October 4, 2022

At the core of every DIYer is a psychological inclination toward over-preparedness. If there’s the slightest chance that a task will arise, a toolbox is supplied with the appropriate implement to restore working order. As more specialized chores reveal themselves, the toolbox becomes overstuffed, expanding into a shed or even a garage. The local contractor is never contacted.

The DIY spirit exists even in those of us who aren’t inclined to solve every problem on our own, and one thing we and the all-doers can agree on is the practicality of the multi-tool. In the multi-tool, an entire collection of useful devices is shrunk into a go-everywhere sidekick. But a multi-tool shouldn’t replace the toolbox; it should complement it.

Multi-tools are (or should be treated as) augments or on-the-go alternatives ideal for making quick fixes in a pinch when a toolbox would be otherwise impractical. They’re typically very everyday carry friendly — at most, requiring a pocket in your backpack, cross-body bag or duffel of choice — they’re a good deal more portable and they can even serve you during international travel (so long as you get one without a knife blade). Stash one in a kitchen drawer, glovebox, bugout bag, etc. and you’ll be sure that the occasional unanticipated job never goes without a response.

Types of Multi-Tools

A multi-tool is a multi-tool… right? A picture drawn in the mind’s eye likely renders a chrome-silver gadget with twin handles that fold open to reveal pliers, plus a variety of cutters, drivers and openers that fold out of either side. (It may even have the name Leatherman etched into its side, but that brand is by no means the only multi-tool maker to hold in high regard.)

That image is the classic multi-tool, but the category has grown to be more general and all-encompassing. Practically speaking, any tool with multiple functions is a multi-tool. In this guide, we’ve broken the category down into three groupings.

The first, full-size multi-tools, is like the example above. These are full-featured tools designed for any task. This is a toolbox-worthy tool that often comes with a leather holster that can attach to a belt.

The second, mini multi-tools, refers to pared-down and more portable versions. The highly specialized tools have typically been stripped away to leave only small versions of the essentials. These tools are diminutive enough to go unnoticed in the fifth pocket of your jeans.

Our third category is keychain multi-tools. These tools are highly minimal and aren’t designed to replace anything else you might carry. Instead, they tend to serve as keychains with some additional functionality supplied by a bottle opener.

What Makes a Good Multi-Tool?

The answer to this question is entirely subjective. Today, there are so many types of multi-tools available that you can easily find an option with a toolset to serve the needs and tasks that you encounter most often. Those who want the most function possible should opt for a full-size tool. Others will achieve optimum practicality with just a bottle opener and a small knife.

There are, however, some qualities that we look for in deciding which of these tools is best. A multi-tool’s main features, such as pliers and knives, should be robust enough for use in almost any situation. All tools should lock, and scissors and pliers should, ideally, be spring-loaded. Generally speaking, if a tool is present, it should be useful.

How We Tested

Over the course of several weeks, we had testers use these multi-tools around their homes and within the intended parameters — e.g., general-purpose tools were used in everyday carry contexts, camping tools were taken to task outdoors, travel tools hit the road, etc. Special attention was given to the juxtaposition between their size and portability, ease of use and accessibility of tools, as well as their versatility and number of integrated tools available. And while functionality was certainly prioritized, our testers also took note of the appearance and design of the tools.

Best Full-Size Multi-Tools

Leatherman Bond

Weight: 6.21 ounces
Material:
420HC stainless steel
Number of Tools:
14

The Bond is Leatherman’s newest full-sized multi-tool, and it’s also a callback to the very first model that the company started with. While some multi-tools jam as many implements as possible into a set of plier handles, the Bond is more sparse, delivering a 14-tool set that’s more widely applicable to everyday needs. That list includes a knife blade, wire cutters, screwdrivers and more. (In case you’re wondering: that small circle? It’s a lanyard loop.) The wire cutters aren’t replaceable like they are on some other Leatherman tools, but at this price threshold, we aren’t expecting that’ll be the most-used tool. If it is, consider the Free P2 instead.

