In a survival scenario, your car could be the easiest and fastest path to safety. If it’s already loaded up with the proper tools and supplies, you will simply need to move your family to the vehicle and quickly drive them to your bug out area.
But what if you leave important things at your home and don’t have time to return without putting your family in danger? Or you are unprepared to change a flat tire. If not properly stocked, cars can very rapidly change from a chariot to safety to a broken down gravesite.
It is extremely important to plan for any car related incidents to limit and reduce your risk. Below is a list of supplies and tips some preppers overlook when relying on a car to bug out. Don’t let a simple vehicular malfunction ruin your entire escape plan.
Table of Contents
Vehicle Checks and Maintenance
This is the last place that you want to skimp on. Buy the best and have the rotors replaced, not resurfaced.
Resurfacing the rotors makes them thinner and less able to properly dissipate heat which leads to warping (vibration while stopping), and brake fade (overheated brakes). Otherwise don’t approach anything any faster than you are willing to slam into it.
Fortunately, brakes last a pretty long time (around 40,000 miles or so). Have them inspected every few oil changes and change them at around 15 to 20 percent service left.
For the most part tires have come a long way. Most will dry rot and crack long before the tread wears out.
Keep the pressures in spec, have them rotated every other oil change, and when the time comes, replace them all. This is crucial for any all-wheel drive or four wheel drive vehicle. Replacing one or two tires on one of these vehicles will destroy the AWD or 4×4 systems. The reason for this is simple:
The AWD and 4×4 vehicles need all of the tires to be the same circumference. Newer tires will have a larger circumference than older ones, and will travel further in a rotation. This will cause a bind in the system and destroy the transfer case. Mixing brands is also a no no.
A new 225/75/15 BF GOODRICH will have a different circumference than a new 225/75/15 GOODYEAR. A difference of ½” or more is enough to do serious damage. While it sucks to buy four at once, it will be much cheaper than repairing the drive train.
The radiator is responsible for cooling the engine, cooling the transmission fluid and is also part of the heating system, for this reason we’ll cover all of these here. The radiator is a heat exchanger. The engine block is hollow. This hollow area called a water jacket is filled with anti-freeze/coolant.
The friction of the pistons in the cylinders and the combustion that occurs within the cylinders generates heat. That heat is absorbed through the cylinder walls into the coolant within the water jackets. The coolant is held in the water jackets of the engine by the thermostat. A thermostat is a temperature controlled valve that opens and closes mechanically at a predetermined temperature (195°).
When sufficient temperature is achieved, the thermostat opens, and the coolant is pumped from the engine to the radiator. The coolant that was in the radiator is pumped into the engine. The radiator dissipates the heat of the coolant to the air and holds this lower temperature coolant until the process repeats itself. Located within the radiator is another heat exchanger for the transmission fluid.
Transmission fluid is pumped through this chamber and back to the transmission to dissipate heat to keep the transmission fluid from overheating. The transmission cooler is a sealed system within the radiator, meaning that transmission fluid and engine coolant do not mix.
The vehicles’ heating system uses another small radiator (heater core) located inside the vehicle that also dissipates heat, but this time, into the vehicles’ cabin. Air is blown through this heater core absorbing heat, and forces that heat to the ductwork under the dashboard to the heater vents and defroster.
The maintenance for all of these systems is much simpler than it sounds. Have the cooling system flushed every year. This prevents the coolant from turning into an acid due to chemical breakdown and corroding the radiator, heater core, water pump, head gaskets, and transmission cooler.
This process is cheap insurance that will prevent major damage. By the way, there is NO 100,000 mile coolant. I have replaced engines and transmissions due to clogged and rotted cooling systems at only 50,000 miles.
Radiator and heater hoses as well as the thermostat should be replaced every 3 years to prevent failure from age. No special additives are needed for the cooling system to operate; just a good quality antifreeze/coolant is all that is needed.
Believe it or not, your headlights are computer controlled. Some vehicles, as early as model year 1999 had the headlight operation controlled by a computer called the body control module (BCM).
The BCM can operate the lights with sensors that monitor the ambient light outside and turn them on or off as it sees fit. Using higher wattage or hotter bulbs can draw more amperage that the system is designed to handle and in the long term can damage the BCM. You see these bulbs advertised in magazines and on TV.
