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Offroad 101: Bug-Out Vehicle Basics

From the archives: RECOIL Magazine Issue 15, November/December 2014

Bug-Out Vehicle Basics to Get You Out of Dodge

Photography by: Kenda Lenseigne

The whole zombie apocalypse thing was so 2012…and you aren't really afraid that the government will be instituting martial law next year or sparking the second Revolution. That being said, you're still interested in being prepared for more likely events such as a natural disaster — so where do you start? Well, our sister publication OFFGRID is a great resource to get yourself prepared. And if your plans include using your vehicle to escape an impending disaster, you'd better give some thought as to setting up your ride.

Assuming you have functioning four-wheeled transport, what steps can be taken in order to increase your chances of making it to your destination in one piece? Here are a few basic considerations you may want to keep in mind.

1. Weight is your enemy.

Adding a ton of crap to your vehicle results in the same penalties as overloading your backpack. You can't run as fast, stop as quickly, or get over obstacles — and you wind up sucking down more fuel and breaking parts. In the context of vehicle-borne operations, you need to consider not only how much weight you can carry, but also where it's carried. Three hundred pounds placed on a roof rack will have greater negative effects than the same weight stashed in the cargo area because it elevates your vehicle's center of gravity (CG).

Pick a simple, reliable vehicle, make a few well chosen upgrades to suit your terrain, and practice with the gear you've selected for the mission.

Pick a simple, reliable vehicle, make a few well chosen upgrades to suit your terrain, and practice with the gear you've selected for the mission.

2. Complexity kills.

If you're the kind of guy who needs to add every last performance item to his ride, then you should be aware that you're also adding to the number of potential failure points. Automakers spend millions of dollars in R&D trying to make stuff as reliable as possible, yet still they issue recalls like credit card applications. Do you think the maker of that aftermarket performance-tuning chip has the same budget for testing?

3. Make conservative changes to suit your environment.

If your projected route involves 200 miles of unpaved, boulder-strewn wilderness, then knock yourself out with a 9-inch lift kit and 44-inch tires. Of course, as a result you'll need to massively upgrade every other component in your driveline and steering systems to handle the increased loads — but you knew that already. On the other hand, if you're going to run asphalt and fire roads, then the handling compromises of a higher CG and wooly steering probably aren't worth it. After all, rolling your prized brodozer on dry pavement would be a tad embarrassing…

Let's look at a few items that every vehicle should have on board, starting with the bare necessities of human survival — namely water, shelter, and food.

Fuel, like ammo, is life. Make sure you have enough to last, plus a reserve.

Fuel, like ammo, is life. Make sure you have enough to last, plus a reserve.


In a harsh climate, shelter will be by far your most important priority, but since we're addressing vehicles here, you have a headstart in that department. So when it comes to water, an average, reasonably fit person who is in a mild climate and not exerting themselves can last somewhere between three to five days without water. It's wise to follow the rule of thumb of 1 gallon per day per person, but what about when you run out? If you're on the road for an extended period, you'll need a means to purify the water you find. That means a filter, a chemical agent such as iodine, UV treatment, or boiling. Our preference is for filtration, and although it's not perfect, a decent micro filter takes up very little room, is lightweight, and uses no fuel.

Before you use any water source, especially in an urban setting after a major disaster, you should consider what is upstream from your location. To conserve water, bathe and brush your teeth with untreated water while being careful not to ingest any, then use treated water only to rinse your mouth. This will cut down on your water treatment efforts.


Should you be in harsh conditions, such as a snowstorm, you may have as little as three hours to survive without shelter. You have a vehicle, which is a pretty good start. Be careful using just your vehicle though — in cold climates the interior can actually be colder than the ambient temperature due to wind chill blowing under it. You can build barriers around the sides to help combat this. A good tarpaulin will make for a decent bivouac, especially if you are using the side of your vehicle as a wall. Obviously there are a plethora of options out there for commercial tents, so do your research on what fits your requirements for space and budget.