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Because there are fewer tools in the Bond, it maintains a highly pocketable form that’s just four inches long and half an inch thick when closed. We don’t like that it doesn’t have a pocket clip, but you can buy one separately and the total price will still be less than $60. Our test unit was also a little stiff at first, as is the case with many multi-tools, but breaking it in is part of the fun of owning one.

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Leatherman Free P2

Weight: 7.6 ounces
Material: 420 high carbon stainless steel
Number of Tools: 19

Leatherman, like Kleenex and Band-Aid, is one of those brand names that has come to stand for the category of products it produces: multi-tools. When you think “Leatherman,” you likely conjure up the Wave, a long-time best-seller among the company’s 50-plus tool arsenal and a favorite of ours until the recent release of the Free P2.

Like the Wave, the Free P2 features all the tools one might imagine should be present in a multi-tool: pliers, scissors, a bottle and can opener, wire cutters, a screwdriver, a ruler, a file. But there’s a fundamental difference in that it, and every other tool in the broader Free collection, has an innovative magnetic construction that makes using those tools much more manageable. The upgrade is twofold: you can now flip open the pliers, balisong style, with one hand, and every smaller implement is also positioned for one-handed use with small nubs that you roll your thumb over to deploy. No more annoying nail nicks and no more opening the pliers just to get to the bottle opener.

We’ve been using the Free P2 for several months now and can attest that the magnetic system, while it might sound like a gimmick, genuinely brings the multi-tool to a higher level of functionality, particularly for tasks that require two hands. It’s more expensive, yes, but the utility combined with the lifespan on these products justify the price; it’s everything that makes Leatherman’s other multi-tools great but better.

For those in need of more tools than what’s in the Free P2, the Free P4 (what Leatherman calls the “most advanced” multi-tool ever made) also has a saw and an additional serrated knife blade.

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Gerber Center-Drive

Weight: 9.5 ounces
Material: 420 high carbon stainless steel
Number of Tools: 13

The fundamental idea behind a multi-tool — to pack as many individual tools into the smallest, pocketable form — presents a dangerous pitfall. Quantity can become a detriment to function. Think about it: how many of the dozen-plus claimed “tools” are you leveraging in a pinch?

Gerber asked that exact question to the contractors, mechanics, outdoorsmen and members of the armed forces who use its tools. Then, it culled the common denominators and set out to make the ultimate master-of-a-few, failure-at-none multi-tool: the Center-Drive.

The Center-Drive rids itself of unnecessary features and improves the primary tools users employ regularly. Its pliers slide up out of the knife and are spring-loaded so that they can be operated with one hand. Its plain-edge knife blade is bigger than any other multi-tool we’ve come across. The screwdriver gets the biggest upgrade though; it’s full-size and angled inwards so that it can be rotated on a center axis and comes with standard, replaceable bits. It’s one of those ideas that works so well, it makes us wonder why nobody took the screwdriver more seriously before.

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Victorinox Swiss Army Swisstool Spirit X

Weight: 8.7 ounces
Material: Stainless steel
Number of Tools: 22

Victorinox’s famous Swiss Army knives are multi-tools in their own right, so it’s not a surprise that the company can pull off a full-sized butterfly-style tool too. In many ways, the Spirit X is a predictable multi-tool, but that’s precisely why it succeeds.

It has a long, frame-lock plain edge knife as well as separate saws for wood and metal. Its needle-nose pliers aren’t spring-loaded, but they are functionally long, with different-sized teeth and built-in wire cutters. Its scissors are spring-loaded, but they’re small (this is the case for many multi-tools, and it’s OK because big cutting jobs will probably call for a full-sized pair anyway).

The Spirit X has the other mandatory tools: a can opener, bottle opener, a Phillips head and two flathead screwdrivers, but it also comes with some extras, like a multifunctional reamer and a crate opener. It also has a unique handle shape that appears almost bent. In use though, that shape provides a more ergonomic grip when operating either fold-out tools or pliers — and makes the Spirit X a notable standby.

