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Options for Survival Wheels
One major aspect of any survival plans is going to include serious considerations on your modes of travel and transport. There is no doubt, that the motor vehicle plays a major role in the day to day survival of the average American or Canadian. The big questions then become "What is the difference between the car I survive with day to day and a survival vehicle?" Ask a half dozen "experts" and you are likely to get a half dozen different answers.
I have been able to break it up a bit into some categories of survival vehicles.
The bugout vehicle is usually owned by city or suburban dwellers who would anticipate leaving their homes and jobs in a crisis situation. The idea being that they would leave dangerous urban areas and retreat to the country with a load of equipment and supplies.
A bugout vehicle must, above all else, be dependable. It has to be the type of vehicle that you could get from one side of the country to the other in with little or no maintenance. If you are in a small country, it should be able to get you well out of any area of danger. In most parts of the world, three days of driving can put you across a border do some degree of refuge. Put gas in it and go. Many advanced survivalists will have dedicated bugout vehicles that are already set up with gear and supplies to roll out on short notice. In my opinion, a bugout vehicle should be as new as possible and or in perfect repair. Under no circumstances should it be a partially finished "project" vehicle. Most survivalists will pick a 4X4 of some sort since it will, in theory, make more remote roads and trails a realistic option. A lot is going to be determined by the places you expect to be leaving or going to but I found that since most of the US is paved, I did not really "need" a 4x4 as a bugout rig. Just a car with higher than average ground clearance. A lot of survival vehicle experts are looking at a few different ideas on this. One is the small car with high fuel economy and capable of high speed and maneuverability, another very different approach is a truck rigged to run an alternative fuel like diesel or propane. Propane conversions on gasoline engines are within the realm of a do-it yourself operation, as are some of the alternate fuels that will work in a Diesel. Biodiesel and Greasel conversions allow a diesel to run on waste vegetable oil with varying degrees of filtering and preparation. While neither is particularly suitable for long term survival, they are an interesting approach to economic breakdown scenarios because the "fuel" is a waste product that can be obtained at little cost.
The ranch rig or retreat vehicles can be another story. Survival retreats tend to be in rural and remote areas and activities are such that the survivors will not be traveling more than twenty or thirty miles. Here, some older, vehicles can serve the purpose. The "ruggedness" of a lot of retreat areas makes is necessary to have a 4X4 pickup truck. Probably one of the most utilitarian modifications to such a pickup truck is a flatbed to replace the factory truck bed. Flatbeds do not look as good as factory sheet metal truck beds, and they offer the temptation of overloading, but ranch owners, farmers and loggers almost always find them to be more useful because a flatbed can handle more bulk cargo over short distances, is easier to load and unload, and usually much more durable than a factory sheet metal truck bed.
This van is my current retreat rig. Electrical problems and lackluster gas mileage prevent it from going very far from home, but I can haul tools, firewood, supplies and gear to and from town and local places without putting the wear and tear on my nice car. It also gave me the opportunity for some artistic expression. To be entirely honest, I am not happy with the return on investment I have gotten with this rig. In theory it has everything someone would want in a survival rig, in practice it is a high maintenance nightmare that could leave me stranded at the worst possible time. Next time around, I am getting something newer, a hell of a lot newer. Screw that idea of something being EMP proof if the damn truck will not start half the time I want to go somewhere. "simple to work on" is another loser myth. Any rig you need to work on more than once or twice a year probably ought to be replaced or passed on to someone with more patience or foolishness in thinking they are getting over on the "system" by working 20 hours a month maintaining a beat up old rig when they could just as well get a part time job and make payments on something newer. I would not recommend an older, unreliable rig like this as a bugout vehicle the survivor would expect to make a long road trip with. Older rigs like this need frequent repairs, and with parts having circulated out of most parts suppliers, you can end up stranded in this just as easily as with an exotic import.
Vans are usually cheaper than comparable pickup trucks, more secure, and offer slightly better cargo capacity than a comparable pickup truck. I like vans also because they have lousy resale value. That sucks for the buyer of a new one, but is a great deal for the person who shops for fairly late model but used vehicles. If you like to buy new and hold something for a while, you can shop year end bargains at the dealerships and usually get passenger vans pretty cheap. The thing is that used van buyer gets all the benefit of fairly new iron and good build technology without having to pay as much if the exact same components were in the shape of a pickup truck. I find that loading and unloading boxes is easier with the van, but a pickup is better for things like firewood and building supplies. A set of removable rear seats and a roof rack make it possible to haul six people and their gear in a van. This an be important in survival scenarios where fuel conservation becomes important. A van can also be set up as a bugout rig, but mine is not dependable to realistically fill that role at this point. Vans are a good choice for the urban survivor who needs something secure. IE, you can lock your stuff up in a van a lot more efficiently than in a pickup. An unloaded van will usually get worse gas mileage than an unloaded pickup, but once you load it up, it will do better than the pickup. I found the van to be a better hauling vehicle than a pickup with a camper shell here in the pacific northwest where you often need to have the cargo protected from rain.
