There’s an unwritten rule that you should never wheel alone, but sometimes it’s inevitable. And sometimes you just want to. We’ve wheeled solo a number of times, and for the most part, we’ve had no problems. However, there have been times when things didn’t go as planned. Over the years we’ve had to perform trailside repairs or recoveries to get mobile again. You can probably relate. On a couple of instances, bad planning left us no choice but to hike for assistance after our vehicle became stuck or disabled while deep in the backcountry.
When things go wrong in the backcountry, whether you’re camping, working, or playing, the outcome can have a direct correlation to whether or not there was good planning. If you do your homework in advance, you’ll stand a much better chance of just being delayed as opposed to much worse.
We see the planning as a two-pronged strategy. One prong is to have the tools and materials on hand to repair or recover your rig. The other prong is to have the supplies you need to stay healthy. With that said, let’s look at some of the major things you’ll need.
The goal here is to have the gear needed to fix or recover your 4x4. Obviously, you’re not going to rebuild an engine in the backcountry by yourself (though, if you do, please let us know because it could be a cool story), but you should be able to repair common wear items. You should also be able to un-stuck your 4x4 without outside assistance.
Tools: It would be great if we could bring all the tools we own, but space and weight considerations make that impossible. We carry a basic wrench set, several screwdrivers, pliers, side-cutters, electrician wire pliers, hammer, a couple ratchets, a variety of sockets, a crescent wrench, duct tape, electrical tape, and baling wire. We also like to carry J-B Weld (jbweld.com), because we have a knack for punching holes in stuff. We toss all these things in a zipper-top soft bag and we’re good to go. If you prefer to have tools in a more orderly fashion, companies like Craftsman (craftsman.com) offer a 220-piece tool set that comes with a variety of items in a carry case, and there are also low-buck wrench rolls available like those from Off Road Trail Tools (offroadtrailtools.com).
Spare tire:Make sure the spare for your 4x4 is in good shape and is the correct size for your rig. If you’re a worrywart like us, outfit your rig with two spares. Also, make sure you have the correct tools to remove the wheel/tire.
Tire repair kit: Some tire punctures can be repaired on the trail, so a simple tire repair kit, like ARB USA’s Speedy Seal Tire Puncture Repair Kit (arbusa.com), can allow you to quickly plug the leak and continue on. In dire situations where we’ve already destroyed our spare, we’ve patched sidewall punctures with tire plugs and wrapped the damaged area with duct tape to get us to the trailhead.
Compressed air: After you repair a leaky tire, you’ll need to air it up. We’ve used all kinds of compressors from small cigarette plug-powered units to direct battery-connect units to engine-driven units to CO2 systems. All of them will do the job, albeit some faster than others. Having a compressor along will also make it easy to air up your rig’s tires before you return to pavement. If not, consider a short length of air tube (enough to reach from driver-to-passenger side) with a tire chuck on each side of it. Hook one end to a tire on your vehicle that’s aired up and the other to the deflated tire. The pressure will essentially be halved in the good tire, but driving on two tires at 5 psi is better than one at 10 psi and the other at 0 psi. Don’t forget to bring a tire pressure gauge.
Jack: Chances are the jack that came with your 4x4 is useless off-road. A specialty jack like those made by the Hi-Lift Jack Company (hi-lift.com) will allow you to raise your rig to change a tire or even place something under a tire to aid traction. As a bonus, a Hi-Lift jack can also be used as a winch to help extricate your rig. We also carry a bottle jack and a couple chunks of wood to use as spacers.
Extra fluids: You never know what’s going to happen in the backcountry, especially in regards to leaks. If you’re wheeling alone, you won’t have a friend to hit up for vehicle fluids and lubes, so you should carry extra engine oil and transmission fluid as well as gear lube and engine coolant. You should also have something to contain a fluid spill. New Pig (newpig.com) offers a variety of products to contain leaks, drips, and spills, or a simple catch pan can do the job as well. It’s also important to bring extra fuel for your rig. We always carry at least five gallons.
Extra parts: This can be as simple as a box of fuses, or extra nuts and bolts for your shocks, link bars, and so on, or more complex as axleshaft assemblies. What you bring depends on how much space you have in your rig to safely carry what you may need. Remember that bringing along extra parts will do no good if you don’t have the tools to complete the repair. Also, it’s important to ensure that heavy items are restrained so they don’t become projectiles while four-wheeling.
