In a true breakdown scenario, one of the most crucial survival advantages, if not the most, has to be mobility. Pandemics or violent gangs that overwhelm congested populations can be escaped. More fertile land — wilderness with wild edible plants, big fish in the lakes, and game in the woods — can be reached. And if you can carry your shell on your back, along with an independent source of energy, you’ve got the ultimate survival advantage.
An RV qualifies if you have at least $60,000 to toss around in this economy, but a more affordable, challenging (and fun) solution is to build your own from a used school bus. Older models can be had for a little as $1,000, in various states of health and appearance, and customized to your plan, from bare bones to quasi-luxurious.
For the past seven years I have lived off the grid in my solar bus, converted mostly by a previous owner from a 1974 Ford on its second V8 engine. He raised the roof in a Monster Garage job (necessary if you’re over 5 feet tall and plan to spend time in it), fitted the interior with insulation, pine planks and lap-and-gap on the ceiling, and installed the kitchen. (Photos and supplementary information here ). I bought it for $4500 and finished it out with shelves, bed, tables, tile floor, power system and decoration, and set up my camp on private land in a Colorado River canyon four miles from the small town of Moab, Utah. I hauled all my water in, my wastes out, harvested firewood, and endured the occasional flood and temperatures from below 0 to 100+ in what could be called a virtual bugout. Herewith, some advice from my experience, on converting a school bus and living in it:
The solar system includes three 80-watt panels mounted on tilting frames on the forward roof, connected via a charge controller to a bank of eight 6-volt Trojan (golf cart) batteries in parallel, mounted in a frame welded below the chassis. The charge controller should have the essential MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) feature that gives the batteries an extra boost in cold dim light weather, when it’s really needed. Solar panels and batteries behave inversely in cold weather — panels conduct higher voltage, while batteries lose capacity. The MPPT feature effectively regulates the system for seasonal variation. Mine is the Solar Boost 2000E made by Blue Sky products. If you install your battery bank inside, be sure to build an airtight container and vent it properly to the outside. So-called “angle iron” from hardware stores is useful for constructing frames and mounts to hold solar panels and batteries. To replenish water in the batteries, I use an extendable swivel mirror, flashlight and a turkey baster.
The kitchen has a sink, 12-volt water pump connected to a 30-gallon plastic tank under the rear bed frame, and propane oven and fridge. A 3000-watt inverter, mounted inside above the battery bank, powers most appliances: lights, TV/DVD, stereo, and power tools, including an air compressor — essential if you’re not heading anywhere near a gas station soon. Forget the small, cheap battery-clamp units: even the best ones will struggle and overheat, or take hours, to fill the six large 95-psi tires on a school bus. I got a refurbished 4-gallon compressor for a little over $100 on eBay, and it does the job without too much tedium.
Heat is provided by a small but highly efficient steel wood stove with glass door made in Canada. If you’re near an Ace Hardware, they can be had for $400 without delivery charges. Be sure to stand off and insulate from nearest wall — I have steel panels between the stove and wall, and shields on the chimney flue. On the wall next to the stove hang my wood-working tools: large and medium splitting axes and a hatchet for kindling. It’s tempting to stretch your survival budget and buy the cheapo tools, thinking “Ah, I’ll probably never really use this.” I advise against this. My first axe, made in Mexico and purchased at a hardware store, got a broken neck on the first pile I tried to split. I think it was Balsa wood. Then I spent the money for the superb Swedish Gransfors-Bruks axes with hickory handles. They’ve split many small pyramids of wood over the years. The synthetic handle axes may be more durable, but I haven’t tried them. Likewise, forget the cheap Poulan chainsaws — I could never keep the chain tensioned on mine, and eventually stripped one of the tensioning screw housings, preventing the chain from being adjusted or replaced. That could be cold comfort in a prolonged survival situation. I tossed the Poulan and got a more reliable Husqvarna. You will be processing a lot of wood if you live in a cold climate. In 7 years, I never paid a dime for firewood — there is a “transfer station” in Moab where I’ve gathered discarded lumber from construction sites for free. Lumber is dry and makes excellent kindling. And there are always sites around town where trees have been downed, or deadfall on BLM land, ready to be hauled away.
Even thoroughly insulated, a school bus is still a metal shell sitting high off the ground — not the ideal configuration for heat retention. A friend on his private land stacked hay bales around his bus and covered them with discarded J-rig skins (big pontoon rafts) —a good long-term solution if you plan to hunker down in the same spot awhile. To insulate windows, I bought several 4×8 sheets of white 1″ T-Lam packing material, which serves as passable insulation, and cut them up into panels to fit in the all the window frames (they should fit snugly).
