Small Pens for Backpacking

Rite in the Rain Pencil Hack

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.

Tec PicoPen
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.

Pico Pen

Inka Pen
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.

Inka Pen Diagram

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.

Pico Pen

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.

Pico Pen

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.

Valiant Concepts EDC Pen

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!

Bic Pen Hack

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.

Bic Pen Hack

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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  • http://pig-monkey.com/ Pig Monkey

    I have a couple Fisher Space Pens, but, like you mentioned, the ink kind of sucks. I like my ink to flow out of the pen while writing, so I don’t often pack the Fisher. What usually ends up in my pack is a normal Uni-ball Jetstream pen (my preferred instrument), a small #2 pencil (poor man’s Space Pen), a yellow highlighter (for marking routes on maps), and a Sharpie (can’t go anywhere without one of those!). That’s sort of a lot of stuff. I could save a ounce or two and just carry the pencil, but I do like my writing tools!

    I’d been curious to try the Inka Pen, but if it uses the same ink as the Fisher, I think I’ll pass.

    Nice little hack with the duct tape on the notebook! I made a small retention strap for mine.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    @Pig Monkey – Thanks for your comments. I checked out your retention strap mod and I really like it. I also saw that you changed the buckle from the original version that you first saw, but for me even the side release buckle seems a little bulky (maybe).

    I might try doing the same thing but using a little Velcro to do the fastening, after all it doesn’t need to take a lot of weight, just stay closed – or did I miss something? Cool either way.

    My duct tape hack was quick and easy, but you need to put a small piece of duct inside the larger piece to act as a liner and to stop the pencil from sticking to the tape.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09364636677279037964 Mattexian

    Pretty thorough review of the small pens. I’ve got a Fisher Bullet and a Zebra Compact, and I’d have to give my preference to the Zebra. I carried the Fisher for a while, and discovered that the cap had been forced down far enough that it touched the tip of the ink cartridge, allowing the ink for flow out! There’s no way to fix that, that I can figure. The Zebra Compact is good and cheaper by far (tho not as cheap as your hack), and it fit well inside the sleeve pocket on my army Goretex jacket (which has a pen slot inside the pocket, but it’s not a very long one, hence the Compact lives up to it’s name).

    The only other mini-pen I’ve got is the retractable one in my “Signature Lite” Swiss Army Knife, and it works pretty well, for times when I’ve completely forgotten to bring a pen and need to jot down a quick note.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06591177840681079767 alan

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01151735037210471028 Steve

    Why don’t you see what you can do with the cartridge of a uni power tank pen. It’s pressurized and a joy to write with.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    @Steve: Hey thanks for the heads up on the Uni Tank pens, I admit I’ve never seen them before. From what I’ve just read online they seem like a better AND cheaper alternative to the Fisher Space pen, but still use a thick oil-based ink.

    What I’d love to see is a pressurized version of the Uni-ball 207 ink that is waterproof and check fraud resistant. Almost all standard ballpoint pens have been a bit of a let down for me, but I think a pressurize cartridge needs a thicker ink to stop it leaking.

    Like you, I’ll be watching this space…

  • http://www.pencilrevolution.com/ John

    Pencil all the way! I’ve had ballpoints poop out in cold temps (even above freezing), and, like you, I’ve lost notebooks to water damage. General’s Pencil Co. makes cheap plastic caps you can put onto the ends of stubs and keep in your pocket, pack, etc.

    I really like your Rite in the Rain mod, too.

  • Walter

    Brian,

    The Ohto Tasche pen might be a good choice. Maybe a bit elegant looking for a hiking trip, but beautifully made. http://www.jetpens.com/index.php/cPath/240_132
    The refill looks like a Parker type, so it should be possible to get a Fisher or similar refill to fit.
    http://www.jetpens.com/product_info.php/products_id/837

    Walter

  • Thopter

    I have a Ti Inka on my keychain. I’ve had it for about 3 years now, and it hasn’t let me down yet. I primarily use it for Geocaching, as you never know if a cache will have a pen/pencil in it or not.

    I just timed myself right now, and it took me only 10 seconds to detach it from the keyring and assemble it into full-size mode. I dunno, maybe some people consider that a hassle.

    It does take regular Fisher ink refills, but you have to get the kind that has snap-off sections to get it short enough to fit.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    Thopter, 10 seconds is no big deal, to me at least. Since writing this post I have bought two new Inka (steel) pens and love them. The quality and finish of the construction is superb. I wish there were a few more refill options because I’m still not a big fan of the Fisher Space Pen (SPR4 – PR4) refill. How do you like the Ti version?

