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Top 10 Tips for Surviving a Disaster in Your Vehicle

(updated May 12th, 2009)

You are your own best friend when it comes to surviving a disaster. Especially during those first few hours or days. But even dedicated survivalists who stock their homes with 100 gallons of water, enough MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat) for the 82nd Airborne and 500 rounds of ammo have long periods when they are completely vulnerable: when they're in their cars.

In your car, is there even a flashlight? A survival blanket? A first-aid kit? Water or a way to collect and purify it? Answer "no" to any of those and you join the vast majority of motorists who are totally unprepared for even basic trouble. Here, we'll offer a few tips that may elevate you from helpless victim to thankful survivor.

  1. Help

    1. Know that help is not on the way:

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The first step is to accept that you can depend on no one but yourself. In a real disaster — an earthquake, terrorist attack, tsunami or blizzard — help will not be on the way. Don't believe it? Dial 911 and say that there's a big, scary-looking dude pounding on your back door. Then call Domino's, and order a large pepperoni. Where I live, the pizza will be cold when, and if, the cops arrive. Now imagine a disaster where 10,000 people — or 100,000 — are calling for help. If you still think your cell phone will bring help in a timely manner, tattoo your Social Security number on your arm so your body can be identified later.

  • 2. Don't be your own worst enemy:

  • While fleeing Hurricane Rita, hundreds became stranded because they began their evacuation with near empty fuel tanks. With a full load of gas, a car will idle for an incredibly long time (don't ask how I know), so these people turned an urgent situation into a potential disaster. If your ride constantly breaks down, your gas gauge regularly hovers around "E," or you defer basic maintenance (such as replacing timing and fan belts, radiator and heater hoses, and rubber fuel lines), it's time to reallocate your priorities. Need we say "Wear your seatbelt"? Don't begin a survival experience with a spurting artery.

  • Prepare appropriately

    3. Prepare appropriately:

  • The less hospitable the environment, the more preparation is required. Comparing the surface of the moon to Michigan's Upper Peninsula in February or Arizona's Sonoran desert in August creates distinctions without differences. But don't think you're off the hook because you live in a Sun Belt city: Even there you can die of exposure if forced to spend a cold March night (or a couple of nights!) in a car.

  • Keep warm and dry

    4. Keep warm and dry:

  • Along with injury and dehydration, exposure to the cold is a major threat. Those who spend little time outdoors will discover that even when the days are warm, it gets very chilly at 4 a.m. An aluminum-coated Mylar (a.k.a. Space-brand) blanket costs $3, is about the size of cell phone, and will help retain body heat in cool weather and reflect sunlight in hot weather. In chilly climes, step up to the slightly bulkier Mylar emergency sleeping bag. Chemical hand- and body-warmers — often used by skiers — make brutal conditions tolerable. Also include a plastic pocket poncho.

    Your car can act as a shelter to protect you from the elements unless a vehicle wreck breaks your window. Mend that with a roll of duct tape and super-thick (3mm) "contractor" trash bags. (Duct tape and trash bags have myriad other uses.)

  • Water is critical

    5. Water is critical:

  • Without water, death can come within a few days, perhaps in a few hours in very hot weather. But water is heavy and bulky: One gallon — the subsistence level for two people for one day — weighs about 8 pounds. When driving in arid areas, carry water in robust containers: Grocery-store gallon jugs will break and ruin the rest of your kit. Several companies — Mainstay, Retort, Mayday — produce Coast Guard-approved emergency water in kid's juicebox-style pouches. For most of the U.S., it's OK to rely on ground water (or snow). But unless you pack your own water, you must have two lightweight containers (one for collecting water, the other for filtering the water into), a filter (cone-shaped coffee filter works), iodine water treatment crystals and, for snow, a heat source. Thusly equipped, you can make stream water safe in a half hour.

  • 6. Light the darkness:

  • Emergencies and darkness seem to go together. A flashlight is a critical element of a survival kit, but one of the new xenon-bulbed, lithium-batteried units (one brand is Surefire) produce such a powerful beam that it can double as a self-defense device: A blinded bad guy is not quite so bad. Also pack a conventional flashlight and spare batteries. Keep the batteries alive by leaving them in the original packaging or by installing them backward in the flashlight and taping over the terminals. Another solution is to pack a powerful DC-powered work light, which connects to your car's battery through the 12-volt outlet.

    Your kit should include some old-fashioned road flares, which can help prevent other motorists from striking your stranded vehicle and can double as excellent fire starters and signaling devices. In an area with no electricity, the flame from even a small candle can be seen from an incredible distance. Store candles and a book of waterproof matches in a tightly sealing plastic bag. Get a cigarette lighter, available at auto parts stores, as an alternate fire starter. Also consider a compact, lightweight magnesium fire starter, available at camping stores for about $6.

  • 7. Be able to play doctor:

  • It's a toss-up as to which is more difficult, fixing a modern car or treating an injured person. But in an emergency, you might be forced to play doctor. The best bet is to start with an off-the-shelf first-aid kit. In addition to standard items found in such kits, add a tube of Super Glue (for closing small wounds), latex surgical gloves, a topical antibiotic (like Neosporin), aspirin or other pain reliever, and an anti-diarrhea medication (such as Imodium tablets). Include critical personal medication and, if you're sensitive to bee stings or ant bites, an antihistamine such as Benadryl.

  • 8. Fill your belly:

  • In an emergency, many learn the difference between "hungry" and "starving." Without food, most folks will survive for a couple of weeks: Consider it the "disaster diet." But you'll be more comfortable if you pack a couple of military-style MREs (available from camping or survival stores) or cans of Spam (Hormel says it lasts "indefinitely" and it's unattractive to pilferers). One way to tell you're truly hungry: You're eating Spam.

  • 9. Carry some extras:

  • Roadside car repair is beyond the scope of this article, but a few tools will help in an emergency. Pack a container of radiator stop-leak and a can of tire inflator/sealant (two or three if you live in earthquake country, where lots of broken glass ends up on the street). Creative types will want to include a multipurpose tool (such as a Leatherman), a multiheaded screwdriver, a razor-blade-style box cutter, and a few cable ties. Duct tape can be used for anything from repairing a punctured radiator hose to securing bandages. Also include a pair of thick leather work gloves, a small fire extinguisher, an old pair of running shoes and toilet paper. Include some cash (in fives and tens) and a couple of dollars in quarters. Carrying your survival kit in a backpack will help you transport your supplies should you be forced to leave your vehicle.

  • 10. Defend yourself:

  • If TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina didn't convince you that a form of self-defense is a critical part of an emergency kit, you weren't paying attention. Except when thrown by a major league pitcher, a cell phone is not a self-defense device. Self-defense choices range from pepper spray to a police-style baton to a firearm. Whatever you choose, it's your responsibility to research how to legally transport and employ it. Even more critical: You must train and become proficient in its use. For most, a large "for use on bears" pepper spray is probably the best choice. There are certainly more aggressive forms of self-defense, but you'll have to check your state and local laws before incorporating anything involving high-speed projectiles. Also know that your car comes with a last-ditch self-defense device: a lug wrench.

    In addition to everything mentioned above, your car already comes with some survival equipment: The radio supplies emergency information; the rearview mirror can be removed and used as a signaling device. Headliner material can even be fashioned into tourniquets or bandages. When disaster strikes, take a good look around you, and think like MacGyver.

    Also see our related article and video: How to Create Your Own Roadside Emergency Kit