In the very severe winter last year (2009–2010), my outdoor thermometer registered temperatures below 0 on several mornings. You discover that Canola oil stays liquid, but olive oil gels up solid. Your water tank, pipes, and 6-gallon jugs (filled at a nearby well) are going to freeze inevitably, and you cannot extract the ice from narrow-mouth containers. The best solution is to use large-mouth containers, like aluminum buckets, so the ice can be easily chipped out and melted on the stove. An aluminum garbage can would work (it can also be used as a Faraday cage to protect electronics in the event of a large solar storm). And you are not going to be able to keep the interior a warm and cozy 75 degrees unless you have an entire forest of wood stacked and cured. I could raise the interior temperature to around 50 degrees after a couple of hours of stoking the wood stove — comfortable enough with good warm clothes. A good pair of loosely fitting wool pants is essential — the Swedish army surplus wool pants are excellent values at $20 – $30. And you’re going to be miserable in damp cotton socks — get wool, several pairs. I also invested in a used bomber jacket that winter. It’s harder to rip, and if it does, you’re not going to be chasing your Polyfil or goose down insulation like tufts of weed pollen drifting in the wind. Moreover, unlike most synthetics, wool and shearling leather do not burn like torches, as British sailors discovered during the Falklands war.
Summers can be harsh — July temperatures in Moab are consistently over 100 degrees, and my small portable swamp cooler only worked if I squatted directly in front of it. A larger unit, or air conditioner, is probably going to draw too much power from a small solar system. I spent most of those days in my air-conditioned office downtown, but when I did hang around on the weekends I took frequent dips in the nearby river or used a “redneck” air conditioner — a mister bottle spraying water on my naked face and torso. The propane refrigerator really struggles in such heat. Whereas a 10-gallon tank would last nearly 4 months in cooler months, in summer it was being sucked dry after one month, as there was only a passive vent to the outside. I mounted a $20 electronics fan from Radio Shack (about 5″ square) over the exterior vent hole to aid exhaust, and fashioned a half-circle cowling from a chimney pipe to shield it from rain, along with plastic window screening to keep out debris and wasps. Wired to the DC circuit, the fan runs continuously in summer and, surprisingly for a unit designed for indoor use, it has lasted several years, at least doubling the endurance of my propane tank in hot months.
Many bus converters build permanent fixtures in their buses — sofa frames, cabinets, tables, etc. This is fine for the typical RV camping, but I recommend not overdoing it for bugout purposes. Removable furniture is more flexible, and my tables fold down against the wall, allowing plenty of free space in the “living room” — you might need that space for transporting a lot of provisions, sleeping additional people, or as a makeshift hospital. With the living room cleared, my bus can sleep 5: two in the rear bed, and three on floor sleeping pads. The large, 4″ thick inflatable pads sold by Cabela’s are very comfy.
If you’re going to be parked in the outback for any duration, a small solar panel trickle charger for the engine battery, had for around $30, is advisable. My engine battery was dying prematurely because I rarely drove the bus. Now the engine starts at a moment’s notice. (Solar chargers for small batteries, solar flashlights and night lights are also a good investment.) How much gas to store in your tank? That’s a tricky question, depending on how often and how far you plan on driving the bus, and the perceived imminence of a bugout situation. Gasoline degrades with time and can gum up your carburetor and fuel lines. The preservative Sta-Bil should be added to any stored volume of gas. I kept my tank filled low, ran the engine for about 45 minutes every two months to keep things lubricated and burn up the old gas, while adding fresh gas and Sta-Bil periodically.
Some may be wondering about those other essentials: hot water, showers, and waste disposal. I once considered installing a gas-powered on-demand (tankless) hot water heater under the sink, but found that simply filling a big pot and heating it on the propane stove, or wood stove in winter, worked satisfactorily for washing dishes or filling my solar shower bag when the sun wasn’t cooperating. I take a solar shower with barely one gallon of water, and don’t leave the faucet running while rinsing dishes.
For waste, I use the same device I take on rafting trips: a “groover” — large ammo can fitted with a plastic lining and toilet seat, then sealed and flushed with a water hose at an RV dump once every few months. They can be purchased from most river running outfitters.
