This month’s article is in response to a request generated by last month’s article. “I have a question about tools.” Josh wrote in an email. “I can’t quite figure out what kind of tool kit I should make for off-road. Not necessarily recovery. But wondering if you have a go-to kit of basic tools?”
Mechanical tools are absolutely essential for any 4WD adventure. There is bound to be a repair at some point during the trip. Yet with so many tools and tool kits to choose from, selecting the right collection can be challenging.
The average plastic tool kit offers dozens of wrenches and sockets. It seems natural to take one along. After all, you might need most of the tools, right?
Packing tools, like any other gear, takes thoughtful planning. You have to consider not only the tools themselves but the packaging for them as well.
Focus on essential tools, and pack wisely
Making repairs while off road is naturally more difficult than when you’re at home. There, your entire tool collection is at your disposal neatly arranged on shelves and in drawers. And if you don’t have a particular tool, you can run out and buy it.
Off road, it’s a different story. With space in your vehicle at a premium, you have to be very selective of the tools you take. And how they’re packed. Dumping a lot of loose tools in a bag means searching for the right tool every time. We need to find the balance between space and the ease of finding and later accounting for all tools at the end of the repair.
Let’s start with the typical tool kit. Molded plastic, it holds dozens of sockets and open end/box end wrenches. Everything you need is laid out nicely. But that kit takes up a fair amount of space. And face it: You don’t need every wrench, socket and other tool included. So why take all that?
Tool bags and tool rolls are more practical. These buckled or Velcro closure tube-shaped bags offer more than enough room for your tools. To keep the wrenches orderly, store them in tool rolls.
Another option for box end wrenches is a carabiner clip. These handy devices keep your wrenches orderly and easy to find. You generally don’t need to remove a wrench to use its open end. But it’s not so easy to access the box end of the last wrench.
For small tools such as loose Allen wrenches, torx bits, etc. use individual small boxes inside a larger tool bag. Altoids mint boxes in several sizes are a good source. Worst-case: Buy a travel soap box at the drug store.
Which tools to pack? Start with those used most frequently at home. That will include some wrenches and sockets. If your vehicle requires both metric and SAE tools, don’t panic. Some tools are nearly interchangeable. The ½ inch wrench, for example, is close to 13 mm. You might be able to get by with just one tool.
Start with the standard (metric or SAE) used predominantly in your vehicle. For those parts using the other standard, pack the equivalent in the main standard. The result is just one tool of each size – a very efficient tool collection. Throw in a large and small crescent wrench for those unexpected size nuts.
In addition to wrenches and sockets, pack standard and Phillips head screwdrivers, along with pliers. Screwdrivers and pliers are nearly universal tools. They have many applications.
A vice grip is useful for rounded bolts and to pinch off broken break lines. While they may not fit into the tool bag, a 4-pound hammer should be your first purchase with a medium sided crow bar. You might use the hammer more than any other tool.
Make sure you have gloves. they need not be in the tool kit as they are used in other situations. A multi meter might not be the first thought for part of a basic beginning kit, but even a cheap one will prove valuable.
This tool collection will cover you for the vast majority of situations you’ll encounter.
Buy specific tools for your vehicle
For most vehicles, a half-dozen or so open/box-ended wrenches will suffice. But most vehicles have at least one part that requires a special tool. Or one of a special size. The axle nut on a Jeep JK is 35 mm. It’s 36 mm on older models.
The largest socket typically in a tool set is around 21 or 22 mm (Many only go up to 19mm.) So, you’ll need to buy that 35 mm socket wrench. Without it, you’re stuck if you break an axle off road. Study your vehicle. Any parts require a nonstandard tool that could fail? Buy the appropriate tool.
Lastly, consider one or two atypical tools that have multiple uses. The common pipe wrench is one such tool. It solidly grips round objects like tie rods. That’s critical when trying to loosen the clamp used to fasten the tie rod.
Pack two tool kits – one within easy reach
Now that you’ve assembled your main tool kit, consider a second one for quick needs to supplement the multi tool you carry on your belt.
This collection will include just a few tools, and stored somewhere near the driver’s seat.
Tools to include are one or two oft-used open/box end wrenches, two screwdrivers (one standard and one Phillips head) and a pair of pliers. I started with 7/16 inch, 1/2 inch and 9/16 inch combination wrenches. Later I found I use a ¾ inch wrench quite often. Subsequently, I discarded all in favor of combination ratchet wrenches.
Stash this kit in the glove compartment, in the center console, or under the driver’s seat. There will be times when you need a tool but don’t want to dig for your main tool kit. This ready kit will fit the bill nicely.
Note that there will be some duplication between the two tool kits. That’s fine. You won’t be scrambling between tool kits to find the one tool you need. You’ll note I stress including commonly used tools in that easy-grab tool kit.
When you are new to 4-wheeling, try to do as much maintenance and upgrades yourself as you can. Find an experienced buddy to coach you. It is nice to have the extra confidence that he can step in if you have trouble. By doing the work you gain familiarity with your vehicle and will acquire the tool needed.
Go one step further: work with the tools you carry on the trail. If it is required at home, it might be needed on the trail.
Five or ten years from now, when you get tired of hauling tools in and out of your vehicle for home maintenance, you now have permission to set up a duplicate home set.
There are some debilitating breakdowns that defy field repair. So never leave home without your 200-mile Premier AAA tow membership. You will need to get the rig at least to a road. A single membership is about $120. Without it expect to pay $10 a mile. I prefer to work on my vehicle at home or at least pick my favorite mechanic not just the closet one.
Four wheeling often involves some repair work on the vehicle. Those usually are minor jobs, but can be significant at times. Part of the preparation involves carrying the proper tools. Repairs are a lot easier when you have the right stuff with you.
In addition to the main tool kit, create a smaller kit that is kept within easy reach while driving. With those two tool kits in place, you can hit the trails with greater confidence.
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