Motorcycle tool kit: The basics and beyond

Title photo: Aerostich

Every motorcyclist needs a toolkit, even in today’s world, when a cell phone and a membership of the CAA can bail you out of many predicaments. In Canada, the CAA will tow you home or to a dealership, but in the US, AAA will not tow motorcycles and it will not fix a flat tire. If you’re a member of an auto club, check the rules for motorcycles before you get into trouble beside the road.

If you’re not a member, or you cannot call for somebody to rescue you, then here’s a guide to what you should carry with your bike. You don’t need to be able to lap your valves or hone a cylinder on the side of the road, but you should have a basic level of self-sufficiency, with some key tools and the knowledge to use them. Read on:

This toolkit ($16 at Harbour Freight) has most of the basics you need, and maybe a few pieces to be left home.
This toolkit ($16 at Harbour Freight) has most of the basics you need, and maybe a few pieces to be left home.

The Basics

At a minimum, you need tools to tighten up loose nuts, bolts, and screws, along with a few other basic bits to get you out of simple jams.

  • Wrenches At a minimum, carry wrenches for the fasteners on your bike – on most European and Asian bikes, that’s 8 mm, 10 mm, 12 mm, and 14 mm (and possibly 17 mm and 19 mm).
  • Screwdrivers/hex keys/etc.Take note if your bike has any weird fasteners. For instance, Harley-Davidsons sometimes use screws with Torx heads, and they usually have a massive Phillips-style screw holding down the seat, which requires a special screwdriver. Vintage Japanese bikes can be pretty fussy about requiring JIS-pattern screwdrivers, or you’ll strip your screw heads.
  • Tape/wire/zip ties Handy for securing damaged bodywork, and capable of serving other purposes in a pinch.
  • Fuses
  • Electrical tape Wrap a few inches of tape around a wrench handle
  • Flashlight (or use your phone’s built-in light)
  • Tire gauge
  • Spark plug Make sure it’s gapped correctly beforehand.
  • Spark plug socket Available on eBay if your local automotive store doesn’t carry the size you need.
  • Sockets Some people bring them, some people don’t. They may not be necessary on your bike. Bill Dragoo, a US-based riding trainer who’s done adventure riding all over the Americas, says, “If the answer is most fasteners can be handled without them, don’t bring them except as backup or for other riders who may have different bikes … Pick what fits and leave the rest at home.” And really, that’s solid advice for any basic kit.
If you're headed further from home, you need the capability to repair your driveline and tires. Here, Bill Dragoo pulls off a tire change in a motel parking lot. Photo: Bill Dragoo
If you’re headed further from home, you need the capability to repair your driveline and tires. Here, Bill Dragoo pulls off a tire change in a motel parking lot. Photo: Bill Dragoo

Touring Kit

The tools described above will suffice for around-town riding, when you can always park the bike and return with more tools. If you’re venturing further from home, you’ll need a more comprehensive kit, though. You need to be able to maintain your motorcycle’s chain, if it has one. You need to be able to repair and inflate tires.

Chain maintenance

  • Rear axle wrench
  • Chain lube
  • Mini chain breaker
  • Master link

Tire changes/repairs

If you have tubed tires, practise changing your tires at home with the same tools in your kit, so you’re comfortable using them when you’re on the road. Skip the C02 inflators flogged in the ads in back of motorcycle magazines – buy a compressor that runs off your bike, or use a compact bicycle pump. Tools such as a Pack Jack or Bead Popper can make tire changes a lot easier, but also add weight and bulk to your load, which is why Dragoo says he teaches his students to change tires without these gadgets. His opinion is that, “Some work fairly well but others don’t or do not work as well in some circumstances. A good set of tire irons and hands trained in their use will suffice in almost all situations.”