The bus is stocked with: dozens of large canning jars filled with grains, beans and hummus and tabouli mix (my large poly buckets are kept at an in-town storage shed); a Grundig AM/FM/Shortwave radio fed by a longwire antenna tethered to trees; Sirius satellite radio; grain grinder; a fishing rod and long guns hanging from the ceiling. I experimented with many firearms before finally deciding on the essential arsenal, heavyweight and lightweight. The heavies are a 12 ga. Mossberg pump with 20″ barrel (there is no ballistic advantage to longer barrels in shotguns), fitted with a red-dot scope and flashlight (in post-TEOTWAWKI  times, geese could be stalked at night along river banks), and a .357 Magnum revolver. The lightweights (for bike or foot travel) are a Marlin Papoose takedown .22 semi-auto rifle (3.25 lbs) and a NAA Mini-Master .22LR/.22 magnum revolver with 4″ barrel (10.5 oz). I prefer the rock-solid reliability of a revolver over the trendy semi-auto fetish. And I consider a shotgun to be the one absolutely indispensable weapon; the big deer-rifle game are going to be spooked or quickly exterminated by more experienced hunters in a serious survival scenario (especially here in the sparse high desert), whereas the 12 ga. can take any small game, on foot or wing. And larger game can be taken with slugs. For self-defense against human predators, there is no equal: The Russian Saiga AK-47 action shotguns would be excellent.
Mule deer, raccoon and wild turkey were frequent visitors at my camp, and many times I could easily have taken one (illegally) at 20 yards with the .357 or shotgun. Two other essential but less sexy pieces of food-gathering gear: a book on edible wild plants native to your region — it must be well-illustrated in color, otherwise it’s worse than useless (you could end up like Christopher McCandless ); mine is entitled Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West — and a multi-hook catfish line. On rafting trips, I have never failed to pull in a couple of cats in the morning after placing the line in eddies below a rapid overnight. And nobody that bugs out should be without the one mandatory book: the profusely illustrated and comprehensive Camping & Wilderness Survival .
For disinfecting the air, a small electric essential oils nebulizer ($25) does the trick with cassia bark (cinnamon) oil, or the “4-Robbers” blend. Antibiotic-resistant pathogens are on the rise, and it’s been said that cinnamon factory workers in New York survived the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic unscathed. I also stock turmeric — an amazing spice with antibiotic properties that has reputedly killed leukemia cells and stimulates neurogenesis (growth of new brain neurons). You’re going to need rewired wits in a protracted survival situation.
Mice will find their way into a bus no matter what you do; I was disposing of at least one per day in my electronic traps until a house cat cured that problem. I’ve also come home to find a raccoon and a skunk camping indoors; pepper spray and an Airsoft gun are great to repel critters that you don’t want to kill.
PAINT YOUR WAGON
Other bus-dwellers I know have added roof decks, rear platforms for hauling motor or pedal bikes, and in one case an ingenious swivel mount for a wind generator — the pole could be lowered flat on the roof for travel, or swiveled up to stand in a base on the hood in front of windshield. (Though the noisy vibration drove his girlfriend crazy).
One caveat: there is a definite stigma about school buses as homemade RVs, probably deriving from the “hippy bus” of 1960s fame. Many RV parks don’t allow them (to h*ll with those cramped refugee camps — you don’t need hook-ups with your solar system. Find BLM land), and many insurance companies will not insure them, worried about the risk of something that is not 100% prefabricated in Detroit. Many are rather unsightly, smacking of gypsy camps and the Third World. (Please, paint your buses well!)
But if comes to TEOTWAWKI, God forbid, all those petty rules and pretensions will quickly fall away. My Solar Bus has a bomber frame (to protect a cargo of children) and the big tires and high clearance will take you off road where the luxury RVs fear to tread (the rear skirt was beveled back to help [improve the departure angle]). You can also actually move around under the spacious hood and work on those “primitive” engines. And with a roof deck, a bus can transport literally tons of supplies. I suspect that many urban dwellers, bugging out in their trucks or tents, will quickly tire of the situation and be tempted to risk returning to the conveniences and dangers of the city. But with a solar bus, you have all the amenities of a real home, albeit more arduously maintained. You can cook with a roof over your head and watch movies in a warm cabin. For bugging out, it certainly beats a tent or mini-van. If, or when, the elephant dung hits the rotor blades, I expect many who sneered at “bus bums” may be making generous offers for my mobile base camp — the ultimate survival rig.