Make Your Vehicle Bug-Out Ready

Get Away From Trouble Faster With These Simple Tips.

Forest fires rage through the West. The most powerful hurricanes in recorded history ravage the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic. Arctic cold and blinding snows strike the Northeast and the Midwest.

This year, flooding seems to be common in some areas. Because of threats such as this, you need to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. (Photo by Dana Benner)

What do these disasters all have in common? They all make people—ordinary people—leave their homes, often very quickly, in the name of safety.

In order to get your family out of harm’s way, you need a reliable vehicle; one that’s always prepared to move at a moment’s notice.

This article discusses items I keep in my vehicles at all times and steps I’d follow in my situation. If something were to happen and I had time, I would load the vehicles with other items as well. Also, keep in mind that you might face circumstances that I don’t in my home state of New Hampshire. If that’s the case, you should carry items better suited to your area. This is just a suggested guide about what should always be carried.

Does Vehicle Type Matter?

When it comes to an emergency situation, your type of bug-out vehicle doesn’t matter. The goal is to get to safety, not win a “pretty car contest.” We’ve all seen the articles featuring huge 4X4s outfitted with all the gadgets; and, honestly, some of them look pretty cool. Others look like war wagons right out of a Mad Max movie.

In reality, most of the people escaping forest fires and massive flooding will be driving their minivans or SUVs loaded up with their kids and the dog.

This 2014 Subaru Forester (and similar vehicles) is a commonly owned vehicle that many people would likely use to bug out. Despite its all-wheel-drive feature, it does have its limitations, so exercise caution when the road gets rough (Photo by Dana Benner)

I have two vehicles. One is a 2007 Ford F-150 pickup, and the other is my wife’s 2014 Subaru Forester. Both are set up to leave quickly if necessary. If we had the time, I’d go with the truck, because it can hold more gear and supplies. But time isn’t always on your side. If we have to bug out quickly, the Forester is the vehicle we’d take.

The Subaru has all sorts of compartments for storing gear. This one, just under the dash, is perfect for installing a two-way radio. (Photo by Dana Benner)

The bottom line is that whatever you’re driving, your vehicle needs to be ready to go when you need to “beat feet.” When you have to evacuate, you might only have a matter of minutes to get moving.

For that reason, you must have a plan that covers everything from your escape route to what you need to carry in your vehicle for a successful exit from the area. I always emphasize that survival revolves around good plans. This situation is no different. Without a plan, you have panic, and panicking can kill you.

Vehicle Maintenance

Your vehicle is no help if it’s in bad shape. Make sure all required maintenance is up to date. Check all the fluids at least once each week; more often if you regularly drive a lot of miles. Make sure the tires are in good shape and that the brakes are not on their last legs. If anything needs to be fixed, now is the time to do it.

Make sure your tires and brakes are in good shape. (Photo by Dana Benner)


Regular maintenance includes checking tire pressure and all of your vehicle’s fluids. (Photo by Dana Benner)

Breaking down in the middle of an evacuation is our worst fear, but it can be prevented: Make sure to carry a well-stocked toolbox. Check the spare and the jack. Carry extra belts, hoses, wiper blades, oil and antifreeze, as well as jumper cables and road flares. Last, but not least: Keep your gas tank full. Once you get going, you might not be able to stop.

Regularly check the spare tire and the jack to make sure they’re complete and fully functional. (Photo by Dana Benner)

Your Escape Route

When planning your route, you need to look at a few different aspects: What’s the direct route out of the situation? What’s the safest route out (the two are not always the same)? Which route is best for the vehicle you’re driving?

Don’t rely entirely on your GPS to work during disasters. Always have maps handy, whether they’re printed on paper or saved in digital format on a device you can keep charged. (Photo by Dana Benner)

Sometimes, the most direct route might be the only route out. A good example of this is U.S. Route 1 in southernmost Florida. It’s the only road connecting the Florida Keys to the mainland. I’ve traveled that route numerous times, and it can be busy, even in the best of times. In an evacuation situation, it can quickly become gridlocked. So, residents there must be prepared to move more quickly than those around them. At the first sign of danger, I’d get out of there and not wait for the evacuation order.

This bridge might not be the most direct way out, but it might be the fastest and the safest where the author lives. If you’re trying to leave an earthquake zone, you might want to navigate around bridges, for obvious reasons. (Photo by Dana Benner)

In some cases, the most direct route might not be one that your vehicle can handle. Even with today’s all-wheel-drive vehicles (like our Subaru), some routes can’t be traveled without a high-clearance 4X4.

The safest route might not be the most direct route, meaning it’ll take longer than you’d hoped. Make sure to plan ahead, study your maps (keep at least one in each vehicle), and practice the routes you think will serve you best. And don’t plan to rely on your GPS.

Bug-Out Must-Haves

Both our vehicles always contain a means of communication, along with tools and items for fixing the vehicle, food and water, a good first aid kit and a bag of extra clothes. It’s also a good idea to carry a folding shovel of some sort and some rope. This seems like a lot, but it really isn’t. For instance, the Subaru has a bunch of compartments in which all this gear can be stored out of the way.

A folding shovel or entrenching tool is a must-carry, especially if you’re traveling through snow-prone areas. (Photo by Dana Benner)

Communication. We live in a world of constant communication. Cell phones, social media and e-mail all keep the world connected. In an emergency situation, particularly when you have to evacuate, the ability to communicate could be a matter of life or death.

