When doing any type of multi-day trip in a wilderness setting bringing appropriate repair tools for the activity is important. Whether you are doing a long weekend of backpacking, a week long self-support kayak trip, or a month long rafting expedition down The Grand Canyon; you need to be ready to repair your craft or other essential equipment. Repairs can do anything from make an essential piece of equipment functional again to a non-essential item comfortable. A punctured raft means that you won’t be going anywhere but a cracked backpack buckle can mean not being able to comfortably wear your bag.
In this edition of The Grand Canyon: Being (P)repaired, we will be looking at what tools will be coming down the river with me. When picking tools for any trip, you need to be realistic about how much you can fit, what you might need to repair (what are the essential pieces of gear), and how exposed you will be once you begin your trip. For example, on a weekend backpacking trip (one night) you realistically don’t need to bring much. This is because you’re never further than a day’s walk from your car or civilization. Even the most catastrophic of gear failures can be suffered through as you walk out. A trip where you are using a vehicle to travel over land or water can be tricky; if catastrophic gear failure of your vehicle occurs, you might be more than a days walk from help. As you prepare for a trip, considering the difficulty of walking back to civilization in relation to your food rations is something to seriously consider. It’s easy to cover 20 miles in a day on a whitewater river, but trying to carry the same gear in undeveloped terrain could be the beginning of a Homer like Epic.
The Grand Canyon is a 21 day trip, deep in a river canyon that requires a cornucopia of gear, and has even more opportunities to break or damage that gear. Once you put on, you’re basically by yourself. There isn’t any meaningful opportunities to bring in anything you might have forgotten or replace anything that is broken. If you break it, you have to figure out how to make it work.
When selecting tools you need to walk to line between quality and expendable. For example, I have a high quality Leatherman Wingman that I use all the time and it is a tried and true peice of my kit. For a a tool like a hammer that doesn't require the best craftsmanship I picked up a small metal shaft rubber gripped hammer at the dollar store that I trimmed the grip so it would fit in the ammo can. So give some consideration to what you'll be bringing on a trip and how those tools might be put to use and what environment they will be subject to.
All the tools I will be bringing fit in a “50 Cal” ammo can. These are the most commonly sought after ammo cans used by river runners for personal use and are 6x12x7.5 inches.
(for more pictures with labels and closeups scroll to the bottom of the page)
The Tools that live in the ammo can are as follows:
Needle Nose Pliers with Wire Snippers
Locking Pliers (medium size)
Allen tool (with multiple heads)
Sewing Awl (with extra waxed thread)
Scissors (not shown)
Hammer: The hammer is pretty self-explanatory. Sometime you need to indiscriminately bash on something to bend it back into shape, punch a hole in it, force a square peg into a round hole; or because you simply don’t know what else to do.
Needle Nose Pliers: Whether crimping an item or bending wire to a desired shape, the needle nose plier is invaluable when doing fine manipulation of an item.
Locking Pliers: Known colloquially by their brand name of Vise Grips, locking pliers not only grip items well but can second as a makeshift vise. In the event that you have a pair of sandals that have the sole coming off you can use a pair of locking pliers and two flat items to act as a clamp to hold the sole in place while your glue dries.
Rivet Tool: This is an item that you won’t see on many people’s tools lists. On past trips I’ve had a welded aluminum dry box crack and have a hinge come loose. I was cursing not having a rivet tool with us. So before you pack one of these, be sure you’re familiar with it’s usage and application. You can also use this to repair the T-grip or paddle blade on a rafting paddle in a pinch; this works better and is stronger than duct tape.
Allen Tool: This item can also get a little tricky. I recommend determining if anything you are bringing has allen heads and only bringing those specific keys. If you’re not sure, bringing both Metric and Standard is a good call.
Sewing Awl: This is probably one of the most useful tools that you can bring. With a Sewing Awl you can fix any fabric item. Some examples include but are not limited to; fixing the strap of chaco sandal, sewing a buckle back on a PFD, mending a strap on a backpack, sewing a spray skirt back together, patching a heavy duty tarp, fixing Velcro, reattaching a buckle onto a cam-strap and much more. These are particularly useful on heavy fabric that is difficult to pass a standard sewing needle through (nylon strap, heavy canvas, rope, etc.). They have a heavy gauge needle and the handle make it easier on your fingers. I bring a wine cork along as a backing to have something to sandwich the fabric with; preventing sewing your finger to whatever project you are working on. Pro tip: practice with this before using it in the field.
