I like to take notes and keep a trail journal while I'm hiking, so having a reliable pen or small pencil handy is a must for me. For the longest time I've carried a standard #2 pencil cut down to size so that it fits along the spine of my Rite in the Rain notebook, with the help of a little yellow duct tape.
Recently I've started looking at options for carrying a small ballpoint or gel/roller pen instead of my small pencil. I prefer the feel of writing with a pen than with a pencil and with the advancements in water-proof and fade-proof inks I am much more comfortable using an ink pen - I've lost whole note pads that were written with ink pens by getting them accidentally wet - bad experience. The trouble is, pens are generally much bigger/longer than my cut down pencil and can't be shortened quite as easily.
It seems that a handful of savvy manufacturers have identified this potential gap in their ballpoint pen product line-up and started offering smaller and lighter weight pens targeted at hikers and backpackers like you and me. Here are a few of the better examples that I've discovered.
An extremely small metal pen made primarily to go on your key-chain. It's made to use a standard thin ballpoint refill and comes with a plastic stylus insert that can be used for touch screen PDAs or similar devices. The body of the pen is held into the lid by a small but very powerful rare earth magnet that is strong enough to make sure it will never accidentally fall off. This is widely available online and retails for around $18. It comes in a beautiful gift box.
This is an very innovative pen that has been designed with outdoor use in mind. It's fabricated from 304 stainless steel and carbon fiber. The metal casing is CNC'd from solid bar stock. It has two viton O-rings that keep the pen water-tight and ensure the pen stays in place when closed. It's a mere 3 inches long when closed and can be quickly opened and used as-is to write small notes. For longer wrting tasks it can be opened up and converted into a full size pen, but doing so requires some tricky re organizing of the parts much like one of my son's Transformers.
It comes with an Inka pressurized ink refill that writes at any angle and on almost any surface, much like the legendary Fisher Space pen refill, and with good reason. According to Fisher, they make the Inka pen refill, a fact that Inka does not seem to openly admit to. The Inka Pen comes in two models, a stainless steel version and a titanium version for those looking to shave off a few extra micro grams. It's widely available at REI stores and will cost you about $20 for the steel version at least. I don't have one of these pens, but would be interested in testing one to compare it to my trusty Fisher (Bullet) Space Pen.
Zebra F-301 Compact Pen
This is a good inexpensive pen that looks very much like the Inka pen at first glance. When closed the F-301 is a little longer than the Inka pen measuring 4 inches. The finish of the Zebra pen is not quite as good as the Inka pen but you get what you pay for, considering a F-301 Compact double-pack costs around $4. It's made from machined stainless steel and composite plastics. The compact version has an extended pocket clip and has a small lanyard hole for attaching it to a cord or a key-chain. It comes with a basic black ink refill that is usable, but is not pressurized or of high quality.
I recently hacked one of my Zebra compact pens so that it would take a Unibal Signo 207 gel refill which is much larger than the one the Zebra pen comes with. It took me a few minutes to reem out some of the plastic using a small round file, but once it was done the Signo 207 refill fit inside perfectly and gave me a very smooth and precise writing nib that has pigment-based archival quality ink.
Fisher Bullet Space Pen
What can I say about the Fisher Bullet Pen? It's THE classic compact pen that most everyone has heard of (except for the Inka company apparently). Let me first say that like a lot of people I'm not a big fan of the Fisher pressurized ink refill, it constantly globs up and is slow to dry, but it works every time I need it and lasts for a very long time. It's great for quick annotations or notes but not a pen I'd want to write a long essay or novel with. I really wish that Fisher would develop a pressurized gel refill with quality archival and fade-proof ink, but I doubt it's even possible because the ink for a pressurized cartridge has to be incredibly thick to work.
Of course the Fisher Space refill is well known to be able to write on almost any surface, at any angle, and even under water - it's definitely earned its reputation. Another small improvement to the bullet pen that I'd like to see is a lanyard hole or small split ring option. I have a bullet pen and have often thought about drilling a small hole into the lid so that I can attach it to something rather than carrying it loose in my pocket. Fisher does have a pen that comes with a split ring, it's called the Trekker, and looks a lot like the the Inka Pen and the Zebra F-301Compact. I think the bullet pen would be really cool if they added a lanyard hole or a split ring option - just so long as they do it nicely and don't just drill a hole in the lid like I would.
Valiant Concepts Travel EDC Pen
This is probably one of the smallest pens that I've seen and one of the most expensive. It's available in two models, stainless steel ($35), and titanium ($60). It is CNC machined from a solid piece of metal and uses the standard pressurized Fisher Space pen refill. The pen's nib is exposed by twisting the top which is a rather unusual and fancy mechanism for a pen of this size. It's beautifully made and extremely solid, but it's so small I wouldn't want to write with it for too long.
Considering that the Valiant EDC Pen is essentially just a container for housing a Fisher Space pen refill, I'd recommend looking at the Fisher Space Pen Stowaway that is almost exactly the same thing, only not quite as cool looking. The Stowaway costs $9, uses the exact same refill and is incredibly tiny! The Stowaway probably weighs less too.
My Bic Ballpoint Pen Hack
I like quality gear as mush as the next person, and I don't mind paying for something that I know will last me a long time and perform the task well. But paying $20+ for a small ballpoint pen that gets occasional use seems pretty crazy to me, in fact I'd be so worried that I'd loose my expensive little pen that I'd probably not carry it as often as I should.
I'm a pretty handy guy (no, really I am), so I thought I'd take a shot at making my own "keyring" pen. The goal was to make a cheap (possibly disposable) pen that I could rely on, that would be easy to make, and weigh almost nothing. I figured that a standard Bic ballpoint pen would be a good candidate for some surgery.
I took out a couple of different styles of cheap Bic pens from our kitchen junk drawer and started cutting away! First, I opened up one of the pens and removed the refill. Then I used a coping saw to cut off about two thirds of the plastic barrel, smoothing off the cut edges with some fine sandpaper. Next, I used a small pair of wire snips to remove the plastic pocket clip that is on the lid, I wasn't going to be needing that. I used a sharp scalpel to cut off the tail end of the ink refill so that it would fit inside the shorter barrel (an Xacto knife is pretty much the same thing as a scalpel). To my surprise I only had to trim off the empty part of the ink refill and was able to keep almost the entire supply of ink inside this much smaller body - score!
After reassembling the pen it looked pretty awesome, if I say so myself. I needed a way to attach my new shorter Bic to some cord or a key-chain. I took the point of my scalpel and twisted it around gently towards the top of the lid so that there would be a small hole, just big enough for a tiny split ring. Using my pliers I inserted a small 7mm split ring in the lid and hey presto, I had a tiny Bic pen. It took about three minutes to hack the pen shorter once I had grabbed all my tools.
In fact, it was so easy to do that I chopped a few more just to have handy. Considering that you can buy a 24-pack of these pens for about $3 at most stores, this is a very quick and affordable alternative to shelling out a lot of money on a fancy pen that does about the same thing. I'm going to see if I can make one of my favorite Uniball Signo 207 gel refills fit into these small pens, if I can make it fit it will be a really nice small pen to have clipped on my key-chain or tied to my backpack.
Do you carry a pen or a pencil with you when you hike for taking notes? If so what type do you carry and why? Have you tried any of the pens that I have mentioned here? Please leave a comment if you have some information you'd like to share.
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Brian is a Charlotte based backpacker, gear junkie, runner, and CrossFit(er). Originally from Southampton, England, Brian has lived in the US for over 20 years, finally settling in North Carolina. He spends as much time backpacking as his busy work schedule and family life will allow.