Vehicles are central to the plans of all kinds of preppers, typically as a conveyance to get to you BOL, or to get home from elsewhere in an emergency. Some preppers might even plan on living in a mobile dwelling like a camper or proper RV despite the issues attendant with such large and ungainly solutions.
But few preppers consider bugging out and actually surviving in their personal vehicle, their daily driver. The concept sounds untenable to most, but actually has quite a bit to commend it.
For flexibility, mobility and on-demand protection from the elements, a car, SUV, van or a truck can provide all three, and do so more or less reliably so long as the fuel lasts. A large enough vehicle can serve as your central “hub” around a temporary camp or even be your livable shelter if you want to stay light on your feet, ready to make a quick getaway.
In this article, we’ll discuss how to make use of your vehicle as a long-term SHTF survival solution.
Table of Contents
No matter how a SHTF situation goes down, any prepper will be faced with providing the same things if they want to survive: clean air to breathe, shelter from the elements, drinkable water and food, presented in that order of what will kill you quickest should you fall short on providing it.
Most preppers plan to do this one of two ways, by so-called bugging-in (sheltering in place) or bugging-out (fleeing to a hopefully pre-chosen secondary location.
Bugging in is one thing. If you can stay in your home replete with all the supplies and equipment you can carry, more power to you. It is usually a good call. However, many proper SHTF events are bad enough or feature secondary and tertiary effects severe enough to send preppers and other sane people capering for the hills, ready or not.
That’s where the personal vehicle comes in. You can walk, sure, but it is much safer typically not to mention faster and easier to drive there. If all goes well you arrive with gas to spare at your BOL and make with setting up camp or moving into a premade dwelling. The vehicle is nothing more than a taxi in the average prepper’s plans.
Whichever way someone chooses to go, they’ll have to provide for those four primary needs along with a host of secondary ones to survive. Both methods have advantages, but you may be able to get the best of both worlds by choosing to live out of your vehicle as a SHTF response.
If you’re interested in surviving various emergencies inside your vehicle (tornadoes, floods, hail storms and such), then check out our other article here.
In the next section, I’ll offer up a couple of short lists featuring the best perks along with the flaws of each method. After that, we’ll dive into the nitty gritty of how to set up your vehicle as well as what you’ll need to know to make this strategy viable for you.
Bug-Out Advantages Offered by Cars
Before we list the best attributes and advantages of cars and trucks for bugging out, have a quick look at the advantages afforded to you by your home and by bugging out on foot to see how they stack up:
- Typically excellent shelter from elements.
- Average home or apartment offers tons of storage.
- Can make use of appliances and tools through electricity or other power source: generator, solar, propane, etc.
- Advantage to defenders in case of attack.
- Fixed site: you are easily found.
- Difficult to protect without multiple people.
Bugging-Out (On foot)
- Easy to circumvent road blockages.
- Allows movement through dense or broken terrain.
- Allows you to reposition camp to evade pursuers or react to changing situations or needs.
- Risky. On foot you are at the mercy of elements, man and beast.
- Shelter setup is always a concern; quick, easy shelters provide little protection. More durable shelters require more weight and/or greater investment of energy.
- Slow to reposition.
- Greatly limited equipment and supply capacity. You can only make use of what you can find, make or carry.
- All appliances and electrical tools will be run from mostly finite resources; batteries run out, fuel canisters are expended. Some gadgets like mobile solar cell chargers provide a rare exception.
Vehicle as Shelter
- Highly mobile.
- Significant carrying and storage capacity.
- Carries multiple people regardless of fitness or condition.
- Typically excellent weather resistance.
- Provides on-demand power.
- Can be used to push/pull/tow heavy objects.
- Requires fuel. Supplies might be highly limited by event.
- Breakdowns and maintenance require significant investment into diagnostic/repair skills
- Movement significantly restricted by terrain. Overland movement is risky, accelerates wear and requires capable vehicle.
So, all things considered, you can easily see from the list above that vehicles do in fact offer a “best of both worlds” when it comes to surviving when it is time to deal with a SHTF emergency: the protection you need when the weather is bad, the mobility to take advantage of opportunity or run from trouble, and the added perks of onboard and on-demand power.
Combined with the excellent carrying and hauling capacity, what is not to love?
