feel comfortable assigning to this role, but when it comes to a frequently used item, for what I consider a critical application, I usually want a piece of gear built specifically for, or very well suited to, a given purpose. I don’t know anyone who uses a Rambo knife compass for backcountry navigation, but when it comes to qualitative performance and features, many people are more willing to compromise; are you one of them?