The van is always going to give you better interior options than a SUV or pickup truck. On the suspension side, full size vans are built on a chassis that will outlast that of the average minivan and provide far better accident protection, but at the cost of reduced fuel economy and sometimes more complex maintenance. The maintenance issue is taken on a case by case basis since many minivans are prohibitively difficult to perform repairs and maintenance on without a well equipped workshop. Even an older camper van like the one pictured here gives a relative level of comfort you cannot obtain in a tent situation that is portable for any practical purposes. The dark tinted windows ensure it it much easier to see out than for someone to see in. This package was built up without altering the outside profile of the vehicle which means it can park almost anywhere yet remain difficult for someone to determine whether it is a workman's cargo and tool truck or whether someone is sleeping in it. The van also provides a much better layer of security against attack while you are sleeping. Unlike sleeping in the back of a pickup truck camper, it is easy to go directly from the bed to driver's seat to quickly exit the area, reach all door and window locks, and retain the option of exiting from any door. This particular van was set up by a gold prospector who traveled frequently in Alaska, hence the thick bedding to retain heat, extra insulation and oversized propane space heater.
A fairly conventional pickup truck like this is probably the most common survival rig that people actually use. You can usually find supplies of parts, tools and experienced mechanics in nearly every part of the US, Canada and Mexico to keep the truck running. The cost of ownership can be fairly low if you do not drive it much, but you can be buried in maintenance and repair costs if you drive it all of the time. With that in mind the utility of a pickup is such that any reasonably industrious individual can use it to make money in even the worst of economies. Smaller trucks have fuel economy comparable to a mid-size car and that does not seem to go up significantly when you change from a 4cyl motor to a 6cly motor on the smaller truck. It does change drastically when you change from a standard V8 to a big V8 on a bigger truck. More important factors in fuel economy surround the weight of the vehicle, load, driving habits of the driver and whether or not it is four wheel drive. A four wheel drive truck will use more fuel than an equivalent truck that is only two wheel drive whether or not the 4WD truck has the front drive system engaged. Using any truck in 4 low range will consume gas at a much faster rate than normal. If you keep a vehicle like this around, remember to exercise the transfer case from time to time by operating the vehicle on soft ground in 4WD. Otherwise, the transfer case and hubs can get stuck in one position and be nearly impossible to loosen up without taking the whole system apart.
The owner of a pickup usually has friends in need of a favor hauling something and thus will have little trouble in keeping gas in the tank and food on the plate. For that reason alone, no survival retreat is complete without at least one pickup truck. In high school and college, I found that it was always fairly easy to use the pickup truck for making enough money doing odd jobs to make the payments. The problem comes in when the pickup is primarily used for things that are normally done with a car. Commuting in a pickup truck often is a waste of gas and maintenance costs compared to an econo-car, but realities of insurance and registration costs often preclude owning a second or third vehicle.
Motorcycles give the survivor a mobility option that will not require much fuel and can give access to areas not normally accessible to a car or truck. While all motorcycles have some off road ability, a survivor is most likely going to do best with an enduro type motorcycle. Unfortunately, these types of motorcycles can be some of the most difficult to ride safely and will not perform as well as more specialized bikes in specific environments. Example, road bikes tend to be better for high speed highway driving, having tires and suspensions that give the best traction on pavement. It is necessary to go a lot slower on an enduro bike on paved roads because the multipurpose tires and suspension balance will not give anywhere near the traction of a road bike. In turn, the road bike can handle most dirt roads and gravel trails, but they usually have slick tires and narrow handlebars which are a real problem on loose ground and tight turns off road. Dirt bikes made specifically for off road use usually have knobby tires that are great for traction on soft surfaces, but bad on pavement, especially wet pavement where there would be very little "contact patch" between the tire and the pavement. Furthermore, dirt bikes usually lack lights which are necessary for safe driving in traffic whether or not you care about the law.
Sidecar motorcycles are commonly used in poorer parts of Eastern Europe and Russia. The sidecar motorcycle is something of an improvisation that gives some cargo and passenger carrying ability along with fuel economy. Such motorcycles are usually fairly easy to maintain even in fairly primitive conditions and can be easily adapted to run on different grades of fuel.
Russian made "Ural" brand motorcycles are based on 1938 BMW design and while primitive by modern standards but they are easy to maintain and have a style all their own. Typical cost is around $10,000 for a sidecar model. They can be set up to run on just about any grade of gasoline (leaded or unleaded). My only real complaint about them is that they seem sized for smaller people. Since these bikes were designed specifically for use on rough roads and primitive conditions, they are basically ready made survival vehicles requiring little or no modification. One obvious issue with depending on one for transportation is that you are exposed to the weather while riding. The bikes can also be prone to breakdown when they are new and people knowledgeable about them tell me that they should be carefully broken in and tuned up before going on a long trip. Variations of these bikes have been used extensively by soviet pattern militaries.
