It happens to us all at some point, but getting stranded while out on a ride due to a mechanical disaster that you can't repair, is not a nice feeling. More often than not, all it would take to avoid this is having the right tool, and the right skills, at the right time. But how to know what tools/spares to carry? Imo, it's about risk vs. consequence. You'd seem as mad as a mad thing if you took a spare tyre with you when popping to the shops 5 minutes away, but you'll perhaps want that extra rubber if you're 100 miles in to the Rocky Mountains, with no plans to see another human for a week. In my two decades of riding bikes, both on and off-road, at home and abroad, I've experienced most mechanical issues while out and about. So here's my take on what you need with you, and when you need it.
Introducing below, the Tools Map. Inspired by Katherine Moore's wonderfully elegant "Dirt Map", which classifies the gravel industry by how technical the riding is and how far from home you are, this chart gives an indication of what spares and tools I think should be carried, based on the distance travelled and remoteness of your trip. Now, all of this is very subjective and I've deliberately not given specifics on "length" and "remoteness", but hopefully you get the idea based on this overview.
Ok, so let's get to it, here's my Tools Map, which I'll endeavour to update and build on as/when I learn from others and make my own mistakes. Remember, the further to the top right you go, the bigger and badder and bolder the trip 😜
I don't want to get too prescriptive around exactly what to take and when, but hopefully it's clear that I'd suggest an item on the map is taken for any ride that is longer and/or more remote than its position. There are a few things missing, mainly because I've never had a need for them. Such as cone spanners (flat wrenches), needle & thread, pedal cleats and grease, but I've included a couple of these in the photo below.
Let's dig in a little more to each item, and I'll try to mentioned the ones currently in my tool keg/back pocket/backpack/seatpack...
1. Inner tube + tyre levers / Tubeless repair kit + pump
This lot really does come as a bundle. E.g. there's no point putting in a new tube if you don't have a pump. A couple of important notes:
- If you're running tubeless tyres, then you could argue that a spare tube and tyre levers can be moved up on the map, but I've popped it here for those that running a traditional set-up
- Make sure the valve stem on your tube is long enough to get through your rims. I've definitely got this wrong in the past 🤦
My fave levers right now are these Pedros Tyre Levers. You'll break a wrist before you break these things!
Note: you may have noticed there's no CO2 here. That is 100% deliberate. The world is basically on fire, no one needs to inflate their tubes at record speed. The ONLY need for CO2 on a bike, is re-inflating a tubeless tyre after adding more sealant (see below).
While many people aren't the biggest fan of the multi-tool, it's a basic go-to for tightening up just about anything on the bike that has come loose. Now, I could write an entire blog just about Multi tools (many people have!), but all you really need to know is that it has what you need for your particular set up. So if you know that every bolt on your bike is a 2.5T Torx bit, make sure it has one of those!!!
The tool I take does depend on the length of ride I do, but I'm liking my Crankbrothers F15 tool at the moment.
3. Puncture repair kit
Ok, time was that this was ALWAYS in my back pocket, but with the wide-spread adoption of tubeless, and low cost/ease of inner tubes, the humble puncture repair kit gets more use at home repairing damaged tubes, than out on the road. For anything longer than 10 miles I'll take some Park Tool GP-2 patches (why not, they're TINY and amazing!), but anything longer than about 50 miles, I'll make sure I have a full repair kit with me. I'll let GCN do the explaining on how to repair a puncture - thanks folks!
4. Chain quick-links + chain breaker
Broken chains don't happen often (unless perhaps if you're Andre Greipel), but sometimes they do and can be an absolute show-stopper. Make sure you have a couple of quick-links and, if your multi-tool doesn't have a chain breaker on it, be sure to carry something a stand-alone breaker tool whatever situation you're in! There are some super discrete ones out there, like this "Super chain breaker" from Topeak.
5. Tyre boot patch
I've only ever had to patch a tyre once, but boy was I glad I had one of these (Park Tool TB-2) when I did. Certainly not the easiest thing to do, especially when cold, tired and wet, but if it can get you home then its done the job. Make sure the area is clean and dry before popping it on. I've heard mythical stories of people using all sorts of other things to get them out of a torn tyre side wall situation, toothpaste tubes, folded up plastic bank notes (if you're feeling flush!) and just about anything else that's flat and can take a beating! If you can keep it place while getting the tube in there, that'll keep it in position
When I rode parts of the Perthshire Drovers Trail in Autumn 2020, I went through two sets of brake pads in two days. Luckily we passed a bike shop at a critical moment for my second failure, as I'd only taken one spare set! So this really does depend on the terrain, time of year and how worn your existing pads are, but it is something you don't want to be caught without! Be sure to get the right ones for your brake callipers, especially on disc brakes. In fact, here's some more info on disc brakes from Cycling Weekly!
7. Gear/brake cable
Having brakes is essential, so if you're on mechanical brakes then a spare brake cable is vital when heading out on longer rides, but a spare gear cable is more of a "nice to have". At a push, assuming you're carrying the chain breaker and quick links advised above, you can always set up single speed to get home in an emergency. However, a gear cable weighs basically nothing and can be stored just about anywhere, so really there's no excuse 😊
8. Rear mech hanger
Ok, this one is a classic one to get caught out with. You're tearing through the woods on a remote gravel track and a stick flies up and gets caught in your rear derailleur. Next thing you know, your mech is dragging along the floor behind you. If you're lucky, the mech hanger has failed (like it's supposed to, but often doesn't!) and you have a spare one (that fits your set up - pleeeeease don't make that mistake), and you can switch over. Another thing to check is whether you have the screws needed to replace, as these can sometimes shear when it fails. Bike Radar has you covered on this one if you need a "how to"!
