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Essential Trail tools - Off-Road Tools You Need in the Field

Don’t hit the trail without them

Jay KopycinskiPhotographer, Writer

Mechanical breaks and 4WD failures are inevitable. If you're sitting in weekday traffic when it happens, you can call a tow truck to get you to the nearest repair garage. When you're in the boonies far from the nearest gas station, it may well be up to you and your buddies to fix your Jeep to make it back home. On-board tools can be vital when this happens.

It's wise to always carry at least basic tools in the backcountry. A good practice can be to do all your maintenance at home using only the tools you carry in your Jeep. When you run across something you can't do because you lack a tool in your tool kit, toss that new tool in if you think you may ever reasonably need it on the trail.

We prefer not to use our home tools in our trail tool kit but rather build a standalone kit specifically for the vehicle when one can afford to do so. There are several philosophies you can follow when stocking the tool kit for your Jeep. You can buy all high-grade tools for the kit if you can afford it. You can also build a kit using all cheap tools, though having a poor quality tool that fails during a trail fix is a risk. Looking in one of our kits, you're likely to find a mixed array of tool brands and odds and ends we've collected over the years. Some are flea market purchases and some are medium-grade tools that have found their way into the bag as we upgraded our home tools.

So, now that you've decided to assemble or perfect your off-road tool kit, there's the need to pack it in your rig. You can use a traditional metal toolbox or buy mechanic’s tool sets in organized molded plastic cases, but they consume a lot of valuable space. We usually prefer to assemble our own tool kit using an array of soft-sided tool bags where we can divide tools and store them in smaller spaces.

Over time you can tune the contents of your tool kit, much like you decide which spare parts to carry with you. You want to have an adequate selection to tackle the majority of trail repairs you might encounter, but not so well equipped that you'll need an axle upgrade to confidently transport all the newly added weight of your tool collection.

Many of the tools to carry are pretty obvious, but we'll try to give you a rundown to include a few you might not have considered. And along with all your tools and spares, don't forget a few essential safety items such as a fire extinguisher and first-aid kit.

A wide array of wrenches, ratchets, and sockets is a pretty basic start. Include with those tools some socket extensions, drive adapters, spark plug sockets, Allen keys, and adjustable wrenches for those times you've lost that certain wrench or don't have just the right size.

Quality screwdrivers (sometimes pry bars) are always invaluable. A few pairs of pliers and wire cutters are handy, too, as are locking pliers. We've used one-handed hacksaws for cutting items and cold chisels to gouge and free stubborn parts. More than once we've needed a flat file to clean up damaged threads for reassembly of some component.

Take along your axle hub sockets? Yes! We recently had the need for one in the field and found it was still on loan to a friend. A hammer is always handy, along with a brass drift that will allow you to beat on stuck steel parts without damaging them. Snap-ring pliers are often needed for taking hubs apart

If you've ever snapped off an axleshaft inside the axletube and wanted to retrieve it easily, you know how valuable a strong telescoping magnet can be. It's also useful when you drop the last bolt you need into some dark crevice in your rig.

A good tire repair kit, or at least a plug kit, can be useful on or off the highway. You never know when a nail might find its way into your tire tread or something sharp on the trail may steal your air. Remember to keep it restocked with plugs if you use some.

An onboard air supply is useful for flat tire repair or to air back up for the highway drive home. CO2 systems are fast and can run air tools, if needed. Air pumps are available in multiple sizes with various levels of capability. Having both may be the best of all worlds.

A shovel is handy for getting unstuck, quenching campfires, and bathroom duties. A bigger hammer can come in handy as well. Rugged Ridge offers its All Terrain Recovery Tool Kit that includes these two tools as well as axe- and pick-heads.

We always like to carry two jacks: a Hi-Lift jack and a simple bottle jack. The Hi-lift is immensely useful for recovery or lifting a tire on a Jeep with long-travel suspension. The bottle jack is handy to use for tire changes when you have access and solid ground on which to place it. We carry recovery straps and winch accessories as well.

Never underestimate the usefulness of a nylon ratchet strap, and we're not just talking about strapping down your cooler. We've seen more steering and suspension parts temporarily patched together with these straps than we can shake a stick at. Sure they stretch some, but they're super handy. Other useful items are a small length of chain, bungee cords, and gloves.

Troubleshooting electrical problems on the trail or a trip is no fun. However, having a simple multimeter may aid in finding the gremlin sooner. Short lengths of wire can be handy as well to bypass bad or suspect wiring. Jumper cables can be the lifeline to a dying battery on a Jeep

Spare fluids should be a part of your trail tool kit. Fluids can be lost from damage leaks or from rollover. Other maladies can leave you needing vital fluids so you should carry at least a small quantity. Carb cleaner is useful for cleaning during field repairs.

We covered spare fluids, save for radiator coolant. Should you need to refill the cooling system, just use whatever water you have on hand in a pinch. You can swap the plain water out for the proper coolant mix once you make it back home.

When dealing with repairs or fluids it's nice to have latex gloves handy along with shop towels. Funnels with small enough tips to get into fill tubes will help should you need to top off. Plastic trash bags are handy to lie on or accept greasy, broken parts. Zip-lock bags can store loose parts as well.

We keep some patch products in our tool kit. These include duct and electrical tape, safety and bailing wire, zip-ties, and several types of epoxy that just might save the day. Many field repairs display the ingenuity of Jeepers. Having a few helpful products can make that task easier.

We toss our old fan belts and radiator hoses in our rig as spares, along with short lengths of the various rubber hoses we have on our Jeep. We also carry spares of all the different u-joints in our drivetrain.

A step up in tool capabilities is that of a welder. There are on-board, engine-driven varieties or those designed to operate from several auto batteries wired in series with a set of heavy cables. Homebrew kits can be assembled from battery and welding cable components.

Other plumbing parts to carry may include air locker tubing, a spare generic brake line, and caps to seal a hydro assist steering system should a leak occur. The clamps shown here have helped us a time or two facilitate a temporary leaf spring repair when a leaf snapped in half. Consider also including steering rod ends that may be at risk of damage.

With the addition of an engine-driven welder system, you can add 110V outlet capability to run small electric tools. This is almost moving more into the realm of trail fabrication but can be a useful commodity back at camp when repairs are needed.

Now, where do you store all this stuff? We use all manner of soft tool bags to store all the smaller tools and items. We also use zippered tool pouches, tactical molle bags, and even some luggage-type canvas bags. By using different bags you can store like items in the same bag, and find areas in your Jeep to store the soft bags.