What is a Bug-Out Vehicle & How do I Select One?
This is the vehicle used to get you to a safe place to sit out the crisis at hand and usually has some pre-packed ‘supplies’ in it. Where you live and what you are preparing for, are important factors in determining what kind of vehicle you need.
Needless to say a SHTF Vehicle is a very personal choice. However there are a few ‘rules of thumb’ to help you in choosing the correct type of vehicle for your specific needs.
First we have to keep in mind that ANY vehicle, under ANY circumstance is likely to be the second most expensive item we purchase in our lifetimes. Most of us do not have the funds to have one vehicle for everyday use and one for SHTF use, so this means that the vehicle must be multi-functional. It must be able to meet our needs in our everyday life, as well as during the crisis and through the aftermath of the crisis.
Finding the perfect match between driving ability, fuel consumption, price and our needs, pre and post SHTF, requires an honest evaluation of our motoring skills and needs.
Because of this we need to identify exactly what we Need and what we Would Like in this vehicle for both here and now, and SHTF. Where vehicles are concerned, most of these Needs and Wants fall into two categories - Functionality and Ascetics.
Functionality is the mechanics of the vehicle: Mileage and fuel type, ease of repair, parts availability, historical frequency of repair occurrence, adaptability to various and or difficult terrain and weather conditions (BOTH the vehicle and us the driver) and the like.
Ascetics are the looks and feel of the vehicle, how you want to present yourself to the outside world when you drive and your comfort (beyond the necessities) while driving or riding in the vehicle. These are mostly the electronics of the vehicle: Music systems, auto door locks and windows, electronic seat adjustments, seat warmers, GPS/OnStar systems, WiFi charging station, electric ignition and the like. Other ascetics are solely for looks like: the leather, dash embellishments, chrome, interior carpeting and such.
As always, due to all the marketing and advertizing hype, we need to research the vehicle from other than the manufacturer or sponsor of the manufacturer sources. This means we need reports from independent studies and labs that are not influenced by any funding from a manufacturer or sponsor.
On top of this we have to remember that some of these independent sources will undoubtedly be geared to some vehicle niche. Like luxury, consumer trends or fads or other more important things such as; safety, resale value, repair rates, availability of common parts and ease of DIY maintenance and repair and so on. You name the niche and there is most likely an entity out there that studies and reports on it (some sponsored and some not).
Now most of us are not vehicle experts, the bulk of our knowledge probably comes from the media and manufacturer or friends. Hence, many of us have some misconceptions as to just what certain types of vehicles can and can’t do. To see and get explanations on some terms and definitions on the various types of vehicles out there that most of us would probably consider as a Bug Out Vehicle and their pro’s and con’s (see link to this full document at end of post). Then go back and review your functionality/ascetics-needs and wants - before starting on your independent research.
Vehicle Layout & Functionality
In automotive design, the automobile layout describes where on the vehicle, the engine and drive wheels are found. Many different combinations of engine location and driven wheels are found in practice and the location of each is dependent on the primary application for which the vehicle will be used. Factors influencing the design choice include cost, complexity, reliability, packaging (location and size of the passenger compartment and trunk), weight distribution and the vehicle's intended handling characteristics.
Keep in mind that many people associate the term 4WD with off-road vehicles and sport utility vehicles (SUV), it is important to note that 4WD is not synonymous with true off road functionality. Not only that but there are several kinds of 4WD layouts; each with their own advantages and disadvantages.
There are also two distinct types (and hence functionality) of SUV: based on a passenger car and based on a truck. For more functionality, on and off the road, you would want the SUV based on a truck. Just remember that Not all SUVs have four-wheel drive capabilities, and not all four-wheel-drive passenger vehicles are SUVs.
Then there are the Off Road vehicles, which are 4WD, but not all 4WD are Off Road vehicles. There are tons of aftermarket kits available to turn a truck or SUV into a serious off-road vehicle, like; armor the vehicle by protecting the undercarriage, interior roll bars, carburetor and exhaust snorkels, front, side and rear brush guards, heavy duty engine heating and cooling systems, dual batteries, extra large and armored gas tanks, built-in water tanks, short wave radio systems and the like.
Off-road vehicles were first made for the military, modern explorers and archeologists and the like. These people had to travel where there are no roads, no roadside services, no GPS and no service repair stations in order to do their job. Especially in the case of explorers, they had to carry everything in with them and (hopefully) haul out much more. Their vehicles were indeed 4WD and much more, plus they were usually special ordered.
You can still order ‘expedition’ 4WD vehicles from manufacturers like Toyota, International and Range Rover, to name a few. If you do they won’t be like what you see people driving around on the highways and byways of your country. Nope, these are heavy duty vehicles with much thicker electrical insulation, high road clearance (above 18”), two-way radios, thick and flat/squared windows, weighted chassis and all of the other typical off-road add-ons, but on steroids! No electric seat adjustments, windows or doors, no seat warmers, no fancy cup holders, no carpeting and the most common luxury you are likely to find are saddle leather seats, which can take a beating and keep on ticking (not your butter soft fashion leather).
