Saturday, March 17, 2012

Vehicle Tools - Handy In a Pinch

My last blog entry got me thinking about the tools I carry in my vehicle.  In my last entry, I alluded to the fact that I carry some tools on board my vehicle to get me out of a bind, should the situation require it.

Now, I've covered things like storing your 72 hour kit in your vehicle, and personal EDC items in previous entries, so I'm going to stay far away from what gun to carry, how I store my bug out bag, or whatever.  This entry won't even cover items like road flares or a first aid kit because that's what I consider emergency items that everybody should have, and it goes without saying.  What I'm discussing here, especially for you folks with older vehicles, are various tools that you keep on your truck, car, or van so that in the event you experience a breakdown, or your buddy does, you have the ability to be self-reliant and maybe avoid a towing bill.

If I had written this entry about 6 years ago, the list of tools would have been a lot longer because I used to be more into off-roading, but not so much these days.  As a result, the amount of tools I take with me has shrunk down to what I consider the absolute bare minimum.  Some of these tools are designed to fix the vehicle, others for doing various tasks at the campsite, and others are for light recovery, like if you need to be pulled off the highway or perhaps to be a Good Samaritan and help someone else.  To gear heads, 'wheelers, and mechanics alike, this list will seem like a no-brainer, but with all due respect, this blog entry is not for them.  This blog entry is for people who want to do something to be a little more prepared, but don't know where to begin.  This entry is for you.

Note: I'm keeping the pictures in the entry small, so click on each for a larger view if you want to see more detail.

First off, you need the two most important essentials: a durable flashlight and a fire extinguisher.  I cannot overstate the importance of these two items and the need for them to be within arm's reach of you, the driver.  You don't need any fancy equipment because in all honesty, they are going to get banged up as you use the vehicle.  For me, I keep a 3 D-cell Maglite LED attached to the front seat base using two metal clamps.  Back in 2004, when I bought this vehicle, I had a hard time finding metal clamps, so when I found some, I ordered two sets.  I'm glad I did.  Your fire extinguisher can be hidden in many places, but just keep it handy.  If you have no choice but to store it in the trunk of your car, then make sure that it doesn't get buried under your luggage and golf clubs when you pack it to the brim.  You should inspect the fire extinguisher annually and also replace the batteries in the flashlight every year regardless of use.  There's nothing worse than being caught in the middle of the night with a flat tire and dead batteries in your flashlight.

If you are fortunate enough to have a center console, you should use it to store small tools or items you would access regularly.  If you have a large opening console, like mine, you can get an ammo can to stuff in there.  This is a great item to have because the rubber seal helps keep moisture out.  It is also possible to modify an ammo can to make it lockable, which adds a layer of security to the smaller, more expensive items you may want to keep inside, like CD's, GPS, sunglasses, etc.  Note the small pelican case and metal bowl for my dog.  What you can't see is that I have eight 16.9 liter water bottles in front of the ammo can, stuffed in the void created by the cup holders.  Keeping water in your vehicle is important because you can use to stay hydrated, should you become stranded, and you can use it to top off your radiator in an emergency.  Since I have two kids, a wife, and a dog, I keep plenty of water available at all times.

For the bulk of your tools, it will be necessary to invest in a good quality toolbox, preferably with locking latches to deter thieves.  The box should be sturdy enough for you to stand on and sit on.  This is especially helpful if you, like me, have a lifted vehicle.  It also helps in the sense that you can sit on it to do tasks at a lower level, such as changing a tire or fixing a busted headlight.  Your knees will thank you.  I purchased this Bostitch brand toolbox at Lowes for about $20.  It not only features lockable latches, but it has a gasket around the lid to keep moisture at bay.  I don't know if it is 100% waterproof, but it is definitely weather proof and very resistant to moisture.  Moisture and metal tools don't mix, so whatever you can do to protect them is better than nothing.

Upon opening the box, we see an array of commonly used tools for my particular vehicle.  You don't need to stock the vehicle with an entire mechanic's set of tools; just take the ones you know you would use 95% of the time.  Remember, the idea isn't to do a complete transmission repair or full on brake job in the field, but to just get you by until you can either get to a shop, the Autozone parking lot, or your own garage.  For my particular needs, I picked socket sizes in metric and standard that I see the most, appropriate ratchets, extensions, and driver size adapters that go from 1/4-3/8 and 3/8-1/2.  When you are working in the field, you need to be able to improvise.  You can also see a pair of long screwdrivers as well as an Irwin 10-in-1 screwdriver.  I got mine at Lowes, and I suggest you put one in your toolbox.  It will save your butt 99% of the time.  Other tools include common wrench sizes as well as a couple wrenches that are open on both sides, but different sizes: like a 1/2 & 9/16 and a 3/8 and 7/16.  They come in very handy.

You might also notice the presence of a couple other things that many people, even mechanics like me, may not think of.  Things like Superglue or baby wipes are in the box. Why baby wipes?  Because if you've never had kids, you don't know what you're missing out on with baby wipes.  They are the miracle wipes.  I use them for everything.  From cleaning grease off tools, picking up doggy messes, wiping my hands, cleaning my dash board, they are so totally useful.  I also keep a small mirror and a magnetic pick-up tool in the box. It's much easier to diagnose a problem you can see with the mirror, and I think we've all dropped a fastener into an impossible to reach place in the engine bay before.  Lastly, a Sharpie marker sits on the tray.