9. Chain lube
This is another conditions-specific one, but long rides in the wet, especially off-road, can quickly leave your drive chain wanting some TLC. I like to leave a bit of lube in the bottom of the bottle, rather than using it all up, and then that wee bit remaining is ideal for a few days out on the bike. A full bottle is just an unnecessary weight penalty🙂
10. Tyre sealant
For those tubeless fans out there, if you've been unfortunate enough to have had a couple of nicks in the tyre, then you'll have probably noticed the underside of your frame is more sealant than paint! At some point, it'll become necessary to pop a bit more of the goo(d stuff) in so that any future disasters are averted. Personally, I'd probably just revert to popping a tube in, rather than relying on reseating the tyre with a micro-pump... This is the one (and only) good reason to take a CO2 cartridge out with you, but personally I'd still likely opt for the tube.
11. Cable ties / Voile straps
I ALWAYS have some cable ties down my seat-tube. They weigh basically nothing and within 5 mins of popping them in there, I've forgotten about them (until I need them, hopefully). As for voile straps (originally designed as a way to hold skiis together), they're a great option for keeping a whole host of things secure that are moving, but shouldn't be... Good for holding bottles on if your bottle cage shears off, too.
12. Electrical/Duct/Gorrila tape
There's not much you can't fix with a roll of tape. From reinforcing a cracked frame to holding a front light in place when the mount has sheared off. A roll of tape is must-have item that doesn't break the weight-bank.
13. Spokes + nipples + spoke tool
I went through a phase a few years ago, where every ride longer than ~50 miles resulted in at least one broken spoke. I don't know what was going on, but I did get fairly used to replacing spokes in the wild (or just truing up the wheel to a good enough level to keep riding). If you are going to carry spokes though, be sure to have at least one of each type in your wheelset, and if you have the j-bend type, you may need to remove disc brake rotors and/or rear cassette in order to replace. So you will need the tool required to take them off. Something like this is pretty neat for the cassette (https://uniortools.com/eng/product/1669-4-2-in-1-pocket-spoke-and-cassette-lockring-tool#44729), and this is a good reason for 6-bolt rotors imo, rather than centre-lock rotors- much more wilderness friendly! Again, spokes fit neatly down the seat tube so you'll not even know they're there!
14. Chain links (and chain pliers if you're feeling luxury)
While a couple of quick-links will get you out of a pickle, on a longer, more wild journey you may prefer the self-reliance of being able to completely replace a chain link or two if required. This isn't just vanity, it's more about not losing your lowest gear, which is the first one you'll lose if your chain gets too short! A set of chain link pliers is a nice touch also, making the whole process a lot less stressful. These Master Link Combo Pliers from Wolf tooth are nice and compact, so a good addition to your tool roll.
15. Spare bolts (bottle cage compatible) and washers
A nice to have as you can probably get away with tape or straps (see above) at a push, but a couple of spare bottle cage bolts can come in handy if things start to work themselves loose. Breakages do happen!
16. Pocket knife/Leatherman
Some sort of utility, mutli-function knife/pliers combo is great for any trip where self-reliance is key. From removing a stripped bolt, to cutting the excess from a recent gear cable fix, to defending yourself against an ambush, a Leatherman can get you out of a tight spot.
While this would probably be on your kit list anyway if heading out on an overnighter somewhere, it's worth a mention here, just in case it slips your mind. Sure, we'll probably have a light on the front of your bike for a long spin, but having a head torch is a great back-up should things go real bad, at just the wrong time. I'm loving my Alpkit Qark as a solid torch that will light the trail if absolutely needed in an emergency!
18. Super glue
Probably something you could get away with forgetting, but when you need to fuse something to something else, and can't get in there with the tape, you'll be glad of some superglue! I've even seen people use it in combination with the tongue from their shoe (it was damaged anyway...), to fix a major side-wall tear in their tyre - resourceful!
19. Tent pole (splint)
Another one to pop down the seat tube (if you've got any space remaining!) is a tent pole that can be used as a splint. Perhaps not for a broken bone, but certainly for reinforcing a cracked seat-stay, used in combination with a lot of tape. Again, doesn't weigh much and could get you to some sort of civilisation in a pinch.
20. Suspension "Shock" pump (if applicable)
If you're on a mountain bike and have front/rear suspension, then a "shock pump" is a good thing to carry if you're going to be away from any other humans for an extended period of time. You can't pump up your suspension with your tyre pump, so this could be difference between having bounce or bottoming out.
21. Spare tyre
Ok, this is where things get serious. Not something I'd pack normally, but if I was away for multiple days, on rough terrain, in a very remote area, I'd consider taking a spare tyre. The ONLY time I've ever needed one, and I actually had one, was on day 9 on a trip from Land's End to John o'Groats, where my partner in crime had completely worn through their tyre and was riding directly on the tube. I can't believe we didn't notice it wearing down!
22. Rear derailleur
Last on the list, and way up there in the "away for weeks" category, but if you're carrying the kitchen sink anyway, why not stick a rear mech in there to complete the package? Sure, this is not essential, but if it means you can avoid being single speed when you don't want to be, then it's a piece of mind that could be worth the extra weight. Tbh, of all the times I've broken a mech hanger, the majority have resulted in a seriously damaged rear mech also... You can normally bend it back to function to a good degree, though!
If you've made it this far, well done, that was a lot of info. If you want more tools-based content, there are some great kit lists out there from people who have really been there and done it all. Check out this awesome set of tool kits from bikepacking.com, and for those who want to go full adventure, there's this great article from pannier.cc.