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Backcountry Tools, Supplies, and Advice

Posted in How To on June 17, 2013
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Photographers: Jaime Hernandez

Freedom and independence are two of the best aspects of venturing into the backcountry. When you’re in a well-equipped rig with a full tank and an epic trail in front of you, there’s a good time in the offing.

On the flip side, a breakdown of the wrong sort can take you from feeling free and independent to trapped and dependent. Not fun.

While it’s very easy to go out under-prepared, it’s also possible to show up over-prepared. Bring too much of anything and things get cluttered and cramped inside. Excessive gear adds excessive weight. This puts excessive strain on everything, negatively affecting fuel economy, engine cooling, and driveline parts such as axleshafts and U-joints.

You can’t bring a whole shop with you, so just what should be along for the ride? We’ve broken it down into four main categories: tire changing, mechanical repairs, vehicle recovery, and physical comfort. Navigation and communication are also vital aspects of backcountry travel, but we’ll focus on those another time.

Take our advice about backcountry tools and supplies. Then, arrive alive.

Tire Trouble

Today’s treads are built extremely well, but tire trouble is still one of the main breakdowns that off-roaders experience. Having the ability and equipment to change a tire is essential, no matter where you are.

Are your tires in good shape? Weaknesses rear their ugly heads when the going gets tough. If you’ve got a questionable tire, it’s better to replace it before leaving town. Worried about the cost of replacing a tire? Compare the price of a tire to the potential price of getting professionally towed off of a trail and you’ll realize a new tire is much, much cheaper.

Does your lug wrench work with your wheels? Many wheel designs leave precious little space between the wheel and the lug, so you’ll need a thin-wall socket to get at them.

Can you air back up after airing down without driving to a gas station or bumming some psi from a buddy’s air source?

If you get a puncture, can you repair it?

Does your jack safely lift your vehicle? Can it do so in soft dirt, or in rocks? Is it even compatible with your vehicle?

Misadventures with jacks can quickly turn a mechanical breakdown into a medical emergency. There are safe and unsafe ways to use a jack, and we’ll belabor this point in the photos and captions.

PhotosView Slideshow

Under the Hood

The bummer with a stock floor jack is that they often sink into soft ground. There are ways around this. You can carry a block of wood to set under the main roller, custom-mount bigger wheels in place of the stock roller, or install a flat skidplate on the bottom side. A homebrewed skidplate is perfectly acceptable, but ready-made skidplates can be had from the likes of Stewart’s Raceworks and Total Chaos Fabrication.

The dirty little secret of many so-called “old reliable” vehicles of yore was that they actually broke down more often than their owners care to admit. The upside of “old reliable” was that it was most likely a simple rig that could be repaired with baling wire and duct tape. Quite a few of today’s engines can’t be repaired or resurrected should they conk out miles from the pavement. Modern engines don’t break down as often as their elders, but when they do it’s usually a bigger headache.

Just as with tires, it’s best to make sure your engine’s good to go before you go. The good news is that today’s onboard diagnostic systems can point you in the right direction if the check-engine light is on.

Can you deal with a dead battery? Can you change out a shredded accessory belt? Can you change a fuse if one blows? Can you trace the cause of the blown fuse and fix that? If you lose a nut or bolt, do you have a spare?

PhotosView Slideshow


Bring a spare engine belt and the tools required to change it out. You often can’t bypass a faulty engine accessory with a serpentine belt system, so the best option is to make sure your water pump, idler pulleys, and engine accessories are in good shape. If you’ve got the older V-belt system, you can usually just remove the belt that drives the faulty accessory. Much of the time, the water pump and alternator run on the same V-belt, and they’re the bare-bones essentials that keep the engine running.

Everyone gets stuck. Virtually everyone gets unstuck … eventually. Just like with tire trouble, getting unstuck can become a medical emergency if you don’t take the right precautions. Shoveling out a buried axle in the heat can cause heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Failed winch cables can thrust a metallic missile exactly where you don’t want it.

PhotosView Slideshow

Care and Feeding of … You

“Real food” is usually the tastiest, most readily available option, but it’s good to stash some freeze-dried backpacking food in your 4x4 pantry. Wise Company offers its freeze-dried meals a la carte or in container packs designed to help you survive for long periods, if needed. Add boiling water and they cook in the pouch.

Yes, your rig is the main focus of this story, but keeping yourself comfortable, well-hydrated, and well-fed is the key to being physically able to deal with a backcountry breakdown. Food, clothing, shelter, and water are even more essential on the trail than they are in the city. Bring toilet paper!

PhotosView Slideshow

Stuff You Don’t Need

Everyone's got a different tipping point by which to judge how much is too much. One guideline is that if you've got so much stuff with you that your rig becomes sluggish, you've brought too much stuff. If you can't see the floorboards, you've brought too much stuff. If you travel with a group and find that other people bring less because they can count on you bringing more, then you know you've brought too much stuff.

Some tools and supplies that would be perfect for one person might be completely useless to another. For instance, if you've got an underhood welder but you don't know how to weld, then the machine does you no good. The obvious solution is to learn how to weld … or bring a buddy who's got welding skills. 

Go through your collection of spare parts and adjust according to your situation. You might be carrying a spare U-joint that fit a previous rig but doesn't fit your current one. 


Warn Industries
Clackamas, OR 97015
Baja Designs
San Marcos, CA 92069
Hi-Lift Jack Co.
Advanced Air Systems-Powertank
SweetWater Filters
Wise Food Storage

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