One trick you might employ is to use electrical tape and tape all your wrenches and sockets together.  My sockets are on a rail that I cut down to fit the tray, but I ran tape around the bases to keep them in place and to keep them from rattling.  Rattling tools are okay in my service truck, but not in my personal truck.  Plus, if you tape all the wrenches together, they store more compact and afford you more room for other tools.

Once we remove the tray, we gain access to the larger tools.  One tip, before I go on, is to store the tools you use the most at the top.  In my case, it would be bungee cords followed by jumper cables. I'm always putting things on the vehicle's roof rack, so the bungee cords get used... a lot.  The jumper cables get used often as well; either to help get me out of a bind or help someone else in need.

Remember that if you can, always try to help fellow motorists in need.  There is good karma in helping others out, and one day, you may find yourself in a position of asking someone for help.  It's nothing to be ashamed of.  We've all been there.

Moving on in layers, I always store a medium hammer with a long handle.  You never know when it may come in handy.  I also store my hatchet, which also has a hammer on the back of the blade.  The hatchet is for camping uses.  I keep it stored here so it always goes with me, and I never forget it.  To keep rust at bay, I paint the edge of the blade with header paint after I sharpen it.

Okay, if we look at the right of the picture, you can see a tow strap just left of the small tool tray.  This is a 10,000 lb rated strap with sewn in loops on either end.  Don't get a strap with hooks.  They are a pain in the butt and can be dangerous.  I like this one because it rolls flat and stores compact.

Moving left, you see a can of WD-40.  Not only does this help stop squeaks, but it lubricates and protects against rust.  It is also useful to loosening stubborn fasteners and cleaning your tools or car parts.  WD-40 is a wonderful thing.  Next to that is a roll of high quality duct tape still in the package with a roll of electrical tape sitting on top of it.  I think those two items go without saying.  And if you haven't heard of all the uses for duct tape, I have to ask: what rock have you been hiding under for the last hundred years?

I also keep a small magnetic tray in the box.  This helps keep small metal fasteners in one place while you're working.  Ever lose a lug nut on the side of a highway before?  I just think of that scene from "A Christmas Story" where Ralphie accidentally tosses that hub cap full of lug nuts into the snow.  Oh FUUUUDGE!!!

Other tools I find useful are metal brushes that can be used to scrape grime and dirt off components prior to removal, or cleaning off data tags so you can pull part numbers off things like differential covers, alternators, transfer cases, etc.  I always keep a small funnel with some Kimberly Clarke paper towels folded in it.

No tool kit is complete without a pair of vice grips, channel locks or pliers.  I also keep a large adjustable wrench and a small pry bar in the bottom of mine.  None of the tools and equipment in your box need to be of the utmost in quality.  Crafstman quality for the metal tools will be fine.  For other tools you don't use as often, you could get away with tools purchased at Autozone or Lowes.  I like the Husky brand from Home Depot, and they seem durable enough for what you will use them for.  As a professional, I rely on professional grade tools to do the job when I'm working, but I am a firm believer in high quality commercial grade tools for home or auto use.  I've yet to break a Craftsman wrench or socket; I've thrashed on plenty of them.  Other things you may consider are a small roll of bailing wire, zip ties, extra hose clamps, spare batteries for the flashlight, and a few pairs of disposable nitrile gloves to keep those hands and fingers clean.  What you do not see is the case of 1/2" drive socket and associate ratchet I keep in the truck as well.  The case is thin and stores easily, so it's not in the way.  I use it for larger fasteners, and the breaker bar comes in handy for lug nut removal.

Last, but not least, is the one thing everybody should have in every vehicle, every garage, every range bag, and every house!  Heavy duty GLOVES!!!


These Mechanix brand gloves are their heavy duty line of work gloves.  They feature faux leather undersides and the palms are padded for comfort.  I've done so much work with these bad boys, and I can't even begin to tell you how much I love this brand!  I'm going to do a separate entry on this because I currently run 4 types of Mechanix gloves for all my different activities.  There is just too much to say about them to put into this entry.  Needless to say, go to Lowes because that is where I buy all mine.  For the money you spend, they are worth it.  From removing tires, to hammering, to general work, your hands will thank you.

Of course, this list is not all inclusive.  What I use for my personal system may not be what is best suited for you.  What you put into your kit, how much you spend, and how you use them will depend on your situation, your income, what kind of vehicle you drive, what your technical skill level is, and how you use your vehicle.  My suggestions are simply to help point you in a direction.  Personally, the tool kit for my wife's car is far far different.  Though there are some things that remain the same; can of WD-40, a funnel, gloves, a couple screw drivers, etc, the kit is much smaller and is less comprehensive as this kit, and for good reason.  The car is newer, isn't as field serviceable as my truck, and doesn't go into the woods like my truck does.  My truck is a platform for many activities I engage in, so the ability to get it into and out of any given situation is paramount, because when I break down, the tow truck is hours and hundreds of dollars away.

Since we are talking about it, I'll mention some other items you should keep, but are not pictured here; I'm just going blast through these.  If you want more information, comment below and ask.  I'll do my best to answer.  So, here's the quick and dirty list of other things you should have besides the types of tools above:

1. first aid kit.
2. road flares.
3. 72 hour kit
4. Food
5. cellphone charger
6. multi-tool (if you do not currently carry one)
7. Cash (no bills larger than $20)
8. Disposable camera (to document vehicle accidents)
9. Glove box organizer for vehicle paperwork
10. A disposable lighter or Zippo lighter.

-James

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