Statistically, driving is one of the most dangerous activities in most of our lives. Limited supplies, new or dramatically changed surroundings, minimal physical protection and exposure to observation make moving by vehicle the most dangerous phase of many survival plans.
There has been a great deal of focus on the best ‘Bug out Vehicle’ and proper vehicle gear to use in a survival situation. Often overlooked are techniques and skills, many of which are completely different than the driving skills we use in our daily driving, necessary for a vehicular bug-out. Whether you are driving a 5 ton military truck or a Mini-Cooper, the ability to get home after a disaster, or make a successful transition to your Bug out Location will depend on your driving skill, sound decision making and common sense preparation.
The following are some tips and tactics that I have picked up along the road driving in foreign countries devoid of traffic laws, countries with high terrorist threats, in combat convoys, all manner of weather, and even some dirt track racing. I have attempted to adapt some of these lessons into workable techniques for common civilian vehicles, and useful in a wide range of survival scenarios from a full ‘Get Out of Dodge’, to a ‘Get Home’, and in some cases, your daily drive to work.
Ensuring your vehicle is in proper working order is the first step to a successful vehicular relocation. Most of us do not normally think of oil changes and tire rotation as ‘prepping’, but tires, belts and hoses that are ‘good enough’ for a daily commute across town could make you a pedestrian on a cross country trip to your retreat. Knowledge of how to repair common vehicle problems is a critical skill. For a minimal cost you can purchase a set of belts and hoses. Don’t allow a $6 part to become a single point of failure for your entire survival plan. Have at least one real spare tire, two is better, and a working jack.
It is not difficult to make regular vehicle maintenance part of your routine. For instance, I enjoy shooting much more than checking my oil. Like eating my vegetables before dessert, any time I go to the range I take ten minutes to do some basic checks under the hood first.
During a Bug Out going back for an item you forgot will not be an option, neither will picking up something at the store on your way out of town. That is why most packing should be done well in advance. Similar to a BOB, the use of dedicated storage containers make loading a job that can be completed in a matter of minutes. (Another advantage of dedicated BOV containers is that a sudden flash of inspiration can be acted on immediately…just put it in the box.) Quality lockable opaque plastic storage boxes with attached lid are ideal. I use Gorilla boxes because they are inexpensive and have side handle and can be carried with one hand, but there are plenty of quality products on the market. Good old lockable military duffle bags are fine for items that are not fragile, such as clothing. Do not leave anything visible that would attract unwanted attention, such as gas cans, food or weapons.
Every vehicle in the US Army has a load plan with a sketch of where the key equipment will be stowed. As you develop your load plan, consider what you will need within reach, items that you won’t need until you get to your destination, and ensure a full 360 degree field of vision. Try putting all the boxes in your vehicle to make sure they fit and be sure you can get to a spare tire and jack without unloading. On my first practice load-out I quickly determined that boxes that are too heavy for one person to easily lift save no time. Based on that experience, I reduced the weight of my boxes, primarily by setting aside some storage bags that will go in the boxes once it is loaded in the vehicle. My wife can now easily manage the loading in the event I am not available.
During a briefing before a movement through a particularly high threat area, I received this indispensable piece of advice: “Your vehicle is your foxhole. Treat it as such.” (I was also told, just before departure, that “the route has been pretty quiet.”) Ensure all loads, internal and external, are secure. Inexpensive motorcycle tie down straps are more than adequate to secure bins and boxes inside the vehicle. Police up the trash in the vehicle lest it become projectiles. Similarly, keeping a clutter free vehicle could save precious time if there is no need to first unload items from the vehicle to make room for critical supplies during your load-out.
Finally, learn to drive your bug out vehicle, ‘every day’ car, and spouse’s car in all types of weather and road conditions. When trying to get home from the office after a natural disaster or when you notice a car full of shady characters following you is not the time to begin a voyage of discovery about the capabilities and limitations of your vehicle. For about $50 you can participate in local Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events with your own car that will give you a chance to find out what your car can do, and cannot do, in a safe (a route of traffic cones), controlled environment. It’s educational and a lot of fun. Next time is snows in your area, take your vehicles out and have some fun in an empty parking lot like you did when you were seventeen.
