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Top Trail Fixes You Need to Know

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David Kennedy
| Contributor
Posted December 1, 2001
Photographers: 4-Wheel & Off-Road Staff

Trick Get-Me-Homes

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  • Rule number one: Believe that you can repair anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of the night, raining, and the only tools you have are a Buck knife and your 7-year-old daughter. There are always possibilities. The key to finding these obscure and creative solutions is to have a calm and open mind. No one ever thought the framerail on this ’73 CJ-5 would snap clean in half on the trail (top), at night, a hundred miles from a welder. But, it happened! And it was a cool, collected, positive-thinking mind that jacked and winched the framerails back together before battery welding it up tight again. No it’s not pretty (above), but this on-the-trail weld made the difference between driving and walking home. Naturally, the frame was properly repaired when it got back to the homestead.

  • The most common breakage we see out on the trail are U-joints and Birfields. Everybody has a slightly different method for swapping out the old broken crosses for new ones. We suggest you find a technique that you are comfortable with, and practice changing them before you hit the trail. Don’t practice in the vice or on the workbench. Try doing one on the tailgate, or in the dirt next to your house to simulate a real-world trail repair. See what the essential tools are for you to perform the job, keeping in mind that the less tools you need to use the better. Trust us, the time spent practicing is worth the embarrassment out on the trail that you will then avoid.

  • There are some overzealous Boy Scout types out there who carry every tool in the Matco catalog in their trail rig like it was a big four-wheel-drive toolbox. We love those guys because they bail us out when we are stuck in a jam with only our carabiner of wrenches and a hammer. We like traveling light, and this small assortment of combination wrenches has served us well. We believe that excess weight breaks stuff, so it’s kind of self-defeating to bring 500 pounds of tools (and thus break more stuff because of the extra load) than to get by with the minimum of tools. There are no trail repairs that require a torque wrench or a ratcheting screwdriver so don’t waste the space. The longer you wheel your rig, the more familiar you become with its particular tool requirements. You know what you need and what to leave behind. The guys with rigs that are half metric, half SAE are screwed because they have to bring twice the number of tools.

  • Getting a flat tire when you have no spare, no compressed air, and no tire plugs can be a horrible problem. The worst case scenario is that you just drive on the flat until you get to safety. Hopefully you won’t ruin the tire and the wheel. We haven’t seen anyone have to do that in a long time (OK, we were the last people we knew that had to do that!) because there is always someone with a plug kit, an extra spare, or enough fix-a-flat to seal up the Goodyear Blimp. Got a really big gash in a sidewall? Try dismounting the tire and layering on strip after strip of duct tape on the inside of the tire. Remount it on the wheel and air up with just enough pressure to seat the bead. Stitching it together with tie wire helps too.

  • Some field fixes come down to a sound judgment call. Drastic times call for drastic measures, but why rush and botch a repair when you don’t have to? This guy broke his rear Dana 44 axle between the flange and the axle bearing, sending the 37-inch tire to wheel on its own. Luckily for him there was a rather large group of expert wheelers (names that you know) with him on the trail ride who had every tool, spare part, and even multiple welders to fix just about anything. After a good 45 minutes of brainstorming, every conceivable (and even some ludicrous) idea to get the Jeep back to camp were thrown out onto the table. The prevailing judgement was that a temporary fix could be made, but it would likely damage the axlehousing, Jeep body, or both. A cell phone call confirmed that there was a replacement axleshaft about 10 miles away. The crippled Jeep was winched to the side of the trail where it waited until replacement parts arrived. Simple as that.

  • We could go on and on about how wrong it is to cut splines into an axleshaft. Splines should be “rolled” into a shaft as part of the forging and not cut in after the fact. But making a do-or-die trail repair like this is all about doing stuff that you would never choose to do (if you had any other choice in the first place) just to get home again. You have to remember to put your personal safety above all else, but as hack as a job like this is—it can get you home. Don’t be afraid to get creative with your solutions. Sit back, relax, and contemplate the situation. Often the problem will seem to solve itself if you give it time.

We off-roaders live a strange Catch-22 of vehicle ownership. None of us have 4x4s that were ever designed to do the extreme gravity-defying mountain climbing, mud dancing, or sandblasting that we put our trucks through. Sure you can say you’ve “re-engineered” your truck to take the punishment that you administer. But the truth is that after you have upgraded your rig you’re more than likely to just find more treacherous obstacles to go wheel on. You dig?

No matter how low a set of gears you install, or how strong the axleshafts you upgrade to, you are bound to raise the difficulty of trails you run to match (or exceed) what your rig is capable of.

Knowing that we cannot build suspensions, drivetrains, or any parts for that matter that are “indestructible,” we must prepare ourselves for the inevitable vehicle component failure out on the trail. You know the kind of failure we mean. It’s the kind of breakage that tries to strand you and your family out in the wild in an attempt to make you late for work on Monday morning. It could be a broken steering knuckle, a twisted driveshaft, a torn-up frame, or even a flat tire that pops out of nowhere to ruin your good time. The thing you need to remember is that saving your own butt is the name of the game when it comes to trail repairs.

Notice we didn’t say trail “fix.” There can be a world of difference between a repair you make out on the trail with your Crescent wrench and limited resources, versus the type of repair you make in your garage with all your tools and the auto parts store around the corner. We want to talk about the strategies and tips you need to get you off the trail and back to civilization. Nothing fancy. Just plain old-fashioned solutions to get you back home so you can fix the vehicle correctly.