Mythbusting: Bug Out Vehicles

Think you know what the ultimate bug out vehicle is? You're probably wrong... Check out why.

June 13, 2019 1:39 PM


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.

OK, some new ostentatious vehicle claims to be the best, so what?

Well, this one takes the cake for a few reasons: pretty much nothing about it is geared around actual performance, so far as we can tell. Like we always say, when we end up taking on a bad practice or mythbusting case, it's usually not because it's the worst thing out there, it just does so many things bad, we have enough talking points to create some learning.

If you translate the spec sheet, it's just an F450 with posh interior and a body kit. Forged Aluminum wheels are pretty widely known to be inferior to steel, and frankly, I can't be the only one who thinks a 40" TV isn't a necessity when "bugging out".

All flash and ZERO substance.

But more than that, it reads like a cautionary tale of what not to do with an off-road rig.

A vehicle weighing 10,000 pounds might as well be an armored truck (though it isn't armored), and off-road, loose gravel is about as far as you'll get with a rig that size. That much weight and if you're moving faster than a nursing-home walking club, you're going to have trouble stopping and might even slide off the road... especially if it's icy. With the ground clearance that looks to be a foot or so, we're going to guess that you won't be getting up any sharp inclines, either. Hell, it doesn't even look like it has skid plates.

Mikey's HDJ81 Land cruiser reppin' PA. Check him out @theogzilla on Instagram.

It uses IFS (independent front suspension), which is notoriously more finicky than a solid front axle, and there's no mention of differential lockers, visibility from the cab looks like it'd be worse than an FJ Cruiser, the takeoff angle looks ok, but the breakover and departure angles are garbage, and God only knows where the air intake is.

If you're not an off-road person and don't care about cars, what you should take from this is that it's all flash and zero substance. $229,000 will get you something roughly as capable off-road as an F450 with some nice interior and complicated electronics.

To sum up the sellers: They're preying on what people don't know that they don't know.

There's a valuable lesson here: Specification sheets tell you nothing important, but experience identifies the needs.

More Need, Less Want

We don't need to dogpile the Rhino anymore for being a opulent rolling vat of snake oil, however, it gives us a useful example of what's missing and why those things are important. For one, we've got a massive, fuel and electricity guzzling monstrosity that people are - at least in some way - making a part of their plan for resiliency. While this is out of most of our budgets, if we look at what the Rhino does wrong (everything), we can make a pretty useful template for what we can do *right* if we're interested in setting up a vehicle for 'bugging out".

Before we do that, let's talk about two things:

  1. We can have a realistic budget that's 1/10th of what you'd pay for the Rhino, and have a very capable vehicle.
  2. In addition to being a decent hedge against natural or man-made disasters, a well set-up rig can mean more freedom off-road, which means more adventure and travel, while covering some bases if you did have to use your rig to bail. Like many things, we can enjoy adventure in a way that actually informs us on how to more efficiently prepare for disasters. Off-road expeditions are absolutely one of these.

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, compared to some silly junk like the Rhino:

  • 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.

  • 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...
  • An onboard air compressor. Let's face it, The Rhino's wheels are a joke. 20" wheels with 38" tires are going to be a pain in the ass to find a replacement for, but they've utterly neglected the necessity of airing up or down when going off the trail. Onboard air is one of those required items within a crew when traveling off-road. So don't have an absurdly hard to find tire/wheel combination, and be prepared to air down or up when entering or exiting the paved roads.
  • 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.
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • IFS and Differential lockers. These are mentioned above, but a solid front axle would greatly improve durability (especially on a rig this size) and the only model of of F450 that had locking options was in 2011... so it's unlikely that this pretty standard upgrade was included. It's definitely not on the spec sheet, and it would be pretty much necessary as an upgrade to keep this tank moving. Especially with those huge tires, differential lockers would be all but necessary.

    Open differentials (on most vehicles) push the most amount of power to the wheel with the least amount of traction. Off-road, this means that if you've got a wheel in the air, it's getting all the power. We want the opposite! Reinforce success when it comes to off-road traction; give the power to the wheels that have some grip.

  • Good suspension. Hydraulic suspension is dubious under the best case situation, so a vehicle like this would be extremely taxing on the hydraulic systems (which are already prone to leaking) and the electronic system that keep it up and running. Complicated and prone to breakage, hydraulic (or air, like on the Land Rovers) are comfortable until they go out. Coil and shocks might not be as smooth of a ride, but they're FAR less likely to go out, and when they do, they're a cheap, easy fix even for the novice.
  • Long range fuel tank. Since USSV doesn't go so far as to list the Rhino's fuel economy, we did some research; a Medium duty truck of this weight is likely to get between 6-9 miles per gallon under regular driving conditions. Given that off-road travel typically sees a 25-33% reduction in economy, 4 miles per gallon is probably more like it... depending on what power plant the use. Some of the newer rigs are far more efficient, but you're still looking at a cruising range of between 160-300 miles per gallon, best case. That's not going to get you far. Being totally fair, this is one of the weak points of the Land Cruiser as well.
  • Sanitation. People who are serious about living the overland lifestyle typically recognize that running water is a useful upgrade, and often install water tanks and small sinks for sanitation. Not only does this truck not have such, but there's barely room for a travel toilet in the back.
  • 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'.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

We hope by now it's painfully clear that this 'bugout vehicle' is kind of the poser child for prepper mythos. It's huge, poorly outfitted, and dubiously engineered... and that's before you get to the lack of any sort of actual systems to help you survive against the Rule of 3's. What you don't need is a 40" satellite television, unless that's how you want to spend your final hours of life in a collapse.

Now, with all this said, what we *don't* want to do is give the impression that we think having a good, capable rig is useless. While for most problems, your daily driver can probably handle things, being capable off road is absolutely a viable way of getting out of the path of an emergency.

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

As often happens, we chose this vehicle because it's literally as bad as it can be. It condenses everything that's wrong with the concept of a "bug out vehicle" nicely into one package that allows us to express the following:

  • -Why it's insufficient
  • -What would be better
  • How to gain experience that will help you pursue both greater adventure and resiliency

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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