Winch: When wheeling alone, self-recovery is king. A winch can make that happen. Whether you choose a performance winch or one of many low-buck winches, you’ll have a way to un-stick your rig. Warn (warn.com) offers a variety of winches for a variety of budgets. There are many situations where a front-mounted winch doesn’t work in specific situations, which is why we like to mount a receiver hitch on the front of our rig and attach the winch to a receiver mount. This gives us the option of winching from either the front or rear of the rig.
Shovel: It’s a simple item, yet very important. It doesn’t matter whether you’re wheeling on snow, mud, sand, or dirt, you may need to do some digging, and doing it with your hands isn’t a very smart idea. We’ve used the Smittybilt (smittybilt.com) Recovery Utility Tool with good results. It’s very small when folded and comes in a carry case.
“The human body can last weeks without food, but only days without water.”
When wheeling alone, you’re the driver and brains behind the operation. You need to stay healthy. Thirsty, lost, wet and injured is no good.
Water: This is a top priority. The human body can last weeks without food, but only days without water. When we hit the backcountry alone we pack more water than we think we’ll need, just to be safe. Yes, it’s a space hog and it’s heavy, but without it, the result could be dehydration or worse.
Water filter: On the topic of water, a good thing to pack along is some sort of water filter. This way, if you run out of bottled water, you’ll still have access to safe drinking water. A low-buck, easy-to-pack filter is the LifeStraw (buylifestraw.com). It’ll filter 264 gallons at 0.2 microns, which removes dangerous bacteria and protozoa, and only costs around $25 at time of print.
Compass/GPS: To keep from getting lost, we have a GPS unit in our 4x4 and a basic one in our camera bag. In the end though, GPS units need a power source and trees can block the satellite signals, so they’re limited. If you have to walk out, the batteries would only last a few hours in constant use. For this reason we always carry a basic compass, which requires no power source and can be easily stored in a pocket.
Map: A map goes hand-in-hand with a compass, and we prefer the more detailed gazetteer as opposed to a standard state map. It offers much more detail so routes can be planned better. Sidekick Off Road (sidekickoffroad.com) offers off-road trail maps for specific wheeling areas.
Matches/firestarter: Whether used for cooking or warmth, you need a quick and reliable way to start a fire. Coleman (coleman.com) offers a Magnesium Fire Starter as well as waterproof matches. Lynx (lynx.co.za) offers the Windmill Delta windproof lighter that will light even when wet.
Headlight/flashlight: A campfire or lantern will provide light at camp, but if you have to make a trail repair or if you have to trek for help, you’ll want a small, powerful portable light source. We like LED headlamps because they allow us to keep both hands free and they operate longer on a given set of batteries than a standard lamp. The SureFire Minimus (surefire.com) is a somewhat pricey unit ($210 at time of print), but it’s a small, rugged, and potent headlamp that runs on common AA batteries. It will run for 50 hours on the low setting and 1½ hours on the high setting and is adjustable from 0 to 100 lumens. Less expensive units are available at most sporting goods stores.
First aid supplies: If you’re wheeling alone and get hurt, you’re suddenly a paramedic. It’s up to you to determine the correct course of action to treat the wound, and for that, you’ll need a first aid kit. There are many available and you can purchase them just about anywhere. We like the kits that have everything from gauze to tweezers.
Multitool: A multitool puts a variety of tools at your fingertips and will typically fit in your pocket. Leatherman (leatherman.com) offers a number of cool units, including the Crunch. The Crunch is unique because it has locking pliers as well as 14 other tools.
Garbage bags: These things are amazing and underappreciated. They can be used as a rain poncho, windbreaker, shelter, rain catch, or ground sheet, among other things. A box of ten 39-gallon bags is always a part of our backcountry gear.
If you’re going to wheel alone, tell someone when you’re leaving, where you’re going, and when you plan to return. Driving off into the backcountry on a Friday night may be liberating, but if something bad happens, no one may start looking for you until you don’t show up for work Monday morning.
Cell phones often don’t get a signal in the backcountry, and CB radios don’t transmit far, so if you’re wheeling alone and need to communicate, satellites may be your best option. The SPOT company offers several devices that allow you to utilize those satellites to communicate. The SPOT Gen3 is only $149.95 at time of print and offers many features including a S.O.S. feature that sends your GPS coordinates and information to local response teams. The Gen3 also offers the ability to check in with family and friends via a pre-programmed text message with GPS coordinates or an email link to Google Maps with your location. The Gen3 basic service plan is $14.99 per month or $149.99 per year. For more information, go to findmespot.com.