Fire can be a huge psychological boost, so make sure you have plenty of firestarting options. Rooftop tent is not ideal if you want to keep a low profile, but it expedition-proven and gives a good night's rest.

Don't forget that an important part of shelter is fire. I have personally learned that fire is important for more than just heat and cooking — it also benefits your mental welfare. While I was traveling in South America, solo on a motorcycle, I found it extremely comforting to have even a small fire to keep me company. Make sure you have multiple, reliable ways to start a fire, whether it be waterproof matches, lighters, flints, fire paste, or one of my recent favorites, strike-on-the-box fire starters.

A properly selected sleeping bag and mattress for your climate and terrain will make all the difference in the world. In a real disaster situation, you'll likely have difficulty getting a good night's rest — but if you're too hot or cold in your bag, and rocks are stabbing you in the sides, you're likely to be just plain miserable as well as sleep deprived. Keep in mind this isn't just about comfort, since sleep deprivation can seriously impair your judgment.


This can be a highly personal topic, but there are a few important things to remember. Refrigeration takes up valuable space and weight, so ditch the cooler. Dehydrated foods have come a long way in the last 10 years, but still require precious fuel to boil water. If you go this route, keep the backpacking stove in your bugout bag and make space in your vehicle for the means to utilize a campfire — make the best use of fuel that you find.

Vehicle kit

Now that you've raided REI for your own three essentials of survival, your vehicle needs some things for its well being too.

Organization and accessibility play a key role in survival, and your escape will go much more smoothly if you have things properly packed. As a first responder, I can't tell you how many critical injuries and deaths I have seen solely caused by junk flying about within the vehicle. Everything needs to have a home and be secured, preferably with tie-downs. Duffels are a good starting point for vehicle-related kit as they are easy to carry — but a better solution is a backpack. My trauma kit has its own small pack, and any of my essential items go in a backpack. Should you have to abandon your vehicle for any reason, it's much easier to carry a backpack.


Once you are out of town and headed down a dirt track toward a secluded camp, you need to maintain control of your vehicle to get there safely. This means you shouldn't drive at the speed of light if you aren't 100-percent certain you can control things with a full load in the back. Sometimes, though, the rule of Murphy applies, and we get ourselves well and truly up shit creek. Here's how to deal with a couple of common obstacles.

Should you get yourself stuck in sand or mud, the first thing you need to do is stop — spinning your tires in place will only make things worse. You can first try backing up, but if this doesn't work then don't delay — it's time to break out the shovel. Dig a clear path in front and behind all four tires, and make sure you dig out any high points that will snag the undercarriage. You can use tree limbs, bushes, and even floor mats to make a ramp out of the hole you've found yourself in. Smooth application of throttle is the trick here, along with rocking the vehicle in forward and reverse to get some momentum built up.

Should you come upon a water crossing, don't just blindly dive in. Check the depth — if there's any question whatsoever, strip down as needed and actually walk it yourself. Is the water above the cold air intake on your vehicle? Is the current too strong? How firm is the river bed, and can your tires get traction? If you decide that it's doable and necessary, then you want to cross at a speed that allows for a nice bow wave. This will minimize water getting into the engine compartment. Lastly, once you have committed, don't hesitate — keep that steady pace until you are out.

One more parting thought. The most powerful survival tool you have is your own brain. A single magazine article can hardly begin to scratch the surface of all these topics. Do your research, know the limitations of your gear, and practice with it.


Vehicle Kit

At a bare minimum, the things you should carry with you to get your vehicle out of a sticky situation include the following: shovel, snatch strap/tow strap (these are different things, so know how to use them properly), jack, spare tire and tire iron, spare fuses, gloves, and a basic set of handtools. Remember, you can only have too much fuel when you're on fire, so bring a securely lashed jerry can and a fire extinguisher, too. While you're at it, a first-aid kit is also a must have. Depending on your level of training, you may want to carry anything from a basic kit with normal bandages all the way up to a full trauma kit. It is generally prudent to at least carry a general first-aid kit and some larger trauma bandages (often called abdominal pads). It takes very little training to use a trauma dressing, and they can make the difference between life and death.

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