Preparations for a Long-Distance Commuter, by Darin P. in Michigan

Long-distance Commuters face challenges. I average 20 days at work per month.  During those days, I am away from home for 11.5 hours.   Unless the Crunch starts conveniently on a Saturday morning, before I can survive the end of the world as I know it I have to get home.     

My daily commute carries me 35 miles each way.  Sometimes while sitting in traffic I’m reminded of real life – and fictional – disaster situations looking a lot like what I face each day; miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion.  The defining difference is this: My traffic jam eventually clears and I motor-on my way towards wife and kids and dog.  And two cats.      

Lately my thoughts push me towards my need to return home in the event of the worst – specifically, planning for accommodating my trip.   Before I can bug-in at my homestead, I have to get there! Before I can work to provide comfort and safety for my family, I have to reach home. If the roads were closed or blocked just how would I manage? Living in Southeast Michigan for several years, I have seen the weather change pretty quickly.  Even if my winter vehicle has the ability to traverse deep snow covered roads, local authorities have the power to determine roads “Impassible”, stranding me away from the homestead.  

Apart from winter hazards, commuters face a multitude of potential challenges, from massive traffic accidents, terror attack – recall the streams of pedestrians evacuating downtown New York City on 11 September 2001 – or natural disasters.  Below you will find tips to prepare yourself and your vehicle for the commute from hell.  Driving: Take serious consideration in your commuter – remember a car not properly equipped, or lacking other capabilities gets great fuel economy, while stuck on the side of the road.  In my 14mpg pick-up hurts my wallet at fuel-up however worth more to me is the security presented by having a greater chance of making it home through all kinds of weather.     

During winter season, as defined by the daily high temperatures not exceeding about 40 degrees, I swap my summer all-season/all terrain tires on my F150 4×4 SuperCrew with dedicated-winter tires. Providing additional weight over the drive wheels is a water bladder, filled to approximately 400lbs of water, secured to the floor of the pick-up bed.      Late February of 2011 I flew from the Detroit area for deployment to Iraq.   I was under orders – I could not simply call-in sick.   The night I left, the Detroit Metro area was hit with significant snow storm.  With a solid foot of snow falling around us, the truck performed flawlessly – bringing me and my family to the airport, and providing my wife and kids safe return home.   The benefits of ground clearance and proper winter tire combined in a way either of the two alone could not.   I passed dozens of compact and other passenger cars stuck on the road, even trucks with large off-road and mud-terrain tires spun helplessly on the slick roads.     

I often hear a common misconception – “My car goes well in the snow”.  Not true, mostly.  Your car’s TIRES go through the snow well. Tires are often over-looked because the summer or all-seasons currently on the vehicle “have good tread left”.  Tread compound and tread designed specifically for winter and cold-weather driving conditions is the best way to ensure safe travel.  More than simply having the power to take off from a stop, winter tires provide stopping and turning power.  Often winter-specific tires can stop in half the distance of summer or all-season tires.  Even the best all-season tires will stop many feet later than winter-specific tires – but sometimes even a few feet can mean the difference between a collision with another car, obstacle, or person, and prevention of those impacts.      

Tornadoes are not unheard-of in my area – wind damage to infrastructure is inevitable.  Deciding to commute in a vehicle with all or four-wheel drive, and offering as much ground clearance as possible will enable me to overcome standing or running water across roadways (while avoiding those obstacles is ideal, sometimes there is no choice), or limbs or other debris across the roadway.   I also live 1.4 miles from the nearest paved road – in the worst kind of weather, my road is not maintained. Getting home means getting muddy.  Packing for worst-case: In addition to common items – jumper cables, Tylenol/aspirin, extra food, gasoline, water, folding knife, small tool kit, first-aid kit and blanket, Meal, Ready-to-eat; a ¾ full re-usable water bottle (to allow for freezing temperatures), extra socks, scarf, gloves, hat, basic first aid kit, sunglasses, small disposable lighter, 50ft of 550 cord, military surplus thermals, and plastic rain poncho will work to keep me prepared for either driving or walking home.   I purchased a pair of Army surplus aviator gloves; the Nomex™ construction will provide some flame protection in the event of an accident or rescue, while thin enough preventing significant finger/hand dexterity loss. All items fit nicely in my Oakley “Kitchen Sink” backpack.    Military members can order their Kitchen Sink pack via’s Military purchase program for substantial savings.     