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Leatherman Skeletool RX

Weight: 5 ounces
Material: 154CM Stainless steel, carbide, Cerakote
Number of Tools: 8

Obviously, we’d never wish anyone to be caught in dire straits, like being lost out in the woods, trapped in a vehicle or something similar. But it does happen. And we’d rather people be prepared than not. That’s where the Leatherman Skeletool RX comes into play. This multi-tool was specifically made for emergency applications.

In fact, it was actually designed for paramedics and other emergency responders — made light enough to be easily hauled alongside all their other gear but loaded with tools that are useful for first-aid, search-and-rescue and the like. That includes pliers, a 154CM serrated blade (capable of cutting through seatbelts), a carbide glass-breaker, wire cutters and much more.

It also comes equipped with an integrated carabiner for easy pack attachment; it can be operated with just one hand (very important in an emergency, especially when bracing a wound or operating a flashlight); and, of course, it benefits from Leatherman’s iron-clad 25-year warranty — making this a go-to emergency tool you know you can rely upon.

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The James Brand Ellis

Weight: 2.6 ounces
Material: Sandvik 12C27 stainless steel, G10
Number of Tools: 4

The James Brand’s Ellis is, admittedly, not the most feature-rich multi-tool on our list, boasting a collection of just four tools — a knife blade, scissors, pry bar and flathead driver. However, it makes up for that lack of versatility by delivering those four extremely useful tools in one of the most well-designed packages we’ve ever had the pleasure of beholding.

On top of its obvious beauty, this multi-tool is extremely carry-friendly, taking up roughly the same amount of room as the average pocket knife. Furthermore, its materials are top-notch, to boot. That includes G10 handle scales (which are grippy in just about any conditions), Sandvik 12C27 steel for the knife blade and two of its variations feature a black finish on the blade that adds just a touch of durability and a whole lot of style.

All told, TJB’s Ellis is perhaps the definition of “less is more” — a mantra of the Bauhaus design movement. Or perhaps a better phrase is “do less, better.” Whatever the case, this multi-tool succeeds in offering a wealth of usefulness and versatility in a compact, gorgeous package.

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Poler Nobo Knife

Weight: N/A
Material: Stainless steel
Number of Tools: 4

While Poler’s Nobo Knife might look like a pretty standard pocket knife when closed, it opens into a complete camp cutlery set — and that’s really what gives this handy little tool legs, especially when it comes to outdoor usage. It’s small and slender enough to stash in your pocket but built from tough-yet-inexpensive stainless steel.

What’s better is that it actually can be separated into a trio of parts, making the act of chowing down all the simpler while out on the trails. Plus, once you’re done with your meal, you can clean it off easily and snap the pieces back together, making it portable once more. Furthermore, the addition of a bottle opener on the fork adds a bit more utility that’s great for relaxing by the campfire after a long day on the trails.

Truly, the biggest highlight of this particular tool is that it boasts a no-nonsense, simple construction that’s not fussy nor so expensive that you’d be afraid to get it dirty. This is a camping multi-tool designed to be used — and that’s a very good thing.

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The Best Small Multi-Tools

Gerber Armbar Drive

Weight: 3.1 ounces
Material:
steel
Number of Tools:
7

Gerber’s Armbar Drive is a pocket knife in feel and a multi-tool in function. Its folding 2.5-inch blade is its primary implement, but its handle also houses Phillips and flathead screwdrivers, scissors and an awl. A rotating piece on its butt adds a bottle opener, pry tool and hammer surface too. We like how all of these elements are present without the Armbar becoming bulky — it fits comfortably in your pocket (but lacks a pocket clip) just like a knife would. If you don’t need pliers, a file or other specific implements, this small and affordable multi-tool is the way to go.

