As it turns out, whoopsies do happen. Part of what makes 4-wheeling so great as a hobby, past time, or lifestyle is the ability to get out into nature, away from modern society, while being somewhat self-sufficient. Sure, we all need to head back to town at some point for fuel, food, water, beer, or parts, but being out in the dirt is not only fun, it’s good for the soul. Part of the experience is knowing what to bring so you can make it back before family or work gets mad or scared. We’ve made a life heading out into the unknown and so far have always made it back, even if there might have been an occasional delay. What we bring with us may not be an exhaustive list, but it is a pretty good start of what to bring to help you get started and get back from the trail.
Although some tools are vehicle specific, there are tools that you should bring no matter what you drive, such as first aid kits, common handtools, air-down tools, and a spare tire. We see a lot of Hi-Lift jacks mounted to off-road rigs these days. While they are awesome in a pinch, even factory bottle jacks have gotten us out of some bad situations. If you have a flat you should know how to use a jack. If you get stuck you can sometimes use any jack to get out. Even in sand or mud, put the jack on a flat rock, a piece of wood, or a floor mat and jack up the axle enough to shove rocks, sticks, or the other floor mats under your tires. Remove the jack, and with any luck you can drive out.
Box-end wrenches should be in any off-road gear bag. We used these hitch pins from our local hardware store to keep the wrenches somewhat organized and together as a group. We prefer 12-point wrenches (and sockets) since they are easier to get on the head of a hard-to-reach bolt. We carry both metric and standard wrenches because you never know what you’ll need. Also, although certain metric and standard wrenches cross pretty well (like 13mm and 1/2-inch) and some folks would argue that you could leave one or the other at home, what if you need two box-end wrenches of the same size? If you’ve got both metric and standard, chances are something will work in a pinch.
For years we’ve been carrying heavy-duty tool bags rather than boxes. Either works, but the bags rattle less and conform to tight spots and uneven surfaces. They also won’t beat up the interior of your rig as much when they wiggle. Either way, strapping down your bags or boxes is a must. If you’re in an accident on the road or off, those tools, heavy bags, and boxes could kill you. We have used bungee cords, but ratchet straps are more secure. Bolting ammo cans or tool boxes in place is fine for tools or parts that are vehicle specific, but since we own many vehicles it’s easier for us to move the tool bag and recovery bag between them.
Duct tape, zip ties, and bailing wire are all important for fixing things that might have come loose or gotten broken while on the trail. In most cases none of these tools yield a permanent fix but can be enough to get you off the trail. Other items that can help hold broken parts together in a pinch are band clamps and a length of chain with threaded rod, or bolts and a few nuts and washers. We’ve also seen steering boxes that were torn from the frame held in place with ratchet straps to get back to the trailhead, but chain and threaded rod to tighten it would be better. Either way, don’t drive a trail-repaired rig down the road at speed. Your life and the lives of those around you are worth more than your time.
On the fancy end of trail tools are battery-operated electric impacts. We wheeled for years without one of these, but ever since we bought one for ourselves a few years back it has been hard to imagine going wheeling without it. Our 18-volt 1/2-inch drive Milwaukee impact is incredible and has been beaten time and again. Add in a set of impact sockets and an extension, and many trail repairs go from being a huge headache to not being so bad.
We’ve spent time on the trail with guys who have every tool from home stashed in the back of their rig, including every battery-operated tool made. Carrying all the tools you need is important, but at some point you can overdo it and make your rig so heavy that you are guaranteed to break more stuff and thus need more tools and spare parts. We almost never bring an electric drill or electric saw on the trail, but if you’ve thrashed to get a new build ready or just added bigger tires, you may need one or both of these to help with clearancing and reattaching body parts to keep them from cutting tires. Either way, you should have checked these things out before hitting the trail, but if you’re going to bring these, bring a uni-bit (rather than a full set of drill bits) for your drill and bring more than one blade for that battery-operated reciprocating saw.
Newer computer-controlled vehicles have many plusses and minuses. If your trail rig is equipped with an onboard diagnostic system (OBD I or OBD II) you need to bring a scanner tool and a list of trouble codes. Otherwise you can bet that having a voltage meter and test light is more than just a good idea. Electrical systems can fail in many ways, and fixing them without these tools is next to impossible. You need to know what your rig may need and what it won’t.
Speaking of electrical issues, bringing electrical tape, wire pliers, and maybe even a wire nut is a good idea for making trailside wiring repairs. We have even taken a butane-powered soldering iron into the boonies a time or two. It may be overkill, but it’s small and lightweight and can be used to start a fire in a pinch. Also, it’s not unheard of to repair leaks in copper or brass radiators out on the trail with solder and some sort of iron.