Potential Issues with Vehicle Subsistence
No, it isn’t all rainbows and marshmallows if you want to cruise into the sunset while the rest of the world burns behind you. Vehicle-based bug-outs have some drawbacks, and some of them are significant.
Like any good prepper assessing his options, you’ll need contingency plans to deal with them.
Vehicles Require Fuel
Just like any other day. So long as the car runs, and it has gas I the tank, you are living fancy free. When the gas runs out the party (and the power) stops, though it is still useful as a shelter.
Long haul vehicular bug-outs will severely tax fuel supplies, and while external cans can be carried and even additional tanks installed your fuel supply will only ever be limited.
If you need to run the engine to supply power, or heat or cool the interior, you’ll be sipping fuel. It adds up. It is imperative you develop a plan where you can move in your vehicle from one of several pre-picked bug out sites in an effort to conserve as much gas as you can.
Vehicles are not particularly easy to insulate
A vehicle in good shape will seal up well when the doors are shut and the windows are up, easily keeping out even torrential rain and strong winds. You can stay snug as a bug inside, happy and dry.
The only issue comes when it is time to stay warm or cool; vehicles are notorious for getting too much of either!
In the hot seasons, the inside of a vehicle become a broiler. Unless you run the AC… In the cold months, they are iceboxes. Unless you run the heater… See where this is going?
You’ll need fuel to run the engine in order to power both. You cannot build a fire inside a car to keep warm (though with care you can use a few candles in a metal can!) and in the hot seasons your only reprieve is opening a door or lowering a window to let heat escape and air through.
Breakdowns are Showstoppers
It never fails in the horror movies and it always happens in real life thanks to everyone’s favorite uncle, Mr. Murphy.
Your vehicle will break down when you need it most, stranding you, your gear and your party somewhere you don’t want it to be.
Some breakdowns are minor and easily solved. Some are catastrophic and require the services of a gifted wizard of a field mechanic or a properly equipped vehicle bay to fix.
Many fall somewhere in the middle, meaning you’ll need the spare parts, tools, know-how and, just as crucially, time to fix it yourself.
To shore up this shortcoming, this means taking the time to learn how to work on and repair your own vehicle as well as keeping the most commonly used spares on hand for your SHTF kit.
Vehicles attract attention
Unless you drive an electric vehicle, the rumble of a motor will alert people quite a ways off to your presence. Louder vehicles, like those growling diesels or performance enhanced engines are even more audible.
Avoiding trouble is far easier if you stay unknown and a stranger to trouble. A running engine, ever momentarily, blows your chances of remaining undetected if other people are nearby.
Other people will also, rightly, assume that your vehicle contains some goodies, even if you are really low on supplies. Indeed, a working, fueled vehicle is itself a major prize!
Brigands and thieves will target vehicles that are stopped or unattended constantly in the wake of a major SHTF event. Security will be a constant concern in all crisis situations, but a vehicle will only complicate matters.
Vehicles may limit your freedom of movement
For all but the most capable and specialized off-road vehicles, you’ll be confined to roads and clear, smooth terrain when SHTF. Plainly put, going off road is a great way to get stuck or completely immobilized and then you’ll be in a pickle.
Recovery of a stuck vehicle is possible, but requires specialized gear and another vehicle or an immobile anchor to attach a winch to.
This means that practically you’ll be forced to map and understand all possible routes to and from your bug-out locations, how they change season to season, and how capable your vehicle is of handling them in any given conditions.
Aside from those manageable issues, a vehicle is a sure thing for preppers wanting to stay mobile and comfortable while surviving. In the next section we’ll take a look at outfitting your vehicle for survival.
Daily Driver or Bug-Out Vehicle?
The perennial question for those aiming to survive the apocalypse in a vehicle is whether or not they should rely on their daily driver, ready at a moment’s notice, sensible and discreet, or instead invest in a purpose-designed bug-out vehicle (BOV) of some kind, often taking the form of a seriously off-road capable truck or SUV.
The answer is, as always, it depends. Your daily driver is certainly already available, and will get you to and fro according to what its factory designed specs say it can handle.
Depending on the type of vehicle, you may have a little or even modest off road capability, and a fair amount of internal or external storage.