The new US military motorcycle is based on the Kawasaki KLR 650 Enduro, but is heavily modified with a unique diesel engine. Sporting low horsepower but gobs or torque, it might prove to be one of the better options for a survival bike. My guess is the hype is a bit optimistic as small diesels usually have longevity problems and can be very difficult to start when too cold or too hot. Still, if they work the bugs out of the system, a 120 MPG all terrain quiet diesel bike would be worth looking into. The standard KLR650 is a pretty good bike in its own rite. The only criticism I have is that it has too much power for most riders. Lots of power plus a fairly hefty weight means you can get hurt badly on one of these. If it ends up on top of you, you are really going to be messed up. That extra power and weight keeps the KLR-650 off some trails that are accessible to smaller and lighter bikes that can maneuver more easily. It is a trade-off in capability though, since the KLR-650 is entirely highway capable while better trail bikes are not. The trade off is even more evident when you compare the KLR-650 to an ATV. The ATV is not even highway legal, and even if you are not concerned with the laws, the ATV is not safe to go as fast on pavement. Off road however, an ATV of equal cost will be more useful on more rugged trails and can haul more than twice the gear.
A few words of caution about bikes painted in low visibility colors; if you are hard to see, then the problem of being "invisible" in traffic can be even worse. While this is largely due to careless drivers knowing they will "win" an accident with a motorcycle, there can be some real problems if you are riding along a country road with blind curves and places where someone may not see you in time to react. That is the reason most bikes are done up in bright colors and motorcycle outfits usually have reflective stripes and materials on them. It might be prudent not to camouflage a motorcycle until you are in a situation where the advantages of the camouflage outweigh the safety trade off of being harder to notice on the roads and trails. One way to deal with this is to camouflage the bike, but have removable reflective tape markings on it and or wear bright colored riding clothes when going in traffic. US military policy is to have riders wear reflective orange "road guard" vests when operating these bikes around traffic.
Surplus military vehicles can be more cool than practical but some models are particularly well suited for survival roles. For the most part, military vehicles have led a rough life. Abused off road by inexperienced drivers, maintained by often incompetent mechanics and often kept in service long past their prime, they can be a real headache. The advantage is that they are often built to take the abuse, parts are cheap and often easy to improvise or fabricate, and they can include features which are of particular value to the survivalist. This can include runflat tires, redundant systems, multifuel capability, and combinations of features available on civilian vehicles, but rarely ever found on the same vehicle. One example is the Steyr Daimler Puch Pinzgauer series of trucks that come surplus from a number of European countries. They are essentially 4X4 and 6X6 off road capable vans. This one is a custom rebuilt surplus rig that was modified for use as a long range expedition camper. Its utility as a survivalist vehicle is obvious, and the cost not at all out of line when compared to a newer commercially built camper that would lack the unique abilities of this rig. The issue in the western hemisphere is the relative lack of parts and experienced mechanics for the European surplus military vehicles. Still, a number of specialized rebuilding and service shops are scattered throughout the US and Canada. This makes for a very wide variation in prices for used Pinzgauer trucks based on condition, availability of certain variants, and custom work that has been done to the rigs.
A small RV can make an excellent mobile retreat and bugout vehicle whether you are an urban or rural survivor. This smaller Winnebago is built on a Toyota chassis and has most of the comforts of a small studio apartment. Save the camo paint job for when you need it, and you will have a low profile rig that blends in with other campers wherever you park it. The mobile home can give you economic options that people in fixed locations simply don't have and can take a lot of the hardship out of a bugout or refugee experience. The smaller campers like this cannot tow much up hills, but you can usually manage a motorcycle trailer if the living area is not overloaded with heavy stuff. An individual who has a camper like this and a motorcycle can go where more lucrative work is in a level of reasonable comfort, but the cramped living inside the camper will get on the nerves of all but the most intimate couples. A rig like this is small enough that you can maneuver around most cities and simply park overnight on the public streets and in parking lots.
Large motor homes like this one can work well for small families or individuals who have a lot of stuff. This type retains the front section of the van that it is based on, thus mechanical work on it should be no more difficult than with a regular van. Rigs like this tend to be slow and get awful gas mileage. The long rear overhang makes maneuvering in tight places a difficult chore and can be a problem on steep hills. Where this sort of rig does very well is as the base vehicle for a small convoy traveling between retreats and safe sites. A family equipped with one of these, an economy car and a truck can most likely survive anywhere. Some drawbacks on rigs like this in many places are the passive costs of ownership. If you get a fairly new one, registration and insurance costs can be pretty high even if you are not using it. An older one that you own outright can be parked with non-op tags on private property, but then you will often have maintenance issues that arise from aging components.
