Vehicle Preparation – Part 1, by Traveling Mechanic

Like what seems to be most of SurvivalBlog readers, I am stuck near a city by the need to work. I have an exit plan (a.k.a. Bug-Out plan) that we are following. I decided to share some aspects of our actions. If you do the suggested vehicle maintenance and repair work then this will assist you to avoid being broken down along the road during your Bug Out exit. These checks and corrections will also benefit by eliminating typical defects that arise in normal use.

The beginning part of each check is an inspection of your Bug-Out Vehicle (BOV). I will guide you on what to examine. You then have the options:

1. Do any corrective work yourself for lowest cost and probably higher quality, or

2. Have the work done by someone else.

If you aren’t sure that you have correctly identified a potential concern then please have someone that you trust review your discovery. Right now–in relatively “normal” times–you have the option to repair immediately or plan to take action soon. But if you wait until much “later” then the time or parts may not be available.

The Vehicle Interior:

Begin by cleaning all glass surfaces. This enables you/all to see further. The improvement in vision after looking through dust or other junk may seem to be major. I typically do this cleaning every six months. I am always amazed at the vision improvement. The clean vision may give you enough extra reaction time to avoid problems.

Adjust all mirrors for comfortable vision of what is behind you. Did you clean the mirror surface? Please do so now.

The Exterior

Let’s move to the vehicle exterior from front to back:

First, clean all parts of all headlight glass. Please replace any damaged lens ASAP if the glass has been chipped. While on level ground, point the front of the vehicle toward a vertical wall, after dark. Turn the headlights on. Visually check that both the high and low beam filaments in all bulbs are working. Are both of the high beams orientated correctly both left/right and up/down?

Reminder: When you load the rear of a vehicle it tends to squat down. This rear squat causes the light from the headlights to be directed higher. Oncoming traffic sees this light as aimed toward their eyes. The easy and inexpensive solution is to use low beams if oncoming traffic is near.

Next, clean all parking light lenses. I suggest, where possible, that you remove and clean the inside surface of each lens.

I’ve found that a flexible paint brush and water works well to help remove dust. Do not try to clean the glass surface of the bulb if it is either on or warm to the touch. The cold water may cause the glass of the bulb to shatter. The interior of the bulb glass may have what appears to be a black or dark layer. This dark layer is material which was vaporized from the bulb filament. This gas vapor then condensed and stuck to the cool glass. This dark layer is partially blocking light. Solution: Replace the bulb. The benefit, to you and others, is that traffic can see your lights from further away. This earlier warning gives all extra time to react and avoid an accident.

Note: The small bulbs are low cost. I recommend that you carry a spare of each size on your vehicle.

If you are towing another vehicle or trailer, then repeat the clean, inspect, or replace any / all weak or defective bulbs.

Have you ever followed someone who is towing something? Did their lights on the trailer flash randomly in bright / dim cycles? This light change is almost always caused by a poor ground path between the vehicles. An inexpensive test: At night connect a battery jumper cable between the tow vehicle battery ground terminal and the frame of the towed vehicle. If the lights on the trailer brighten then a poor ground path has been found. The solution is to connect a 10-gauge wire between the tow vehicle battery ground and the trailer frame. I recommend using large Anderson Power Pole-style connectors as a connect/disconnect method between vehicles. I routed my ground wire inside the frame. This protects the wire from being snagged by brush or “helpful” people.

A Crucial Check of Your Tires

Check the tread depth on all tires including the spare tire. It is well known that 90 % of all tire failures occur in the last 1/8 inch of tread. A tread depth gauge [ Slime No. 20177 at $3.99 ] is available from both AutoZone and Advance Auto Parts. You can also get this gauge from for less than 3 dollars.

I suggest you purchase and carry a tire pressure gauge. You should inflate all tires to their maximum rated pressure if carrying a “bug out” or other heavy load. By the way –What’s the tire pressure and tread depth of the spare tire(s)?

I highly recommend that you purchase a wheel lug nut wrench. This tool may be also known as an “X” or star
wrench. Place a wrap of tape of the side of the wrench that fits the size of the lug nuts on your vehicle. This will eliminate the usual question of: “What side of this thing do I need to use? Another suggestion would be to paint only one arm of the wrench a bright color.”

Another suggestion, before we move on, is to carry a 2″ thick piece of wood that is square or rectangular and about one-foot size. This wood gives your jack a firm base if the ground where you need to replace a tire is either soft or muddy. My experience is that flat tires always seem to occur in the worst possible location. Clean the wood after use or leave it? Your call. I will simply leave it and replace it later.

