Vehicle Survival Skills

Vehicle Survival Skills

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There wasn’t the violent surge of the vehicle as one might expect. There was a subtle thump of the rear tire that signaled something was wrong. A quick inspection proved a flat tire, further inspection the spare tire was also flat.

Vehicle Survival Skills

With the light rain turning to snow they jumped into action. In an already cramped single-cab pick-up they couldn’t huddle together, and the steel of the rig would only rob them of precious heat. While one quickly collected firewood, the other two set about making a shelter from a tarp found in the back of the truck. Soon the three were bundled close, as a roaring fire projected heat under the small tarp. The next morning a passing truck stopped to help. They survived a night where temperatures plummeted into to single digits and light snow filled the forest.

Nearly 80% of the recreationists that find themselves in a survival situation did so because they did not take simple precautions. They did not tell someone where they were going. They failed to check the weather. They completely disregarded the need to carry survival gear. Are you prepared or know what gear you should keep in your vehicle for a survival situation like this?  Let’s break this down into six categories; Fire, Water, Shelter, Food, Signal, and First Aid to make sure you are prepared the next time you venture out.


The ability to get a fire going in any condition is a vital skill that provides not only warmth when temperatures drop, but has the additional benefits of providing motivation and a resource for heating food, purifying water, and serves as a source of light. Learn how to prepare a fire pit, complete with reflective wall, in all conditions including rain and snow. Master at least two methods for creating fire, the first with a striking tool such as a metal match and the other a primitive technique (i.e. bow drill) so you are ready in any situation.

Always carry emergency fire starting materials in your vehicle.  Great options include egg cartons (paper) with saw dust and candle wax, fire pucks, windproof matches, a striker, and windproof lighter. Additionally, keeping a small phonebook, stuffed somewhere dry, is a great source of tinder as one can easily tear out a few pages.   Keep a small hatchet in your vehicle for splitting wood into smaller pieces or to get to dry layers when the wood is wet.  It is critical to have your materials ready when you need to get a fire going.  Gathering enough dry tinder and wood, ahead of getting your fire started, is a great way to ensure your success and get you on your way to improving your situation.

Vehicle Survival Skills - fire


Most people walk around dehydrated every day.  When in a survival situation we do not have the luxury of rehydrating at a drinking fountain or simply stopping in at a convenience store to buy a cool bottle of water.   Water is one of the key factors that leads to stranded back-country enthusiasts not making it through survival situations. Finding, filtering, and consuming water is a must when you find yourself stranded. Too many people have succumbed to dehydration when a simple day trip turns into a multi-day struggle to survive. Instead of resorting to techniques sensationalized on popular survival shows, it’s better to go prepared. Filtering your own urine through rattle-snake skin is not the answer to resolving dehydration.

Basic rule, carry enough EMERGENCY water (minimum 1 gallon per day) in your rig for 2 days multiplied by the number of seat belts. For most rigs, with two seat belts in the front and three in the back, this should be around 10 gallons in reserve. If you wind up alone, you have more H2O, if the family is along you have enough to get you through the first 24 hours at least.  A pot for boiling water and gravity filter are great additions.  Boiling is great if you have large quantities of water that needs to be purified and you have large quantities of fuel accessible for you fire.


Some rigs are large enough that you can crawl up in and you may be able to snuggle in your vehicle and keep yourself warm by using the heater.  Be careful though, and ensure you have enough fuel, no exhaust leaks, and your vehicle’s body is sound enough that exhaust doesn’t enter the interior.   However some rigs aren’t comfortable to sleep in and the surrounding metal body can quickly sap away body heat. In summer months, the heat in the vehicle can amplify to unbearable temperatures. In most cases it’s good to get out and build shelter and control the climate around you the best that you can.

In winter months keep a tent or, at minimum, a space-blanket tarp with you. If you have to set up new residence, staying dry and controlling the immediate environment is important. In summer months add a mosquito net to keep you comfortable. Don’t overlook the advantages of sleeping bags and foam pads for the ground. In areas with lots of things that wiggle on the ground, consider a hammock. Remember to keep nylon cordage wrapped around tarps for set-up.


You need calories, so take them with you. Think of all the hunters who come home each season with little in the freezer. Berries have short seasons, the wrong mushrooms can be unforgiving, and most weekend recreationists can’t tell the difference in what is safe to eat. The best plan is to keep a few things on stock as you venture out.

Most vehicle-based recreationists keep an ice-chest filled with a few sandwiches and snacks. A few years ago a stranded family lived for two days on what was in their picnic basket until they were rescued. The rule here is keep enough food for three-days multiplied by the number of seatbelts or passengers your vehicle holds.  Canned spam, dried fruit, cereal bars, jerky, and bags of oatmeal compact nicely in a small satchel in your rig.


At some point you may need to call for back-up and in fact shucking your pride could save your life. Whether it’s a buddy, the Sheriff’s department, or an entire army of strangers, calling for help might be what gets you back alive. Keep in mind that even though we are a connected world through our smart-phones, when you’re 75 miles from the nearest pavement your device is almost certainly useless.

Vehicle Survival Skills

Your vehicle should be your mobile communications center. CB radios are good for rig to rig communication, if you know others are on your frequency. Better, is the 2-meter amateur radio. You will need a license to be legal, but getting your ham ticket grants you access to repeater systems that increase the network of help when needed. Keep road flares handy if a rescue has been instituted your review mirror can be popped off to get the attention of air or ground searchers. The tire that was ripped to shreds earlier in the day can be burned to send a dark and oily smoke that gets much needed attention. Also a PRB is great item when you need to call out for help.

First Aid

The method of injury usually dictates the size of first aid kit you want onboard. Since you are working with machines in the 4-digit weight category, you are going to want to cover many of the bases. Common opinion is to carry only what you know how to use, however if you are hanging with a group of guys that have advanced care training, they can always dig into your kit. Also, if you are hours away from a hospital, you are going to want something comprehensive. Don’t forget about training. Consider going beyond the basic first aid course and signing-up for a Wilderness First Aid course through institutions like N.O.L.S.

As a basic kit, look at what EMTs carry in their kits. You are going to want to cover the full spectrum. Think trauma when building your kit. Winch lines break, rigs roll over, guys get scalded by broken radiator lines. You will also want to keep a small kit for simple cuts/abrasions accessible with all the small stuff so you don’t have to dig into your bag. Side-note: if you are not trained to perform something, the main rule is “do no further harm”.


In surviving a catastrophe there are really three groups to look at using the 10-80-10 rule. The first 10-percent of people simply don’t survive an accident. The last 10-percent seem to just make it through no matter what. The middle 80-percent are most people who, if prepared to survive and if not, become a detriment to others. Go and explore the world, but be prepared if you wind up in a real world experience. Train now, pick your gear, and learn how to use it. Keep simple rules in mind like letting others know where you are going and when you will be back.

Rob Anderson is the owner and chief instructor of Adventure IQ and provides several survival training courses. He has been a Ground Combat instructor, led search and rescue teams, provided back country first aid training, and has over 30 years in adventure and experiential skills facilitation experience in North America, Europe, MIddle East, and Asia. Learn more about Adventure IQ at


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