A serious reminder: Off-road driving has its own set of mandatory skills that the driver must master. Just having a 4WD or special ordered ‘expedition’ off-road vehicle will not provide the safety, security, stability or functionality by itself – the driver must know how to drive where no one has driven before. If the driver is unknowledgeable, the vehicle can be damaged and leave the driver stranded, out there somewhere or at worst - someone could be injured or killed. As one off-roading friend of mine stated repeatedly “4WD is not equal to Off-The-Road, not in mechanics, add-ons or driving methodology.” This is an important distinction for someone who is looking for a bug-out or SHTF vehicle that will have to perform, ‘out there’, where no one has gone before and yet they themselves have never driven ‘out there’ before in their lives.
Then there are all thos Dangerous Misconceptions ... In a quote from the Popular Mechanic's article by Mac Demere titled "The Myth of the All-Powerful All-Wheel Drive", dated March 11, 2013, "It sounds like having power to all wheels would help drivers negotiate corners and slippery surfaces. But don't believe the hype about all-wheel drive and handling. ... " or Safety Misconception: While 4WD and AWD can help the vehicle "go in the snow," they do little to improve cornering grip and virtually nothing to improve braking. Or how about: this misconception, due to mis-information: It says "4WD" on the tailgate, and there it is again on the list of standard equipment. But is it really four-wheel-drive - or just all-wheel-drive pretending to be something more than it really is? AWD is not the same thing as 4WD - and it's arguably false advertising to lead people to believe otherwise. Each system works differently and offers different levels of capability. As you can see despite the clear differences in design and capability between 4WD and AWD, several automakers brazenly conflate the two as a way of bulking-up the perceived capability of their light-duty, car-based "crossovers" and compact SUVs - all to make them appear less like the passenger vehicles they're related to.
On top of that, other manufacturers offer misleading ‘options’ like body lifts (you know those things that make different ends of the vehicle raise and lower and are commonly seen on ‘Low-Rider’ vehicles). These are only lowering and raising the body of the vehicle, not the important base or chassis, which contains your differential and other important mechanical components. Your only added ‘clearance’ with this option or add-on is visual or rider ride height or visual clearance, NOT actual road clearance or functionality.
Another misleading option is tire inflation/deflation. This can give you added traction on certain types of terrain. Just remember you, the driver, needs to know when under or over inflation of your tiers will get out of a sticky spot. Oversized tires, yet alone over or under inflated tires, in and of themselves, will NOT provide you any other functional attribute that may be needed in true off the road travel.
The size of the tires may give you a little added road clearance, however you have now dangerously upset the center of balance on the vehicle and run the risk of roll-overs on the slightest grade difference.
Don't be fooled. Don't expect a car-based SUV or crossover vehicle with a car-based AWD or 4WD system to be able to do things a true 4WD truck-based equipped vehicle will be able to do. Nor will ANY option or functionality make up for the drivers own knowledge and abilities in various road, no road or weather conditions.
Case in point: When I lived by the Jersey Shore I had a VW Squareback. I often out drove other drivers with Jeeps and such, in my 2WD VW Squareback, all because I not only knew how to drive on sand, I also had much practice at it. These other drivers made the mistake of thinking that having 4WD meant they could drive off the road with no problem. They lacked the knowledge and experience to do so and got stuck because of it.
Real World Performance and Finding the Right System for You
Plenty of folks buy a 4x4 truck or SUV and never intend to take it off-road. In fact, plenty of those same folks never even think about actually using the vehicle's capabilities to its fullest. They simply want the peace of mind that comes with the fact they can switch from two-wheel drive (2WD) with either the tug of a lever or (even more common today) the turn of a switch. If you're in that group, have you ever wondered what the controls for the 4WD system actually do? And, equally important, when and where you should use them? If yes, you are not alone.
Remember: No matter what your needs turn out to be always temper your decision with: Driver experience and competence is still the biggest single factor in avoiding disaster. No option package, add-on kit or a decal on the bumper will ever change that fact. The experts have stressed, several times, that the functional abilities of the vehicle are second to the skills and competency of the driver.
There are also some ‘common sense’ type attributes that we need to consider if this vehicle is going to perform as we wish it to – now and SHTF:
- Look for vehicles that are made of metal and not fiberglass. Vehicles made of metal can keep going much longer than fiberglass vehicles and are easier to perform ‘on the fly’ repairs too (you can push out metal away from a tire, while damaged fiberglass will need to be removed).
- Electronics are some of the most costly and most often cause of failure to any vehicle. The more electronics control the vital aspects of the vehicle (fuel injection, drivetrain sensors, etc.), the more dependent this vehicle is on an expert mechanic and non-SHTF world.
- The more electronics the more weight the vehicle must move around – ie lower gas mileage (and less passenger and cargo capabilities too). So all those electronic gadgets means the less distance you can travel SHTF before having to fuel up again.
- It will be harder to find parts, post SHTF, for foreign vehicles than it will be for US manufactured vehicles. Don’t be overly fooled by manufacturers like Toyota, that are now assembled here in the States. Assembled means just that – assembled, not manufactured. Although on the plus side, being assembled in the States also means that the more common replacement parts are indeed more readily available.
