Tools for the Trail: Making a Tool Kit for Field Repairs
A solid tool kit for field repairs is an essential accessory to invest in. Vehicle repair in the backcountry has changed a lot since the days when we could rough-set the point gap in a distributor with a matchbook cover, or feed gasoline to the carburetor from a jerrycan strapped to the roof if the fuel pump failed.
Not that it’s changed in a bad way. Our vehicles are more reliable than ever, with ignition systems that have simply eliminated the entire distributor, and fuel-injection systems that are essentially good for life. Even spark plugs last 50,000 miles these days.
Despite all that, things still go wrong—especially with four-wheel-drive vehicles used as God intended them to be. Statistically, our fuel and ignition systems are largely trouble-free, but there are still lots of what I call the “soft and moving bits”: radiator and heater hoses, serpentine and timing belts, clutches, CV joints, suspension components—dozens of things that can and will break at the most inconvenient of times and places. Thus, if you take your vehicle where walking out would be inconvenient at best, and AAA would laugh when they pinpointed your GPS location, packing a tool kit you can depend on is a very good idea.
But what should you carry? You might have one of those eight-foot-tall, 148-drawer rollaways in your shop, but it won’t fit in a Jeep or Land Cruiser very easily. Some trimming is needed. A few years ago, I embarked on an experiment to see if I could fit all the tools I might need for anything up to a major repair inside a Pelican 1550 case. Once it was assembled and tweaked for a few months, I used that tool kit exclusively for all my vehicle work for almost a year, and didn’t once need to cheat.
First, an axiom I repeat endlessly: If you’ve brought out the tools, something has already gone wrong. Why risk compounding the situation by using a cheap tool that might not work properly, or even break? Easy, then—just stop a Snap-on sales rep and hand him your Amex Platinum with a list. You can afford a $5,000 truck tool kit, right? Yeah—neither can I. But I’ve also seen the results when someone trusted a $19.95 ratchet set. If your 21mm socket splits while you’re trying to remove a transmission, you’re not going to get those bolts off with your multitool.
The solution to assembling a dependable tool kit that doesn’t bankrupt you is to prioritize. Spend ’til it hurts on the critical tools you’ll need for critical jobs; then, you can economize on the stuff you use for replacing light bulbs. Here’s how I organized mine, in descending order of criticality.
Half-inch socket/ratchet set
This is the big one, both literally and metaphorically. Your half-inch socket set is what you’ll need for major repairs involving suspension, differentials and transmissions. Don’t scrimp. The boutique tool manufacturers—Snap-on, Mac, etc.—produce superb sets if you can afford them (Hint: I’ve bought much in this range off eBay). My current set is the excellent, affordable Facom (pronounced, “fah-comb”) S.200DP, which comes in a compact case, yet includes sockets all the way from 8mm to a crankshaft-nut-sized 32mm—plus the ratchet, two extensions, and a universal joint
The sockets incorporate the clever Flank Drive system, patented by Snap-on and now renamed and copied by everyone—the corners of each drive flat on the socket are rounded rather than sharp; this allows the socket to bear on the flat of the nut or bolt rather than the edge, reducing the chance of rounding off a stubborn nut. Whatever brand you buy, look for this feature. Make sure, as well, that the sockets are drop-forged, which helps align the molecules in the steel and strengthen it.
The Facom ratchet has a fine, 72-tooth head. The tooth count refers to how many “clicks” you hear as you turn the ratchet through a full turn. A cheaper ratchet might have a 48-tooth head, or even fewer; this requires you to turn the ratchet farther before it catches again, which can be a pain in tight spots.
Facom’s ratchet is perfect for many jobs, but for the big ones you’ll need more leverage. I splurged on this piece and ordered Snap-on’s stunning SF80A—a locking-flex-head ratchet with a Swiss-watch-fine, 80-tooth head, despite a full 18-inch handle for leverage. It takes just 4.5 degrees of swing before the next tooth set engages, making use in cramped quarters easy. Every time I use it, I swear it makes me a better mechanic than I am—it certainly makes me look like a better mechanic. It was worth every penny of $185.
Facom Torque Converter
A standard torque wrench is massive and serves only one purpose. This brilliant device converts any 0.5-inch ratchet into a torque wrench. It even calculates angles for torque-to-yield fasteners.
Three-eighths-inch socket/ratchet set
While not as heavy-duty as the half-inch ratchet, the three-eighths is the one you’ll use most often from your tool kit, for anything from tightening seat bolts to replacing an alternator. A proper three-eighths set should include sockets from about 6mm up to 19mm, or a quarter to seven-eighths in SAE. It’s good to have some overlap with your half-inch socket set, for bolts and nuts that have the same size on both ends, and also for redundancy. The set should also include a selection of deep sockets. Skip the so-called “pass-through” hollow ratchet/socket sets that eliminate the need for deep sockets; the bulky extensions are problematic in tight spaces.