Bringing fluids with you should be obvious. The most important is to bring plenty of water for people and trail dogs. You also may need to replenish coolant or any number of other fluids on your vehicle while out on the trail. Some fluids are pretty specific to a part or system, such as brake and transmission fluids, but you can bet that if we are out on the trail and the differential or manual transmission runs dry we will add just about any oil-based fluid we have to help dissipate heat and provide some lubrication. Having said that, if your slushbox runs low on ATF you might want to send someone out for more rather than dumping other fluids into that delicate system.
A spill kit and a wag bag (portable toilet) are more than just good ideas; they’re the right thing to do to help preserve the areas that we love and use. No one wants to wheel on an oil-soaked trail, and finding human waste on your person or vehicle is not only disgusting but a health hazard. If nothing else, bring a shovel and a small bucket or a plastic bag to clean up vehicular-based spills.
With toilet paper and a shovel you can, in certain areas where it is allowed, dig a poop pit. You need to be at least 200 feet away from any water source (animals drink there and you may need to drink there, too, if you get stranded). Then you need to dig a hole at least 6 inches deep (we’d say deeper, like 8-10 feet). We poop first, wipe, and then urinate on the paper and then use the soil dug out of the hole to backfill. Then pile rocks on top of the filled hole. The urinating after wiping helps hold the TP in place and begins to break things down. If there is an outhouse, use it. Another option is to bring a bucket pooper and a wag bag. If you don’t have toilet paper, good luck picking leaves that won’t cause a rash.
Ratchets and sockets are also indispensible on the trial. We used to carry a full set of metric and standard deep sockets (5/16-7/8 inch) and a ratchet or two. Now we carry this small box of sockets and ratchets. Almost as important as having these tools is having the extensions and wobble joints or another way of holding the other end of whatever you are trying to loosen. A well-equipped trail tool set should mirror everything you do in the shop. After all, if you’re rebuilding that transfer case or axleshaft at home you’d better be ready to take it back apart out on the trail when something goes wrong. It’s good to draw the line somewhere, but in general it’s better to have a tool and not need it than to need it and not have it.
A spare tire, a jack, and even onboard air of some kind are all good things to bring. We also try to carry a tire repair kit like this one from Power Tank. It includes tire plugs, a plug insertion tool, needle nose pliers, a sharp knife, plug lubricant, and even a length of wire so you can stitch up any large punctures. It also has a couple of extra valve stems. Valve stems can get damaged and may need to be replaced in the boonies, but we’ve also used a valve stem and onboard air to clear a clogged fuel line.
Many 4x4s have a winch of one kind or another mounted on their front bumper. We prefer brands we know we can trust. Still, there are tools that make a winch usable. First, you need to know how to use your winch. Second, you need that controller, a tree saver, a towstrap, D-ring shackles, and a good set of heavy-duty gloves. We love these new tighter-fitting gloves from Warn. They are durable yet comfortable and not as baggy and loose as the older style of winch gloves. Did we mention not to forget your winch controller?
Our Trail Tools
What do we keep in our trail bags? Here are the contents. Notable are a good set of snap ring pliers, locking pliers, pry bars, a breaker bar (we use a half-inch breaker bar with a 1/2- to 3/8-inch reducer as our fuse), a hammer (we’ve used rocks in the past, but they don’t work as well), crosscutting pliers, and picks for removing locking hub retaining rings. We also bring plenty of screwdrivers of several types, any specialty tools (like torques bits for Jeeps), large sockets for pinion nuts, spindle nuts, or special customized wrenches for getting that custom driveshaft in and out. See the tarp the tools are on? Not only does it make a good blanket or tent in an emergency, but it’s much nicer than lying on poky plants, gravel, wet soil, or mud.
What to Bring
Air compressor, OBA, or CO2 tank
Bailing wire, duct tape, zip ties, band clamps
D-ring shackles, a couple
Fan or serpentine belt, extra
Fluids for the vehicle
Food and plenty of water (a gallon per person per day)
Fuel line, extra
Shovel that folds
Optional, but a Good Idea
Axleshaft U-joint spares and retaining clips
Locking hub spare
Nuts and bolts
Pinion yoke socket
Screwdrivers (different sizes and types)
Snap ring pliers
Sockets, extensions, wobble joints, and ratchets
Spindle nut socket
Tire repair kit
Winch tools, controller, tree saver, snatch block