Although the newer, hotter replacement bulbs do provide some better light, they also draw more current and have a much shorter lifespan than a direct replacement bulb. You should avoid the sales pitch of blah-blah brighter, blah-blah safer. Stick with the bulbs designed for your vehicle by the manufacturer.
Chances are if your lights seem to be less efficient it’s because the headlight lenses themselves are getting cloudy and oxidized due to UV damage. There are simple restoration products that will remove the oxidation and return the lenses to near new clarity for a fraction of the cost of a replacement lens.
Since transmissions have been computer controlled (late 1980s) most have no adjustments since the computer is constantly adjusting pressures and clutch volume. The only thing that needs to be done is a fluid/filter change every 30,000 miles. The reason to change transmission fluid is to replenish the chemical properties of the fluid.
Transmission fluid contains several chemicals, each doing a different job. There are detergents, anti-foaming agents, seal conditioners, friction modifiers, and such. These chemical properties break down and allow varnish to build up, seals to harden, and premature clutch damage. The best procedure involves removing the transmission pan, not a power purge. Removing the pan allows for an inspection and removal of any debris. A small amount of debris is normal. There should not be enough debris to clog the filter.
A transmission is a sealed unit, and is not open to any outside elements. Filters clog for one reason, the transmission is breaking down. Either clutch debris from clutch pack failure, or metal debris from gear train failure. Avoid additives; most of them are nothing more than some type of brake fluid which will damage the seals. Keep tabs on the fluid level and watch for leaks. Most transmission damage occurs when the transmission is run low on fluid.
Common areas for leaks are the cooler line fittings and axle seals. These are pretty simple to repair, and do not require removal of the transmission. If left unchecked though, will result in internal damage of clutch packs and gear train parts which require an overhaul to repair. For those of you that tow or haul, an auxiliary transmission cooler is a great idea.
This type of cooler is an add on that connects in series with your factory cooler and reduces the transmission fluid temperatures associated with the demands of harder use. A do it yourselfer can install one in a couple of hours or a good Trans shop can do it for around $150.00 (worth every penny).
Most vehicles use what is known as a serpentine belt. This means that instead of individual belts to operate individual accessories such as the alternator, water pump, air conditioner, power steering, etcetera, one belt serpentines around and drives all the accessories.
This belt is very durable and most are self-adjusting. The rule of thumb is to inspect the belt at every oil change looking for cracks in the belts’ ribs. Three or more cracks per inch indicate that replacement is due.
For the most part the exhaust system is not a maintenance item. The main component is the catalytic converter. This part is designed to help control emissions by reburning the exhaust that comes directly from the engine.
Catalytic converters go bad from a poorly running engine, avoid this by following the steps above and avoid this major expense. Catalytic converters can cost $1,000.00 each, and most vehicles have at least two.
This section will address the mechanics of the engine itself. Engine sensors, fuel and ignition systems will be covered separately. Aside from routine oil and filter changes there is one other item that needs periodic maintenance, the timing belt. Not all engines have timing belts, some have chains.
Timing belts are prone to the same wear and fatigue as the serpentine belt, just not as often. This belt should be replaced every 50,000 to 60,000 miles. This belt times the opening and closing of the intake and exhaust valves in relation to the position of the pistons.
When a timing belt breaks, the pistons can hit the valves causing catastrophic damage. This is one area where an ounce of prevention is worth ten pounds of cure.
The fuel system has several components. Keeping just a few things in order will prevent major issues from developing. The fuel pump is the main failure in most cases. The main reason for fuel pump failure is pump burn out. The fuel pump is located in the fuel tank and is cooled by the fuel in the tank it is submerged in.
Constantly running below ¼ tank leaves the pump sitting out of the fuel and allows it to run hotter. Keep the tank above ¼ and you’ve prevented a potential problem. The fuel filter also needs to be changed regularly for a few reasons.
One reason is that a partially clogged filter forces the fuel pump to work harder and wear out prematurely. Another reason is that a dirty fuel filter allows some debris to get to the fuel injectors. Fuel filters are not expensive and should be changed every year. Doing this will eliminate the need for any type of fuel injector cleaning service (expensive).
The last thing is the air filter. It has been proven that the standard replacement air filters do just as good of a job as the high dollar performance type filters, don’t waste your money. Under normal driving an air filter is good for two years.