Unless your name is Fred Flintstone, you are going to need fuel to get to your destination. If you cannot make it to your bug out location (BOL) with a full tank and a few 5 gallon cans of fuel or soft side fuel bladders, it might be time to consider an intermediate BOL, a different vehicle, auxiliary tanks or a fuel cache en route. Keep in mind, your vehicle will be loaded and possibly have external loads which will decrease your normal mileage.
A few quick thoughts on the ongoing task of route selection: Have good maps (more than one) and if possible, test drive your primary and alternate routes in your BOV. Depending on the internet and cell phone situation, there may be no way to know the specific conditions on your planned route on the day you bug out. However, if you do not drive major portions of your primary and alternate routes on a regular basis, it is worthwhile to spend a few minutes every couple weeks to check Department of Transportation web sites for states your route crosses on a regular basis to check for major detours or construction.
During a bug out, get home, or other survival scenario, the goal is to arrive at your destination intact. Any activity while on the road that does not further the goal of getting to your destination should be avoided. This is not the time to test the capabilities of the vehicle’s four wheel drive, top speed, or braking.
I can, without hesitation, say that the most critical factor in safely driving in any environment is maintaining situational awareness. You would never consider walking through a bad neighborhood listening to your iPod and checking text messages on your phone. Nor should you drive with your CD player blaring, chatting with passengers and a burrito in your hand. We all get complacent driving in our day to day driving. It happens. However, especially during a survival situation, we should drive like we would walk out of the mall during Christmas season, do not be conspicuous, be courteous, and have a plan for everyone and everything you see.
It might seem counterintuitive, but slow is the way to go in most survival circumstances. 45-55 miles per hour is the optimum speed for fuel economy and slower speeds allow for more reaction time when encountering unwelcome surprises. As hard as it might be to drive at a moderate speed while the world is collapsing, the goal is to arrive, not to ‘make good time.’ Obviously, for immediate threats drive as fast as needed to outrun the flood waters, ash cloud, or other fast moving threat.
By way of comparison, during the early years of the Iraq war, coalition convoys would drive at speeds of 50 to 60 MPH. As Iraqi civilian traffic increased and the IED threat began to take a toll, convoy commanders learned that slowing down to the 35 to 40mph range allowed civilian traffic to clear out ahead of the convoy and vehicle crews were much more successful identifying IEDs, ambushes and other road hazards in time to react. Several years ago I had the opportunity to drive a support vehicle as part of a Presidential motorcade. To my surprise, we never went more than 50mph, even on the interstate.
In addition to giving more time to react to road hazards and better fuel economy, slower is also safer. Since many of us will be driving heavily loaded vehicles, possibly with trailers or cargo on the roof, the handling characteristics of the vehicle may dramatically change. Those changes become more pronounced at higher speeds. The ditch cares not if you end up there as the result of a masterfully executed complex ambush or a trailer pulled beyond the recommended speed rating.
We all hope to G.O.O.D. long before the mass exodus, but even that may not prevent us from ending up in heavy traffic, or even normal city traffic. Just like the school bus driver said, do not stick anything out the window you are not willing to lose. Same goes for external loads that are not secured.
In traffic, a good rule of thumb is that you should be able to see the rear tires of the vehicle in front of you to retain the freedom of movement to pull out to the left or right without the need to back up. To avoid being completely gridlocked, make every effort to stay in the far right lane, or far left if there is a drivable median. If worse comes to worst, such as an accident ahead or violent confrontation behind, you will have the option to pull around on the shoulder, ditch, yard or median. If you have been waiting long enough and decide to take a ditch or shoulder, do so with a plan (to the next side street or past the disabled semi), not out of frustration, and always tell your passengers before you make an abrupt movement.
In the event you find yourself traveling cross country or down a trail of unknown quality, go slowly and if possible, have someone walk in front of the vehicle. Even knee high grass can hide holes, abandoned farm implements, or even old farmhouse foundations capable of destroying the suspension of a HMMWV (oops). Stay off private land unless you have absolutely no choice. If you do get into a pasture or field, close every gate you open and stick to the edges of the fields along the fence rows to minimize crop damage. Be ready with a darn good explanation and sincere apology.
Unlike a weekend trip to Grandma’s house, in a survival scenario passengers are not just along for the ride. Each passenger should have assigned duties and be alert at all times. Think of everyone in the vehicle in terms of a crew, not only will this take pressure off the driver, it may help passengers focus on a critical tasks rather than what they are leaving behind.