- Beware of vehicles manufactured that utilize proprietary parts, such as GM and Chevy. These require special tools when working on the vehicle, even for changing out a head/tail light bulb. Any specialty tools will be hard to find SHTF.
- If the window glass itself is curved, bowed or angled in any way it is not only more expensive to replace, the windows will also be harder to find in a SHTF world. (Same holds true for body parts)
- Look for vehicles with gages and not ‘idiot lights’ for the RPMs, oil and gas. Gages will keep you informed on these key aspects of your vehicle’s health so you have time before anything happens to address them.
- Avoid digital speedometers and other indicators. Stick to the actual gage or mechanical display. Digital types of repairs will be very difficult in a SHTF environment.
- Most options (and digital gadgets) add weight without SHTF functionality. So even if the vehicle is good off the road, it could end up being too uncomfortable to use over the long haul or even break down in the SHTF world when you need it the most. Think about those butter soft, molded leather seats; the leather gets torn or splits and now the insides to the seat are exposed to the elements, they start to rust and squeak, etc., not to mention they are now extremely uncomfortable to sit on. Remember SHTF your vehicle will most likely NOT be in a garage or other ‘protected from the elements’ structure, especially if you are indeed traveling off the road. The sun and other elements will get to it and vehicles now days, especially luxury vehicles, are NOT built to withstand all that direct exposure. Stick to heavy duty vinyl or saddle leather and save the butter soft fashionable stuff for your special order seat covers.
- Tracking: Just about every vehicle manufactured today has some kind of GPS or OnStar capability. If you are concerned about someone finding you or following you, these will guide them right to you - even if the function is NOT activated on your vehicle. The only way to be sure this doesn’t happen is to have the computer chip to this function physically removed from the vehicle. Needless to say if you have a GPS map display in the dash of the vehicle, you are screwed (the cost of removing this computer component is expensive since in most vehicles today is it bundled with other electronics in the vehicle). Better to order a vehicle without one. (This applies to cell phones and especially these new iPhone/Smart Phones. If it has GPS and or wireless internet capabilities the battery must be removed to avoid tracking. Simply deactivating the service will not do the trick. Also make sure the camera function has disabled the Geo-Tagging option to the digital pictures. This is true with digital cameras as well.)
- If you must have electronic door locks, windows and or seat adjustments, find a vehicle that also has the manual overrides to these things. This is not only a good safety aspect, it is most definitely a good SHTF move. Like most electronics, these are difficult to repair and in too many cases are actually replaced, not repaired.
- Know your vehicle. Learn how to replace spark plugs and change the oil. You don’t have to do this all the time in our non-SHTF world, it does however, pay to be able to do the basics – just in case. I would even keep a few spark plugs, extra oil and a fan belt or two, on hand in the trunk. After all we never know when a crisis will occur or where we will be when it does.
- If you have never driven off the road, get some instruction on the methodologies of off-roading and practice once a year to keep sharp. This could be a life saver.
- If you feel this vehicle may be your temporary ‘home away from home’, as in bug-out car camping, and you are not a camper – it pays to take a weekend once a year to camp out for one night and acquaint yourself with camping and your camping equipment. Let’s face it, we can have all the equipment and gadgets in the world and if we don’t know how to use them, they are useless. Besides the experts agree that a SHTF environment is NOT the time to be reading directions and trying this stuff out for the first time!
- Above all be honest in your evaluation of your everyday and SHTF needs (not wants), for both your Preparedness Plan and your potential bug-out vehicle.
- Last but not least your SHTF vehicle must be able to traverse the road less traveled. You don’t want to be stuck on the same byway as everyone else!
So before you purchase that add-on kit or vehicle as your bug-out vehicle (even if you are one of those people that can actually afford a vehicle just for SHTF scenarios);
- Review the various crises on your list
- Determine the likely travel conditions during and after this crisis
- List the functional needs this vehicle should have for now and those SHTF conditions, then the wants
- List the ascetic needs the vehicle should have for those SHTF conditions, then the wants
- Research the vehicles that qualify using sources that are not; just consumer trends, or funded by the manufacturer or sponsored by a manufacturer.
- If there is any possibility of having to drive off the road, get an off-roader to teach you the methodology of off road driving. Remember: Practice makes perfect and repetition is the foundation to learning. You want to be able to drive off the road in a SHTF environment without having to think about how to do it.
Knowledge is Power and it pays big time here! So be sure to read all the details on each type of vehicle typically chosen for "bug-out" scenarios - Then and only then make your vehicle choice.
Understanding the science and engineering behind each of these vehicle systems is informative, but no amount of book smarts can replace a test drive to discern what system is right for you. The full document to this post will assist you, and can be downloaded from here.
Bottom Line: This is a very important decision that must not be taken lightly. It pays to understand and research the various options BEFORE purchasing any vehicle, yet alone one that must serve as your bug-out vehicle. Any vehicle used off the road requires a different set of driving skills that one cannot ‘book learn’. As with any vehicle, 50% of the ‘useful’ functionality and reliability will be based on driver skill.