There are many shops that offer fuel system services under different names (induction service, fuel injector cleaning…), don’t waste your money. Once a month put a bottle of fuel system cleaner in the tank, I have seen totally clogged injectors cleaned out in one treated tank.
Basically this boils down to spark plugs and spark plug wires, and not every engine has spark plug wires, some have the ignition coils mounted directly on top of the spark plugs and rarely require service. Most manufactures recommend changing plugs at around 100,000 miles.
The main problem with this is that by 100,000 miles, the spark plugs are seized into the cylinder head and either break off or strip the threads when being removed. Have them changed out at 50,000 miles or so along with the timing belt, and you’ll avoid paying upwards of $2,000.00 to have the cylinder heads removed and repaired.
The engine computer (PCM) uses many sensors to read what is going on with the engine, and uses this information to determine how to control the fuel, ignition, and overall performance.
Usually whenever a problem is detected the PCM will turn the CHECK ENGINE LIGHT on. Use this as a signal to have the system scanned, and the faulty sensor replaced. Continued operation under these circumstances, can be detrimental to safe operation, and in some cases can cause expensive damage to other systems.
Emerngecy Supplies All Cars Should Have
Spare Tire and Tire Changing Tools
In a survival scenario, there is a great chance you will be forced to drive in less than ideal conditions. The roads could be cracked or littered with debris. You may be forced to maneuver your car over extremely bumpy and rocky natural terrain. This increases the chance of a tire getting punctured.
Do not attempt to drive on a flat to save time. It will only permanently wreck the alignment and functionality of your car. Ultimately, rolling with a flat will slow you down. Always keep a spare- and not just any old spare at that. Make sure your spares are the types of tire designed for your car.
Don’t use doughnut tires. Though they will save you some space, they are only designed to handle speeds of 45 mph or less. Anything above and the tires fall apart quickly. Trust me, I drove 75 on a doughnut assuming the warnings were overly precautious and the tire popped in 5 minutes.
Once you have the proper tire, make sure you have the proper tools to get that tire on your car. Do not leave your house without a jack and lug nut wrench. I suggest the 4 way variety of lug nut wrenches. They work easily and quickly.
The best jacks come from the late 70’s. Most will work, but the scissor types tend to tip over with alarming regularity. They have essentially disappeared, but they were the standard model put in cars from the 90’s. If you are worried about the stability of your jack, get a jack stand. It’s much better to be safe than sorry.
It’s a great idea to store a thick piece of plywood in with your tire changing supplies. If you place it under the jack, the sturdy wood will prevent it from sinking into the ground and keep your working surface stable.
Also, make sure every member of your family knows how to change a tire. It is a simple procedure and easy to teach. The more skills each member of your party has, the more time you can save and the better your chance of survival.
If you don’t have the proper tool kit, you won’t survive if your car breaks down at the wrong time. Don’t fall for the $5 kits Target and other stores put out at check-out lines. They may save you some money, but they simply don’t work. Not buying any tools at all would save you money and do you about as much good.
Go to Home Depot or Lowes and get a proper tool kit from a reputable company, like Husky. The ideal set will include a utility knife with at least three blades, screwdrivers of the #2, #3, and flathead variety, zip ties, spare fuses, electrical tape, a bright flashlight with batteries, and quality duct tape. A headlamp to shine light on the tight crevices in a car’s machinery is a good bonus item.
Fixing a car is not safe work. You will be working with hot metal at sharp angles. Cuts, scrapes, burns, and other wounds happen on a regular basis in everyday scenarios. In a dangerous environment, where speed is important, damage will occur. Make sure you have a well-stocked first aid kit to handle these issues.
Safety glasses should also be worn when working on a car. This will protect your eyes from the dangerous heat. Other items that add to first-aid include eye drops, tweezers, and an industrial strength cleaner for oils and other spills.
I would suggest having a custom made DYI first-aid kit. One devoted to injuries that occur while fixing your car and several others for the accidental injuries that will naturally occur during survival. Make them yourself so they are already prepackaged to deal with a specific scenario.
A Car Escape Tool
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One of these Resqme tools could be a lifesaver. They aren’t too well known but this device has the capability to both break windows and cut through seatbelts. Most cars these days have electric powered windows that won’t roll down if the vehicle dies.