My Holy Grail three-eighths socket set is, tragically, no longer made, but it’s a stellar example of what to look for. The Britool 748267 included an excellent 72-tooth ratchet, both SAE and metric sockets (all the way up to 24mm and one inch), deep sockets, Torx sockets, a sliding T-handle, a universal joint and three extensions—each of which is knurled to help start nuts without the ratchet, and also has a hex fitting on top so you can use a wrench on it if needed. Brilliant. Finally, there’s a full selection of driver bits, and it all fits into an incredibly compact case. If I knew then what I know now, I’d have bought ten of them.
I’ve broken plenty of sockets and ratchets, but not one decent-quality wrench, so you can economize a bit here. Craftsman’s fully-polished wrenches are fine, as are the house brands from Home Depot (Husky) and Lowe’s (Kobalt). Your set should include sizes from about 5mm or a quarter of an inch up to at least 19mm or seven-eighths—and there’s nothing wrong with going beyond that, except that wrenches begin to get heavy compared to the same size socket.
The GearWrench 81916 metric set is a great buy—22 fully-polished pieces, from 6mm to 32mm, for around $110. You could save money and weight with your tool kit by buying wrenches that have a different size on each end, either box or open end; however, I find that in some instances, the box end is better, and in others, the open end is better. So, I carry combination wrenches with the same size box and open end.
Wrenches that incorporate a ratcheting box end are popular, and handy in some situations; however, the ratcheting head is bulkier than a non-ratcheting head. I’ve run into many circumstances where the head simply wouldn’t fit, so I prefer to stick to standard box ends.
In a perfect world, we’d never need pliers, but sometimes nothing else will do. I carry one pair of Channel-Locks, a forged German Knipex with very narrow jaws, a smaller self-adjusting Craftsman plier, one set of Vise-Grips, and two needle-nosed pliers, one straight and one curved. Included in the roll with these is a six-inch adjustable wrench, a pair of side cutters and a wire stripper clincher, and a set or two of hemostats. Finally, a tool that really has no substitute if you forget it and need it: a reversible snap-ring plier with replaceable bits.
Honestly, Ace Hardware screwdrivers work just fine. However, Facom encourages you to do something with their Pro Twist Shock screwdrivers that would make most manufacturers faint—they’re designed to be struck with a hammer to help free frozen screws. I’ve exploited this ability on dozens of stubborn fasteners, and it works brilliantly.
The fat Pro Twist grips normally supply more than enough twisting power, but Facom also includes a hex fitting below the handle, so you can augment your leverage with a wrench—you know they must have faith in the tips. Included in my screwdriver roll are several standard Craftsman items, two stubbies, and a ratcheting model with replaceable bits. In this roll, I also carry a variety of cold chisels and punches, and a brass drift that is indispensable for tapping out bearings and other parts, next to stuff you don’t want to scratch or score.
Hammers, Saw, Pry Bar
I carry a two-pound sledge-head hammer for hitting things I want to hurt, and a no-bounce hammer for hitting things I don’t. My initial hacksaw in the kit was an expensive aluminum job; it proved bulky and worthless. Much better is the current $5.99 Ace number, which adjusts for 10 or 12-inch blades; and, by filing an extra notch, I was able to make it collapse compactly enough to fit in the Pelican case.
Next, a small but fat pry bar keeps me from abusing those expensive Facom screwdrivers.
My last roll is sort of a catch-all. In it is a combination flat/half-round file; a round file (very useful); a swiveling hex-key set; feeler gauges; tin snips; a box cutter (blades are for scraping gaskets); a radiator-hose pick (handy for many things beside freeing stuck hoses); a continuity tester; and a clever device called a Power Probe, which has so many functions I carry the instructions rolled up with it. I also carry an extendable magnetic pick-up tool, an inspection mirror (for finding the bits you need the magnet for), a flashlight and a headlamp. Tucked in after everything is loaded: nitrile gloves and a tube of hand cleaner.
Depending on the trip, I’ll add or subtract to this list—for example, on trips in the FJ40, I carry a spark-plug removal tool and a hub socket. Otherwise, it stays pretty constant— and it has served well enough that I sometimes wonder if I really need that eight-foottall, 148-drawer rollaway in the garage.
Tool Kit Essentials
- 1/2-inch Ratchet Set
- 3/8-inch Ratchet Set
- Torque Wrench
- Wrench Set
- Variety of Pliers
- Variety of Screwdrivers
- Sledge Hammer
- No Bounce Hammer
- Pry Bar
- Round File
- Swiveling Hex Key Set
- Feeler Gauges
- Tin Snips
- Box Cutter
- Radiator Hose Pick
- Continuity Tester
- Power Probe
- Extendable Magnetic Pick-up Tool
- Inspection Mirror
- Hands Free Headlamp
- Nitrile Gloves
- Tube of Hand Cleaner
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2016 print issue of Tread Magazine.