  • Front axle wrench
  • Air pump/compressor
  • Valve corer
  • Lube For seating the bead on tubed tires. A bit of dish soap in a small container will work.
  • Patch kit/spare tube For tubed tires. A larger front tube will work in a rear wheel, to get you home.
  • Tire irons For tubed tires.
  • Plug kit For tubeless tires.

Electrical repairs

  • Spare bulbs Most bulbs are easily found on the road, but if your bike uses an odd size, bring a spare.
  • Circuit tester Dragoo says he packs a sharp, pointed circuit tester that not only helps diagnose electrical problems, but doubles as an awl if he needs to stitch a ripped tire sidewall together.
The challenges of riding off-road mean you should bring along extra tools and supplies. Last year's Fundy Adventure Rally proved this, as several riders ended up with water in their gearbox, requiring fresh oil.
The challenges of riding off-road mean you should bring along extra tools and supplies. Last year’s Fundy Adventure Rally proved this, as several riders ended up with water in their gearbox, requiring fresh oil.

Off-road/Adventure kit

Heading off-pavement presents its own set of challenges, which should be reflected in your toolkit. Things that are readily available when riding in more populated areas might be impossible to find, or require a long wait. Also, if you’re on bad roads or off-road, you’re far more likely to damage hard parts like an engine case, so be prepared to repair them.

  • Oil Bring at least a litre of oil with you if you’re headed into the woods or down a remote road like the Trans-Labrador Highway.
  • Oil Filter
  • JB Weld SteelStik SteelStik (here) or a similar product can patch your engine and help get you home if you put a hole in the case.
  • Strap/rope If you’ve ever been stuck in a bog, you’ll know this is a must-have. Plus, you can use it to tow a bike out of the woods if you know the proper procedure (see riding trainer Clinton Smout’s how-to here). Some more wisdom from Bill Dragoo: “There are times when we simply can’t get the bike running again. When this happens, a sturdy tow strap is the best tool we can have.”
  • Spare parts Before a long trip, make sure wear parts (cables, brake pads, etc.) are in good shape, and if you’re adventure riding, make sure levers and other breakable bits are protected by handguards and other armour. But some pieces are still vulnerable; you might be wise to pack a spare shifter and clutch and throttle cables, at a minimum.
You can piece together most of a toolkit from your local box store retailers. For motorcycle-specific tools, consult your dealer or the Internet.
You can piece together most of a toolkit from your local box store retailers. For motorcycle-specific tools, consult your dealer or the Internet.

Where to buy?

You can buy a lot of the basic tools at your local Canadian Tire/Wal-Mart/Princess Auto/whatever. Many motorcycle-specific tools are available at good prices at Rocky Mountain ATV. However, if you’re after high-quality tools, Motion Pro, Best Rest, and the Aerostich catalogue are good (but spendy) places to look.

You can buy a tool tube to carry equipment, like this one from Adventure Spec, or you can easily make your own.
You can buy a tool tube to carry equipment, like this one from Adventure Spec, or you can easily make your own.

Carrying it all around

Most bikes have a small storage compartment where you can shove some small tools (a tool roll helps keep things organized).

If that’s not enough space, you can add storage. Some cruiser riders opt for the handlebar bag, which lets you carry a small toolkit. Dual sport riders often use a tail pack to carry the essentials (Editor ‘Arris was a firm believer in this policy). A fender bag is a good place to carry tubes and tire irons.

Many adventure riders, with their bigger toolkits, will opt for a tool tube, often strapped to the front of the skidplate or under the rear fender. If none of these options works, you can always get a backpack with built-in tool storage. Just make sure you find some way to bring your kit with you – the best toolkit in the world does no good if it’s miles away at home.

12 thoughts on “Motorcycle tool kit: The basics and beyond”

  1. I was at a Laverda rally a few years back where there was an impromptu competition on who had the “best” tool kit on their bike. I believe the winner had nothing but sunglasses and a bathing suit in his tool box… Italian flair at its finest.