Get one of these so you don’t have to risk injury by breaking a window with your hands. Resqmes are found at most gas stations too. Don’t just buy one. Gift them to your friends and family so they can easily free themselves. These tools are much safer for children than a crow bar.
Emergency Signaling Device/ Markers
These serve two purposes. First, if you need to pull over and fix a problem with your car, you can use these to signal to other drivers that you are there. People will be in a panic and driving erratically. Without these, they may be too wrapped up in their own escape to see you.
Second, they function to signal for help in the wilderness. Road flares are the best option as they can also be used to start a fire. Other options include a reflective flag or glow in the dark bandana which can be tied to your trunk, or a reflective marker.
Water, obviously, serves a multitude of survival purposes. For an overheating car, it can be a lifesaver. It’s a good idea to keep your car in good repair all the time but breakdowns can happen at the worst time. Make sure you don’t leave your house without at least a few gallons of water in your car.
I used to drive an old heap of junk that would regularly over heat. I always had water by my side to make sure I could get to places on time. Water won’t fix the problem, but it will give you enough of a window to get your family to safety. Plus, in a pinch, you can use the extra water to keep your group hydrated.
Heavy-Duty Work Gloves
Don’t work on a car without proper gloves. These mechanix gloves are durable gloves designed to protect your hands from danger. A benefit of these is the cloth is supple enough to let you do fine finger work and still protect you. The cloth is both supple and thick and can be found online or at any hardware store.
If you plan ahead, a CB radio will be a great addition to your supplies. Get friends and family in your area tuned to the same frequency, and you will be able to broadcast road conditions to each other. Plus, truck drivers passing by can offer helpful info.
A good backup for a CB is a Ham Radio. It broadcasts multi-band, meaning that it will pick up national broadcasts and allow you to communicate with people in your area.
Extra Vehicular Fluid
I would suggest bringing a quart of oil, a gallon of anti-freeze, and automatic transmission fluid. If a leak happens, having these on hand will be the difference between waiting for help to come and driving to help yourself. Plus, oil is crucial for the long-term sustainability of your car.
Rags, Tarps, and Knee Pads
Working on a car is dirty. There are spills. There is oil and fluids that will leak out and cause a giant mess. Without proper rags, these can become permanent stains and ultimately harm the skin if left alone for too long.
Buy a large pack because volume will be important and the rags can be used for a variety of things, which adds to their usefulness.
A tarp placed under the work area will make clean up easy. If you can find the right material, tarps can have multiple functions such as a poncho, or to create a tent or lean-to.
Kneepads are great to have. Pain and irritation while working on the side of the road, can eat at your concentration. Ultimately, this will prolong fixing the car.
A car can be an asset not just in the short term but in the long term. A change of tires and extra gasoline will help your survival plan get off the ground for sure. But, if you plan on continuing to use your car, oil filters will prove just as important. Without changing your oil when necessary, the car will soon become useless.
I suggest spending a little extra and getting the high performance filters. Often these are used in racing. They are designed to handle a large amount of debris and keep going, which is always a good quality in a survival scenario.
Not only will jumper cables give you the ability to help a friend in an emergency, but it will make it easier for someone to help you. If you need to move quickly, the best option for a stalled car is jumper cables. Move to safety and figure out the bigger issue later.
If you don’t have your own, you will be relying too much on the kindness and availability of others or your ability to quickly diagnose the problem with the car. People may want to help you but be too worried about their own escape timetable to stop. Make things easier on them for the sake of your own survival.
Cracks can happen all over the place inside the inner workings of a car. This stuff works miracles in sealing those cracks. It doesn’t solve problems permanently but it will definitely work long enough to get you to your bug out space. It can work on anything from oilcans to radiators.
This is the type of tape you regularly see around hockey sticks and tennis rackets. The rubber-based adhesives in Friction Tape make them a great tool for fixing quick car problems. Any leak will immediately get patched up. Plus, it’s an electric insulator that will protect the machine from corrosion and liquids.
For whatever reason, travelling with a fire extinguisher in your car is not a given. It does, however, make total and complete sense. Why waste that extra water you have to help fix your car on an unexpected fire.
Why let an unexpected fire destroy some of your food supply before you can put it out? Bringing a fire extinguisher takes up very little space and solves a lot of problems.