The other option for mobile living (or at least being able to bugout with most of your stuff intact) is a large 5th wheel mobile like this one. You get a lot more size and room in a big 5th wheel trailer for the money when compared to a mobile home with its own drive train and the bigger the rig gets, the bigger the difference. A lot of people use a trailer like this as the retreat house until fixed structures are built on the retreat property. A lot of people own trailers like this without owning the trucks necessary to move them around. A covenant community or co-op can get away with this type of arrangement if they own one towing rig in common. Thus is can be a major production to move everybody, but it can be done, albeit not too quickly. The thing about an arrangement like this is that you can have a lot of comforts and still be basically mobile. A lot of people assume that the 5th wheel towing rig for this type of trailer can also be used as a conventional pickup truck, but that is usually not the case when you end up trying to operate that way. The tow hitches are mounted semi-permanently in the bed of the the truck and end up taking up most of the usable bed space. The trucks usually need to have the largest possible motor and dual rear wheels, thus they get awful gas mileage and are difficult to park and maneuver around town. Note that if you do not own a truck set up for hauling the 5th wheel type house trailer, you can usually hire the services of someone who does.
This typical 5th wheel setup on an older Chevy truck shows what is needed for hauling the trailers. It can also be used for hauling cargo trailers and horse trailers engineered to work with this type of system. Interestingly, you usually do not need any special license to tow trailers with this type of rig.
Most of trailers, or any campers for that matter, require facilities for sewage, water, and electricity. You get this at trailer parks and campgrounds which usually rent the spaces on a weekly or monthly basis. People tell me that as a lifestyle, it is actually no cheaper than living in a fixed location house, so much of the stigma of "trailer park trash" does not hold among many of the people who actually live there. The lifestyle can be less than cost effective when you consider the costs of space rental along with insurance and payments for the truck and trailer, along with maintenance costs that are usually higher than for comparable fixed dwellings. Trailer parks also commonly lack the privacy which is valued by many survivalists.
On the other hand, the trailers and campers can make retreat living very comfortable very quickly. If a retreat location is landscaped right, the people can have a good degree of privacy and a fairly comfortable life using the campers and trailers as individual homes and then sharing common buildings like a lodge and workshops.
Mid-size trailers like this can be towed by any truck with a strong motor and conventional receiver hitch. This is probably one of the better balances of size and mobility for a survivor who wants comfort but needs the option of having a tow vehicle that will be useful at the destination. Towing this behind a conventional truck or van is not too difficult and the surprisingly high ground clearance makes this a decent option for towing up to remote retreats with a 4WD truck.
The reason most of the trailers, campers and RVs is white is that they are normally used by people who travel in the summer, and in the southern states of the US (mainly the southwest, but you can find them anywhere). Trailers can be notoriously difficult to heat and cool, and the white color makes them shed unwanted solar heat easier than darker colors. White trailers are so common, that anything in a camouflage color is likely to stand out more than something in the ubiquitous white colors, often with stripes or logos of some sort.
A low profile survivor who is using a trailer as a basis for a retreat in less populated areas is probably best hiding the trailer in a barn, shed, cave, or under trees rather than camouflaging the trailer itself. A pole barn is one of the more popular ways for people to store a travel trailer or motor home in just to protect it from the sun. Protection from the elements is a major factor in getting these things to last longer as they use a lot of plastics to save weight in construction. Not so much because the plastics are "cheaper" than conventional construction, but because they save weight and the flexibility often helps the camper survive the rigors of going down the highway at speeds of 80MPH. The downside is that a camper that spends a lot of time out in the weather is going to deteriorate much faster than one that is stored indoors or at least has a cover. Campers also take a fairly stiff hit in initial depreciation within the first three years, then they tend to settle out. A well maintained twenty year old camper, however, is going to be worth about the same as a reasonably well maintained ten year old camper. If you live in a camper full time, don't expect it to last much longer than ten years. The appliances and fixtures are usually pretty cheaply made from lighter weight materials and just don't last well from constant use. The thing is if you travel a lot, the camper can pay for itself when compared to hotel rooms - especially if you have a large family.
Camouflage netting is only partially effective for campers, but it does help reduce the visual signature, especially if you can get enough netting to cover the entire camp area around the camper, and use some brown or camo tarps to break up the outline of the camper itself. The thing is that campers all look pretty similar to people who are not really in tune with the different models. Thus, you can pretty often "hide" a camper in plain sight and it is not entirely unusual to see them parked in odd places out in the middle of nowhere. In urban and suburban areas, they just blend right in. A lot of survivors and homesteaders find that campers can be a bit unsightly in a lot of wooded settings, so different kinds of natural camouflage can really help things look better.