My final suggestion for this section is to carry a 2-to-3 foot length of Schedule 40 or Schedule 80 steel pipe. This pipe should fit over a wrench arm. This extension “cheater bar” can give extra leverage to loosen the lug nuts.

Note: The star lug wrench and pipe extension can allow a member of the “weaker sex” to remove any lug nuts that were put on by ‘Godzilla”.

Under-Hood Checks:

I recommend that you begin by treating each vehicle to a under-hood cleaning at your local car wash. This cleaning will make it easier to find and trace any leak back to the problem area. And by removing the old oil/grease there is less combustible material to burn in the event of a fire.

Check all belts on the motor for major tears. If the belt has multiple groves minor tears are typically found in the small partitions. However, if the base of the belt is torn more than 1/16 inch in depth the belt should be replaced immediately. I carry a full set of replacement belts. This would eliminate both a towing charge and wasted downtime.

I recommend an oil change before doing your bug-out run. The oil, air, and fuel filters should also be changed. You should also check the fluid levels in the power steering, transmission and brakes. Did you catch the suggestion to replace the fuel filter? These fuel filters tend to be forgotten until they plug up and stop flowing fuel. Any water stopped inside the filter can freeze during cold weather. All fuel flow is then stopped. The result is an expensive tow, lost time and high list replacement cost. A major event may cause lots of people to travel and need fuel. The gas stations may be selling the fuel from the bottom of their storage tanks if their fuel delivery is delayed. I don’t want to coast to a stop in my BOV with a motor that can’t run. Do you?

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)


  1. In the event of EMP, older vehicles might only need a spare ignition module. As my old truck is old, carried in a box in the back is a spare fuel pump, distributor, upper and lower radiator hoses, belts, Bar’s Leak for radiator leaks, brake fluid, brake master cylinder, full set of spark plug wires, and electric fuel pump for fuel transfers, and whatever you got and can fit in the box. I would also carry a 12vdc air pump, and a professional grade tire plugging kit. And naturally, tools.

    In the past week, the truck was serviced from the ground up, a new inexpensive Chevy ignition module and coil was converted to fit the Toyota, the fuel pump replaced, and the carburetor rebuilt. Today it will get new front brakes, and tomorrow the front axles will get new seals. Yesterday, a 30 gallon gas tank was installed. With the original 17.6 gallon tank still in place the 4WD truck has a range of about 900 miles. I’ll be bugging in, but if I have to bug out to somewhere else, it will do it. The parts bill to fix up that old truck was less than $300.00. If the work had been performed at a garage, the bill would have been in excess of $3,000.00. The old and ugly truck ain’t worth all that, but it is the one I got, and it is priceless, because it is simple enough I can do the work.

      1. SOG,
        To improvise using a plastic 55 gallon drum, drill the bungs so the gas line fits tightly, and use a hose clamp on the inside of the bung to secure the line, so they cannot be pulled out. Two lines will be needed. The line that returns excess, or unused fuel from the fuel pump, and the line that feeds the fuel pump. I’ve rigged this up in less than an hour once. It was mounted in the bed. Once a siphon is started, it can gravity feed a carburetor directly, or feed a weak and failing fuel pump.

  2. Never buy a cheap Chinese star wrench just to say you have one. Buy nice or buy twice. I’ve seen cheater bars bend the cheap ones. If this is truly bug out you may want to consider a battery powered impact tool. Dewalt, Milwaukee, are two that work very well.

    1. Star wrenches for the removal and installation of tires, come in large and smaller sizes. Get a quality large star wrench, and put it too the test. Large star wrenches, with the correct technique, can remove lug nuts with more force than even a air powered impact gun. With the use of what the author recommends is a “cheater bar”, or without one, a properly motivated operator can remove lug nuts that where incorrectly installed and with the full force of air power impact gun that were ‘stripped on’, or cross threaded. Sadly cross threading lug nuts onto wheel studs, does occur when the guys in the tire shop are in a hurry, and they often are. Often, with power tools, this goes undetected, or overlooked, because the force of the impact gun is overwhelming. The operator should easily notice this, but often it is ignored.

      In the event that one cannot remove the lug nut, for what ever reason given a reasonable effort, I would then attempt to over tighten it, and attempt to intentionally break off the threaded stud in an emergency, so that the spare can be installed with the remaining lugs. I know that I can intentionally break studs off with a large star wrench, if I can not remove the lug. This is usually necessary when the nut is cross threaded, *and* rust has bonded it to the stud. There is in my experience, no substitute for a good and heavy duty star wrench, a 200 pound guerrilla on one end, and the proper technique. Even the best impact gun can not apply as much force.

