Car Talk: Vehicle Survival Strategies

Car Talk: Vehicle Survival Strategies

Driving can be a huge part of bugging out and getting away from it all. And if you drive long enough, you will have your fair share of mishaps on the road due to a snowstorm, poor road conditions and/or mechanical issues. 

Backcountry roads can also change drastically with a turn in the weather or the season. A dusty road in June may be a mud hole by September. Stay on the main roads and avoid the Shortcut Syndrome. I recall one family who tried to take such a route home through the mountains. They ventured down an icy road during the winter only to get stuck and endure an 11-day ordeal. This situation began not just when they drove down the road but with a mindset when they were sitting in a roadside diner considering a shortcut on the map.

You should view your vehicle as a rolling survival kit. Carrying critical gear, performing a pre-trip check and knowing how to rig up your truck or car in the event of a roadside emergency are essential for backcountry drivers as well as for urban commuters.


I’ve discussed the importance of this before, but the travel plan is as critical to your survival as carrying pocket-loads of cool gear. Your spouse, family member, friend or roommate becomes the safety net on the other end that can alert searchers to your location. Without them, you are on your own, and that’s not a good place to be when you are stranded and possibly injured.

Tell someone reliable exactly where you are headed, what highway or route you are taking and your planned arrival or return time. I can’t stress this enough. Avoid the deadly mentality of, “I am only going for a short drive in the mountains/forest/desert … ” or “I’ve been down this road a hundred times before.” Survival is hard
enough! You want someone working on the other end to locate your position before the weather changes or you’re faced with hypothermia.

In addition, buy a NOAA weather radio or get the app and use it often. Yes, you can sometimes do the aboriginal thing and look at the clouds to determine what weather is headed your way over the next 24 hours. But I like to know with some certainty what is rolling in over the next five days so I can plan accordingly or just reschedule the trip altogether if the weather is going to be severe.

A few years ago, there were dozens of stranded hunters trapped 15 miles down a dirt road when a massive winter storm pushed through northern Arizona. Most had dismissed the winter advisory because they didn’t want to give up on their elk hunt. Many were even visited by the Sherriff’s Department that came out to warn them of the impending storm. After it was over, numerous hunters had to walk out and leave their trucks and travel trailers there for the rest of the season due to lack of access to the region.


A tire blowout or flat due to improper inflation can be a real setback when you are in the city, but this will get amplified when you are 20 miles down a dirt road or on a remote highway. Checking both tire pressure and tread appearance in your driveway takes only minutes but can save you hours of turmoil and sweat. Stow a can of Fix-A-Flat, a small air compressor ($30 at big-box stores) and an umbrella in your rig. The latter will allow you to create instant shade that you can hold over your spouse (hint) while they fix the tire, wait for help or have to walk down the road to a nearby gas station. And get rid of the donut tire that your rig probably came with and get a full-sized tire. When I go on extended backcountry driving excursions, I also add in a second spare tire to counter Murphy.

Invest in a quality hydraulic jack, can of sealant and 12-volt air compressor for handling tire repairs.
Invest in a quality hydraulic jack, can of sealant and 12-volt air compressor for handling tire repairs.

Is your radiator fluid topped off? Do you have some duct tape for making field-expedient radiator hose repairs in the event of a leak? Have you performed regular maintenance on your rig and had a radiator flush in recent years? All the usual apply here: Oil, brake and transmission fluids get a onceover prior to leaving. Again, it takes mere minutes but can save hours down the road.

How much water to keep in your car depends on the time of year and the number of people traveling with you. The general rule I advocate for the summer months is two gallons per person per day. Half that if it’s winter. When I travel back and forth between my home in Flagstaff, Ariz., (mountains) and Joshua Tree National Park (low-desert) to teach, I carry 14 gallons in the back of the truck and 2 to 3 gallons inside during the hotter months. If I am going to be camping for a while in the desert 15 miles down a lonesome dirt road, I bring up to 30 gallons. The blue water jugs (cubes) sold at big-box stores hold up well for this purpose.

Don’t skimp on water. It doesn’t matter if you are a Navy SEAL or a triathlete, you can’t condition yourself to go without water. Notions like using a solar still or procuring water from cactuses are best left to the Hollywood industry. Your most reliable water source is your kitchen sink at home and planning ahead before the trip.


No-cook, dehydrated meals and survival rations make excellent emergency food for weathering out a few days on the road. An Esbit stove can be used for heating water or melting snow.
No-cook, dehydrated meals and survival rations make excellent emergency food for weathering out a few days on the road. An Esbit stove can be used for heating water or melting snow.

There are two kits outlined in this article’s sidebars. One is a bare-bones kit that every driver, even city-commuters, should carry to cover the basics. It will allow you to handle minor roadside emergencies in an urban or rural setting. Here, the idea is that you are most likely not going to be far from help (tow-truck, family, etc.). The second is a remote wilderness kit that enables you to be self-contained. This is for the backcountry traveler or car-camper, and it contains more extensive survival and recovery items.

Regardless of the kit, you should adjust your gear to suit either winter or summer emergencies that your specific region contends with. There’s a lot of overlap between the two kits but with a few more items added in during the colder months. Perishable items like batteries, food and first-aid kit components should be checked with each change out between the seasons.

Some of my gear is stowed in various sections under the seats or in a small backpack with the rest kept in a Husky tool bag behind the driver’s seat. Tool bags, like the type found at bigbox hardware stores, are inexpensive and built for abuse.