A purpose-made or modified bug-out vehicle leaves conventional behind as soon readily as it leaves the pavement. Often sporting large, knobby tires, lifted suspensions, horsepower and drivetrain enhancements and heavy duty bumpers these vehicles may look the part of an apocalyptic road warrior.
Others are designed to be sleepers, appearing like normal, everyday vehicles, like a panel van, but concealing within small sleeping arrangements and ample gear storage. Others are simply festooned with additional cargo racks and pods, and have the suspension upgrades to haul it all.
Ultimately, which you choose will depend on your financial situation. Anything is possible if you have the coin and the desire. You can have a supremely capable vehicle that appears hardly different from a stock one while being kitted to the roof with upgrades and would be no less discreet sitting in the office parking lot.
If you have little to spend on your vehicle, or are prioritizing other preps first, you should plan your movements and routes around your daily driver’s capability.
If you have the money to afford a BOV or upgrade your daily driver, you have additional options open to you, reflecting the greater prowess, durability and capacity of these enhanced vehicles.
Vehicle considerations for SHTF Survival
You should consider some or all of the following upgrades for your daily driver or chosen specialized bug-out vehicle. Not all of them are universally valuable.
A person packing only for themselves probably won’t need additional cargo space (though it is nice to have). If you live in the middle of nowhere heavy duty push-bars might not be as vital to you as someone bugging out from a city. A vehicle with excellent range will need an auxiliary fuel tank less than a gas guzzler and so on.
Stay on Top of Basic Maintenance!
You’ll need to treat your vehicle like the lifesaver it is intended to be, if you don’t already. Are you staying on top of oil changes? Tire rotations?
Having brakes, suspension and other systems inspected? Don’t neglect the essentials or you’ll be broken down as soon as you make a break for the edge of town, guaranteed.
When your tires get thin, have them rotated. Change your own oil regularly, and do it yourself so you know what’s what. Make sure all fluid levels stay nominal, including wiper fluid.
If your seals have a tiny drip, change them; don’t just doctor it with silicone. This level of dedication is paying in for your survival and also developing the discipline you’ll need to survive.
Upgrade Essential Parts and Systems
Saying cars are complicated is the understatement of the year, but for all their complexity they will often be sidelined by a failure of just a few critical parts.
No matter what kind of vehicle you’ll rely on, you can give yourself a performance boost and a hedge against failure by upgrading these components.
Start with the battery. A dead or weak battery is the most common cause of a failure to start. Choose a higher quality battery than the one you usually toss in when your old one gives up the ghost.
Increasing cold cranking amps (CCA) and reserve capacity will mean surer starting and longer life when running equipment with the car turned off or alternator failing. Speaking of that, buy and install a heavy-duty starter and alternator both.
Tires are the next obvious upgrade. Performance tires for your local conditions should be on the wheels at all times. You might consider upgrading to run-flat tires so you can remain mobile if they lose pressure (don’t forget the spare).
Suspension components need some love too; don’t forget you’ll be hauling a fair amount of extra gear and supplies, and potentially several people. A heavily laden vehicle will not handle nearly as well as a light one, and even worse if the suspension is not up to snuff.
Additional Cargo Room
Forget the idea of taking off into the woods with a one-day pack and bag of beef jerky to hack out a living among the pines. Chances are you’ll be dead from exposure or dehydration in no time.
Survival is mostly about skills, but the right gear and provision is a hedge against disaster. You’ll be filling up even a large SUV pretty quickly, to say nothing of smaller sedans, so it would behoove you to add some additional cargo room in the form of roof racks, tailgate boxes and side mounted baskets for some vehicles that you can stash you gear and supplies in.
Make sure you develop your load plan fully so that any items that you need to access quickly are readily accessible, and any sensitive or delicate items are protected from the elements.
If you ever have a flat tire in the middle of a hostile area and have to dig out your jack and spare tire from beneath 150 pounds of stuff, you will rue the day.
Consider upgrading your vehicle’s lights for more reach in dark conditions, an especially important consideration at speed. You can also install all around lamps for additional area or task lighting when making camp.
One sneaky trick is to have two front facing lights set up with green LEDs, which are harder to see from far away in the dark, and will allow you to preserve your night vision while maneuvering at night (at least at low speed).
Since you are considering living out of your vehicle, at least partially, you can give yourself a huge leg up by installing an inverter system that will let you plug in and run normal household devices as normal.