  2. Isn’t it nice when your bike has a 36mm axle nut and doesn’t come with a wrench for it? Carry a huge socket with 1/2″ drive or 12″ crescent wrench? Hmmm, fish or cut bait.

    1. Did you buy that bike just to brag about your large nuts? 🙂 For most bikes, there is a Motion Pro combo tire lever wrench for and they weigh almost nothing.

  3. Regular or synthetic oil filter?

    I personally bring allen sockets and a ratchet rather than fiddle with L-shaped allen keys; makes things a lot easier. I also pack some of those blue gloves for roadside work, as well as a more permanent pair of oil resistant gloves that I use for cleaning and lubing the chain. Speaking of which, nobody has mentioned WD40, which cleans the chain, lubes the cables (yeah, I know there are better lubes, but on the road how many cans do you want to carry?), I spray it in key sockets after riding in the rain, and it solved an electrical misfire on my Bandit after riding in torrential rain in Vermont. I also keep an led light on every key ring; phones can discharge quickly, especially in remote areas.

    While not really a “tool”, I carry either a crushed beer can or small electrical box cover for parking on hot asphalt.

    Any OEM toolkit should have the correct sparkplug wrench and something to loosen the axle. If your kit is missing, you can usually buy them from a dealer and since they are geared to your bike, will generally get you through I find.

  4. Great suggestions – worth noting though that only CAA plus covers motorcycle towing in Canada, and that AAA does cover motorcycle towing but with an additional fee to basic membership (per year something like $37)

    From one of the AAA webpages (may vary by state) – $37 fee gives “Up to 4 additional service calls per household for RV, motorcycle or recreational trailer”

    According to the CAA representative I spoke too (Got curious and wanted to confirm since I’ll be doing some USA trips next year) if you have CAA plus most states’s AAA will recognize that, but otherwise you can apply for reimbursement.

    Still better to rely on having at least the basic tools, but personally I’m a firm believe in CAA plus if you have a motorcycle – at least for towing it has saved us a bunch of money. (Even if they won’t fix a motorcycle flat for you) Great piece Zac. 🙂

  5. I think this is a great list for the most part. Practising at home is important too. My first tire change took about four hours and a lot of sweat and swearing. Now it takes 10 minutes. Depending how far away you are and where you are going, you might want to consider a water filter or purification tablets. Maybe one of those emergency bivy sacks that fit in the palm of your hand too. The aluminium tire lever wrench combo from Motion Pro work great and weigh almost nothing. The electric compressors are actually smaller and lighter than a manual foot pump.

    Almost every roadside repair in the past quarter century for me has been flat tires or crash damage (usually travelling companions) and back in the two-stroke era, fouled plugs and missing bolts rattled loose.

    1. “Maybe one of those emergency bivy sacks that fit in the palm of your hand too.”
      Definitely agreed – I carry one in the car and on the bike.
      You never know when the weather is going to turn sour and huddling up is the only solution.

  6. Get a welding rod carrying tube from some place like Home Depot and make your own tool holder.
    Sometimes its worthwhile to have a wander around your bike and ‘standardize’ the fasteners. Thank goodness the days of easily damaged philips hardware are mostly gone, but why have hex, allen and sometimes even torx head bolts on the same machine ?
    Park tools has a lot of interesting motorcycle sized tools as well, check your local bicycle shop.
    I question the need for a chain breaker/tool and spare master link, if an endless-type chain breaks you’ve got bigger problems.
    Duct tape and Krazy glue – sometimes electrical tape don’t cut it.
    The dish soap you use for beading tires is also a great hand cleaner when you’re done.
    Oil filter – seriously ? I can’t think of a single instance when you’d need a spare. If you’re that hooped just do without until you get somewhere to grab a new one.
    Next…

    1. Oil Filter is necessary if you have to do an oil change in Lab City, and there’s no spare filter in town … easier just to bring one with you, than go without.

      Or if you fill your sump with water, as I did once in the woods, it’s not a bad idea to replace the filter too.

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