How to put together a complete emergency tool kit for your Vanagon, Transporter, or Bus
Every tool is a hammer, except for a screwdriver, which is a chisel.
Perales, Samba member
You’ve spent the better part of the spring (and no small amount of cash) repairing, maintaining, and restoring your Vanagon or Bus, preparing it for The Big Summer Road Trip.
Now, here you sit on the gravel shoulder or in a remote campsite, with a squealing V-belt. Or a water pump that’s not pumping water. Or an alternator that’s not pumping electrons …
Ultimately, preventative maintenance is really the best tool. So, ideally you will never need to turn a wrench while traveling. But, as we all know, things happen.
So, it’s good to have some tools at hand to perform such emergency repairs, adjustments, or other tweaks your Vanagon may need while on the road. Or to fix other camping gear while traveling.
How many tools, and what kinds?
Some carefree souls venture forth with only a cell phone, a AAA card, and groovy vibes. Other Nervous Nellies pack their vans with a complete workshop of tools and spare parts, like an overloaded covered wagon on the Oregon Trail, to prepare for every possible contingency.
Much of your decision will be determined by your situation, of course. If your Vanagon is used primarily as a daily driver around town, you’re probably seldom more than 5-10 miles from home, so you can carry little more than a spare tire and a lug wrench. If, on the other hand, you’re driving to the ends of the earth, you’ll probably pack your van to bursting with parts and tools, with little room left for a spare pair of socks.
If you find yourself somewhere in between, mainly driving thousand-mile road trips in adjacent states, this will inform your choice of onboard supplies. You’ll need to decide for yourself how much risk you can comfortably bear.
Generally, my main objective is to have 90% of the tools needed for 90% of the repairs I’m likely to encounter while traveling.
Many of these tools you may already have at home, so you’ll need to decide whether to move them to your van for each big trip, or buy duplicates.
Below is my personal list, based on many years of road tripping in a succession of old vehicles, and a certain Teutonic penchant for thoroughness. Some may wonder, “Where do you put all that stuff?” while others will chide, “I can’t believe you forgot < insert one more thing here > !”
The Whole Package
I carry these tools in a variety of packs. The socket set is neatly contained in the included compact plastic carry case. A tool roll conveniently keeps all my wrenches in order; and a heavy duty fabric tool bag holds almost everything else and expands & contracts as needed. Only a few large and heavy tools ride loosely under the bench seat: the factory jack, RV levelers, jumper cables, and breaker bars.
Except as noted, all tools are metric, of course.
The Bentley Manual
It should go without saying that you should never wander too far from home without this Holy Book of Vanagon repair and maintenance. Even if you’ve already memorized all 724 pages, this mighty tome also functions as a wheel chock.
For good measure, I also carry a tattered copy of the classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” to remind me of the more metaphysical aspects of mechanicking, and as a mild sleep aid when loafing in the hammock.
Sockets & Ratchets
- Complete set of metric sockets (including short & deep sockets) and ratchets, in both 1/4”- and 3/8”-drive sizes
- A few oddball sockets often not included in sets, but which I seem to recall using over the years: 9, 12, 15, 17, 18, 19, 21, 24 mm
- 13/16” spark plug socket
- 3/4”-drive 18” sliding T-handle breaker bar with 19 mm socket, for lug nuts
- 3/4” female to 1/2” male adaptor, to allow sockets to fit above breaker bar
- Misc. other ratchet drive adaptors and extensions
- 18” length of pipe, to extend breaker bar handle for extra leverage
- Set of metric ratcheting combination wrenches, with standard open jaws on one end and integrated ratchet on the other
- Other metric wrenches to complete the entire range from 8 to 19 mm
- Adjustable wrench
- Brake flare wrenches
- 10-in-1 Multi-Bit Screwdriver
- Standard & Phillips, various sizes
- Folding Hex Key Set
- Digital multi-meter
- 12-volt circuit tester/probe
- 12-volt soldering iron
- Electrician’s tool, for stripping, cutting, and crimping wires
- Latex work gloves
- GoJo hand cleaner wipes, small packet
- LED headlamp
- Magnetic work light
- Sharpie marker
- Utility knife
- Small inspection mirror
- Butane lighter
- Small tape measure
- Leatherman-type multi-tool
- Ball-peen hammer
- Assorted sandpaper & emery cloth
If you are not capable of performing a particular emergency repair and have to take your van to an independent mechanic’s garage, a freeway truck stop, or Ye Olde Tyme Blacksmith’s Shoppe, they may not have some of these unusual tools. But if you can provide them, they can get you on the road sooner.
- 46 mm (1 13/16”) 3/4”-drive impact socket, for rear axle nuts
- 46 mm slogging/striking spanner, for rear axle nuts
- 8 mm Triplesquare (XZN) spline bit socket, for CV joint bolts
- 27 mm (1 1/16”) deep socket, for removing diesel injectors (and coolant tank temp sensor?)
- 17 mm hex bit socket, for transaxle/gearbox drain & fill plugs
A Few Homemade Custom Tools
Over the years I’ve fabricated a few small tools which have come in handy for routine maintenance or emergencies.
Before discarding that next old, frayed six-foot extension cord, snip the plugs off both ends and add two pairs of Red and Black alligator clips (be sure to keep the correct polarity on both ends).
No, these are not suitable for jumping your Vanagon’s dead starting battery. But they’re great for testing & bypassing various automotive circuits, rigging up test lights, and any number of other electrical tasks. A common use is simple hands-free connection of your voltmeter to the circuit you’re testing.
I was once caught in a torrential rainstorm, and found my windshield wipers suddenly inoperative. I parked under the shelter of a gas station awning and used these mini jumpers to bypass the faulty stalk switch and instead operate my wipers using the steering wheel’s horn button.
Whether at home or abroad, if you’ve ever replaced a CV joint or axle, you know how difficult it can be to hold the axle in place while you install the first bolt. Get an M8x48 bolt from the hardware store (or just use an old CV bolt) and cut the head off, then cut a slot into the same end of the bolt so you can insert a flat screwdriver. Thread this ‘alignment tool’ into the uppermost hole in the drive flange of the transaxle or wheel hub, then slip the axle’s CV joint over the protruding tool. The axle will hang in position while you install the proper bolts; use a screwdriver to remove the tool, then install the final bolt.
The same tool also works in similar fashion for installing Vanagon diesel V-belt pulley sheaves.
Vanagon rear brakes rely on an internal ‘star wheel’ ratchet mechanism for proper adjustment, but this adjustor can be difficult to reach using common brake spoon tools. But, you can fashion one from an old paint can opener.
First, use a large pliers to bend the tip of the opener’s blade flat, like a screwdriver. Then clamp the tool in a vise or a large pair of channel-lock pliers and use another pliers to bend an angle of about 80 degrees in the tool, just above the blade portion.
To use the tool, simply grasp the handle in the palm of your hand and reach in behind the rear wheel. Insert the tip of the tool in the access hole in the brake backing plate and find the teeth on the ratchet ‘star’ wheel. Pressing firmly, use the tool to dial the star wheel up or down as needed.
With practice (ask me how I know), you can pull over and easily make this adjustment within seconds, then hit the road for further brake testing until you get it right. Oh, what an enjoyable way to spend one’s first day of cross-country vacation after a recent brake job …
Bonus: many such paint can openers feature an integrated bottle opener in the handle, so you can enjoy an adult beverage while admiring your work.