I also created homemade fire-starters using make-up removing cotton patches, dipped in melted candle wax, and left to dry on a wire rack over a sheet-pan.   After bundling the tender, rip one of the wax-coated patches to expose the cotton fibers.  Apply flame from the lighter and within about a minute I have a sustainable flame that holds enough flame to ignite even damp branches, sticks, and debris. A head-mounted lamp will help with vehicle repairs or path illumination should I be forced to abandon my vehicle.      Using the head-worn lamp brings freedom to use my arms to carry other items, support, or defend myself.  The lamp also serves to signal others if I become in need of assistance due to injury or attack.   I tend to forget to check the batteries of all my stored emergency electronic devices – do not follow my example as an unlit lamp shines on no path.  A good reminder – every time I change my car’s wiper blades, I re-inventory my supplies. 

Alternative routes:     Most days I follow the same route to work and home again.  While shopping for my house I became familiar with my area – I know which roads connect to the road that leads me home.   One day, every other month or so, I take a new way home – even the LONG way.  I do this to remain up to date with road closures, detours, construction, and traffic density.  In the event of the worst-case scenario, the popular roads will likely become clogged with vehicles and pedestrians sticking to the familiar.  Knowing which side streets connect to where affords some relief and ease of access to other roads leading home. One thing to remember – if you think of a short cut, chances are somebody else has too!  Avoiding the shortest route, in terms of distance or time to complete, may end up being faster due to less congestion.  Alternative Transportation:     Even my truck’s 6.5ft-long bed is large enough to hold a bicycle.  Placing a mountain bike in the truck bed, and securing with a normal bike lock and cable can provide a much-faster way home, should stuff hit the fan.   Again, do not forget to maintain the emergency bike – ensure your bike has air in the tires and inner tube patching equipment along with a means to pump air into a repaired tube. 

Walking:      While a soldier, I learned first-hand the benefits of Leather Personnel Carriers (LPCs) as a mode of transport.  Facing a 35 mile walk home, maintaining a pair of broken-in, comfortable and durable boots is vital.   Buying a pair of great hiking boots or shoes, and placing them in your car for emergencies might lead to debilitating blistering, rubbing, or aching – hindering the trek.     

Sure to be in a hurry to reach my family, I cannot forget to stretch my muscles before, during and after such a walk.  Slow and consistent plodding will take a toll on my feet, joints, and hips.  My back and shoulders will be sore carrying my backpack, too.   Nobody has to do 35 mile walks to prepare for a 35 mile walk in the worst conditions – however having a realistic view of one’s physical abilities will help in planning for such an endeavor.    

To ease the impact on feet, walk on the unpaved shoulder areas of the roads – a tip taught to me by my Drill Sergeants during Basic Training.   Using arms to swing and help momentum is effective towards covering ground.  In training, having marching cadence either playing on MP3-player with headphones, or recited from memory can help maintain an effective pace and breathing pattern.  [JWR Adds: When things go sideways, you would of course want full situational awareness, so ear buds would be a no-no.]  

Unless I am being chased, I must stop for rest periods.  These periods can be anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes.  Word of caution – it is often easier to KEEP walking, than to START walking. As good as a rest may feel, the pain of starting again might be worse.    

Drinking water, even in cold temperatures is vital to success.  I cannot carry enough water to keep me for 35 miles; however I can work to ensure I maintain daily hydration and consume the water I carry. Ideally, one quart per hour – water cannot help if it is never consumed.  While on a march like this finding potable water is essential.  Options include groceries and gas stationed, if open – or even a friendly neighbor along the way.     

To fight one’s worst enemy – worry/distress – finding the right mindset is essential.   Embarking on a journey like this means hours and hours before reuniting.  Considering what you might find when you return home may serve as motivation to complete the walk.  When this consideration moves to worry, rushing and carelessness may lead to injury or worse.   When starting on a walk like this, making each mile, or route-marker as individual goals will prevent the hurry-ups, and might prevent hasty decisions.  Instead of ‘walking home’, I am only walking to “The freeway overpass a couple miles from here”.  The smaller goal is more achievable than the more-than-a-marathon distance awaiting me.  Focusing on the small task makes the big task achievable.     We live in a world where the worst can happen.  With the threats and capabilities of terrorists, and the fury of Mother Nature, we can no longer afford to ‘hope’ things work out.  Hope is not a viable strategy.  Through careful consideration we can take steps to mitigate the damage; with a practiced plan, we can establish alternatives to our situations – wherever circumstance – or our commute – places us. By planning ahead, we will help to ensure we make it to our loved ones during times of crisis.