Gear I Hold Dear: My Swiss Army Knife

The seminal multi-tool still reigns supreme for one longtime hiker.

It was one of two going-away presents my stepfather gave me as I was packing up a 1967 Opel Kadett station wagon before my migration from the East of my youth to the West of my future: a Swiss Army knife, Tinker model. (The other gift was a copy of the tome On the Loose, which I still have.) My stepfather was concerned that he might never see me again, that I might disappear without a trace into the unmapped folds of the New Mexico desert, and that a good knife might help me cut through whatever obstacles I might find along the way.

The Opel Kadett never made it to New Mexico, having died an inglorious death in Amarillo, Texas, where I sold it to a junk dealer for enough money to put my gear on a Greyhound bus, but not enough money to also put me on that bus. I hitchhiked the rest of the way, the Swiss Army knife humbly in my pocket, where it resided for years. That Tinker came to slice many jalapeño peppers and avocados and tighten many loose screws, clear up until my fully loaded REI Co-op Expedition Cruiser external-frame backpack was nipped from the front porch of a tavern one bitter-cold winter night in 1978.

In replacing my beloved knife, I had entertained the notion of purchasing a different model, perhaps one with a saw and a corkscrew. But I liked the sleek lines of the Tinker, how it fit perfectly in my left front pocket when I was hiking. So I bought another, and that tool ended up being my constant companion for two decades, during which time it accompanied me on my thru-hikes of the Arizona, Colorado and Appalachian Trails.

By then, though, one of its blades had chipped when I had attempted to split a piece of tropical hardwood in Costa Rica. The locking mechanisms for its flat-nose and Phillips-head screwdrivers had been worn down. The toothpick and tweezers were long gone. I finally retired that Tinker in a toolbox, where it slowly sank into forgotten ignominy under a layer of wrenches, sockets and grime.

In the late 1990s, multi-tools had become exceedingly popular, and I jumped on the bandwagon, purchasing a basic Leatherman to replace my Tinker. But, though the Leatherman was a solid piece of gear, it simply did not fit as well into my front pocket when hiking as did my previous two Swiss Army knives. So, once again, I ordered a Tinker.

The Swiss Army Super Tinker ($34) has various blades, screwdrivers and scissors.

Earlier this summer, my wife and I were day hiking in the Gila National Forest, near where we live. On the drive back out, I realized my Tinker was gone, likely having fallen out of my pocket. Early the next morning, I drove back out and re-hiked the trail in hopes of finding my knife. I spent hours looking under leaves and behind rocks. But it was gone, and I had to assume that another hiker found it and celebrated their good fortune.

I rummaged through my toolbox and unearthed the old Tinker with the broken blade and cleaned it up as best I could. It was like reconnecting with an old friend, albeit a friend that was no longer up to the rigors of trail life. Its main shortcoming was its lack of tweezers—a necessity when one hikes with a dog in cactus country. And so I was once again in the market for a new multi-tool.

I was heartened to learn that REI still purveys a wide array of Swiss Army knives, including the model I have come to love over the course of more than 50 years. I ordered my fourth Tinker, complete with two blades, various screwdrivers and openers, a toothpick and tweezers. The design has changed no one iota since my stepfather, who passed away two years ago, handed me a parting gift as my younger self was preparing to cast his lot with the four winds, which blew him far away to the place he still calls home.

The author in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest with his tweezerless Tinker

Yesterday, my wife was cleaning out our vehicle after a dusty trek into the boondocks that verily define this outback part of the country. Under the driver’s seat, she found a Swiss Army Tinker that apparently had not been misplaced on the trail after all.

So, now I own three Tinkers, a supply that ought to last a lifetime. Or longer.