Mythbusting

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.

April 30, 2020
By:
Aaron

Introduction

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.

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.

Traffic during Hurricane Harvey. Keep in mind that idling for hours burns through the gas. Soggy grass medians bogged down a few vehicles, too.

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...

A bug out vehicle doesn't necessarily mean it can go anywhere, 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.

The pinch of all of this is: We don't pick the emergency. Getting out ahead of the masses is fine if it's a Hurricane and you've been watching it develop for a week. If it's an Earthquake, what then? 
How about a volcanic eruption? What about a Pandemic

What changes and what's the best "all around" approach?

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.

The Disaster Environment

One of the concepts we use to better understand how to deal with emergencies is the Post Disaster Environment. In all cases, emergencies change something about our environment. Whether that's how we interact with other people, the amount of trees and grass burning around us, or how much live ordnance we have to step around, disasters create hazards that ordinarily aren't present. Most of the time, disasters come in two main phases; immediate threats to your personal health and safety, and restricting access to critical resources. Once the show starts, you're dealing with the threats brought on by the disaster environment... These can be natural or man-made, so let's look at two that are similar and separate;

In the images here, we see fire as a threat to health and mobility. In both cases, the emergency restricts your ability to move, and access resources. You can't stop for fuel or to ask directions. There's no place to pull off and look over your map without an increased risk of a direct threat to your life.

Both of these environments present some major hazards for travel; debris and smoke, thermal considerations (for both you and your vehicle) and situations in which more time = decreased chances of a good outcome.

Consider how earthquakes, hurricanes, checkpoints and civil unrest, and other disasters affect your environment.

If you got out ahead of the problem - congratulations! Your vehicle and driving skills probably don't really matter that much. If you didn't, the conditions might get really difficult on you and your vehicle, so it pays to check some boxes and have some experience driving in tough conditions.

So, without further adieu, here are some of the features that are good for a decent expedition/bug out rig that actually serve a purpose.

Vehicle Baseline - Where to start

Before we really dig in, this is going to be largely centered around 4 wheeled vehicles, as most of the ISG crew has families which make motorcycles a little less practical. With that said, a good dual-sport motorcycle like the KLR properly set up could be an excellent setup that would be FAR more fuel efficient and could still store a good amount of supplies. As well, we've discussed and had it suggested that we further discuss the viability of boats - which is certainly worth mentioning, but both of these options fit a little bit more niche of a crowd, and as such, we'll circle back to them. For now, we'll talk mainly about passenger vehicles that a family could reasonably afford and fit in comfortably with some cargo to see them through the Type II emergency.

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.

  • -A mechanically sound vehicle, and a VEDC (vehicle everyday carry kit) for it. For the most part, this is just a "check the box" investment in time and money. There's a staggering amount of people who have vehicles with reasonably low mileage that are in terrible shape because they didn't do maintenance. On the other hand, there are high mileage vehicles that are surprisingly clean with owners who change out parts before they break. If you're the latter, keep doing what you're doing. Learning to do your own maintenance and repairs is also a worthwhile investment in your time - if you can't, make friends with someone who can, and find a way to help them.

    Keeping clean fluids and swapping out wearable parts will go a long way in making sure you don't end up with surprises when you need them the least.
  • -A full fuel tank and spare fuel (if you can safely store it). Keep your fuel tank up above half, and ideally, above 3/4 of a tank. Not only does this ensure you'll have some range if you have to leave in a hurry, but most of the contaminants in your fuel settle to the bottom of the tank. Continually running it low pushes those things through the fuel system and can cause clogged fuel filters and damage to fuel pumps. Top off, and view the half-full line as "empty".

    Some Jerry Cans or an auxiliary tank are a huge help - if you do end up in tough terrain, assume you're going to get about 33% lower fuel economy than you would during around town driving. That can mean single digits for many larger 4x4's.
  • -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.

  • -Tires that are in good condition and a full size spare tire. Regardless whether you're in a minivan or a Jeep, having a decent tires that are capable of handling tough terrain are a consumable, mandatory component of your vehicle. A 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. Many vehicles come with different types of locking differentials; center, front, rear, or a combination thereof.

  • -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.

These are all pretty standard on most modern vehicles, and if you've got something older that's paid off, there are probably some ways to invest a little money and have a more capable rig.

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.

Real talk: If this is as far as you get - you're probably good to go. For emergencies, camping, and some adventuring, you've got 80% of it covered by checking the above boxes.


If you want to push a little deeper into capability, there are some things you can add on to your build that will push you past the ability to deal Type I emergencies, and into those longer term, less threatening situations in which you need to sustain yourself without support for a couple weeks.

Upgrades - the first steps in the "build"

  • -A Bull Bar/Winch bumper. 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. 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'. A winch is a tremendous asset for both helping recover stuck vehicles and moving obstacles. The winch requires some skill and knowledge,so don't overlook some proper training.
  • -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.
  • -A Decent Roofrack. A decent mounting platform on the roof expands your carrying capacity and gives options for storing extra fuel or cargo. 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 or a spare tire if you need.
  • -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. This is a simple, easy, and cheap addition that can really make a huge difference.
  • -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 someone's 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 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. The good news is they're much harder to detect and steal.

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 - Life Support on the Go

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, and experience is the best teacher. While there are all sorts of "ultimate bug out vehicles" circulating the internet with laughable $250,000 price tags, the truth is you can do a lot with not all that much.

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. As mentioned, motorcycles set up for touring or dual-sport are lighter, faster, and provide a much better cruising range than bigger, heavier 4x4's, at the cost of some storage space.

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 swift water!

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. Focus on mechanical soundness first. It's tempting to throw all the cool accessories on first and ride it until there's a problem, but no accessory will see you through if the rig doesn't work.

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.

Cheers,

ISG Team

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

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