There are a few things every outdoor enthusiast needs: a dependable compass, a bright flashlight and a sharp knife.
For a better part of the previous century, the Case pocket knife was the tool of choice for fishermen and hunters. Then in the 1950s, the Swiss Army knife became standard requirement for serious outdoorsmen.
But in 1983, a new gadget called the "multitool" entered the marketplace and changed the way outdoor lovers will forever look at gear.
Mr. Fix It
Three years ago, on a multiday paddling trip through Florida's Indian River Lagoon system, my companions and I awoke one cold December morning to find that one of our kayaks needed emergency repairs.
A foot peg, which controls the rudder, had been badly damaged in the previous evening's wind and waves. Finishing the trip looked doubtful unless it was fixed.
No sooner had the problem been identified then five guys stepped forward, each with a multitool in his hand.
To be honest, it took twice as long as it should have to fix the rudder. But that's what happens when you have five cooks stirring the sauce. But the boat was repaired, and we continued on our way, proud that we had the wherewithal to remedy the situation.
Road trip essential
Tim Leatherman, a recent mechanical engineering graduate of Oregon State, took off on a trip with his wife through Europe in the summer of 1975.
Leatherman, who had worked as an English teacher and helicopter mechanic, found his old Boy Scout knife lacking when it came to repairing faulty hotel plumbing and his frequently uncooperative Fiat that carried he and his wife across the continent.
So Leatherman sat down and made a cardboard model of a tool that he thought would aid travelers, as well as outdoorsmen. Leatherman called his device a "multitool" because it had all the essentials — knife, screwdriver, bottle opener — and the added benefit of pliers.
Years later, he presented his design to several knife companies, which weren't interested because Leatherman's device looked more like a tool than a knife. So Leatherman took his creation to several tool companies, which weren't interested because Leatherman's device looked more like a gadget than a tool.
Leatherman would not accept defeat and decided to produce his invention himself. In 1983, he set up shop and found a mail-order company that would distribute his new multitool. He hoped to make 4,000, but instead received orders for 30,000.
It didn't take long for other companies to come up with their own multitool designs, because after all, if you can carry only one tool, it should be as versatile as possible.
In 1998, during a survival training session in the wilds of Georgia, I asked my friend, veteran adventure racer Mitch Utterback, what he considered the ultimate piece of survival equipment.
"A multitool," said Utterback, an officer with the U.S. Army's Green Berets. "I never leave home without it."
Since then, I've become a devotee of the multitool, buying and losing several generations of this indispensable survival tool. There is some serious hardware on the market, including Leatherman's Surge, complete with 21 tools, which weighs nearly a pound.
Back to basics
But when it comes to outdoors gear, I am something of a minimalist. My equipment has to be versatile, but lightweight. That's why I hope Santa (hint, hint) brings me the new Skeletool CX this Christmas.
Weighing just 5 ounces, this ultralight multitool has a knife, needle-nose and regular pliers, wire cutters, bottle opener and multiple screwdriver attachments. A few ounces may not seem like a big deal to most folks, but if you are a serious backpacker or kayaker, weight adds up.
At around $69.95, the Skeletool is not something I would buy myself (hint, hint). But that's what is great about Christmas. It gives people (wife and kids) a chance to buy that special present for a loved one (dad) that he can really use instead of another ugly tie or sweater.