Ask anyone who owns a swiss army knife and they’ll tell you just how handy they can be. This makes them one of the best gadgets to pack on any trip, and in some cases even just a trip is just to the supermarket, as I realized the other day after buying a bottled drink without a twist-off lid.
In choosing a swiss army knife or similar multi-tool for travel, you really need to consider a balance between weight and features, especially since some knives and multi-tools are now so loaded that they aren’t exactly light in the pocket. Multi-tools have brought the option of portable pliers and bit drivers. The latest swiss army knifes have brought the options of integrated digital altimeters, USB flash drives and LED lights. As much as it might be appealing to have a miniature tool chest with you where ever you go, chances are that you won’t really need most of those tools, and you may be better off getting some things separately. Granted, if you pick up a Victorinox Swiss Army Swisstool Spirit you may find yourself using every single tool simply because you’ll be looking for ways to use your new toy.
Key Ring Knives – The Knives that Go Anywhere
The lightest swiss army knives are the 2.25 inch (58mm) key ring knives. In my opinion, everyone should own one of these knives and carry it with them every day – though make sure to pack it in your checked bag at the airport (more on that later). The Victorinox Swiss Army Classic SD includes a small knife, scissors, nail file, tweezers and toothpick – the most basic of the class and the most common swiss army knife to see attached to a set of keys. Once you have one, you’ll find yourself using the knife to open packages, the scissors to trim loose clothing threads, snip off price tags and remove hangnails, the nail file for the occasional torn fingernail that catches on on every piece of cloth imaginable and the tweezers for removing splinters or plucking hairs. I honestly can’t say I’ve ever used the toothpick – at least, not on my teeth.
I recommend upgrading from the Classic SD to the Victorinox Swiss Army Manager which adds a small flat-head screwdriver on the nail file and a small Phillips head screwdriver at the end of a bottle cap lifter (you know you’ll use it). As for the toothpick, it gets replaced with a retractable pen that comes in ever-so-handy when you need to jot down a phone number or email address, or when you’re at the post office and all the pens either don’t work or are being used.
There’s a variant of the Manager known as the Midnite Manager which trades the tweezers for an LED light. This may seem like a good idea, but if you need some light to see what you’re doing and what you’re doing involves using one of the tools on the knife, you may be in a tough spot. I suggest you pick-up a Photon Freedom Micro Light instead – one of my most highly recommended gadgets and surely a far brighter LED light. Plus, that tweezers can come in handy, and adding the LED light does make the knife a bit thicker.
The other models of this size include the Minichamp and Midnite Minichamp, which throw in an emergency knife (designed for cutting through seatbelt I presume), orange peeler/scraper (really?), ruler (how useful is a ruler that’s less than 2 inches?) and cuticle pusher – all of which add to the thickness of the knife, of course. So unless you’re an orange-eating maniac, I say go with one of the Manager versions above. There’s also the SwissMemory series which include USB flash drives, but there are cheaper, better options for flash drives (i.e. the amazing SanDisk Ultra II SD Plus USB Card). Plus, whereas a basic knife can be useful 10 or 20 years down the road, how useful do you think even a 2GB flash drive will be in that time? The biggest problem with these that I see, though, is that if you use a flash drive to backup data, including personal or confidential documents, then you should never part with your data – but that’s exactly what you’d have to do given airport security laws. Plus, you wouldn’t be able to backup or retrieve any data on the flight.
That brings us back to the whole issue of dealing with airport security. Since you can’t bring a knife into a plane cabin, you must remember to pack your knife in your checked luggage – unless, of course, your “knife” doesn’t have a knife: The Wenger Air Traveler is a very basic swiss army “knife” similar to the Classic SD mentioned above – but without a knife blade, making it approved for air travel. It’s not a bad idea, but you can be sure you’ll have airport security stopping you with questions about that knife every time you go through a checkpoint. Unless you really think you might need that scissors, nail file or tweezers on the flight, I say stick with Victorinox Manager and remember to pack it in your checked bag. You may even want to do this the day before your flight so you don’t become one of the many people who forget and end up donating their knives to airport security or mailing them home from the airport in a rush.
If you do forget to pack your knife in a checked bag and are faced with surrendering your knife for good or if you only fly carry-on, you could consider stripping your swiss army knife of it’s knife-hood by breaking off the blade. I haven’t tried it myself, but I would guess that by holding the extended blade solidly under your shoe, you should be able to snap it right off – making your “knife” compliant with security regulations. (If anyone can confirm that this works, do let me know.)