It happens every year. Guaranteed. Each year in the U.S., multiple motorists drive off the road in dangerous weather, get stuck traversing an unfamiliar shortcut or experience car trouble in the middle of nowhere—only to find themselves hopelessly stranded.
Start with preventive steps
To ensure your survival during such an event, you must first create a vehicle survival kit. Fill a bin, back-pack or a duffle bag with important emergency necessities, sealing the most important things in zip-top bags to keep them dry and safe. This gear should include basic survival essentials and some gear specific to automotive emergencies.
Another important consideration is to always let someone know where you are going. So many “stranded” survival stories revolve around a spur of the moment trip, which left the victim’s friends, family and co-workers with no idea where the missing person went.
Imagine the difficulty for search and rescue crews or local law enforcement when they don’t even know which county or state they should explore to look for you.
Stay with your car
Once you’ve mastered the preventive steps, it’s time to prepare how you’d react in a survival emergency. Let’s say your car has broken down on a remote road. You’ve taken your precautions, but what do you do now that you’re stranded? The number one thing to do when you realize that you’re in a survival situation is to stay put. In the case of vehicle-based survival strategies, your car becomes your shelter, and you do not leave that car.
Unless that vehicle is on fire or rolling off a cliff, it’s your new best friend. For the past century that cars have existed, the statistics show that people who stay with the car have a higher probability of survival than those who leave the car looking for help in stranded scenarios.
Any vehicle with the windows intact will provide you with a wind- and rain-resistant shelter. No, it’s not a perfect shelter, as anyone who has ever had to sleep in his or her car can tell you.
But you can easily enhance the shelter value of a vehicle by adding blankets, extra clothing and sleeping bags for warmth. You can even build a campfire 10 to 15 feet away from the vehicle and heat up stones near the edge of that fire.
Get the stones just warm enough that you can barely hold them to your skin, and then bring them into the vehicle as a low-tech space heater. Repeat as needed every few hours.
On the other extreme of temperature, your vehicle can become a useful shelter in hot weather. Open all of the vehicle doors and use duct tape to attach tarps, blankets or sheets to the tops of the doors to create cooling shade in sunny, hot climates.
If that isn’t practical, then crawl under the vehicle and lie on the cooler ground in the vehicle’s shade. Another great reason to stay with your vehicle is that a car is lot easier for rescuers to spot than a person. And whether searchers are looking from the air or the ground, the vehicle is a fixed target.
The vehicle is not out there wandering around like a person tends to do.
Parts for survival
Many parts of the vehicle give you reasons to stay with it because they can be used for dual survival purposes. For instance, the mirrors can be removed to create signal mirrors to catch the attention of potential rescuers. The plastics and oils from the car can be added to a campfire to turn the smoke black, allowing much greater visibility to your smoke signal.
Even the head-lights and car horn can signal for help as long as the battery lasts. The wires can be stripped from unneeded vehicle systems to produce tying material and snares. The cigarette lighter can give you fire. The list of helpful car parts and systems goes on and on.
Survival using a vehicle is just like every other type of survival scenario—you need shelter, water, fire, food and first aid, and you need to signal for help every chance you get.
If you plan ahead to have the right equipment in the car based on the season and location you are traveling through — and if you’re creative — your stranded vehicle should give you everything you need to survive.
Car survival checklist
Any good vehicle emergency kit should include the following items at a minimum:
- Shelter gear like sleeping bags and blankets. Ideally you should have one item for each seat in your car.
- A full change of clothes appropriate to the season, a spare coat or jacket, and some rain gear or a poncho for wet weather.
- Shelter gear to use outside the car. For example, a tent for cold weather, or a tarp to give shade in hot climates.
- Several gallons of drinking water, and purification equipment to disinfect more water.
- At least three days’ worth of high-calorie, no-cook foods such as protein bars, MREs, peanut butter & crackers, trail mix, etc.
- A quality first aid kit.
- Sanitation and hygiene supplies like toilet paper, feminine products, hand sanitizer, etc.
- At least three fire-starting methods, and a small pot to boil water and cook.
- Some basic hand tools, including a knife, wrenches, screwdrivers, duct tape and rope.
- Jumper cables, road flares, Fix-a-Flat spray, tow strap, starter fluid, ice scraper, and any other automotive supplies that you know how to use.
- Flashlight with extra batteries, along with two or three 12-hour light sticks.
- Car charger, solar charger or back-up battery for your cell phone.