Leatherman: I keep a Leatherman tool in my day bag to do anything from cutting cheese to pulling out cactus spines. They are a great tool that should go on just about any wilderness trip.
Scissors: Even a Luddite knows the value of this tool. Need to cut something? Use these. Good for anything from cutting raft material for making a patch or cutting the frayed ends off a weathered camp strap. If you want to avoid material from fraying while you cut, scissors are much better than knives.
Tool Roll: The Tool roll differs from person-to-person but ultimately it organizes all the small items that are tricky to keep track of. In mine I keep the following (see picture with descriptions for reference):
Saw with wood and metal blade
Pencil (wood not mechanical)
Ball point pen (blue)
Sharpie (fine point)
Several small files
3/8” drill bit
One pair latex gloves
Clip light with magnetic base
Spool of waxed string (not shown)
The Roll itself is a custom made item that I sewed out of duck material using my sewing machine. There isn’t a pattern available so I just winged it and am pretty smug about how it came out considering it was my first sewing project that I took on. I’ve seen similar items at Joann Fabric and Ben Franklin but these were geared towards the crafter and never quite fit everything that I wanted. I’ll spare you the details on all the items because some of their uses are fairly obvious but here are the details on some of them.
Lighter: Fire, being able to create it is a key survival tool. On a long trip you should have more of these than you think you’ll need. Think Costco quantities.
Saw: Having a small saw with both a wood and metal blade is important. The metal blade can be used to fix broken raft frames by cutting off damaged parts of the tube so you have a clean slate to work with. The wood blades are good for cutting just about anything that you can’t cut with your serrated knife blade.
Sewing Needles: A mix of industrial needles including upholstery needles are good. I keep a thick needle and waxed thread with my med kit to repair a torn spray skirt in a pinch. Whitewater kayaks leak enough as it is and a hole in your skirt on a multi-day trip would be brutal.
Writing implements: You’ll always need to write or mark items when doing repairs, so having a couple different implements is helpful. Bring wooden pencils because you can easily sharpen them with a knife.
Razor: For fine cutting of raft patch material or other stubborn fabric.
Files: A couple different small files and a sharpening stone are useful. The small files can be used to make a hole larger or to make that stubborn lid close.
Drill Bit with Universal Chuck: I bring a 3/8” bit that I can fit into the multi-head screwdriver. On this trip it might be worth having a hand drill because I have the space. However they do tend to be rather large so I’ll just work with the screwdriver/drill bit combo.
Small scissors, nail snips, and tweezers: Can be used for general personal hygiene or other fine manipulation you might need. Pro-Tip: The nail snips are great for cutting fishing line or sewing thread.
Eyeglass screwdriver: Have eyeglasses? Bring these.
Multi-head Screwdriver: Is an important tool that is very versatile. Like I mentioned, I prefer these because I can use a drill bit with a universal chuck.
Light: The light with a magnet is a nice item because you can stick any fasteners to the magnet while you work to prevent loss of the little bits. Also, a separate light is nice while you work in the dark because you can have the light shining at a different angle than your head lamp to get full illumination.
With all that said, this is not a hard and fast list of items and tools, what you bring with you should be tailored towards the trip you will be taking. When it comes down to it, your tools should be versatile and be able to cover a wide range of problems and situations. When you are planning a trip with a group, you have power in numbers. If everyone on the trip is bringing some tools you can cover most of your bases. Overlaps in tools between group members is not a bad thing. If each person has a tool that the other does not, it prevents every person from having to bring some of those large and awkward items.
All-in-all, you don’t want your trip ruined because you had gear failure. Nothing puts a damper on an amazing trip like being forced to suffer because you couldn’t fix a simple tear or broken buckle.
If you have any questions or additions to this list feel free to e-mail me or leave a comment.
For a comprehensive list of repair items (not compiled by me) follow this link. It's a well put together list and is in a nice format. Master River Equipment List.
Take it easy and see you on the river.