Driver – The primary focus of the driver should be driving. In our daily lives we often get distracted doing other things instead of keeping our eyes on the road. In a survival scenario, the driver must be ready to act instantly to debris in the road, overly aggressive and scared drivers, and staying on course. Because the mental intensity required is so much greater than normal driving, plan to switch drivers or take breaks much more often than you normally would.
Front Passenger- With an unobstructed view and no need to constantly watch the road, the front passenger has the best view of anyone in the vehicle. This ‘assistant driver’ needs to be alert as the driver and should be scanning off the sides of the road, and as far forward as the eye can see. This is the person who will identify trouble up ahead and allow the driver time to react.
Rear Passengers- If rear seat passengers are present, they should be watching the sides of the vehicle and the rear, working the radio, tracking location on the map, taking care of youngsters and anything else they can do to minimize distractions for the driver and assistant driver.
Just like any other crew, communication is critical. A simplified form of the communication system used by Army gun truck crews may be useful. Everyone in the vehicle should receive these simple instructions: The direction of the vehicle is 12 o’clock. Say what they see, followed by the direction on the clock and distance. For example: “Broken down semi truck, 2 o’clock, 400 yards.” The driver just replies “got it” when he gets a visual.
As a general rule, I would recommend not having weapons visible, especially weapons sticking out of the window. In slow moving, congested areas it is possible for someone to simply grab the gun barrel and yank. People, me included, do not appreciate being ‘flagged’ by someone inadvertently pointing a loaded weapon at my vehicle as they pass by. A rifle sitting across your lap, just under the edge of the window is sufficient. To the extent that you can, put right handed shooters on the driver side and lefties on the passenger side.
Nothing good happens on the side of the road. Nothing. Don’t be there.
Stops will be necessary along the way to rest, eat, refuel, exercise kids, getting physical and mental bearings, and so forth. If possible, plan stops well in advance, preferably as part of initial route planning and recon. Because of the mental effort required to drive in a survival situation, stops should be more frequent than normal distance driving. Avoid the temptation to continue driving to the point of exhaustion, especially if driving alone. Along with slower motor skills and poor decision making while driving, when you finally do stop, you will likely go into a much deeper sleep than might be prudent for the threat level.
When making a stop, find a side road and take it to a point where you are out of sight of the main road. The last thing you want is every passerby to see you pull out fuel cans and fill the tank. Turn the vehicle around toward the main road before stopping. If it becomes necessary to leave in a hurry you will be able to quickly get back on the main route rather than pushing further off your route. Slow down on dirt roads as the dust cloud can be visible for miles.
Before anyone gets out of the vehicle, take two seconds to do a quick scan immediately around the vehicle, about 5 yards out, followed by a second scan at the 25 yard mark and finally look toward the horizon. The time to identify threats, downed power lines, stray dogs, large potholes, etc. is before passengers dismount, not after.
If the vehicle can be hidden during a short break all the better, but still keep security out and someone in the driver seat ready to go. A section of camouflage netting or burlap is helpful to quickly unroll over your vehicle. If you are using a military camo net, don’t waste time with the poles and spanners for short stops, the time spent would be better used taking care of business and getting back on the move. If you have to make a hasty departure, you can quickly pull the netting out of the way enough to drive.
For emergency stops (mechanical, not bladder…those can wait) try to make it to the next turnoff, exit or area where you will be out of danger from passing traffic. In the unfortunate circumstance of a break down on a major road keep in mind that other drivers are scared, tired and not paying attention. Immediately post security, but not standing by the side of the road as if trying to flag down help. There is no reason to have your entire group out on the side of the road, especially children. Have everyone in the vehicle scanning a designated sector and have someone on your team make a note of vehicles that stopped or slowed to observe you. Since you will be prepped and ready to deal with any mechanical problem, just get it fixed enough to move to an area where you can safely do more extensive repairs. For example, just put some more water in the radiator and move; replace the hose when you get to a more secure area.
Do not run out of fuel. Many vehicles are very troublesome to restart if they run dry. More importantly, why give up all tactical mobility for a very small strategic gain? Having enough fuel to move your vehicle just a few miles could get you out of a bad situation. When you realize you will not have enough fuel to make it to your destination start looking for a secure stopping point and then start considering courses of action. There is a world of difference between not having enough fuel to reach your destination and being stranded with no fuel at a place not of your choosing.