  3. Thanks for the tips. Spare tires here in the desert tend to lose air slowly and can be completely flat by the time you need them, check often. We carry small air compressors in each vehicle that run off the car’s battery via positive/negative clips. I recommend an aftermarket bottle jack for changing flats; I’ve had issues with the factory jack not giving the clearance needed especially on uneven terrain. If your vehicle has locking/keyed lug nuts make sure you have the lug key in the vehicle and a spare at home.

  4. I love my battery powered impact. I have an old electric impact that I store in my BOV and use an inverter. That way I can store the impact wrench without having to remember to keep the battery charged. Also does anyone have suggestions on storing tires and belts long-term.

  5. Spare tires seem to be the item that is ignored or overlooked by so many. Part of that is they may be under a neat hidden panel inside the interior in back, so in addition to out of sight, out of mind, you need to unload everything to get to them. Then there are the spares under the body and subject to grime and corrosion on an ongoing basis. They can be impossible to pull out without a cutting torch. Point being, make sure you can actually get to a spare without unloading or needing specialty mechanical assistance. Guaranteed, at most inconvenient time you will need to get to them.

  6. I discovered that you can clean the exterior car light plastic covers using toothpaste. LOL. The lights on my old truck had become dim, replaced the lights, and still dim, so it was obviously 15+ years of grime or sun damage to the covers. Not sure. But, the toothpaste (not the gel type) did the trick and they looked brand new, clean, and clear. I bet a paste of baking soda, salt, and water would do the same thing.

    1. They make kits specifically to “brighten” dim auto lights. It consists of very fine sanding disks and a final compound treatment. The factory lenses have a coating that eventually turns yellow. The kit removes the coating. They say once you remove the yellowed coating the lenses will turn yellow again more quickly. I never thought of trying tooth paste. That’s a great idea. Basically tooth paste is acting like a fine rubbing compound.

    2. The old glass headlights can be effectively cleaned with almost any kind of fine polishing compound.
      The newer style with the bulb behind a plastic lens is a little more involved. The plastic has a special coating on it to prevent UV degradation which breaks down over time. Even if you sand/polish this off when it turns hazy, it will return quickly without a replacement UV protection layer.
      I found a YouTube video where a guy helpfully tested about 9 different brands of headlight lens restoration kits. I tried the one that he found worked best (by a pretty fair margin) and it did an excellent job. My lenses look brand new and have stayed that way. It’s made by Sylvania and costs $20 at most auto parts chains. Don’t be fooled by the $10 kit out on the display, it’s not the right one.

  7. all excellent comments by author and readers. As I seldom used the spare on my 99 F350 (once the Firestone OEM Steel Tex radials were tossed with 50% tread left) so the spare gracefully aged. I occasionally thought of replacing it because old tires are deadly. Last year I bought new Michelin 10 ply LTX tires…I’ve had 13 sets of these- and rotated a good 2 year old take-off to the spare rim. It’s good to have a a newer spare so you can change a flat and resume full speed operations.
    Tunnel Rabit has a viable list of spare items to carry in a truck. And, the 12 volt tire pump is critical. That flat spare? No PROBLEM! Just air it up on site. Some tire Slime additive can’t hurt in the spare parts box.
    EMP. The Soviet tests over Kazakstan revealed that EMP could damage vehicles made in the 1930s. Believe it or not, modern cars made after 1992 have shown amazing resistance on simulators. None of the vehicles exposed to 50kv/m2 failed if they were not running at the time of insult. Many continued to run after exposure while running. Chrysler products…not so much. But even the Chrysler products that failed while running could be rebooted by disconnecting battery cables for a few minutes and re-connected and restarted up several times before they gave up the ghost.
    A mechanic explained to me why the Ford 7.3L diesels were more likely to continue to function after insult. The architecture of the fuel system was simpler and less fragile to transient spikes of RF. The new diesels, say after 2004, may be disappointing. We don’t really get to know until someone pulls off such an attack. Consider, if your rig is down post-attack, that car lot down the street full of vehicles that were not running when many things failed. They’ll likely run…at least until a follow-on strike. Negotiate for a new rig….none of us are thieves. Five hundred pounds of rice, beans would seem a fair trade under the circumstances for a new truck. Make it a thousand pounds for two!
    Did I mention that Ford Motor Company has their own simulator?
    The big problem will be FUEL, so far as transportation goes. Fuel for you, too.
    The next installment is eagerly awaited.