  • Thopter

    I have a Ti Inka on my keychain. I’ve had it for about 3 years now, and it hasn’t let me down yet. I primarily use it for Geocaching, as you never know if a cache will have a pen/pencil in it or not.

    I just timed myself right now, and it took me only 10 seconds to detach it from the keyring and assemble it into full-size mode. I dunno, maybe some people consider that a hassle.

    It does take regular Fisher ink refills, but you have to get the kind that has snap-off sections to get it short enough to fit.

  • NurseJoe

    I realize this is an old thread, so I hope this reaches you — you’ve mentioned that you’re not a fan of the fisher ink. I definitely do have the problem with the medium refill’s ink globbing up. I’ve actually found that the ink globs a lot less (as in it’s never globbed for me) with the fine refill rather than the medium. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that you can buy any pens with the fine refill in place, but the refill itself is readily available.

  • NurseJoe

    I realize this is an old thread, so I hope this reaches you — you’ve mentioned that you’re not a fan of the fisher ink. I definitely do have the problem with the medium refill’s ink globbing up. I’ve actually found that the ink globs a lot less (as in it’s never globbed for me) with the fine refill rather than the medium. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that you can buy any pens with the fine refill in place, but the refill itself is readily available.

  • The Beanies

    I have never been a fan of carrying ink around, unless the pen is very special you can have all sorts of problems writing with it. So i have always carried pencils, they always work and if the nib breaks you can sharpen a new one. 
    My favorite has to be a free half length one from a famous Swedish furniture store. When I visit I always leave with a pocket full.

  • The Beanies

    I have never been a fan of carrying ink around, unless the pen is very special you can have all sorts of problems writing with it. So i have always carried pencils, they always work and if the nib breaks you can sharpen a new one. 
    My favorite has to be a free half length one from a famous Swedish furniture store. When I visit I always leave with a pocket full.

  • EDCNewbie

    Thanks for the pen idea. Just used it for my EDC keychain! I’m kind of hooked on EDC stuff at the moment..hoping to start backpacking some this summer when I have free time (no school). Your site has been a great resource.

  • EDCNewbie

    Thanks for the pen idea. Just used it for my EDC keychain! I’m kind of hooked on EDC stuff at the moment..hoping to start backpacking some this summer when I have free time (no school). Your site has been a great resource.

  • AlanHecht

    This was a great idea. I was about to buy a mini-sized pen since my son lost the one I usually carry in my pocket. But now I won’t feel as bad if I lose this since it’s only pennies and minutes to make a new one. FYI, I had a cutter for PVC pipe in my toolbox. It did a great job of cutting the pen shaft with no rough edges.

  • AlanHecht

    This was a great idea. I was about to buy a mini-sized pen since my son lost the one I usually carry in my pocket. But now I won’t feel as bad if I lose this since it’s only pennies and minutes to make a new one. FYI, I had a cutter for PVC pipe in my toolbox. It did a great job of cutting the pen shaft with no rough edges.

  • Ron Luce

    Here in Oregon, we pretty much only write in the rain. Unlike you guys, I prefer the Fisher Space Pen.

    Fisher Space makes a “multi-function universal” refill which is cheap and fits into a cut-down Bic or other sick pen. It doesn’t hold a lot of ink but that doesn’t matter to me since I’m not writing a novel.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Ron, I may have to take another look at Fisher refills. My experience has been that I get a lot of blobs when I’m writing that smudge. Like you I’m not writing a novel but I’d love to have a “write anywhere pen” that didn’t smudge anywhere too.

  • Josh

    I’m not a backpacker, but I sure do learn a lot from you guys for edc.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      You don’t have to be a hiker or backpacker to benefit from these ideas. A small little pen is a clever hack for anyone :) So glad you find the information useful, thanks for letting me know.

  • Will

    Hey. Just a quick question on the shortening of the bic pens. Did you do anything to the end once you cut the ink or did you just leave it open.

    Love the article and tons of great info

  • http://batman-news.com Launce

    Inspired by this thread, I stopped shopping for short pens to fit in my t-shirt pocket and just took one of my favorite BIC Soft Feel retractables apart, trimmed a half-inch off the barrel and the refill with a utility knife (no sanding required), and stuck it back together. Magic.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Nice. Share a photo if you can, I’d love to see it.

      • http://batman-news.com Launce

        I used the cut-off section of barrel to measure how much of the refill to trim to preserve the click.

  • http://www.elkospens.com Elkos Pens

    Thank you for sharing your post your pen purpose idea is great , i have some Fisher Bullet Space Pens which is most compact pen for writing pupose.