In the '80s and early '90s, secret agent Angus MacGyver foiled evil plots and vanquished bad guys on TV with nothing but a Swiss Army knife, some chewing gum and his extra-sharp wits. Imagine what hairy end-of-the-world crises MacGyver could solve with today's upgraded, super-loaded multi-tools. Knife manufacturers claim the latest man-toys are almost all you'll need for a backcountry adventure. We tested six popular brands of jam-packed multi-tools.
TOOL AROUND WITH THIS
First look: Oregon-based Gerber Legendary Blades has been in the business for 70 years, making shovels, knives and hydration packs for civilian and military use. We tested the Gerber Radius, which has ergonomically comfortable rubber handles and tools that fold out of the sides so you don't have to open the butterfly-style pliers to use the gadgets. The Radius packs four tools -- scissors, screwdriver, can opener and a 2.5-inch blade -- besides the needle-nose pliers.
Likes and yikes: Sure, the Radius is a behemoth compared with other multi-tools, measuring 4.75 inches and weighing in at about 9 ounces. But we liked the Radius over all the other models tested because the design and rubber grip handles make it feel more like an instrument than a piece of hardware. The blade is wickedly sharp; the tools have protruding knobs, making them easy to open; and the pliers are spring-loaded so they can be used easily with one hand.
The 411: $75, available at REI, Cabela's and other sporting-goods stores, or call (800) 950-6161, www.gerbergear .com.
TAKE IT FISHING
First look: Sheffield is another old-school knife manufacturer that has entered the multi-tool market with several models. Sheffield's latest is called the Angler, a 17-in-one multi-tool that includes a fillet knife, needle-nose pliers, scissors and fish scaler. This one is designed specifically for anglers, but it would come in handy in nearly any backcountry setting.
Likes and yikes: The long, pointed needle-nose pliers are spring-loaded and good for pulling a hook out of a fish with one hand while holding the fish in the other. Like many other multi-tools, the tools unfold from inside the handle, requiring a user to open the pliers to get to the tools -- a slight flaw in the design. Still, for this price, it's a flaw that can be overlooked.
The 411: $27, available only by calling (800) 457-0600 or visiting www.amazon.com.
WATCH THOSE NAILS
First look: Victorinox, makers of the iconic Swiss Army Knife, offer several multi-tools; we tested the aptly named SwissTool. This 4.5-inch-long gadget packs 11 tools, including two blades, a saw, a can opener, a screwdriver and needle-nose pliers, and the stainless-steel body doubles as a ruler.
Likes and yikes: The SwissTool is sturdy, durable and packs just about every gadget you might need in the backcountry. The drawback: It's the heaviest of the multi-tools we tested (about 10 ounces) and required a strong, thick fingernail to dig out and unfold the tools.
The 411: $95, available at REI, Big 5 Sporting Goods and Target, or call (800) 243-4045, www.swissarmy .com.
First look: No review of multi-tools would be complete without an entry from the Leatherman Tool Group, one of the most popular brands on the market. The Leatherman Skeletool is the latest model, touted as super light and built to last. The 5-ounce multi-tool is specially made for minimalists, sporting nothing more than a 2.5-inch stainless-steel knife, needle-nose pliers, a screwdriver (with Phillips and flat head bits) and a bottle opener that doubles as a carabiner.
Likes and yikes: If cutting down on the weight you carry into the backcountry is a priority, maybe the Skeletool is for you. But consider this: If you buy the Leatherman Blast instead of the Skeletool, you'll get a multi-tool with six more gadgets, save more than $20 and add only 2 ounces to your load. The other downside to the Skeletool: The protruding screwdriver digs into the palm of your hand when you squeeze down on the pliers.
The 411: $72. To find the closest retailer, call (800) 847-8665, www.leatherman.com.
LIGHT THE WAY
First look: Buck Knives are a tradition that goes back three generations. But the folks at the Idaho-based company are not stuck in the past. The Buck Whittaker X-tract LED has more bells and whistles than a Mardi Gras parade. Besides a sharp, partly serrated, lockable 3-inch blade, the multi-tool has a pair of pliers, a screwdriver (Phillips and slotted) and a piercing LED light on the handle.
Likes and yikes: The blade in this multi-tool is quite sharp, and the LED light comes in handy when stumbling around a dark campground. Best of all, it weighs only about 6 ounces. The downside: The pliers and the screwdriver functions are set too far into the handle to be effective.
The 411: $65, available at REI, Sport Chalet and other sporting good stores, or call (800) 215-2825, www.buckknives .com.
PRY, PRY AGAIN
First look: The Beretta Co. may be the world's oldest firearm manufacturer, but like all successful businesses it has diversified, offering hunting gear, luggage and knives. The stainless-steel Classic Pocket Tool has all the gizmos and gadgets you could want in a multi-tool, including scissors, a can opener, a corkscrew, a 2.5-inch blade, a nail file and a screwdriver, plus a fold-out LED light.
Likes and yikes: This shiny, bullet-shaped multi-tool is only 4 inches long and weighs a little more than 4 ounces but packs 11 tools. Still, the Beretta model suffers from the most common multi-tool drawback: The tools are difficult to extricate from the handle. You almost need another multi-tool to pry them out.
The 411: $25, available at Turner Outdoorsman, or call (800) 237-3882, www.shopberetta.com.