Mythbusting: Bug Out Vehicles

Bug out Vehicles buck the ISG trend of eye-rollingly bad concepts; they actually serve a dual purpose. Join us as we discuss the benefits of an Off-Road Rig.

December 30, 2019 2:14 PM


Mike's Discovery 2, practical and capable.

Of all the topics surrounding disaster preparedness, perhaps none is so far fetched or flogged to death than "bugging out". With the possible exception of Everyday Carry, it's hard to find a more ubiquitous or overplayed topic.

Today, we've got a tricky one. An article (from one of our favorite absurd prepper websites, showed off the mighty USSV Rhino, saying "THIS IS THE ULTIMATE IN A BUG OUT VEHICLE".

This shouldn't come as a surprise from a publication that talks about three-barrel shotguns and "making the saw blade crossbow from FarCry", but we might actually have a teachable moment on our hands. As you know, we tend to ignore things if we can't address them in a positive manner... however, if they're *so* bad they can't just slide, they get the ominous spotlight of our mythbusting or bad practice series.

Off-road and bugging out is something we're pretty familiar with, and at a minimum, we're qualified enough to discuss whether or not this thing has what it takes to be the "ultimate". More than that, we can turn this into a short discussion on how fluff and swagger get you literally nowhere off road... both figuratively (with your peers) and literally (as the terrain gets tough).

While the manufacturer makes no such claim as to being the ultimate bugout vehicle, This beast arrogantly claims that it's only competition is other ultra high dollar vehicles for "discerning" individuals. Discerning in our book means something a little different:

"Status, not function" or "More dollars than sense."  So we have to separate the arguments:

  1. That this is a bug-out vehicle (article's claims), and;
  2. What kind of vehicle has "no peers"?
Shit, this 14,000 pound vehicle went through 40 gallons faster than I expected, and now I'm trapped in the desert in a suit. Least I'll leave a cool looking corpse.

We're going to make the argument that the brodozer with trucknutz and patriotic stickers has become expression of "get out of my way" society, and unsurprisingly, these heaps of pot metal and fiberglass are often touted as being 'bug out' vehicles when they're really not much better than anything else.

As with all things, a great vehicle with a lousy driver is a lousy vehicle.

On one hand, this is something that we don't take very seriously, because it's obviously guys who like toys fantasizing about using their toys.

It's kinda like watching overgrown, goateed six-year-olds in mesh hats play Tonka trucks. No different than the guys with $3000 Glocks... if you can't shoot it to it's potential, it's more about status and pageantry than it is about performance.

On the other hand, driving and a good vehicle can absolutely be the difference between getting caught in a disaster or getting ahead of the curve and riding it out someplace with less drama.

So, like all things ISG, let's talk about showing up looking underwhelming, and then exceeding people's expectations by giving a strong account of ourselves and our vehicles.

"It's like it's husband is a sergeant but it wants to be saluted at the gate anyway"
-JT, discussing the Rhino

Bugout Vehicles

This might surprise some of you given our position on 'bugging out', but our view on bugging out in vehicles is:

"Yeah, that can actually make sense."

Conceptually, people escape floods, wildfires, hurricanes and the like all the time by packing up the vehicle and hitting the freeway, and getting out of the path of destruction.

Cuttin' up the power line road... Here are the vehicles that can't compete with the "SUV above all SUVs".

But here's the thing: If you plan ahead, you can bug out in a Prius. It's not the ultimate in anything, except being the understated whipping post of the automotive world, and being the vehicle no one bothers to look in for a side-folding AK... but getting off the X when a disasters is coming through doesn't usually mean getting off-road...

It means beating the masses.

If you don't plan ahead, chances are unless you've got a lifestyle which emphasizes off-road adventure, you're going to simply find yourself in more trouble, regardless of what you drive.

If you do actually pay attention to off-road capability, well, the Rhino professes to be the SUV above all SUVs... So, let's take a quick look at it and ask "how much 'ultimate' do you need to bug out?"

