A List of DIY Repair Tools That Are Essential for Roadlife

roadlife tips
Somewhere east of Billings, Montana.Photo: Courtesy of Regina Nicolardi

Picture this: You’re driving a highway somewhere in West Texas, when all of a sudden, lights start flashing on the dashboard and there is a funny smell wafting from the engine compartment. You pull over and pop the hood, only to find fluids leaking incessantly and smoke billowing.

It sounds like quite the situation, but when living the roadlife, vehicle issues can happen anywhere (and believe us, they will). In 15 years of van traveling I’ve had a fair share. I’d like to say I can’t recall them all, but each tends to leave an impression. The difference between realizing you just blew your entire travel budget on tows and repairs, versus continuing on with your endless epic, may simply boil down to whether or not you roll up your sleeves and fix it yourself.

Essential tool kit
Joe Potoczak

Basic vehicle repair is something every roadlifer should know. With the resources of modern technology and some essential tools, doing your own handiwork has never been more within reach. There are some great pre-assembled tool kits out there, and the more in-depth your auto repair skills get the more you’ll add. But you should have an understanding of the basic tools you need to get the job done, beyond that tire iron and jack collecting dust in the back.

Here is a rundown of essential tools I carry for the roadlife.

Wrenches, sockets, ratchet, extension, flat head, Phillips head
Combination wrenches, sockets, ratchet, extension, slotted screwdriver, Phillips screwdriver.

Combination Wrenches: Wrenches are one of the cornerstones to any toolkit. You need wrenches.

Sockets and Ratchet: Right there with standard wrenches. Ratchets provide mechanical advantage, and the ability to turn a bolt without removing your tool.

Socket Extension: Sometimes your ratchet just doesn’t fit where a socket needs to go, be an advocate for working smarter not harder.

Screwdrivers: You’re going to want to carry both a slotted and a Phillips screwdriver in your kit. Trust us, these are a must.

Electrical tape, hex keys, slip joint pliers, needle nose pliers, diagonal pliers, circuit tester
Electrical tape, hex keys, slip joint pliers, needle nose pliers, diagonal pliers, circuit tester. Joe Potoczak

Electrical Tape: High-temperature vinyl tape is the duct tape of electrical repair.

Hex Keys: Hex keys are good to have for not only your vehicle, but everything else, like bikes or surfboard fins. They belong in every tool set.

Slip-Joint Pliers: Great for getting a grip. They also crimp wires in a pinch.

Needle-Nose Pliers: Helpful for grasping small objects in tight spaces.

Diagonal Pliers: These snippers are the easiest way to cut wires and such.

Circuit Tester: Simple tool that lights up if you have sufficient current to an electrical component, and much safer than the old “licking your finger” trick.

Hammer, utility knife, WD-40, wire brush, telescoping magnet, bar clamp.
Hammer, utility knife, WD-40, wire brush, telescoping magnet, bar clamp. Joe Potoczak

Hammer: Most people steer away from using a hammer in auto repair, but sometimes you just have to hit things. (A faulty starter motor for instance.)

Utility knife: Crazy-sharp, replaceable blades you can use to cut almost anything.

WD-40: Miracle in a can. Spray some between rusted bolts and threads before going to work.

Wire brush: Those metal bristles are just what you need to scrub away grease, rust, or take corrosion off a battery terminal.

Telescoping Magnet: This is a life-changing tool. Having a telescoping magnet is better than spending an hour trying to fish that screw from a crevice just beyond reach.

Bar Clamps: Holds things together, or provides compression on parts like brake calipers.

Tire pressure gauge, plug kit, pump.
Tire pressure gauge, plug kit, pump. Joe Potoczak

Tire Pressure Gauge: For safety and fuel efficiency, check your tire pressure regularly.

Tire Plug Kit (Reamer, Plugs, and Plugger): You know what’s more fun than changing out a tire on the side of the road? Not changing out a tire on the side of the road. Pull out that nail, ram a gooey plug in the leak, and be on your way. Down the road, a mechanic can provide a permanent patch pretty cheap.

Bike Pump: Your trusty bike pump will reach any tire anywhere… where a plug-in pump may not.

Head lamp, safety glasses, gloves.
Head lamp, safety glasses, gloves. Joe Potoczak

Headlamp: Let there be light. Headlamps serve just about every facet of the roadlife.

Safety Glasses: Always wear eye protection before sliding under your leaking rust box of a vehicle.

Gloves: Avoid getting grease all over your ride.

Phone, rewards card, manual, storage bin.
Phone, rewards card, manual, storage bin. Joe Potoczak

– Phone: Smartphones, 4G, and YouTube are the greatest technology ever bestowed upon DIY auto repair. Speaking of media, use that gadget of yours to snap photos before you disassemble things (for reference when it comes time to put back together).

Rewards Card: You can find franchise auto part stores everywhere across the country. Their web stores will tell you where that random part you need is actually in stock. And the icing on the cake may be the variety of free diagnostic services they offer.

Repair Manual: The internet is great but not always available. Keep a head-to-toe guide of your vehicle. They’re good for light reading with your coffee, or figuring out the firing order of your spark plugs.

Plastic Storage Bin: Why not a tool box, or indestructible ammo can? Sure, those are fine options. But those clear storage bins make it easy to see what you are looking for. You can buy them in any size and shape, and they stack neatly. Every roadlifer dreams of neat storage like they do a hot shower, or ice cubes in their drink.

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