By Jerry Ward
There is just something exciting about tooling along an old fire road or driving through the open desert that brings a smile. But what happens when Mr. Murphy pays a visit and leaves you stranded due to a mechanical problem with your vehicle? You could be miles from pavement and the nearest help. While you can't plan for every contingency and Murphy never RSVP's, you can prepare for the most common of calamities by having a basic knowledge of survival techniques and your vehicles' operating systems - and by carrying a simple survival kit. Always keep in mind that the vehicle itself is huge resource that can actually help with rescue and survival. View our Stranded Checklist.
Basic Vehicle Knowledge
It is imperative that you know a little about the critical systems that keep your vehicle on the road. This applies to vehicles of all types: cars, trucks, SUV's, ATV's, and UTV's. Before heading to the backcountry, be sure the vehicle is in tip-top shape. Tires should be properly inflated - including the spare. Make sure you have fresh fuel, a strong battery, clean engine fluids at the factory specified levels, and lights that work.
You also need to know how to perform basic repairs under field conditions: change a tire, replace a fan belt, check or add engine and transmission fluids, use jumper cables, perform basic wiring, and the like.
In addition to having knowledge about your rig, carry a selection of tools and parts to help you make any necessary repairs in the field. That includes basic hand tools, jack, lug wrench, jumper cables, portable air compressor, extra fuel, fuses, electrical connectors, wire, fluids, spare fan belt, and spare bulbs. Toss in a shovel, axe, and a tarp to lie on if need be. Whatever you carry, make sure you know how to use it safely and efficiently!
Fire is the number one tool to surviving a night or two out in the woods. It can be used for signaling, to purify drinking water, fight off hypothermia, light up the night, keep your spirits up, and cook food. The ability to make fire is a critical component of any vehicle survival kit.
A few nearly foolproof ways to create fire are a disposable cigarette lighter with a section of bicycle inner tube around it, a ferro rod and small container of petroleum jelly-covered cotton balls, and a large selection of one of the many prepackaged chemical firestarters. Stash these in the glovebox, toolbag, or center console so you'll never be without. In a pinch, you can always cannibalize the vehicle for the rubber tires and hoses, fuel, and motor oil to help get a fire going.
Hydration is a priority because the human body can last only around 72 hours without water. When you head out on the trail, bring plenty of fresh water with you. I carry a couple of 3.5 gallon Water Bricks in my Jeep at all times. Plan your route in the field based on known natural water sources. Remember, just because it's a blue line on the map does not mean there is actually water on the ground. Have firsthand knowledge of water sources before heading out.
Consider all water you find in the wild as contaminated and requiring purification before you can drink it. Even though it looks crystal clear, there could still be microscopic nasties swimming in it.
Carry a couple of quart water containers, and at least one made of stainless steel so you can boil water over the fire to render it safe. I also recommend purchasing one of the many purification straws on the market today. My personal use filter is the Lifestraw. If you'd rather use chemicals, iodine and chlorine are the most common choices. Both are very effective, but folks with shellfish allergies should avoid iodine; it's the same allergen. Never drink the water from the vehicle’s radiator as it more than likely contains a toxic coolant.
In a survival situation, it's important to get out of the elements and maintain the body's core temperature of approximately 98.6° F. A swing of 10 degrees in either direction almost always leads to a fatality. Wear proper clothing and employ the layering concept so you can add or remove layers as the weather dictates. Carry extra clothing and a sleeping bag or wool blanket.
By including a tarp and 500 feet of 550 paracord in the survival kit, you can turn your rig into a very effective shelter in just about any climate. If worse comes to worse, cut away seat covers, headliners, and door panels for insulating layers. Think outside the box. You can always get a new vehicle, but your life is a one-time offer!
It's all fine and good to have a great fire, plenty of fresh water, and a textbook shelter, but the end goal is to get home. You must have a way to let folks know where you are and that you need help. A little proactive thought goes a long way. Prior to heading out, be sure to let someone back home know where you'll be going, how long you'll be out there, and when to expect you back. That way when you're not back by the predetermined time, they can provide the local search and rescue team with information that helps narrow the search parameters.
You should still carry a few devices to notify searchers of your precise location. Pack simple low-tech items such as a whistle, signal mirror, surveyor’s flagging, and aerial flares. Spread your gear around the vehicle to create as much of a visual disturbance as possible to the area. Remember that color, contrast, and movement are all great attractors. If you happen the be stranded in an automobile, there are at least three mirrors to be used. Break them off and suspend them with 550 paracord in the surrounding trees. Igniting the spare tire is sure to get the attention of nearby aircraft because of the thick plume of black smoke. Just be sure to let the air out of the tire or puncture it prior to lighting to prevent the possibility of a violent rupture caused by heat expansion of the air inside.
Stay with the vehicle! It is much easier for rescuers to see a vehicle in the landscape than an individual on foot. Plus, that vehicle offers a lot of life-saving resources. Carry a high-quality knife. Whatever knife you choose, make sure it fits your hand well, comes with a good sheath, and is something you feel safe using. Pack a small LED flashlight, too. Although not required for life, it sure makes nighttime a little more comfortable.
A medical kit is another consideration. Either construct your own or purchase one of the many prepackaged kits designed for wilderness medicine. Just remember, having a first aid kit does not make you a medic. Seek professional wilderness medical training to ensure you have the skills as well as the goodies to treat emergencies in the backcountry.
A multitude of accidents can occur on a Sunday drive through the woods. If you find yourself caught out for a night or two, the vehicle survival kit you carry will turn that potentially life-threatening event into an unplanned camping trip.
Jerry Ward is the owner and chief instructor at Ozark Mountain Preparedness. He has extensive survival experience and has taught survival for 10 years to a wide range of clients, including U.S. and foreign military personnel. He is also an author, trapper, and certified Wilderness First Responder who has worked as a gunsmith, rock climbing guide, wildland fighter, and member of various Search And Rescue teams.