As conditions deteriorate and people become more desperate, any vehicle moving under its own power may become a target for an ambush. Two types of ambush I want to discuss are ‘route unblocked’ and ‘route blocked’. There are more complex types, but most would be well beyond the planning and training capabilities of a gang of looters in the initial stages of a societal collapse.
The best case scenario is an ambush that is discovered or strongly indicated (your eagle-eyed assistant driver spots some guys with rifles hanging around the side of the road up ahead), before you are in the kill zone. Stop immediately and turn around at a high rate of speed. Start planning an alternate route. If an alternate route is not an option, get to a secure hide position and try again later keeping in mind that the route is not secure.
An ambush with the route unblocked is the easiest type of ambush to plan and execute. The bad guys simply hide and wait for someone to come then start shooting. If the ambush is not spotted and you suddenly find yourself in the kill zone there is only one option: press your right foot down as far as it will go and get out of the kill zone as fast you can.
Think of it this way: If there are 10 bad guys, spread out 5 yards apart; they have a road frontage of 50 yards. Assuming they wait until your vehicle is more or less centered in the group to initiate the ambush and they will continue to semi-accurately engage for another 100 yards after you pass, the kill zone is approximately 150 yards. Traveling at 55 mph, your vehicle will be in the kill zone for about 5 seconds (granted, those will likely be the longest 5 seconds of your life). Unless they have a fully automatic weapon and have trained to engage moving targets, you have a decent chance of getting out the other side and a much better chance than stopping in the kill zone.
A blocked route type ambush is generally much easier to identify from a distance. Thus bends in the road, over a small rise, or in some other location where it is not easily spotted are prime locations for blocked route ambushes. Be particularly wary of these areas. If the route is blocked but the vehicles were not being engaged, most military logistics convoy battle drills call for the vehicles to quickly back off and seek an alternate route. The blockage could be innocent (fallen tree, disabled vehicles), or an abandoned, incomplete or unmanned ambush site. Take advantage of your good fortune and disappear fast. We are in the business of getting to our destination, not clearing the roads.
The first question for the driver who realizes he is in under fire in a kill zone with the route blocked is whether or not the route is truly blocked. This is why an understanding of your vehicle capabilities is so critically important. Branches that are large enough to stop a car might not be an impediment to a large 4×4, a compact car might be able to fit in between obstacles set in the road, or a mid-size SUV might be able to negotiate the ditch around the obstacle. Next, look at alternate routes to the immediate left or right. In areas surrounded by pasture or farmland simply heading off the road might be the easiest alternative if your vehicle is off road capable (especially if the ambushers forgot to put an obstacle between themselves and the kill zone).
If you have no exit routes, the only way out is the way you came in. Make a U-turn if you have the space, or put it in reverse and floor it (this is why I have chosen not to use a trailer). Your passengers should be generating as much suppressive fire as they can. If the vehicle is damaged to the extent that it cannot move at all, dismount from the side away from the ambush. This is truly the worst case scenario.
Keep in mind, unless you are being attacked by a group of bad guys carrying air rifles, the body panels of a civilian vehicle provide negligible ballistic protection. If you are expecting a particularly rough trip, Army FM 55-30 Appendix O provides directions for field expedient vehicle hardening for larger trucks. Smaller vehicles will lose their advantages of acceleration and maneuverability if too much weight is added. Ballistic blankets are a lightweight, albeit expensive, solution that provides some protection against handgun rounds, shotguns and some smaller rifle rounds.
Firing from a moving vehicle
Unless you have a fully automatic weapon, preferably on a mount, firing from a moving vehicle traveling more than 20 mph is not particularly accurate or effective for the purpose of hitting a target. A couple lessons I have learned: 1) It is hard to generate a sufficient volume of fire from a semi-automatic rifle to suppress stationary targets when you are moving at speed. 2) It is next to impossible to aim using iron sights or scope when shooting from a moving vehicle. 3) Hot brass bounces around in vehicles and seems to always find its way down the back of the driver’s shirt. 4) Firing from inside a vehicle is unbelievably loud. 5) The muzzle blast overpressure can break glass and shatter mirrors if your barrel is not extended well beyond the vehicle.
