Touring tip #5: Resist the multitool

Superficially, multitools are very attractive. They’re small, light and there’s definitely a Swiss Army Knife wow factor as you unfold the various blades, revealing one handy function after another. And this… for removing a stone from a horse’s hoof!

But just as you wouldn’t want to sit down to the twelve course tasting menu at a fancy Michelin starred restaurant with just a Swiss Army Knife by way of cutlery, you’d be very unwise to go on a cycle tour with just a multitool to fix any mechanical problems you might encounter. Multitools are designed for weight-conscious sporting cyclists who carry everything in a tiny pack attached to the back of their saddle. All they want is a way of keeping their bike on the road until they get home to fix it properly or, more likely, take it in to a bike shop to be fixed.

Mechanical ineptitude or disinclination should never be a barrier to enjoyable cycle touring. In most parts of Western Europe there’s usually a bike shop not too far away. Eventually though, you will find it’s easier to know how to fix the most common mechanical problems. It’s just part of the self-reliance that is one of the attractions of touring. Have bike, will travel. Don’t fear. The bar is not set very high. If you can mend a puncture and put up a tent then you have the mental acuity and physical dexterity required to replace your brake pads and adjust your rear mech. As Eben Weiss (aka Bike Snob) observed, most bicycle repair tasks do not require any voodoo, just loosening and tightening certain bolts in a certain sequence.

Many touring cyclists choose to make their lives easier still by selecting bicycle components that are durable and easily repairable. This is why they shy away from mysterious components like STI shifters and hydraulic disc brakes that require all manner of exotic, proprietary tools and fiddly spare parts.

We’re all after an easy life and fixing your bike is a lot harder if you’re using a multitool. The screwdrivers and allen keys (hex wrenches, for stateside readers) aren’t long enough to reach the bolt head and can only make a quarter turn before the bulky body of the multitool obstructs any further rotation. You can’t use two tools at once as is necessary when tightening a nut and bolt from both sides. The tyre levers are too fat and lack leverage.

The person who invented multitool could just as well have been looking for a way to turn a moderately proficient bicycle mechanic into a ham fisted klutz. After a frustrating session of fettling what you’ll need more than anything is a stiff drink. Which may be why every multitool has a bottle opener, though never a corkscrew.

Leave the multitool at home and instead fill a little canvas tool roll with the following:

- A set of Allen keys of the sizes required for the bolts on your bike.

- A pair of small screwdrivers (one flat, one cross headed) or a screwdriver with interchangeable heads like this one which costs just £1.

- A pair of metal tyre levers (plastic can snap). Why do tyre levers come in threes? I’ve never used more than two to remove a tyre.

- A small pair of good quality pliers with a cable cutting blade.

- A chain tool. I recommend one made by Park Tool that’s designed to prevent you from pushing the rivet out of the chain entirely.

- A small, lightweight adjustable spanner or ‘monkey wrench’.

- A spoke tightening key. You may not know how to use it but you might meet someone who does. Ask her to teach you.

This is enough for 99% of people. Rugged folk embarking on ‘epic’ tours into the wilderness might want to take spanners for adjusting wheel bearings and headsets, or crank extractors and bottom bracket tools. But for everyone else, those are tasks for the bike shop.

This post is part of an ongoing series in which I share what I’ve learned in half a lifetime’s cycle touring adventure and misadventure.

  • Gordon

    Agree with most of this, but metal tyre levers are a massive no-no, given that they are substantially harder than the alloy rims nearly all bikes use.

    I’ve never snapped a decent quality plastic/nylon one. I’d reccomend the Schwalbe ones.

  • Gldecker

    I am the rider who needs the tool to get me back to home or the shop. It has worked well for me and others stranded along the trail many times. I do also cary an adjustable wrench (spanner) and channel lock pliers also. The extra weight helps with my eating habits.

  • Mike in Dallas

    How about plastic tyre levers with metal cores? Those can be had in this modern day and age…

  • Tim@velosmith.

    Tend to agree but don’t discount the multi tool completely, I see a good one as an integral part of a touring tool kit. Can metal tyre levers even be bought today, go quality plastic and you’ll never break one – if used properly.

  • Jack

    What would the monkey wrench and cable cutters be for?

  • Patrick

    To avoid damaging a tube, three tire levers are better. Two levers are holding on spokes (little hooks at the end of the levers), the middle tire lever is used to pull the tire and then is positioned next to the third one (which then becomes the second one). This avoids sliding the lever between the rim and the tire and catching on the tube.

  • Christian

    I have been riding bicycle for around 1 year and now I am preparing for a bicycle tour around Taiwan. I have no tools expect my Leatherman Wave. I was wondering if any of you guys have used any leatherman tools for your trips? You can check the list at: http://www.bestmultitoolreview.net
    Thanks