When you make your evacuation plan, it should include safe places to go (for instance, homes of family and friends or other lodging arrangements) and how to get there. You’ll need to communicate with the people in those places to let them know how you’re doing and when to expect you. You also need to know if arrangements or other aspects of your plan have changed. You need the ability to communicate with emergency responders and with other members in your party if you’re traveling, or meeting up, with other vehicles.

Having a cell phone is a good start, but we all know that cell phones might not get reception in some areas. In addition, there’s always the chance that towers will go down or the system will be overloaded. For that reason, I installed a two-way GMRS radio in our Subaru. With the Midland Micro Mobile, I can monitor different stations for traffic problems and weather issues. I can also communicate with family members and call for help.

Tools and Parts. A good spare tire and serviceable jack are always in the vehicle. I also carry wrenches and a socket wrench. Because the Subaru is Japanese, the tools I carry are metric. Likewise, you need to determine whether your vehicle requires standard or metric tools and invest in a set to keep in the vehicle. I also have slotted and Phillips-head screwdrivers, pliers, black electrical tape and some cable tie wraps in my “toolbox.” A folding shovel is always in the vehicle (this is especially useful in areas where snow, mud or sand could be encountered).

Tools, spare parts and road flares are kept in this compartment in the author’s Subaru. (Photo by Dana Benner)

Besides tools, you should always have extra fluids such as coolant, oil, power steering fluid and any others your vehicle requires. It’s also a good idea to carry extra belts, hoses and jumper cables, bulbs and other parts, just in case you need to make emergency repairs while on the road. Remember: There won’t be any AAA or other roadside service. Just like you, their employees are probably trying to get out of danger.

Food and Water. I always carry at least two 16-ounce bottles of water (per person) in the vehicle at all times. If I plan to be out for an extended period of time, I’ll carry more. You never know how long it’ll take you to get from point A to point B, and things can happen along the way. As far as food goes, there are always protein bars, trail mix, jerky and meat sticks in the vehicle. If you have to move quickly, you might not have time to do much more than grab your “go-bag.” At least these supplies will keep you going until you get to your destination.

Nutritious snacks (such as these Honey Stinger protein wafers) and water should always be on hand, because you never know when or where you might have to bug out. (Photo by Dana Benner)

First Aid Kit. I can’t overstress the importance of having a quality first aid kit in your vehicle at all times. I’m not talking about that tiny box of bandages you shoved in your glove box at some point; I’m talking about a real first aid kit. Always keep in mind that if you have to evacuate, you’ll be pretty much on your own until you reach somewhere safe, and you might still be challenged to find medical support when you get to your destination.

This small Orion Weekender First Aid Kit holds everything you might need for basic injuries until you can get to a hospital. (Photo by Dana Benner)

Your kit can be homemade, or it can be one of the really good kits produced by the numerous medical products companies. The kit in my truck is homemade, as is the one in my bug-out bag. My wife’s Subaru has a Weekender First Aid kit made by Orion Safety Products. I also have one of these in my canoe. There’s no such thing as having too many first aid kits. You’ll realize this when you actually have to use one.

The author keeps medical gear hooked into the 5.11 Tactical HEXGRID Seat platform in his Subaru. (Photo by Dana Benner)

This article covered only the basic items that should always be carried in your vehicle. Depending on the situation and time, other items will be added, but the items mentioned should always be with you.

The key point to remember is that emergencies, whether natural or otherwise, happen all the time. You might not be in a position or have the time to do much more than react. If you know your vehicle is ready to bug out, that’ll be one less thing you’ll need to be concerned about.

Extra Gear

Our cars have a few extra items, which are neatly stashed in the center console:

5.11 Tactical ESC Rescue Tool

Left to right: a cell phone, 5.11 Tactical ESC Rescue Tool and a Swiss Army Knife, all of which are kept in a vehicle’s center console, where they can be easily grabbed. (Photo by Dana Benner)

This tool includes a seat belt cutter and a spring-loaded window breaker. It also includes a pry tip. Closed, it measures 4.25 inches and weighs 3.1 ounces.

MSRP: $19.99

Gerber Multi-Plier 600

A multi-tool of some sort should be part of your vehicle’s everyday carry. (Photo by Dana Benner)

Like most multi-tools, the Multi-Plier 600 comes with a host of tools, including pliers, screwdrivers, knife blades and many others. This tool can handle many different jobs well.

MSRP: $72

Bushnell Headlamp

Nothing is worse than trying to fix something in the dark if you’re using a standard flashlight. That’s why I carry a headlamp. It allows you to keep both hands free to use tools. Bushnell makes a variety of headlamps.

MSRP: $35 and up

Communications: Keep it Simple

When it comes to a means of communication, I like to keep it simple. Size is another consideration.

Cell phones with chargers are always good to have, but they might not work everywhere you go, so two-way radios are another option. Handheld two-way radios are great, and I use them in the field, but they have limited ranges. And, in a vehicle, they can get easily misplaced.

The Midland MicroMobile radio is mounted into position. The cables are stowed away, but they’re ready when the author needs to use them. The microphone and antenna are stored in the center console. (Photo by Dana Benner)

A fully mounted two-way radio, similar to the traditional CB radio installation, is the answer. I purchased a Midland MXT 115 MicroMobile GMRS two-way radio to keep in my wife’s Subaru.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the MARCH, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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