The Right Tools

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Having cruised to the front of a line of cars waiting to board the Spirit of Vancouver Island, I instinctively kick the side stand forward and lean the Yamaha 650 Seca to the left to dismount - except this time my rain pant leg catches the side stand, collapsing it - and over goes the bike with me still on it.

No damage other than some embarrassment and bruised dignity, but the clutch lever has snapped at the pivot. What to do? I have an urgent mission to complete on the island, so I wheel the bike on board and set to work. My handy Schrade Tough Tool includes a file that helps to reshape the busted lever so that it kinda works - enough to get me to my destination, anyway.

What you need
There are those who say all you need in your tool box are a credit card and a cellphone. That's fine if you're traveling on the interstate or in well-populated areas. Otherwise, it makes sense to carry what you need to fix a minor breakdown. From my experience, the best you can expect from AAA is a lift to the nearest bike shop. And good luck if it's on a Saturday night, because you may be stranded there until sometime Tuesday.

How much I carry on my bike in terms of tools and parts depends on three factors: where I'm going (considering the terrain and how far it is from civilization), what I'm riding, and how long I'll be away. For example, useful as it would have been, I wouldn't have thought to take along a spare clutch lever on my island daytrip: I wasn't traveling that far and there are plenty of Yamaha dealers in British Columbia. On the other hand, on a recent trip to Baja California, I carried both spare clutch and brake levers, knowing that a tip-over was likely and that finding BMW parts in the Baja could be a challenge.

Statistically, the breakdown you're most likely to suffer on a modern motorcycle is a flat; so carrying a puncture repair kit always makes sense. Genuine Innovations sells an excellent kit (suitable for all tubeless tires) consisting of plugs, vulcanizing cement and CO2 cartridges. This will fix most flats and get you as far as a bike store for a professional repair. And while the CO2 cartridges in a puncture kit might get you going, it's unlikely they'll provide enough air for your correct pressure. So a small electric air pump and a pressure gauge are also parts of my wilderness kit.

Know your bike
On that note, it's also worth carrying any special tools you might need to remove a wheel. For example, my Triumph Sprint ST uses a single nut, 46mm across the flats, to secure the rear wheel. I've never yet found a bike shop, other than a Triumph dealer, that has a suitable socket. Sure, you can use a crescent wrench to get the wheel off, but that risks damaging the nut. Not a good idea. So I always carry a 46mm socket on the ST.

Most newer bikes are designed to run with synthetic oil and finding motorcycle grade synthetic anywhere but a bike shop is a hopeless quest. You can use regular oil in a pinch, but I only put the best 'dino juice' in my babies. That's why I carry a quart of the good stuff for emergencies - like when you discover your oil level is down on Sunday morning, and the bike shops don't open again until Tuesday!

If your bike uses a cable-operated clutch or throttle, carry a spare. If possible, tape it to the existing cable; that way, a quick swap is all you have to do if a cable lets go.

Anything else?
If your bike came with a tool kit, don't assume it contains what you need. Even if it does, many of the tools will be made from cheese or modeling clay, at best. The 17mm wrench provided to adjust the chain on my ST was good for but one use before it was hopelessly rounded, so now I carry a 17mm combination wrench.

Modern electrical systems are highly sophisticated and rarely give trouble; but light bulbs are still prone to failure. I always carry replacements for the bulbs most critical to the safe operation of my bike: headlight, stop/tail light and turn signals.

Many bikes use a large number of M6 screws with a 10mm head; so I keep a 10mm combination wrench in my toolkit for roadside adjustments. Next to it is my Gerber multi-tool. This handy item has all the usual pliers and blades, but also includes a quarter-inch square drive adapter so I can use it with sockets. On one occasion I removed and replaced the oil pan on a Triumph Speed Triple in a hotel parking lot using just the Gerber tool and the few sockets I was carrying.

There are two more essentials that I won't travel without. A small crescent wrench will tackle most fasteners up to about a half inch. And I keep a small pair of vise grips on board, too. I've used these for just about everything, including operating the throttle after a cable let go, holding loose parts in place - and even as an emergency shift lever!

Group think
If you're traveling in a group, you don't all need to be carrying a complete toolkit. When my GS got a flat in Baja, I was carrying the spare tubes and patch kit; Steve had the tire irons and silicone spray; and Dave the compressor. Between us we had what we needed. Better than overloading our bikes.

And that's the key: planning. You can't cover every emergency, but you'll be able to handle most minor issues if you think through what you might need. If all else fails, there's duct tape. And for good measure, pack that credit card and cellphone, too!