Preparing Your Vehicle for an Emergency
Chances are, if you are not at home when an emergency strikes, you will be in, or near, your vehicle. So, for the majority of us, our everyday car or pickup truck will need to be ready to serve us in nearly any emergency big or small, while driving to the local grocery store or taking a cross-country trip, while changing a flat tire or surviving a serious accident, blizzard, hurricane, tornado or whatever else in the middle of nowhere.
- Avoid letting your fuel tank level drop below 1/2. Plan to refuel when your fuel guage hits 1/2 empty.
- Subscribe to a roadside service plan. Frequently your auto insurance will have a cheaper alternative to the "big" roadside service plans.
- If you get stranded, don’t wander away from your car unless you’re completely sure about where you are and how far away help is. Light two flares and situate them at each end of your vehicle to call attention to your plight. In cold weather, put on the extra clothes and use the blanket to stay warm. If you have enough gas in the tank, run the engine and heater for about 10 minutes for each hour you’re waiting for help. Leave at least one window open a little bit so that snow and ice don’t seal the car shut.
- To be recognized as needing help, roll down the window on the driver’s side, hang out a white cloth or piece of paper, and roll the window back up to secure it in place: The cloth or paper alerts drivers that your vehicle is in trouble and that they should proceed around you or call for help.
- To avoid being hit by a passing vehicle, never work on your vehicle from the side that’s exposed to traffic. If you can, drive farther off the road to a safe, well-traveled place, and try to reach into the trouble area from the front or the side that’s away from traffic.
- Keep your vehicle in good running condition and supply it with items that can help in an emergency (see below).
- Share these preparations and tips with all the drivers in your household; any one of them could end up with you as a passenger in their car when something happens.
Keep your vehicle in good condition:
- Get a Tune-Up - Check spark plugs and spark plug wires, distributor or ignition module terminal, inspect the rotor button and contacts within the distributor cap for burning and wear, and replace the cap as needed, replace air-filter, clean fuel filter/injector and intake component, inspect PCV valve, scan and test electrical sensors that supply the PCM. Depending on the year of your vehicle, some of these may not apply. If unsure, have your mechanic do your tune-up.
- Battery - Make sure the connections are corrosion-free and that the battery has enough water. Keeping the casing of your battery clean can also prevent power drain - use a damp rag to keep it squeaky clean. If it's 3 or more years old, consider buying a new one. To keep a battery charged consider these options:
- Keeping a rarely driven battery charged - Connect a Battery Tender. A Battery Tender/Maintainer (a small, inexpensive one should work) desulfates the battery to help prevent permanent damage from battery sulfating. Leaving a regular battery charger connected all of the time will ruin the battery by overcharging. The difference between a battery charger and a battery tender is that the charger will keep applying current to the battery all the time while the battery tender applies a very small current and is designed to shut itself on and off depending on battery voltage. If the car is not to be used for 3-4 weeks, disconnect the negative battery terminal, to avoid discharge.
- A Battery Insulation blanket is a plastic sheet that will keep the battery warm in the winter and cool in the summer, greatly extending its life. If you're buying a new battery, think about going for a smaller size so you can fit the blanket around it - it will likely last longer than a larger battery with nothing protecting it.
- If you find yourself with a dead battery and no choice but to jump it, it's still possible to reduce some of the stress the process puts on the battery. The warmer it is, the better. Put the car in neutral and push it into the sunlight, then leave it for an hour or so. The increased temperature will make the jump start go much more smoothly.
- It's easy to forget about the battery health until it dies. Setup a regular automated electronic calendar reminder for battery testing/maintenance/replacement.
- Oil - Change your oil and filter on a regular schedule. Use an oil with the right thickness for the time of year. For example, if you run a 10W-30 in the summer, try moving to a 5W-30 when changing your oil in the fall or winter. If you are in doubt, refer to your manual or the manufacturer.
- Engine Coolant/Antifreeze - Use the appropriate coolant and Water/Coolant Ration to help protect your engine depending on the season. Your owner's manual or repair technician can explain what your engine needs.
- Windshield fluid and wipers - Keep your fluid topped off with one appropriate to the season (plain water is not recommended). Wipers should be replaced if they are over a year old or if they don't clear your windshield evenly without streaks or gaps in moving water from your windshield.
- Belts and Hoses - When they break, things stop working. Check to make sure they are tight and without leaks or excessive wear. When in doubt, have your car repair technician check them and replace as needed.
- Tires - Check for the correct tire pressure for your car and tires and temperature. Check tread wear and tire damage. Switch to Snow tires or chains as needed.
- 4-Wheel Drive - If your vehicle has this feature, check the status and be sure it’s working correctly — especially because most drivers don’t use their 4WD systems under regular driving conditions or nice weather. Be sure that the system engages and disengages easily, and that all drivers in your household know how and when to activate the system.
- Brakes - Have your brakes checked and serviced if needed. Check brake fluid level.
- Lights - Check for, and replace, burned-out bulbs.
- Heater and Defrosters - Make sure the defroster keeps your windshield clear and the heater heats.
- Air conditioner - If your vehicle is equipped with an air conditioner make sure it cools properly. If it doesn't, it could be just a coolant problem but may be the symptom of a more serious problem that should be checked by a mechanic.
Items to carry in your vehicle:
to dig down for tire traction, instead of carrying heavy kitty litter. Many times you can use the shovel to dig down to dirt for traction. In deep snow (or sand), you can often dig down far enough to slip your floormats underneath both of the tires that are receiving power. Sometimes these mats provide enough traction to ease the car onto a surface with better grip.
Dog Food as last-resort - Many survivalists suggest drivers carry dog food in their cars. Sound crazy? It seems that when people get stranded in their vehicle, they tend to eat their emergency food too soon. Dog food is less palatable and so stranded motorists will wait to eat that can (or bag) of puppy chow until they really need it.
In the event of a civil unrest or environmental emergency/disaster, cell phones, telephone land lines and even satellite communications may not be available. Keeping a portable 2-way radio, and functional batteries, in your car may be your lifesaver.
Hi-Lift Tire Jack - In addition to, or instead of, the basic tire jack for your vehicle, can be used as a heavy-duty come-along winch or as a sturdy jack to lift your car so you can change a flat tire under multiple conditions.
Snow chains specific to your tire size
Fire extinguisher - look for at least a 1A10BC or 2A10BC classification.
Bedpan and urinal (in case the outside elements keep you in the vehicle) and a bottle of disinfectant or hand sanitizer in case water is not available.
Power Inverter: This is a device you can plug into your cigarette lighter and charge your laptop, cell phone, or any other electronic device as long it is a small enough wattage. Be careful what you charge. Some things will kill the battery if you charge it too long. Try to charge things while driving, or while the engine is running, when possible because it doesn’t use the battery. A 100 watts inverter means anything you charge has to, generally, generate less electricity than 100 watts. To determine what appliances you can use, or use at the same time, use this calculation (amps x volts = watts).
Prepare and keep an Emergency Bag in your vehicle. Prepared properly, this will serve many needs.
If you own a 4WD truck, spend the money and invest in an electric winch rated for the weight of your vehicle. Then purchase a full winch recovery kit so you'll have a tree-saver strap, a good-quality tow strap, a clevis, and other great equipment.
More tips on handling a stranded vehicle situation
Best Gear for a Roadside Emergency
Unfreezing Car Locks
Winter Storm Preparedness Tips
Being Prepared to Live in Your Car Successfully
SurvivorMan Stranded in his car in the snow in Norway
Top 10 Tips for Safe Car Travel With Your Pet
You’re Bug-Out Vehicle Preparing and Packing