Just Enough Tools

A common question when buying a bike for commuting is “what else do I need?”, with repair tools being one facet of that discussion. You might think you want to be prepared to fix anything, and buy a chunk of a multi-tool accordingly. You’ll buy a spare tube, some patches, tire levers, mini pump, CO2 inflator, etc. etc. If the shop sells it, you get it. You’re a Bicycle Repairman! While that approach can work for the more gregarious among us, a better place to start is to make a list of tasks you would feel comfortable performing on the side of the road.

First, think of the areas you bike through. Are there bus routes with cycle carriers in close proximity? Do you pass bike shops along your route? If so, you can probably do away with the idea of any major tinkering during a commute.

After you have a list of things you’d like to be able to fix on your own, ask yourself if you can actually perform those repairs. It doesn’t do any good to have the tools without the knowledge.

Finally, write down the specific tools required to perform each task you still want to be able to perform. Not just “hex wrench” or what have you, but specific sizes of each tool.

Once you’ve done this, you’ll probably have a much smaller list of tools, or at least a list of more streamlined tools, than you started with. Let’s take my situation and commuter bikes as an example. We’ll assume I can’t walk five minutes and catch a bus or get to a bike shop, though I can.

  • Fix a flat.
  • Adjust a derailer.
  • Adjust brakes (maybe to open up for an untrued wheel).
  • Roughly true a wheel.
  • Straighten handlebars after an off.
  • Straighten brake levers after an off.
  • Reposition a saddle.
  • Adjust a fender.
  • Repair a chain.

Now which of those do I really want to do? I don’t want to do any of them standing in the rain, late for work. For the sake of reality, though, let’s say I’ll fix a flat, my fenders, I might need to tweak a derailer, and I will definitely need to turn my bars and levers at some point. I’ve commuted on all five of my bikes at one point or another, but I’ll use my 3-speed as a template, since they all require different tools.

  • Fix a flat.
    • Tube
    • Inflator
    • Tire lever(s)
    • 15mm wrench (possibly)
    • #3 Philips (or #2 in a pinch)
    • 10mm wrench
  • Adjust drivetrain
    • Fingers
    • Flashlight
  • Adjust brakes
    • Fingers
  • Straighten bars
    • 6mm hex
  • Straighten levers
    • 5mm hex
  • Adjust a fender
    • 8mm combination wrench

We can combine a few of those items. No need to carry a separate light; I already have one for rides home after dark. Several companies make 15mm wrenches that also double as other tools, such as tire levers. I don’t like the idea of reciprocating a mini-pump hundreds of times, so I carry CO2. How much CO2? That’s a topic for another article. After that, you’ll see I don’t need many sizes of hex wrenches, certainly not a mega-multi-tool. Any of the smallest tools will do the job. All this can fit into a tiny corner of my bag. I can accomplish reasonable repairs, and I don’t cart around a lump of tools I’ll never use.

Try this out for yourself, you might be surprised how much dead weight you’ve been carting about.

About Eric Hansen

Eric started commuting by bike in 2011, and has turned into an avid cyclist. After a decade of fixing all types of things for the Army, he is currently studying electrical engineering at tOSU, and wrenching for rent money cheap bike parts at BikeSource. He can be reached via the Plus and the Tweets.


  1. My tool list (for a Surly LHT) consist of:

    Tire levers
    Avenir Combi Pump
    2 spare tubes
    Tire levers
    Full metric hex wrench set (one of those all-in-ones, 3mm-10mm)
    Park mini chain tool
    3-4 links of chain

    And that’s it. For my other bikes, I add a mini adjustable wrench (with holes drilled in the handle to make it lighter!)