Something like an electric power tool could make all the difference in an outcome when you need to assemble or destroy something in a hurry. Expanding the number of outlets in the passenger compartment for charging lights, phone and other devices like power banks is also a great idea.
Push Bars or Heavy Duty Bumpers
This is a more overt modification, but not out of place on SUVs and trucks even in kind times.
Push bars, or bull bars, are heavy duty bumpers that are designed to stay rigidly in place and deflect an obstacle struck by them rather than deform and absorb the impact like standard, modern car bumpers.
A properly installed set of bull bars will help protect the delicate radiator and rest of the engine compartment when striking an object at modest speeds.
They also come in very handy for nudging and pushing cars out and other obstacles out of the way, and mounting winches.
You must assume that you will get stuck at some point when you are going off road. No matter how many people you have with you, or how many vehicles are part of your caravan, you’ll need recovery gear to get a stuck vehicle, well, unstuck.
At a minimum, tow straps will allow another vehicle to attempt to yank you free. You should also include the toothed recovery tracks like the Maxtrax MKII.
You can get by with carpet, cardboard and other old standbys. Be sure to include a comprehensive tire patching kit. Some simple hand tools, like a good folding shovel, will be indispensable as well.
The best investment you can make in your vehicle recovery equipment is a good winch. A winch, properly installed and equipped with the appropriate line or cable, will easily pull your vehicle or someone else’s right out of a tight spot with nary a hiccup.
Be warned, use of a winch is dangerous and requires a certain set of skills all its own to safely and quickly get your vehicle unstuck, so make sure you put in the time with it before you really need to use it.
Living Out of Your Vehicle when SHTF
If you are surviving solo or it is just you and a partner you will have a fairly easy time of things. Your vehicle will serve as your bunk, pantry, tool chest and power point. A sort of mobile HQ, if you will.
Your ideal arrangement should revolve around getting you and your bug-out kit to a safe location to lay up for a bit until you have enough info to make your next move, or can just cool your heels where you are and wait it out.
When you are there, ideally you will want to camp light, meaning breaking down as little as possible out of the vehicle; you have taken on the mode of a sort of post-SHTF nomad, always moving, or ready to move, at a moment’s notice.
If you have full kit, caboodle and cabin unpacked and set up all about, that is a lot to deal with when the time comes to move quickly. It is much better to roll up your bedroll, flip the top down on your pack, toss it in the backseat and get moving.
Doing otherwise means you might have to abandon things you spent much time and effort on being able to bring.
You should endeavor to sleep in the vehicle, unless you are confident of both your safety and your ability to pack and go quickly. Again, you have banked on mobility; why compromise it?
Sleeping in your vehicle could take the form of dozing upright in the seat, lying down in the bed or across a bench, folding down the seats (if possible) to make a platform or sleeping on the roof, if your vehicle’s design will permit it.
Certain vehicles can be equipped with rooftop tents, and these are fine options for extended stays in one place, but come at the cost of being slow to erect and tear down.
Your biggest issues when sleeping inside a car will be temperature control if you don’t have the car’s heater or AC on. Using either burns fuel, and should only be done when underway if at all possible.
You cannot, obviously, build a fire inside your car, but you have a few options. First, your own body heat will do wonders in a small space, and two people, dressed accordingly and under good blankets should stay toasty down into freezing temperatures.
Second, you may carefully use a couple of candles placed in a steel or aluminum coffee can to add a little warmth. Ensure that they cannot be knocked over inadvertently.
Condensation is a problem when a car is buttoned up and no air actively moving through the cabin. You may need to periodically crack the seals to vent the interior, or if the weather is amicable enough leave a window cracked.
All other activities like cooking, hygiene and so forth can and should be taken care of outside the car. The idea, remember, is not to never leave the confines of the vehicle. It is instead to use the vehicle to facilitate camping while not compromising your mobility.
Drive like a Survivor
Remember, this is not a road trip, or a pleasure cruise. You must change the way you drive and think about your vehicle. Treat it like it is a lifeline, like a treasured pet, or a valuable jewel.
You don’t want any harm to come to it, and you know other people will steal it if they can. Focus, really focus when you are driving. Think carefully about navigation.
