by Jonathan Hanson

How to Build a Field Toolkit

The Most Critical Components of a Field Toolkit

There’s a fail-safe way to make sure every tool in your vehicle’s field toolkit is top quality: Chase down a Snap-on truck, hand over a list and your Amex card. Of course, you might wince at the resulting tab, likely to be the equivalent of a low-mileage five-year-old Tacoma.

On the other hand, if you have to break out the tools in the middle of nowhere, it’s because something has already gone wrong. Do you really want to risk compounding the problem by trusting a $39.95 200-piece field toolkit?

Not to worry. It’s easy for those of us of modest means to ensure we have tools of sufficient quality for any job by following a simple axiom: Economize where possible; spend where critical.

Vehicle trouble in the backcountry follows an ascending slope of direness. From “That stupid screw fell out of the dash again?” to “What was that noise and what’s that long thing lying in the road behind us?” So, too, follows the escalation in the quality of tool you need to address that repair.

Ratchet features: lever reversing switch, quick-release button

Features to look for on the ratchet: Lever reversing switch, quick-release button.

Consider that stupid screw. Rarely is anything necessary for the vehicle to keep moving attached with a screw. Sure, if your cheap Phillips head screwdriver strips you might have to put up with rattling dash trim until you get home, but you can deal with it. Or break out your Leatherman, or file a new tip on the broken tool. Thus that ten-piece $19.95 set of hardware-store screwdrivers will probably serve you well.

At the other end of the direness scale is that thing lying in the road behind you (exhaust? driveshaft?) or any number of other major issues that can materialize in the backcountry, either slowly or suddenly. For those issues—whether associated with the engine, transmission, driveshafts, axles, suspension—you’re going to need a 1/2-inch ratchet and socket set. And it had better be a good one, because the fasteners you need to address with it will be big and torqued to specs. Trust me, if your cut-rate 21mm socket splits trying to remove a transmission bolt, you are not going to get that thing off with your Leatherman.

Field Toolkit Contents

Tools on engine bay

How do you ensure you’re getting the quality you need with a field toolkit? Look first at the ratchet, which ironically has the most difficult job of any hand tool in your kit yet also has the most complex internals. Check the tooth count first. A good ratchet will have at least a 72-tooth head, and better ones will have 80- or 90-tooth heads. What does this mean? Hold the ratchet in your hand and turn the anvil—the square head that holds the socket—one full revolution while counting clicks.

A finer-tooth head means you don’t have to swing the ratchet handle as far to catch the next tooth when loosening or tightening a fastener. In cramped quarters it can be a lifesaver. It’s cheaper to make a coarse-tooth head, so the fine-tooth head is one indicator of a quality tool. Does it turn smoothly or catch and drag?

Next is the directional switch. Some are knurled rings, others are levers. I strongly prefer the lever, since you can tell at a glance (or by feel) whether you’re in Forward or Reverse. Likewise, I strongly prefer a quick-release head, with a button in the middle that ejects the socket. This makes changing sockets a one- rather than two-handed operation. Make sure the ratchet head can be disassembled to service and lubricate. Small hex or Torx screws on the head will indicate this.

Six-point and 12-point socket. Note rounded points of the “Flank Drive” system.

A six-point and 12-point socket. Note the rounded points of the “Flank Drive” system.

As to the sockets, there are 6- or 12-point versions. The 12-point style is easier to snap over a fastener, since you don’t need to turn it as far; the 6-point style is theoretically a bit stronger. Whichever you decide on, make sure it has the wavy (rather than pointed) teeth patented by Snap-on as Flank Drive, now copied and renamed by virtually everyone. The Flank Drive teeth let the socket bear on the flat of a fastener rather than the corner. This helps to prevent rounding (and betters your chances of removing an already-rounded-off nut or bolt). Finally, the steel. You’ll read arguments for chrome-molybdenum and chrome-vanadium. Actually either is fine, but don’t accept less.

Massive, comprehensive Tekton kit is a bargain.

Massive, comprehensive Tekton kit is a bargain.

Your sockets should range from around 12- or 13mm (or 1/2-inch for an SAE set) up to at least 27- or 28mm (1 1/8-inch), and preferably 32mm. Beyond this you can buy individual sockets to match larger fasteners on your vehicle (such as, for example, the 46mm crankshaft nut on my FJ40). There’s little need for 1/2-inch sockets smaller than 12- or 13mm; those are better handled by your 3/8- or 1/4-inch ratchet and socket set.

Torque wrench

A torque wrench, like this click-type, should be a mandatory part of your tool kit.

So if you’re going to splurge on any toolkit component, this is the one. And look, there goes a Snap-on truck, which will stock several superb 1/2-inch assortments. You still might be tempted to think you could score a vehicle for the price—although you’d now be down in the range of a ratty ’96 Land Rover Discovery with a miss in the #4 cylinder. Nevertheless, you’d be assured of the finest ratchet and socket set gold bullion or kidneys can buy. This will be key for a good field toolkit.

Torx fasteners on the Snap-on and Tekton ratchet show each is fully serviceable.

The Torx fasteners on the Snap-on and Tekton ratchet show each is fully serviceable.

An alternative approach is to go used. I put together a full Snap-on 1/2-inch set for a fraction of the cost of new by trolling eBay. My strategy with the sockets was to look for a set that was missing one. This seemed to cut the final price significantly. Then I simply kept my eye out for an auction for the missing size.

There are other ways to retain both your kidneys, with a few economical brands that can be trusted. In the big box stores, Kobalt and Husky tools are good value for the money. Although for the price, I’m not (yet) impressed with the resurgent Craftsman tools (now owned and made by Stanley). On the other hand, I am impressed with the relatively new Tekton. Their website displays detailed information on every tool they make, including country of origin and ANSI specs.

The ratchets are 90-tooth and have both quick-release buttons and reversing levers, and the finish on everything is uniform chrome, inside and out. I have a massive Tekton 1/2-inch kit that includes both standard and deep sockets from 10mm all the way to 32mm. It also has a 90-tooth ratchet, several extensions, and a 24-inch breaker bar. At just $150 it is a screaming deal. Perhaps most impressive is Tekton’s guarantee: If a tool breaks, all you have to do is email them a photo of it and they’ll ship you a new one.

A Snap-on SX80A breaker bar and flex-head ratchet

A breaker bar is essential for stubborn fasteners. The Snap-on SX80A (top) is both a breaker bar and a flex-head ratchet.

Finally, any large, critical fastener on your vehicle will have a specified torque to which it must be tightened. A last-but-not-least tool you should add to your 1/2-inch kit is a torque wrench. Skip the cheapest beam-type wrenches and get either a split-beam or a click-type. Digital torque wrenches are great at home, but simpler is better in the field. All the companies listed above make good ones.

You’ll be properly equipped to reattach that long thing in the road behind you. That is if you have a high-quality 1/2-inch ratchet and socket set in your field toolkit. You’ll also need a torque wrench. That is, as long as you can figure out what it is.


Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Tread magazine March/April 2021

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