This can be an extremely useful addition to any survival kit. It can be used to help charge the car in an emergency. However, the biggest asset it adds will be to keep your phone charged.
This will keep your family connected and leave open the possibility to contact out of town family members and friends for help.
If your phones die, your family will need walkie-talkies to communicate from distances. Plus, carrying separate batteries will take up extra space.
I suggest bringing along two types of flashlights. The first would be one with a large mag. This will make it easy to aim, but more importantly the flashlight will also double as a weapon. Why bring a club when you have a large mag flashlight?
The second would be a headlight. Keeping a flashlight stuck in your mouth is burdensome and slows your work down. If a quick repair needs to be made, keeps these around so you won’t need outside light to see what you’re doing.
Folding Bike or Skateboard
People will panic in a sudden crisis. Some will ignore laws to give themselves in a better chance of survival. Some will simply become hysterical. This greatly heightens the chance of a bad car wreck that could total your car. Make sure you have a backup plan for this scenario.
I recommend a foldable bike or skateboard because they don’t take up too much room but are still functional. Of course, you should pick the one that suits your skill set and the skill of your family best. If you can skate well, pick that. If you bike well, choose that.
It should be noted that the top speed of a quality bike would be much higher than a skateboard. On a bike a person can fairly easily go 10 mph for 8-12 hours depending on fitness, which is a good amount of distance daily. A bike could also carry more than one person in a pinch using either pegs, handlebars or a child seat.
Now, if you’re looking for things to put in a car bug out bag, you may want to check out this other article, but if you really want to have your car ready for any type of emergency, I urge you to think about adding some of the items below in your car’s bug out bag.
Related: if you have a tractor that you’re thinking about using as a bug out vehicle, we have another article showing you how to prepare it for SHTF.
Bulletproofing Your Car
Now, you obviously can’t turn your car into a tank, but what you can do is strengthen some of its critical spots, such as windows, windshield, and even your tires. We covered this in detail here, but in short, you should think about buying run flat tires, tempered glass, and even steel-plated armor.
Bugging Out Tips
It is commonly believed that if water bottles are left in a trunk for too long they will become toxic. The plastic when heated for a period of time will make the water unsafe to drink. This, however, is not the case.
In reality, dehydration is a much more real and present danger. I have sipped a good amount of water from heated plastic bottle with no ill effects. It is important to know, though, that this myth did not just drop out of the sky and quick consumption of extremely high volumes of this water could potentially be dangerous.
Water bottles are typically made of polyethylene terephthalate or PET for short. PET bottles do contain semi-toxic agents from their creation in the factory. These agents can be released quicker when exposed to sunlight. However, these amounts are very small.
Check Your Road Maps
It’s standard for cars to come with road and area maps. Make sure the ones you have are recent! The roads are constantly changing. If you expect to drive smoothly with a map that is decade’s old, forget about it. You will get lost easily.
Getting lost not only costs you in valuable time, but it increases the chance of collisions. You won’t be able to keep your full attention on the road if you are frustrated and trying to find your bearings. Staring at a compass while you drive is not an ideal scenario, especially in a survival scenario where other people are panicking.
Also, buy maps of the surrounding areas. You may have to change plans in the middle of the chaos and go further out than you planned. This could be problematic if you don’t have a quick way to learn the roads in the surrounding areas as well as your own.
Make Sure You Have Enough Gas
Never let your gas gauge go below half a tank. You may have to escape quickly and gas stations will mean long lines. Keeping it half full is a good precaution and you won’t use gas any quicker than if you waited to fill it up.
Having gas already in your car means you and your family out of town ahead of most of the traffic.
Keep Climate in Mind
If it is about to be winter, go ahead and strap on your snow chains if you live in a chilly area. You never know when disaster may strike. If it’s on a unseasonably cold one day before winter, not having snow chains on your car could ruin your plan before it begins.
Pack winter items as well. This means heat insulated sleeping bags, clothes including gloves, hats, and boots, and a heater if your bug out location has electricity available.
Start Prepping Your Car Today
If a car is not properly prepared for a disaster, the drive to your bug out spot could prove overly dangerous and even deadly.
A survival scenario could erupt at any moment. For that reason, it is important for your car to always have your car stocked and ready to go with gas and supplies.