  8. Good article! One of the more satisfying things I’ve done in life is to buy good tools and learn to maintain and fix cars. There are detailed Youtube videos on almost every make and model of vehicle. In fact, before buying a used vehicle I check to see how many videos there are for repairing the engine type among other repair and maintenance tips. For example, there are tons of videos on repairing the Ford F150 4.6L/5.4L Triton engines, but not many on the 4.2L V6. I agree with the above comments on the battery power impact wrench. Harbor Freight has a very good selection and my Dewalt has worked on almost any nut and bolt I’ve tackled with it. Just don’t leave the batteries stored in the heat for weeks on end.

  9. And, when changin’ the tire, please don’t be like the guy I saw a few years ago. Right along on the side of the highway, layin’ under the truck and lowerin’ the spare after already jackin’ up the vehicle and removin’ the flat. Every big rig passin’ by was makin’ that raised truck shake.

  10. Instead of the x wrench for removing tires we invested in a long handled “breaker bar” and a set of deep well sockets with different length extensions. U must take care at the joint when removing lug nuts but this works well for us.
    We maintain about 100 tires on our farm and haul things like haywagons over rural roads. We think nothing of throwing spare tires, jacks, and extra blocking in the truck for the season.

  11. A story about lug nuts:

    A guy was driving at dusk along a the road when he hears a ‘pop’ and his car handling goes soft. After pulling over he gets out and sure enough see his right rear tire has gone flat.

    He gets out his star wrench and jack, and gets the tire off the ground. After removing the he spins each lug nut off quickly and drops them one by one into the cap on the ground near him.

    The wheel comes off easily and he matches the spare to the bolts on the axle. Right about that time he loses his balance and knocks the hubcap with the lug nuts into to ditch, hopelessly losing them in the tall grass.

    He looks around for help and notices a large old building off in the middle of the field to his right, and realizes it’s the county home.

    A voice breaks the silence, startling him, saying ‘you know, all you need to do is take one lug nut from each of the other three wheels and use them on the spare until you can get where you are going’.

    Amazed, he realizes the voice belongs to a guy standing in the field on the ‘inside’ of the fence, a resident of the county home.

    ‘How did you know that if you’re inside the insane asylum?’ asks the bewildered driver.

    The man replied ‘Well, I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid’.

    He who has ears, let him hear.


  12. Never let your vehicles gas tank get under half full. When the time comes to bug out, are you guaranteed gas stations will be usable? For some of you it might mean more trips to the gas station, but take that time to walk around your vehicle and look things over.

  13. In the south we call those 4-way wrenches. That’s how they are labeled in auto stores. Until this article I never knew there was other slang words for them. Learn something new everyday :).

  14. Mechanic – great article. I highly recommend a test “fit” of the gear you expect to carry in your bug out vehicle. Expect to pack, unload and repack a few times.

    Great article, thank you so much

  15. A very timely article for me. I just finished replacing all my lug nuts on my 2015 Ford Escape. After 5 years of letting the dealership and quickly lube places rotate my tires, I needed to rotate the tires myself to inspect the tread wear. It turns out I could not get the lug nuts off with my star wrench or the OEM lug wrench. Ford, and other manufacturers, decided at one point to build “two piece” lug nuts, also called “capped” lug nuts. This type of lug nut has a steel core, with an aluminum cap over the end of the nut including the hex bolt surfaces. The aluminum cap gets beat up by the airguns used by mechanics to the point that lug wrenches will not fit on the nut. There was a class action lawsuit to get these recalled, which lost in court. The only way I could get the lug nuts off was to aggressively hammer a socket onto the lugnuts, not tools I normally carry to change a flat. I also needed a puller to get the lugnuts out of the socket once off the wheel. I basically had to destroy the lug nuts to get them off. Tow truck drivers do not routinely carry these tools either to help you remove these faulty lug nuts. You would have to be towed. Note that star wrenches have a different size socket on each end. Jumping up one size on the star wrench did not help, the wrench just slipped on the lugnuts, adding more damage and making a bad day worse.

    I carried a lug wrench star for many years, but have now switched over to an expandable socket wrench/breaker bar (16in to 24inch) for easier storage in the vehicle and greater leverage. And I have all one-piece lug nuts now. Now I need to inspect the rest of our vehicles…

  16. “I recommend that you begin by treating each vehicle to a under-hood cleaning at your local car wash.”

    No, do not use the high-pressure hoses at your local car wash under hood. Any vehicle made since the late 80s will have some form of electronics under the hood and high pressure water can easily cause them to malfunction. There are many streaming videos out there that show the proper way to clean under the hood and they all involve degreaser, a variety of brushes, plastic to cover sensitive components, and low pressure water.

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