Editor’s Note: Another fantastic article from our friend and contributor, Tom Severin.
A student recently emailed asking for advice on how to perform certain repairs while off road. After responding, I realized that others could benefit from similar information. Handling breakdowns is one of the top fears expressed among my 4WD students.
It’s impossible to cover every scenario in an article like this, but we can review the more common ones.
Let’s start by mitigating the breakdowns. Four-wheeling is often tough on a vehicle. Regular inspection allows you to catch some issues before you hit the trails.
Inspect the vehicle thoroughly every few trips.
Checks hoses, brakes, control arms, tie rod ends, all suspension bolts, fluids and the serpentine belt. Look for leaks and things hanging down. Look for bright spots where something might be rubbing. Same thing for hoses: Lift them up and look to see if they are rubbing. Add, protect, repair or replace as needed. Related article
Contacts. Record important information specific to the trip. While some people record in an electronic device, I prefer writing this down. An electronic device can break, be lost or stolen, or lose power. The list should include:
- Ham repeaters near the destination (if you’re licensed, of course). Even better, program the frequencies into your radio to save valuable time.
- Local hospitals and gas stations. Make sure you know what type of fuel each gas station sells. Some remote stations have only one grade of gas and diesel.
- Area auto supply stores, service stations and, and hours of operations.
- Towing companies
In addition, buy extended-distance towing coverage. AAA offers a 200-mile plan, but other options are available. And pack a second copy of the vehicle’s key. If you’re ever immobilized, a buddy can drive out your vehicle.
Always drive with someone else. A fundamental of four-wheeling but sometimes ignored. Additional vehicle(s) and driver(s) can help if you’re stuck or disabled. Someone in those vehicles may know how to fix the problem. Either way, the additional help comes in handy – necessary in the event of a medical emergency.
Take tools and spare parts, fluids. Pack a simple tool kit along with spare parts. Fluids to pack include engine oil, gear oil, ATF, power steering fluid, and brake fluid. Related article.
Acquire basic mechanical skills. Become familiar with your vehicle by performing some of the repairs yourself. This is a great confidence builder, and will pay off if you have a breakdown while on the trails.
Mechanical Sympathy (the art of preserving your vehicle)
Drive carefully. What I call finesse. If you get stuck, for example, don’t try to force it by revving the engine. Rock the vehicle with gentle forward and backward motions. Engage the wheel lockers and try to back out. If these steps don’t work, ask another driver to pull you out. Heck, there are dozen spots up ahead where you can break it. No need to do it now. Related article.
Some common problems and how to solve them
Any number of things can go wrong with a vehicle. When you have a breakdown, your goal is to get the vehicle moving again so it can be driven home. The following remedies will do that but aren’t permanent solutions.
Get the vehicle moving. If you can get it rolling and there is no significant damage, someone can pull it out.
Because it’s a four-wheel drive vehicle, you have two axles at your disposal. If only one axle is working, engage that one to drive out. I’ve driven home many times on just one axle, whether the front or rear.
Remove the damaged drive shaft and use the other axle. If you remove the rear drive shaft and it does not have a slip joint eliminator, you need to plug the output shaft of the t-case.
Remove a broken front axle or half shaft so it doesn’t hang up. Turn on the front lockers if you have them as needed. Remove the u-joint and put the stub axle (short end) back on the wheel bearing. Without the stub axle in place the inner and outer bearings will not be held in place with bad results. To remove the front axle nut you need a 36 mm socket for TJ’s and a 35 mm socket for JK/ JL. A TJ requires 175 ft.-lb. of torque so it will not be easy to get it off in the field. The Hi-Lift® handle on the end of a breaker bar helps. A JK/ JL requires 100 ft.-lb. (much easier). When you put it back, just do your best to put on the required torque.
Steering and Braking
Two things you need to be sure you can do is steer and brake.
Bent tie rod. Remove the tie rod so it can be straightened. Start by removing the cotter key and loosening the castle nut (but leaving it in place). Using two hammers, slam each side of the steering knuckle simultaneously until the tie rod comes off. You leave the castle nut on so the tie rod doesn’t fall and hit you in the head.
With the tie rod off you can now straighten it. Slam it on a rock in the opposite direction until the rod straightens up sufficiently.
You can also use the Hi-Lift® jack with a chain.
Even straightened, however, many tie rods are hollow and once bent are very weak. It’s a good idea to “sleeve it” for extra strength. The Hi-Lift’s jack handle works great, but any pipe of the proper size is fine.
You need to take one tie rod end off to slide the Hi-lift handle on. Count the exposed threads first so you can put it back about the same place (the rod will have a wave that makes it a bit shorter). I use my dune flag to measure ‘toe-in’. Use the seam in the middle of the tires to measure the distance between the front tires. First on the front and then the back behind the axle. Set the ‘toe-in’ at about 1/16 inch wider at the rear of the tire. This will get you home.
An additional note about tie rods and tie rod ends. Some drivers upgrade to specific, proprietary brands. Those are sold in select retailers. If one breaks while on the trail, you can’t count on finding a replacement at a chain auto parts store. Consider taking along an extra.
Minor leak in power steering. Replace with power steering fluid and monitor frequently. If you don’t have power steering fluid, use ATF fluid. Fix the issue and replace that bottle when you return home.
The most common problems are breaking a brake line that catches on something and pinching it in a coil spring. A spare brake line is nice. If not, make a small fold in the hard line and pinch it off with vice grips. Replace lost brake fluid and drive home with three brakes and the vice grips still pinching the line.
A loose, disconnected, or broken track bar has a major impact on steering. The most common failure is the bolt on the axle end falls off. Carry spare bolts and tighten up a loose bolt.
Without a track bar all your steering wheel does is move the body. It has no effect on the wheels.
On the most recent Rubicon trip, we encountered a vehicle that had broken out a chunk of the frame with the track bar bracket intact. This is unusual. The only solution was to weld it back in place.
Some Other Stuff
Burst radiator or heater hose. Repair with Rescue Tape and refill the radiator. Rescue Tape is strong, double-sided silicone tape. Clean the area as best you can. Wrap the hose tightly (like electrical tape) starting one to two inches from the tear. Continue on past for another one to two inches.
Refill the radiator as needed. If you don’t have coolant, use water. That will get you home. If you use only water (no coolant), keep the radiator cap loose so the system doesn’t come up to pressure.
On newer vehicles, a reboot is worth a try just like all the other electronic stuff we have. Remove the battery cable and wait 10-15 minutes. There might be any number of gadgets that need to discharge. The early JK’s responded well to this treatment.
Auxiliary Battery on JL
On the JL there is an auxiliary battery that runs the A/C, radio, etc. when you stop and the engine shuts down. The service manager told me the small auxiliary battery was good for about two years. If the battery fails on the trail and you can’t start the engine, you need to bypass the auxiliary battery and feed juice from the main battery to the circuits it controls. Jump post #1 to post #2. This will make sense if you look at the row of posts next to the main battery. Now might be a good time to make up a jumper cable with #2 battery cable.
A breakdown can occur during any four-wheeling trip. Knowing that, take steps to minimize the possibility. Start with a good inspection and maintenance regimen. Pack the right tools, along with fluids and spare parts. Always drive with others so they can help you when needed. You don’t need a major fix while out there. Just enough to get you home.
I hope to see you on the trails!
Tom Severin, President Badlands Off Road Adventures, Inc.
4-Wheel Drive School
Make it Fun. Keep it Safe.