This will also help you plan the escape route with you family. It will be easier for them to handle the situation if they know the steps and the amount of room that will available in the car.
The roads will get wild. Of course, there will dangers. Equip yourself to handle them.
updated by Dan F. Sullivan 01/30/2022
My dad was military. My grandfather was a cop. They served their country well. But I don’t like taking orders. I’m taking matters into my own hands so I’m not just preparing, I’m going to a friggin’ war to provide you the best of the best survival and preparedness content out there.
10 thoughts on “How to Prep Your Car for When SHTF”
And exactly where are all these items to be stored?. Looks like it would take a small truck to carry them. And then where are the passengers to sit? Most cars today are small and don’t have a lot of storage space.
As I stated in the beginning, you should store “some” of them, not all. It’s up to you which ones, it’s my job to make a full list. Some people have larger trucks and this article is intended for everyone.
Are there cars or trucks that are EMP proof
This is Texas, we don’t go anywhere without a shovel, ax, come-along, rifle, rubber boots, hi-lift,
heavy rope, and a good hat. Storage? that what truck beds are for and don’t forget the dog. We
have a saying here: “He was so stupid, he went out in the woods without a dog!” A “good” woman is
optional, a “bad” one is better.
Born, Bred, Married a Texas Woman!
Would not and Could not live without her!
Woman I was talking about is my 47 year married wife! Would not trade her for anything! For those none Texans be aware they can shoot really good, cook better than that and know everything you thought was secret…..
I would not change my past 47 years with her for anything!
You might want to make some suggestions for ‘a multi band ham radio’ for those who may not know and also encourage getting licensed. You learn some good information, like how and why radio’ works. Then you can use a ham radio legally and when you need it you will have a better chance of reaching someone. It can be a useful tool just like a gun or an axe IF you have practiced with it and know how to use it. And for those who are afraid of ‘geting on a list’, you are already likely on several, and the gubmint will have their hands full if shtf and have better things to do than hunt for radio operators
Yes, Tom, a lot of peppers mention ham radio but unless you are already in sync with the ham community before SHTF you will not be able to communicate with anybody who is useful. Specific frequencies are utilized in each geographic area so you need to be a part of that culture. Also the most useful ham radios are Miliband so you need to learn about antennas and makeshift ones are simple, easy to fabricate, in expensive. But this is all stuff you need to learn ahead of time. Otherwise just buy a receiver with the 7 or 8 NOAA channels preprogrammed into it, and at least you can listen wit h no licence requirement nor operator certification. Those are the channels the government will advise citizens on what is going on, what to do, where to get help.
For changing tires I personally like using an 18 inch – 1/2 inch drive Breaker bar with appropriate deep well sockets.
That gives you something you can STEP on to break loose rusted lug nuts and not worry about your tool breaking, that is if you don’t opt for CHEAP sockets!
Dan, Just a suggestion for the next time you update the article.
I also recommend a small 12 volt Air Compressor, and Tire Plugs and the tools to install them.
The compressor I use is small (half again as big as a deck of cards) one that fits easily in a trunk or under a seat. I keep the tools and plugs in a Magpul DAKA wallet. I’ve haven’t changed a flat in 10 – 12 years (not including a complete change), because of this kit. With this size compressor, it takes 8 – 10 minutes to pump a tire into operating range, but it’s a lot faster than using a bicycle, hand pump (and a lot less work). The tools for the plugs are a reamer (to size and prep the puncture), plug installation tool. I also keep a small set of diagonal cutters to trim the plug flush to the tire.
I enjoy your articles, and have picked up a lot of your tips in my BO plans. Keep on posting!
Racing oil filters are designed for high oil flow, not high debris. Just get a quality name brand filter. ‘Friction tape’ stands little chance of stopping a leaky radiador hose, etc. Self adhering tape (Atomic Tape, etc) uses no adhesive, but when exposed to air and stretched it adheres to itself so well that it can not be pulled apart if you wanted to. Amazing stuff. Unfortunately many vehicles are stuck with temporary use only tires, no room for a standard tire. When we travel cross country I am set for just about anything that happens. Wife asked me why so much stuff; so we prepared. Broke down once in the middle of Wyoming (you want to talk about middle of no where); up and running in less than half an hour. Always be prepared for ‘Murphy”, he is always watching.