When I’m on the road, I like to have my packs and duffle bags secured in various places in my truck to help slow down a smash-and-grab thief. I use either zip-ties or carabiners that attach my gear to anchor points under the seats. On occasion, I will use a bicycle cable and combination lock. You can also pick up a small metal lockbox with attaching cable called the NanoVault, which will provide additional security for stowing valuables. Again, a determined thief who has the time will eventually bust through any of these, but the idea is to have safeguards in place to help thwart the smash-and-grab scenario which is, statistically, the most likely to occur.


Well, it’s happened. You readied the vehicle, left a travel plan, watched the weather and were prepped on every end for the trip but still ran into Murphy’s Law and suffered a breakdown. Now what? I’ve been there before and it’s a frustrating mess, but this is where all the time spent preparing before the trip pays off.

1. If you left a travel plan, then consider staying put. It makes the job of the Sheriff’s Department or Search and Rescue much easier and prevents you from wandering outside of their search radius. It is far more challenging to spot you on foot traversing the wilderness than it is your vehicle. Plus, with your preps on the front end, you have a four-wheeled survival kit at your disposal. However, if you are at the bottom of a canyon, in a flash flood or rockslide region or in a place with a dense canopy where searchers can’t see you, then you may have to retreat to a safer location.

2. You have no reason to be kind to your vehicle during a life-and-death ordeal. Gut it, strip it, salvage it and use it to keep you alive!

Carry a go-bag with your essential survival gear in case you have to bug out during an urban breakdown or cope with a backcountry crisis
Carry a go-bag with your essential survival gear in case you have to bug out during an urban breakdown or cope with a backcountry crisis

3. Stranded backcountry motorists have used tires for signaling by lighting them on fire. First, this assumes it is safe to have a fire. The western U.S. is a tinderbox and many a scared survivor has started a signal fire only to have it turn into a wildfire that decimates the wilderness and endangers searchers. Assess your surroundings, the time of year and the wind that day to determine whether it’s safe to light a signal fire. Then, look for an area clear of debris that is 20 feet or more from your vehicle and roll the spare tire over there. Important: Cut the valve stem prior to lighting the tire on fire! Failure to do so will result in a rubber grenade going off. Next, obtain oil or transmission fluid from the engine. Gasoline can have vapors present and is not as safe to use. You may have to use a rag, bandana or cut up the foam seating in your rig for mopping up oil or transmission fluid. Once lit, a burning tire will produce a billowing column of black, noxious smoke, so stand back and don’t inhale the fumes. A non-windy day is essential for a signal fire of any kind, otherwise the smoke column gets dispersed. On another note, depending on your vehicle, hubcaps can also be used for digging implements, collecting water and for signaling if they have a reflective surface.

4. As noted, engine fluids such as transmission, oil or break fluid are much safer for lighting a fire and less volatile than gasoline. Some older survival manuals recommend using radiator fluid to pour on your body to keep cool or even to drink! Not a great idea unless you want to hasten entry into the Darwin Awards. Stranded survivors have used their own urine for keeping cool (a glamorous staple on TV shows), but the copious amounts of water you stowed in the rig prior to departing should prevent such a colorful experience.

5. Some recommend using battery cables to spark a fire and all of this done within a foot of the engine! If the battery is working, then the cigarette lighter inside is going to be a much safer option. Use the lighter to apply heat to an oil-soaked rag many feet away from your rig. Using the battery should be a last resort.

6. At night, use your car’s lights in patterns of three continuous flashes to help draw attention to your location. A few stranded drivers have even unscrewed the headlight attachments and angled them up at night to alert passing airplanes.

7. A mirror can send a flash for miles and costs little in terms of calories on your part. The signal mirror method is also not a danger to the forest like a signal fire. Using standard signal mirrors in the desert during our survival courses, we have sent flashes up to 26 miles on a clear day. Interior and exterior vehicle mirrors can be cheerfully dislodged, caveman style, using a vocal grunt and an arm-wrenching twist. When not in use, hang the mirror up in a tree to glint around in the wind as you never know who may be on foot or horseback a few miles away searching for you. Some hubcaps and headlight interiors also have reflective surfaces that can be employed as improvised signaling devices.

8. The car horn, used in patterns of three honks, can be used for auditory signaling. Combine this with hourly mirror flashes during the day and headlight flashes at night. Rubber floor mats can be burned in a signal fire and you have the foam interior from the vehicle seats to use for fire-starting material. Seatbelts can be removed and used for improvised lashing material. CDs can be hung up from trees for passive signaling devices. Don’t forget the glove box and other storage areas: Do you have road flares, glow-sticks or other items that have been stowed away?


If you do indeed equip your vehicle to serve as a rolling survival kit and take the proper planning and preparation steps, you’ll increase your chances of survival immensely in the event of a serious situation.

  • AMK Heatsheet
  • Wool hat
  • Leather gloves
  • Umbrella
  • Two gallons of water
  • SOS rations (3,600 calories)
  • 36-hour candle
  • Leatherman Wave multi-tool
  • Full-sized spare tire
  • Can of Fix-A-Flat
  • Air compressor
  • LED headlamp and spare lithium batteries
  • AMK Weekender FirstAid Kit
  • Roll of duct tape
  • Four Cyalume glowsticks
  • Cellphone charger
  • Jumper cables

Winter additions:

  • Parka
  • Sorel Pac Boots
  • wool mittens
  • polypropylene long underwear
  • sunglasses
  • wool socks
  • turtleneck
  • wool pants
  • wool blanket


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2014 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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