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Leatherman Micra

Weight: 1.8 ounces
Material: Stainless steel
Number of Tools: 10

Leatherman’s expertise in packing a bunch of tools into one practical package extends beyond full-size multi-tools. The Micra no bigger than a disposable lighter, yet functions (and looks) much like Leatherman’s larger multi-tools. One big difference: instead of pliers, the Micra uses scissors as its central tool. The opening action is clean and satisfying; the scissors are sharp and spring-loaded; the nine other tools are useful for most people’s everyday needs. If we were to pick one standout feature, though, it’s the Micra’s simple shape — perfect rectangles are ideal for keychains.

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Leatherman Free T4

Weight: 4.3 ounces
Material: Stainless steel
Number of Tools: 12

Leatherman built the Free T4 on the same magnetic platform as our top multi-tool pick, the Free P2. It offers the same benefits — easy, one-handed opening and locking tools — but in a more pocketable form that calls to mind a classic Swiss Army Knife. It has 12 tools, including spring-loaded scissors and tweezers, as well as the classics such as a knife, screwdrivers and awl. It’s available in an even smaller form called the Free T2, but we’ve found that the T4’s additional tools are worth the near-negligible size difference.

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Leatherman Style PS

Weight: 1.58 ounces
Material: Stainless steel, glass-filled nylon
Number of Tools: 9

Multi-tools, for the most part, are not as travel-friendly as we might like — at least not when it comes to air travel. After all, anything that houses a blade is pretty much a no-no in the eyes of the TSA. However, Leatherman knows that and made it a point to craft the Style PS you see here specifically with that in mind. It still has nine onboard tools — ranging from pliers to scissors and a bottle opener — but nothing that will get it confiscated as you go through security. If you’re a jet-setter and you need a useful multi-tool that can fit on your keychain, this is your best option.

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The Best Keychain Multi-Tools

Gerber Dime

Weight: 2.2 ounces
Material: Stainless steel
Number of Tools: 11

The Dime measures in at a mere 2.75 inches fully closed, which means you can attach it to your keychain or throw it in your pocket without worry. For something this small and light, it boasts an array of tools that includes real spring-loaded pliers, spring-loaded scissors, screwdrivers and a nifty blade that’s designed to slice open plastic clamshell packaging. Best of all is the bottle opener that’s at the ready without opening the tool at all. In this price range, there are bound to be a few drawbacks: the Dime’s tools don’t open as smoothly as other multi-tools, and you have to really dig your fingernails in to open some of them. But the positives far outweigh the negatives, particularly for its size.

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Quiet Carry Shorty

Weight: 0.38 ounces
Material: Titanium
Number of Tools: 4

The Shorty is an EDC tool designed to keep keys organized in your pocket. Quiet Carry designed it with extra functionality though, transmitted through a fold-out multi-tool (you can also order the Shorty with a knife blade). The tool combines a bottle opener, seat belt cutter, flathead screwdriver, scraper and pry tool and has a frame lock for sturdy use. The great thing about the Shorty is that it houses the tool and your keys in a minimalist rectangle, freeing you from the clutter of a dangly keychain.

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The James Brand Halifax

Weight: 0.38 ounces
Material: Titanium
Number of Tools: 4

There are a lot of keychain bottle openers out there, but few are as handsome as The James Brand’s Halifax. It isn’t just a bottle opener though — the Halifax has a large oval for a keyring and a flat edge that acts as a flathead screwdriver or scraper in a pinch. For most of us, that’s all we need. Sure, it’s pricey, but that’s because it’s made of 6AL-4V titanium.

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Gerber Shard

Weight: 0.6 ounces
Material:
stainless steel
Number of tools:
6

The aptly named Shard appears to be a mangled hunk of metal, but look closer and you’ll find a surprising amount of potential tools, all incorporated into a single-piece structure. The total tool count is six, and that includes a pry bar, small and large flathead drivers, a wire stripper, a bottle opener and Phillips head-like driver (Gerber includes a lanyard hole as a seventh “function,” but we don’t think that counts). Despite its strange shape, all of the Shard’s tools work surprisingly well. It’s no stand-in for a full-size or even a small multi-tool, but it’ll definitely add some utility to your keychain. The only downside we’ve found is that it’s quite pointy, and you can often feel that in your pocket.

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