...though at $229,000, we doubt any of our readers would get buffalo'd into buying one.

Preying on Ignorance (and quite possibly some arrogance)

Looking at the Rhino, most of the selling points read like sleight of hand, which is what really drew our attention.

But more important than picking the low hanging fruit is looking for what actually makes a good bug-out vehicle, and why, when done right, it's far more than just something that sits in the garage waiting for an emergency.

It can be a rewarding and liberating project that is as much practicality as it is preparedness.

Practical Approach

As a matter of practicality, having an off-road vehicle can be an excellent hobby and skillset that reinforces some of the crucial skills we hold at ISG; vehicle maintenance, driving, teamwork, camping and primitive skills, and of course, regular old adventure.

The skills you'll need to 'bug out' look nearly identical to those that you'd need to get out of the rat race for a couple weeks and live out of your rig in the mountains.

Moreover, while the accessory market for off-road vehicles looks pretty much the same as it does for guns, or any other "hobby" item, you really don't need much to get off the ground, and out in the woods.

So, without further adieu, here are some of the features (and luxuries that make WAY more sense than TV's) for a decent expedition/bug out rig that actually serve a purpose:

Crucial Components

JT's FZJ80 with author's HDJ81 in the background in the San Juan mountains of Colorado.

In this section, let's prioritize some of the features that you should look for, and how important they are. Let's start with some "Stock" features, and move in to upgrades. For the most part, you'll want to find a vehicle that has these following characteristics. While you can certainly do a lot without some of them, they are time-proven to be beneficial to any off-road travel.

  • -4-wheel drive and some ground clearance. A solid 80% of the obstacles you face are going to be about Approach (front), departure (rear), and breakover (center) angles so you don't trash your ride trying to get over them. A vehicle that's too low to the ground will feel the crunch of steep terrain more than one that's got a bit of lift, but the lift can create a dangerous high center of gravity.

  • -A full size spare tire. Regardless whether you're in a minivan or a Jeep, having a decent, full-sized spare tire is essential if you're going to be in tough driving conditions for any duration. It's a simple thing that's easy to overlook until you need it.
  • -Differential lockers. In a vehicle with standard, unlocked differentials, the vehicle will automatically divert power to the wheel with the least amount of traction. When on a slippery surface such as snow or ice, this can be useful. However, off-road, when the wheel with the least amount of traction might be free-spinning in the air, it's a distinct handicap. Locking differentials allow you to 'reinforce success' rather than failure, giving the wheels that have traction more power. For this reason, locking differentials are a very nice to have feature on a vehicle that will be off road.

  • -Good suspension. Having good suspension that's well-matched to your vehicle will not only improve your ability to overcome obstacles, but it'll help ensure you don't damage your rig. Keep in mind that you should consider the weight of your vehicle loaded when you decide on suspension; this often comes at the cost of a heavier spring that's less comfortable 'on road', but will help keep you from dragging your tail on the rocks off-road.

Upgrades - the first steps in the "build"

  • -A Bull Bar. The only reason the Bull-bar is above the winch is that in most cases, you'll need something to mount the winch to. A good bullbar is going to help prevent front end damage to your vehicle, as well as provide a place to mount a winch, and (once you've got lockers and other important upgrades) some extra lighting.
  • -A winch. Especially in a massive rig that's prone to getting stuck, a winch would be a decent standard feature. I think they probably didn't include one since you'd pretty much need a wrecker to move a 10,000-16,000 rig out of the mud. The rule of thumb when selecting a winch is "double your vehicle's weight". Don't forget that if you're setting up for expeditions, your weight will be well in excess of the vehicles 'curb weight'.
  • -An air compressor. Having the ability to use compressed air is one of those required items when traveling off-road. Not only is it reasonably inexpensive, but it's mandatory to get the most out of your tires if the traction gets tough. In addition to helping you air after airing down, it's a great thing to have if you happen to find you have a slow leak.
  • -Fire suppression. We've discussed this a little, and people would much rather talk about guns and gear than they would ensuring they don't lose it all in a fiery blaze. Mount a couple extinguishers where they can be easily accessed, even when the vehicle is loaded down. To find out more about this and what type of extinguisher to match to your vehicle, check out our article here.
  • -Medical kit. For everything from dangerous trauma to upset stomachs, it's important than you have a well-stocked medical kit in your rig if you're going to be out of the rat race for a while.
  • -Self Containment. This means the ability to set up a camp from which you can rest, cook, clean, and dispose of physical and biological waste. It's remarkably easy to set up, and doesn't have to be elaborate. A simple Coleman stove, wash basin with some cloth and a scrubber, and a few water bricks will cover you for most of your cooking and cleaning. For biological waste, options range from composting toilets to using a shovel to dig a cat hole. How elaborate you want to go on this is entirely up to you - but remember the more experience you have on the trail, the better you'll understand the risks and rewards of each approach.

