March 2008 Essentials Review: Blades & Tools

From an ultralight knife to a full-service multitool, prepare for your Survivorman moment. Or lunch.

Gerber Obsidian

Built-in safety features aren't extraneous on any cutting tool, but they're especially valuable when you're wielding a large knife that's sharp enough to sever your thumb. The Obsidian features a switch mechanism that locks the blade in either the open or the closed position to prevent accidental movement. A tester who took the knife on a four-day primitive living trek into Arizona's Prescott National Forest was also impressed with the torsional strength of the blade. "While building a shelter," she reported, "I was able to lock the blade open and use it to carve notches in beams–and, more impressively, to pry apart and split larger pieces of wood and bark to make a roof." Bonus: The Obsidian has small but useful Phillips and flathead screwdrivers, plus a file and a bottle opener. $48; 4.3 oz.; gerbergear.com

Kershaw Two Can

Twelve peanuts, four raisins, two cashews, a chocolate chip, and half an almond–one very modest handful of GORP–weighs more than this diminutive blade. Kershaw set out to design a pocketknife that would slide inconspicuously into your smallest pocket, and in so doing created the best ultralight blade we've seen this year. True to UL dogma, the Two Can has multiple uses: It has a simple 1.5-inch straight blade and a smaller micro-serrated blade that folds out to create a thumb-operated pair of scissors. The steel blade doesn't lock and isn't long enough to dip into a deep Skippy jar, but we predict it'll tackle simple camp chores for a few seasons. Bummer: The carabiner clip bent during testing. $30; .6 oz.; kershawknives.com

Buck X-Tract LED

If you're gearing up for an expedition or leading a group, a flyweight blade–the kind we love for solos and thru-hikes–just won't, um, cut it. You need a rugged tool with features that can repair a sputtering stove, slice a length of rope for a prusik, and tweak snowshoe bindings or crampons. This multitool-cum-pocketknife is all that: It has a hefty, indestructible feel; a large, partially serrated blade; nifty sliding Phillips and flathead screwdrivers; can and bottle openers; a slide-out pair of pliers; and an LED light, in case your headlamp dies. Said a tester who used the X-Tract LED on a weeklong trip in Grand Teton National Park, "The blade is amazingly sharp, and the tools are useful without overloading the unit with lots of wonky gadgets you would never use in the backcountry." $65; 6.4 oz.; buckknives.com

Leatherman Skeletool

A multitool that weighs as much as a pint of Guinness and is packed with a huge quiver of gadgets is great for your glovebox, but how many MacGyver moments do you really have in the backcountry? On the trail, you probably won't need multiple blades, a diamond file, a wire crimper, or an awl (among other things). Enter the Skeletool, one of the lightest full-sized multitools on the market. Leatherman pared down the feature set to one 3-inch blade, a screwdriver with Phillips and flathead bits, and the company's trademark needlenose pliers and wire cutters. All of the tools proved useful on an late-summer summit attempt on Mt. Rainier. "From cutting salami to adjusting crampons to pulling on a piece of webbing that my cold-numbed fingers couldn't grasp, I used nearly every implement and didn't find myself wanting more," said our tester. The carabiner clip pulls double duty as a bottle opener, which is handy for popping the caps on post-trip libations. $80; 5.1 oz.; leatherman.com

Benchmade 530 Pardue SBK

If cutting cheddar is your main reason for packing a knife, this exquisitely honed blade might be serious overkill, like buying a Porsche to pick up the kids from soccer. But if you want to be slicing cheese a decade from now–never worrying about rust or rapid dulling–then the Pardue's high-quality 154CM stainless steel is a smart investment. Benchmade consistently makes some of our favorite blades, and this lightweight champ received the most glowing accolades of any new model we tested. One editor packed it on every trip he took over an eight-month span, from weekenders on the AT to a trek on Nepal's 135-mile Annapurna Circuit. "Its slim profile takes up little pack or pocket space," he reported. "And the 4-inch folding blade is scary sharp–I carved roasting sticks and makeshift stakes with ease and never had to sharpen it." And it's so light you'll practically forget it's there. Only caveat: Some backpackers may miss extra features like a screwdriver or corkscrew. And dipping this beauty in peanut butter gives us pause. $112; 1.6 oz.; benchmade.com