In any prolonged survival situation involving a vehicle, the most important things to look for aren’t speed or even ground clearance — the first things you should consider are reliability and ease of repair and maintenance. After all, even the most badass of vehicles tend to lose their appeal when you can’t change a flat or find a replacement alternator when yours goes bad.
Regular maintenance will likely become even more important after a large-scale disaster, as you push your vehicle harder for longer and are forced to make compromises like using dirtier sources of fuel. A clog in a $5 fuel filter can leave a million dollar vehicle permanently planted where it is unless you have the resources and skills required to swap in a good one.
Whether we’re talking about post-apocalyptic survival or just evacuating from the scene of a local calamity, having an emergency set of tools (and coinciding know how) in your vehicle could mean the difference between having a ride and being forced to continue on foot. Some things can’t be repaired in the field, but the right tools could also help you get another vehicle you come across running (I’m not going to go into how to steal a car but suffice to say I’ve gotten barn cars started with the tools listed below before).
Aside from a regular tool kit (I recommend a half-inch drive rather than 3/8 for leverage’s sake) with a full complement of standard and metric sockets, and the rest of the usual emergency vehicle gear (jack, flashlight, tire iron, etc) here are a few tools you may not have thought of, but that deserve a place in your car’s emergency kit.
A Spool of Wire
Although most modern vehicles have complicated electrical systems governed by one or more on-board computers, you’d be surprised how much you can get accomplished simply by grounding a circuit and running a lead to the positive terminal of your battery. A failed driver’s side power window switch, for instance, can render all the windows in your car immobile (all switches run through a primary in many applications) so the only way to get your windows back UP may be to run that lead. In older model vehicles, you can circumvent a number of steps when diagnosing a fuel issue simply by running a lead from the battery directly to the fuel pump (it’s important to include in in-line switch or to remove the lead when the engine isn’t running to prevent burning out the fuel pump motor).
Understanding that most of the electronics in your vehicle operate via a simple mechanism (power on or power off) means that in an emergency, you can hack up some temporary fixes using little more than a spool of wire and some electrical tape. I also recommend carrying a test light to help you ensure current is moving properly when diagnosing electrical issues.
An Impact Driver
Even under the best of circumstances, a seized screw or bolt can make common repairs or maintenance a big problem. In an emergency, a stripped screw or bolt could be all it takes to leave you stranded — but an impact driver can turn the tides in your favor. These tools usually have a 3/8 or 1/2 inch drive at one end, and a flat striking surface on the other. Place the impact socket or screwdriver bit on one end and place it on the stuck fastener securely – then smash the hell out of the other side with a hammer or rock. The impact forces the bit onto/into the fastener as it rotates, breaking bolts and screws loose while avoiding stripping them.
For less than $15 bucks, you won’t find a more versatile or valuable tool when working on vehicles that may be a bit long in the tooth (or that just exist in the Northeast where winters wreak havoc on the vehicle’s undercarriage).
A sturdy pipe
As I mentioned above, I recommend carrying a half-inch drive socket and breaker bar in your vehicle’s tool kit — they occupy more space than a traditional 3/8 drive, but I’ve always appreciated the extra leverage I can exert via the heavier hardware. Just like with the impact driver, a good pipe can mean the difference between breaking something loose or not — sliding the pipe over the handle of a wrench can help increase the length of your lever, thus increasing the force you can exert. Be aware that using that much muscle may well break a bolt that’s seized in place, but that isn’t always a bad thing. A cross threaded lug nut could make it nearly impossible to get your wheel off when changing a flat, and while breaking a cross threaded lug stud may not be the best case scenario, your vehicle will have no trouble getting you home with the 4 remaining studs (on a 5 lug vehicle). The same principle applies to cars with only four lug studs, though spirited driving on only three lug nuts isn’t recommended — but then, how often is surviving about keeping things within the “recommended” parameters?”
The same pipe can also serve as a hammer for striking your impact driver or for leverage when trying to shift the engine within the limits of its rubber motor mounts to reach something deeper in your engine bay. Trying to swap rotors but they’re seized on? Bash it with a pipe. Car starter not working properly? Believe it or not, banging on it a few times with a pipe might do the trick as well.
Tire pressure gauge
A tire pressure gauge comes in handy any time you’re filling your tires up with air, but that’s not actually the value it provides in a survival situation. Driving on low traction surfaces like snow or mud can mean having to take your time to cover terrain, but if you find your vehicle struggling to maintain traction, letting some of the air out of your tires can actually make a big difference. If your car’s tires are rated for a maximum of 41 PSI, try dropping 10-15 pounds of air pressure from your drive tires to increase the tire’s footprint on the ground, and as a result, adding a bit of traction. This method won’t get you un-stuck (you’ll still need kitty litter or sand and a shovel for that) but it can hopefully help you avoid getting stuck in the first place.
You can fix anything with enough duct tape — but if you’re just trying to keep a car running long enough to get you out-of-town, it can really be a lifesaver. A vacuum leak on any of the lines leading into your Mass Air Flow Sensor or cylinder head could wreak havoc on your car’s performance or even kill the engine completely. Identifying the leak and sealing it with duct tape could get your vehicle moving again. The same can be said for leaking fuel lines in a pinch, though gasoline has a nasty habit of eating its way through temporary fixes of that sort. Duct tape won’t make your vehicle reliable but it might keep it running for long enough to get you to safety.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr