If You Only Had One Tool

Posted by Kevin Estela on Mar 2nd 2022

I’ve been a professional survival instructor since 2007. Before that, I worked at a canoeing/kayaking outfitter from 1998 to 2006. I’ve seen the booming interest in survival television shows (hell, I’ve even been on camera for History 2x), the popularity of survival gear surge in retail sporting goods stores, and the conversations about survival scenarios pop up more frequently around the metaphorical water cooler. You can imagine I’ve singled out some seriously annoying pet peeves. I’m fond (please read the sarcasm here) of “listicles” where internet authorities pick out the top 10 or best 7 this or that. I’m guilty of writing a few as a regular magazine writer at the behest of my editors since they do perform well and serve as entertainment. I also really enjoy near impossible scenarios like “If you had to survive on an island with only…” Well, one of my favorite pet peeves is the “If you only had one tool” or “one tool option” discussion. For those not familiar with this concept, it refers to the idea of a single tool being used to address all survival needs or identifying the single tool that has the most utility. I think it is an entertaining mental exercise and one that is built more on fantasy than reality. Let’s dive into this “one tool” topic and bring up some honest talking points that will sting a bit for some.

Why Do You Only Have One Tool?

Let’s start with this simple question, “why only one tool?” What circumstance or lack of planning has caused you to end up in this scenario? Think about it, most everyone's pocket carries some basic equipment. Even if you are stranded with just what is attached to your belt, you should still have some basic gear in your pockets. If you don’t, let’s find out why. This scenario of being stranded with a single tool is more likely to happen if it is accepted voluntarily. Also, if you do have a single tool and happen to have a resource like a vehicle to pull materials from, is it still a single-tool option? We witnessed this at the recent Fieldcraft Survival Winter Vehicle Survival Course. Furthermore, many of the “one tool” crowd spend quite a bit of their paychecks on finding the ultimate one-tool. Wouldn’t a better option be satisfying your basic needs with more frugal spending across different survival kit items? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a quality knife, a well-made ax, even my titanium Heavy Cover canteen but if you asked me to fund a weekend in the woods or build a survival kit on a budget, I’ll gladly find a knife, shelter, food, cordage, etc tools at the local discount store. If you spend all you have on one tool before addressing all your needs, maybe you’re the greatest threat to your survival.

What Happens if You Lose Your One Tool?

Two is one and one is none. If you’ve heard some version of this quote, you know the importance of having redundant layers. Focusing on a single solution or single tool has the potential to install ideas in your mind you only need one of anything. If you are serious about self-reliance and survival, you should have items that fulfill P.A.C.E planning. Relying on a single tool for a given need is foolish. Only in extreme cases should you do this and in these cases, I’m assuming you are working within a group with enough people carrying equipment that serves as group equipment. Placing too much reliance on a single tool to address all the survival needs stacks too much importance on that one object. Imagine losing your stove in the great outdoors. As long as you have a cooking pot, you can build a fire and cook over that. Conversely, if you can’t build a fire, you can always cook over your stove or light your camp with a flashlight and lantern. The one-tool option creates a single fail point and it is not a wise move.

Is this Discussion more about the Tool or the User?

Often when you read the accounts of the perfect one tool option, you hear people brag about what they can do with X, Y, or Z. A skilled outdoorsman can make the most out of a bad situation as long as they apply strong fundamentals. In this way, you can imagine a person using a keen edge of a hatchet to feather sticks for fire or using a Swiss Army Knife to work through saplings to make spears. The one tool is nothing without the skilled user behind it. Keep in mind, this skilled user is likely woods-wise and has a wealth of knowledge about local plants and animals they can tap into. In the absence of basic skills, some users will select that one tool designed with so many features it hardly resembles the tool in its purest form. Think of the pop-up ad you’ve probably seen for a shovel that has a knife, a saw, a built-in compass, a slingshot, and more. What is better, a jack-of-all-trades or a master of one? What is better, having a lot of skills with a dedicated tool or a person of mediocre skills with an over-the-top tool? I’m leaning towards the skilled woodsman approach. Then again, I’m still going for the skilled woodsman properly prepped with the right gear.

Has this Ever Played Out Before?

Over the years, as previously mentioned, I’ve worked with Hollywood casting folks, producers, and general T.V. people. In the initial interview phase of most casting phone calls and Zoom interviews, a question like “What one tool” usually comes up. Whenever they do, I often laugh and ask where the one-tool option has played out before. I get it, in popular books like “Hatchet” by the late Gary Paulsen, it is as much of a character as Brian is. That said, it is a work of fiction and Brian did have a few other tools to work with after the plane wrecked. The one-tool topic conjures images of living off the land, thriving, and being heroic when the reality of survival, even with a well-equipped kit, is anything but glamorous. Think about the television show ALONE. Contestants have 10 items to live off the land and every contestant ends up much thinner than when they started. The argument comes up frequently, “what about the indigenous tribes that just have a machete to live in the jungle?” The tribe probably has many tools including shovels, axes, baskets and multiple members so is it a true “one-tool” scenario? I think we already have the answer. By the way, the jungle is a wealth of resources for shelter, cordage, and most importantly food. If you don’t live in the jungle, you probably should focus on learning skills that pertain the most to your geographic area.

But what about PMA?

PMA is short for “Positive Mental Attitude”. I’m sure folks reading this are wondering why I’m not being more optimistic. After all, that is part of my job. I’m supposed to be positive, optimistic, and encouraging while mitigating doubt, uncertainty, and weakness. Sorry to break this to everyone, my job is also to promote truth and the “one-tool option” in its purest form is fantasy. It is a rabbit hole that takes your attention away from better practices. A single tool might have a place within the concept of survival needs and work well for protection, fire, shelter, sustenance, etc. It probably doesn’t work well for all. Think about having to rely on a single smaller EDC-sized tool to do a much larger job. How much time are you willing to sink into a task to satisfy your ego or justify the expense of the tool you purchased? This is America and focusing on one item instead of all items you should have and relying on that single item is strange when we have so many items with great choices in gear we can prepare ourselves with. Even with a survival kit you wear on your belt, I’m still going to recommend you throw additional items in your pockets and some in your backpack. You guys can focus on the one-tool option as much as you want, I’ll be over here with students I’m training for reality.

A Better Approach

It’s better to come to meetings with solutions than complaints. Complaining is just expressing an opinion and everyone has one. The idea of a one-tool option is good for discussion but it is terrible for practice. Looking at each of your tools for multi-purpose utility is wise as it will help you trim the fat from your kit. Some items like a mirror can be used for medical examination and signaling and they should be part of a well-thought-out kit. Looking for more than one use is smart. Looking to use one item for “ALL” uses is foolish. Please, set your ridiculous meter to “sensitive'' when you hear discussions pop up about having “one-tool” and absorb what you want from the commentary. Keep in mind the reality of selecting equipment and good practices have proven over time in the great outdoors.