Having said all that, my natural reaction is still to shoot back at someone taking shots at me. So forget about using the sights or scope. The intent here is not to take precisely aimed shots to hit the bad guys, rather, to send enough bullets close enough to them that they duck their heads for just a few of those seconds that you are going through the kill zone (suppressive fire). One technique is to old the rifle steady on the door frame with your offhand on top and point shoot, this will keep the weapon from bouncing around and allow you to see the impact of your round. (I HIGHLY recommend mixing in some tracers before a road trip.) The bullet is traveling laterally at the speed of the vehicle. Fired from a vehicle traveling 40mph, a 5.56 round at 3000 fps is going to move laterally nearly 12 inches from the point of aim in the 0.016 seconds it takes to get to a target 50 yards away. (The same holds true for ambushers, they have to lead the target which takes some getting used to.) If you tilt your rifle slightly so that the ejection port is pointed down it will reduce the amount of hot brass flying around the vehicle interior. I keep using the term ‘rifle’ for a reason. Save your pistol ammo.
Final thought; the driver’s job is to drive, with two hands on the wheel. Hitting the target but rolling the vehicle is still a catastrophic failure. Drivers drive, shooters shoot.
For groups sharing a common BOL or planning to travel in the same direction, a convoy will provide extra protection from threats on the road, additional security at halts, and the comfort of not being alone. Again, some common Tactics, Techniques and Procedures used in the Iraq and some non-combat areas can be adapted for use during a vehicle convoy during a survival situation.
Before rolling out, ensure that everyone on the convoy knows the route, expected speed, and next two scheduled stops, and a ‘floating rally point’. A ‘floating rally point’ is simply a designated distance from any point or incident that the convoy will stop and rally. For instance, if the floating rally point is five miles; after an ambush, breakdown or just gets hopelessly fragmented in traffic, the lead vehicle will continue five miles and stop at the first securable area available; the remaining vehicles are on the lookout for the lead vehicle at the 5 mile mark. Once all the vehicles are rounded up, the convoy continues on. This technique gets the convoy to safety, negates the need to establish multiple rally points along the route, and eliminates the guesswork of where the rest of the convoy is going to top.
Depending on the number of vehicles in your convoy, duties can be divided. Placing your most mechanically inclined person in the rear vehicle allows him or her to assist on any breakdowns without the need to backtrack. If you have a tow bar or tow strap, place the vehicle with the best towing capability in the rear with your mechanic inside with your first aid person. Placing the best navigator in front is not a bad idea either. If you are using radios, the vehicle with the best range should go in the middle.
If you have three or more vehicles, consider using a scout or ‘rabbit’ vehicle around a mile or one terrain feature ahead of the next vehicle, but within radio range. This vehicle will be the eyes and ears of the convoy and they should have the best optics with them. If they see something suspicious, the convoy can take a quick halt while they check it out, or immediately take an alternate route if the route is impassable. In a combat situation the ‘rabbits’ were the fastest vehicles with the smallest turning radius, but they always had a full complement of radios, weapons and supplies. In a G.O.O.D. scenario, I imagine that most of the supplies and spare fuel from the ‘rabbit’ would be cross loaded to other vehicles since they would be the first to encounter any ‘official’ check points and could be subject to confiscation of ‘hoarded’ supplies and ‘dangerous’ weapons.
A convoy is only as good as its ability to internally communicate. Redundant means of communication in each convoy vehicle is the ideal. Cell phones may be working; then again, they may not. There are any number of hand-held ‘walk-abouts’ and CB radios on the market, as well as higher end radios available. Keep radio traffic short and sweet, using the clock method of passing information back and forth.
Don’t forget to develop a simple code if radio communication goes out, or you have a last minute addition to your convoy that does not have a radio. Something as simple as single headlight flashes for ‘need to stop soon’ and double flashes for ‘emergency stop’ and briefly using hazard flashers to indicate ‘message received’. Use what works for you and always keep it simple. Any vehicle without a radio should be placed between vehicles with radios.
The rules for halts and security are the same, except that there are more people for security, and a larger space requirement at stops. For a person looking to siphon some gas, the car pulled off on the side of the road with the driver sleeping is a much more inviting target than three vehicles a mile off the road with 360 degree security.
Plan for the Trip of a Lifetime
The critical link between your current location be it home, work, or wherever, and your ultimate destination is your transportation plan. Thoughtful analysis, preparation, and practice, this critical part of many survival plans will go a long way to ensuring you arrive at your destination. The danger of traveling during a survival situation cannot be eliminated, but it can be mitigated. Happy Motoring!