Alec Yeager spends his winters four-wheeling and rock crawling in the desert Southwest with Rock Dawg, his custom-built rock crawler. He knows that sooner or later things get broken from playing hard, and sometimes breaking down or getting into a tight spot is just part of a day on the trail. Anyone who has spent much time out there knows there are some things you should never forget, like an emergency first-aid kit, food and water, cables, tools, spare parts, tire plugs and a compressor. Rock crawlers are built for crawling over rocks and don’t have much room for extra baggage. But when something big breaks, you need to be able to weld to drive out or take the chance of hiking for miles and possibly abandoning your vehicle for good. After many years of wheeling in remote areas, one thing Alec has learned is never to hit an isolated, rough trail without an emergency welding kit.
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Remote welder kits are great but expensive. If you don’t have one, for around $20 worth of welding supplies you can have the basics to get out of an emergency situation. With just a few extra items, it’s possible to do a good, solid welding job using what you’re already carrying.
Backwoods Welding Steps
- Get your gear together and clear the area of grass or brush that might catch fire from the sparks. Warn onlookers not to look directly at the sparks, even in sunglasses.
- Set batteries close to the broken vehicle and connect in series, 2 batteries for 24-volt and 3 batteries for 36 volt. Make or buy one or two battery connectors to carry in your 911 kit.
- Connect the second set of cables to the outside posts, positive to positive and negative to negative. Again, only use heavy-duty cables. Attach the negative clamp to the object you’ll be welding.
- Firmly grip the welding rod in the positive clamp. When you touch the end of the rod to metal, it should spark. If you’re not getting any charge, check the connections at all of your clamps and make sure the contacts are good and solid. The entire rod will become extremely hot, so don’t touch it or lay it on anything that will burn or melt until it cools.
- Put on your eye protection and gloves. Make your weld.
- When disconnecting, do everything in the reverse order you did it while connecting. Make sure the rods and metals are cool before you handle or store them.
Once, on a trail called Tin Bender in a boulder-strewn dry ravine in Southern California, a friend broke an axle off of a wheel hub while crawling up a dry waterfall. Alec used several sticks of #6013 welding rod and two 12-volt batteries to weld the hub and axle back together. The weld was strong enough to get them back down the treacherous trail, and then down another trail called Wrecking Ball, to get out and back to camp. Another time, he repaired a friend’s leaf spring cluster that was broken in half. They overlapped and welded the steel using three batteries and 1/8-inch rod.
“There was a time that I had to weld a frame together on the trail and didn’t have any eye protection,” said Alec. “I duct taped 4 four pairs of Uvex safety/sunglasses together, and taped a few paper plates around them with a hole in the middle. I carry a piece of #10 welding glass now.”
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Alec advises against using batteries to weld unless it’s absolutely necessary. “Dead shorting a battery is dangerous. But when you’re in an emergency situation, sometimes you have to do dangerous things.” Here are the minimum requirements for your emergency welding kit.
Two 12-volt batteries. You need at least 24 volts to weld. One 12-volt battery does not have enough charge. Three batteries are ideal and will give as much charge as a regular welder.
Two sets of battery cables (four gauge or better). Two gauge is best. Light-gauge cables won’t carry enough charge. Alec advises folks to invest in a good pair for the trail. It’s a sound investment.
Eye/face protection. If you don’t want to haul a welding helmet around, carry a #10 glass-welding lens and two pieces of protective lens plastic to sandwich around the welding lens. Or just use one plastic welding lens since glass tends to break. Use wide, heavy tape to make a shield around it.
All basic electrodes work with some success, but my personal preference is #6013. For two batteries (24 volts), use 5/64- or 3/32-inch diameter. For three batteries (36 volts), use 1/8-inch rod. Take a couple of different sizes in your vehicle.
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Electricity can be dangerous. When you connect the cables (see steps below), batteries and welding rod, the electrons have nowhere to go until it makes contact with something. The energy is concentrated where the circuit shorts—at the end of the welding rod. This melts the tip of the rod and the surrounding metal that it touches. The flux from the rod creates gasses that draw oxygen from the weld site, floating impurities to the surface of the metal. Oxygen causes spattering and eruptions, keeping the metal from flowing smoothly. Because the charge running from the battery is not controlled, the entire welding rod gets red hot, so use extreme caution. Coils in a normal welder regulate and absorb excess energy. Using car batteries creates a direct short so there is no regulation. The batteries will only last through a few rods before they lose too much electricity and need to be recharged.
Practice at home first. Practice your beads using different rods, and take the size of rod that works the best for you. “Make sure the first time you need to do this isn’t an emergency,” said Alec. “Practice first, but not inside your shop or garage.” Use spare metal scraps until you get a good feel for it. Everything is always a lot harder in an emergency situation because the conditions are never ideal.
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Warning: This process depicted below is for emergency welding only. Batteries aren’t designed for this type of use; it wears them out quickly. In addition to the danger of extreme burns (the rod reaches over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) there is also the danger of explosion because the battery off-gasses hydrogen as the electrons run through it. Never do this in a confined space and always wear adequate protection.
You can make a crude but functional weld with this kit, but it won’t be smooth. Since there is no welding machine to adjust, the only variables are the speed and electrode (rod) size. This does not weld like a smooth-flowing DC welder. It can make a decent weld, according to Alec.
“It’s not pretty, but it works,” said Alec. “The best thing you’ll learn, after you’ve had to weld a wheel on or a frame together, is you’ll probably go buy a Ready Welder. But this works well if you don’t have one.”
During an emergency situation in an isolated area, keeping a level head and having the right tools makes the difference between another good story to tell around the evening campfire and a tragedy.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.