Don’t ram anything you absolutely can avoid ramming, especially in a car without bull bars. Modern cars kill the engine when the airbags deploy, stranding you.
Older cars don’t suffer from that problem but also don’t fare as well in crashes there is nothing that says some other critical component won’t break. Don’t drive over any debris that you can possibly avoid.
Don’t drive into any situation or space you may need to reverse out of. Leave plenty of room between your car and everything around it to avoid being ambushed, if possible.
Always endeavor to stay well within your vehicles handling envelope, but if you cannot, you should know how to handle yourself and your car. Consider taking a performance driving course, both in a laden and unladen car, so you will know how it responds to inputs and emergency maneuvers.
Remember, the gentler and more cautious your driving, the longer your vehicle will last and the less likely a stressed component is to snap or break. If you should get well and truly stranded, you’ll be heading out the prepper’s old fashioned way- by foot.
Surviving SHTF in a Car with Multiple People
Your family or group arrangement might see you doing all of the above with more than two people in a car. For obvious reasons, you might not be able to pull off sleeping in a car packed with bodies, during an SHTF event, and claustrophobia as well as murderous rage for Bill’s snoring and Allie’s halitosis will begin to fray nerves in short order.
That’s alright. Simply disembark and camp in a way that works for all people involved. Do try to keep things on the light side by minimizing setup as discussed prior.
If you are travelling in a convoy, with each vehicle having room to spare, you’ll simply follow the prescriptions above, and each vehicle can provide a semi-private space for the concerned parties.
A note about packing gear and distributing it among multiple vehicles working together: I have heard it said and recommended elsewhere that it is a better plan, logistically, to lump all supplies of one type in one vehicle, like cars on a train.
So you have a baggage car, a food car, presumably a gun and weapons car and whatever in the hell else. This is a terrible, terrible idea, and whoever suggested it should feel bad about it.
Loading your supplies this way means the entire group suffers a crippling loss of materiel if one vehicle is destroyed or lost.
The correct and superior solution, as you are doubtless thinking, clever reader, is to load each car normally according to the occupant’s wishes and manifest.
Nominally, this is known as cross-loading, or the even distribution of all supplies across all members of a party. If one car is lost, or its owners desert, the rest of the group can carry on normally, having lost only a smaller percentage of all supplies versus a total or near total percentage of one type of supplies.
With even two vehicles travelling in tandem you’ll want some way to communicate between each car. Cell phones work fine if they work. If they don’t, you should invest in walkie-talkies or citizen’s band radios, either handheld or car mounted.
If you can spring for encrypted ones and know how to use them, so much the better, but if not you must always be aware that anyone could be listening in and likely will be.
Another option for simple communications without electronics is old school analog techniques. Basic hand signals can alert for turns or stops.
For more advanced commands you could use simple semaphore style signals using colored bandanas- slow, stop, danger, left turn soon, right turn soon, all-ok? Etc.
In the dark, “Morse” codes exchanged by flashing headlights or clicking handheld flashlights can exchange simple info and interrogatives without the need to stop or slow down.
Note if you are a solo driver you must focus on your driving and not playing with flashlights, flags or anything else; all of that is firmly the responsibility of the copilot.
Don’t leave out the Essentials!
Every vehicle should include a full service kit consisting of all of its fluids, the most crucial replacement parts, and a small tool kit to perform needed maintenance and operation.
Also included should be a compact or fullsize tech manual that can help you diagnose and correct problems assuming you have the skills to make use of it.
Also include a bag full of the most common fasteners for all parts of the vehicle, as well as spare bulbs for all lamps in a crush-proof container.
Hopefully you’ll never have cause to make use of any of it, but if you do, these are all things you’ll have to have. Having the right spares, replacement parts and other doodads needed can turn a breakdown from a show-stopping, life threatening event to a momentary delay.
Living out of your car or other BOV for the duration of a SHTF event is entirely possible, and may be easier and more comfortable, comparatively than bugging out on foot.
Vehicles can provide their occupants with shelter and power, and carry far more weight than a person on foot could ever dream of doing, all the while affording you the mobility to stay one step ahead of trouble, and the ability to take advantage of opportunities.
They have shortcomings and weaknesses that must be accounted for, but their obvious utility makes them an easy choice for some. Use the tips and guide in this article to make your vehicle your first choice for survival living.