Upgrades - Functional Upgrades

Jeremy's FZJ80 - largely unmodified on the outside, but set up smart on the inside; Icon suspension, dual-batteries, and a fridge... all of which are set up to keep camp for long, off-road adventures.
  • -Armor. Once you've got some of the above boxes checked, it's not a bad idea to start looking at skid plates and differential armor. Recently, a Montero came into our partner shop... it had hit a jackstand that fell out of someones vehicle and blew the front differential apart. This was a crippling injury for the vehicle, and while trail damage is likely to be a little more gradual, it's still a looming threat that you should address in order to keep your rig from being damaged when you need it the most.
  • -Trail communications. Whether you're using a tricked out HAM setup that you can use to talk to astronauts or a couple GMRS radios, communications (especially in longer convoys of vehicles) can really help in keeping everyone in the loop. Not only is this good for morale if you're the trail leader, but it makes sure you're not going to get left behind if you're bringing up the rear and have a problem. It can also be useful in communicating approaching vehicles or hazards. It sucks being the only guy without a radio.
  • -A roofrack that's worth something. A decent mounting platform on the roof can be far more useful than more trail lights. While a RTT (rooftop tent) can be pretty expensive, The time you save compared to a regular large tent -is incredible. By our math, the RTT is about 5 times faster, which in an emergency could make a big difference. You can also tie down cargo, recovery gear, or a spare tire if you need.
  • -A Rooftop Tent (RTT). This is a contentious point, and the RTT has become a symbol for the urban escapist to signal to everyone that they make decent money and are ready for adventure at the drop of a hat, but more than just status, the RTT truly is an excellent, expedient way to set up a camp.

Upgrades - The Luxuries

  • -A dual battery system. If you're off-road "bugging out", implicit in that is that you're probably going to be sleeping in that vehicle or somewhere very near it. That means it's also very likely your sole source of power. Most of us have radios and cell phones charging in the truck while moving, but if you've gotta cool it for a couple days, it pays to have some extra power (and solar or wind, if you can tie it in safely). Having a dual battery system is a excellent first step that shows that the engineers thought through off-road, aftermarket accessories... like...
  • -A fridge and cooking utilities. It might sound like a luxury item, but if you're going anywhere out of the main channel for more than a couple days, your ice chest isn't going to hold up. If we're talking bugging out... which could take weeks depending on how bad things are, having an onboard freezer would show a lot of forethought. Having something as simple as a stable platform for cutting and preparing food, and a simple propane burner is huge as well. Not only does it save on time, but the organizational aspects mean you aren't digging around looking for everything. There are a wide variety of options out there these days, so a fridge doesn't have to break the bank. That said, done correctly, a fridge should have a tie down and some organizational drawers with it.

  • -Internal Storage. Even if all you can get your hands on is some tupperware bins, it's *really* useful to know where your trail gear or maintenance items are, and not have to dig through piles of clothing, toilet paper, squashed bread loaves, and sleeping bags to get to what you need. A good system should also help secure some of those items in the event of a rollover, so you don't have a bunch of projectiles flying around the cabin. Having a rack that sits above the cargo bay is an excellent way to keep more vulnerable items from being smashed, as well.

