Spend enough time on the trails and you’ll see just about every odd breakdown, issue, and odd fix, and it truly can bring out the inner MacGyver – in anyone. Today’s blog isn’t really as much of a “how to” as much as it is a “be prepared for the unexpected”. Your ability to understand your own vehicle and how it functions, your skill to assess your assets and liabilities, and to think creatively can often make the difference between making it home and turning wrenches on the trail till 2:00AM. When things break down on the trail, it’s your job to find a way to make it work. The following is just a sampling of some situations and fixes I’ve witnessed over the years.
This past weekend my brake pedal sunk all the way to the floor right in the middle of an obstacle. I was 100% sure I’d torn a brake line. While it turned out my brake fluid just got a little hot and needed to cool down, I have witnessed a torn brake line before and knew just what I needed to do. The simple fix for a broken brake line is to reseal the system to make at least 3 wheels get hydraulic pressure. This is done by folding a metal line over on itself and clamping it with a vice grips. Duct tape the vice grips out of the way of moving parts, and all that’s left is a little top off of fluid and to bleed the lines a bit. Though it’s not ideal for highway driving, it’ll give you back your brakes to make it off the trail safely.
Below are examples of a brake line fix
Earlier this year one of our party snapped a rear axle, and this particular design used an inside retainer clip. So once the shaft was snapped, there was nothing keeping the entire wheel and axle from sliding right out of the axle housing. A solution we had heard of but never actually used for this issue was to ratchet strap a log we found in the forest to the outside of the wheel. This was just enough to allow the tire to still turn but stay in the housing – and again was just enough to get it down off the mountain where we could bring a trailer to get the poor broken Jeep home.
An aspen tree and ratchet straps make an effective wheel retainer
The old adage of duct tape and bailing wire fixing everything came true for me several years ago on The Rusty Nail Trail in Moab. We had passed through all of the difficult sections and obstacles when I went to go up a small rock ledge, and heard a loud bang. The bolts that hold the U-joint to the rear yoke had sheared, and the swinging drive-shaft had broken a good part of the yoke off. We were able to locate the retaining straps and while we had a couple of the right bolts, we had to use a couple wrong ones, then cross thread the heck out of them and wrap the crap out of it with bailing wire and duct tape to hold it all together. This all happened about 5 miles out from the nearest road with the entire Gold Bar Rim trail left to traverse. Well, it held the 5 miles of difficult trail, the 3 miles of dirt road, and another 3 miles of highway back to camp. I fixed it with the proper parts the following day.
Rear drive-shaft broke just after this pic was taken (sometimes you forget to take damage pics)
Many times the solution to an issue can be found at the bottom of a tool box or glove compartment. I have saved the day for other folks twice just by having an extra valve stem I keep handy as a valve core removal tool. More often than not, a breakage is solved simply by having a group of several vehicles and somebody has a part, bolt, nut, widget, or in rare cases, the actual replacement part you need in the back of their vehicle. (I think there is an unwritten rule that says if you have an extra part you will not need it for yourself.) I’ve been the beneficiary of a spare tie rod, an extra heim joint, and various nuts and bolts.
Having replaced a valve stem we are about back on the trail
There is no end to the variety of trail breaks, creativity, and mechanical savvy needed to solve these problems. Know that a high lift jack handle is a great straightener for a bent tie rod; you can rig up a welder with 2 batteries, a set of jumper cables, and a coat hanger; an adjustable wrench makes a great reinforcement piece to support what was just welded together; WD-40 will dry out a flooded distributor cap; and a Jeep TJ/XJ/YJ/ZJ wheel will fit on a Ford Explorer.
Stock tie rods are one of the biggest weaknesses of a TJ and bend easily.
I find the challenge of dealing with trail issues almost as stimulating as the challenge of driving a difficult rock obstacle. It takes thinking, understanding the nature of your situation, the resources available to fix it, and some serious problem solving. Remember to stay calm and cool and to realize that it’s all part of the experience of a great adventure.