  • -Long range fuel tank. Most off-road vehicles aren't efficient, and a 25 gallon tank might only take you 300 or so miles, which is abysmal, and a serious problem if you're in an emergency that has an attendant fuel shortage. An auxiliary fuel tank is a great way to extend your range without having to strap jerry cans to the back of your rig, but they come at a heavy price, often costing in excess of $3000.

All this might sound like a lot, and not every person needs everything on the list, but these are some pretty standard upgrades that turn a factory vehicle into a very capable off-road expedition rig. Further, it's pretty hard to claim your vehicle is the 'ultimate' anything for off-road if it's missing these elements.

Vehicles in Disasters

So, with all this considered, it makes some sense that having a decently capable rig that you can live out of for a few weeks is not only enriching from the perspective of adventure, but it also certainly can do a lot for your personal resiliency.

Not only that, but it's excellent recreation that, when done right, builds confidence, familiarity, and good habits for traveling away from 'grid' support.

So, what is the best vehicle?

The one you've got.

Most vehicles can be made to be pretty serviceable, especially if you've got a 4-wheel drive vehicle with a little ground clearance. Like most things, if you get out and use them, you'll find the things that need to be improved upon, but you certainly don't need to spend a quarter of a million dollars to have the "ultimate" vehicle... For 1/100th of that price, you could have a a well-equipped Jeep, Toyota, or even *gasp* Land Rover that with a little love, will be a solid performer on the trail. Even older F350 Econoline Vans and the like are better choices, when you consider the money going in for what you get in return... and with "van life" becoming a trend, it might actually make a pretty cool project.

Just remember, it's on you to do the hard work: Learning how to drive by getting out and building experience. Start with the basics - if you can't master them, you'll be useless off road. Once you've got a good understanding of how to be a solid asset behind the wheel, look into the more advance defensive tactics of road work. Not shooting out your windows or throwing yourself under the car, but how to think about fights around vehicles.

Definitely a sad day for our friend at Oklahoma Overland. They were lucky to escape largely uninjured.

Finally, give some thought to how weather is going to impact your movement. One of our friends recently lost his rig during a high water crossing. Know what to look for when dealing with swiftwater!

So, while most of our crew rolls with Land Cruisers for their mechanical simplicity, toughness, off-road capability, and parts availability, you'd truly be better off with a Subaru that you were intimately familiar with on road and trail than a $230,000 rig that you rely on simply for the luxury around town and no real idea what life is like off-road.

Every time there's an ice event in the south, you'll see the side of the road lined with full-sized, lifted pickups. Guys don't understand that "4-wheel drive" doesn't mean "4-wheel stop", and they're not used to that light rear end getting squirrelly. No judgment, I got in a roll over one time in those conditions. Most of our lessons at ISG are from making mistakes that we hope you won't repeat.

To polish this all off, "Bugging out" is a refugee's move. As we've said over and over again, but you need to have a plan... as with our Sustainment bag (second line), our vehicle can extend our sustainment by providing us an extra layer of protection against the Rule of 3's as we move - especially if we move smart, with other people, and with a eye on security. Be deliberate, and stay a step ahead of the reaper.

When it comes to getting out ahead of an emergency, a high-capability vehicle is one of the few prepper-culture topics that really isn't an outright flight of fantasy... but that doesn't mean your bug out rig *should* be.

If you make an upgrade, do so after you've identified a deficiency and/or established a need. The more advanced you become, the more you're capable of doing, the more a few extra upgrades can help you really get around the harder terrain and longer trips.

Keep it sane, have a solid plan, and if that plan fails, look to your rig like you would your EDC: It's for solving the physical problems that we try and head off through good judgment and awareness. The vehicle is just another piece of equipment that gives us options for solving problems.


ISG Team

Special thanks to Brad A., Jeremy B., Conor B., and JT B.

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