Before You Buy

Choosing the right vehicle requires methodical thought. What are your likely scenarios? How much lead time will you have? How far will you be going? Who and what will you take with you? How long will you be gone?

Reliability trumps all. A vehicle that won’t start can be life threatening. Determine which automaker produces dependable vehicles, but understand that even the best have bad years and problematic models. Talking to mechanics in independent auto repair shops is a great way to discover which vehicles are reliable—question several to get a less biased overview. Understand that a reliable used vehicle can serve you better than a less reliable new one, so consider what you really need without regard to what your neighbors will think. Size is key. If in doubt, buy something larger than you think you need. Depending on the number and size of passengers, your choices range from smallish station wagons to SUVs to massive surplus military trucks that can carry tons.

Four-wheel or all-wheel drive is a plus because, if necessary, you can make your own road, which leads to the importance of tires. Four-wheel drive doesn’t gain you much if the tires are too worn to get traction. Tires are the only direct link with the road or dirt, so buy the best you can afford, check pressure regularly, and rotate them. A front-end alignment can prevent premature tire wear. More aggressive tires give you better traction (and more road noise) than street tires, so talk to those who own the kind of tire you’re considering. Tire construction is complicated, so do diligent research. For example, many radial tires have thin sidewalls that can tear when driven through rocky terrain.

Current diesel and gasoline engines are sophisticated, computer-managed systems. Regardless of mileage claims, horsepower and torque ratings, reliability is what counts when your life is on the line. Having owned both kinds of engines over the years, I don’t favor one over the other.
If you live in an area with cold winters, you probably know that diesels can have problems starting unless they have heaters that plug into household current or are kept in a heated garage. Diesel fuel can gel at lower temperatures, so consider carrying an additive that increases volatility (for easier starting) in frigid weather. Gasoline engines can vapor lock—heat can cause gasoline to become a gas—when temperatures soar, so do sufficient research to become informed.

Enhancing Your Ride

After purchasing the vehicle you may have additional wants and needs. For example, if the spare tire isn’t full sized you’d be wise to replace it with a standard-size one. What if the pickup you bought doesn’t have the accessories you need? You may want to add an extra fuel tank or a cab protector or a stronger jack. If you travel off-road, a winch can save your bacon if you get stuck. You may need a trailer hitch, which requires determining the combined weight of your trailer and cargo. Consider mounting a snowplow if you have a long driveway or unplowed feeder road. A lift kit can provide added ground clearance for the body, but no lift kit can increase the critical clearance under the differential housing. A lift kit also raises the vehicle’s center of gravity, making it less stable on side hills and during emergency lane changes. A lift kit should not be a trendy, cosmetic change: the kit’s numerous components are selected to keep a vehicle safe. Driveshaft angles and steering geometry must be considered. A lift kit is not a straightforward modification to be undertaken by a shade-tree mechanic. Unless you have an ongoing need—fording streams, for example—for additional ground clearance for the body, do not think you know better than factory automotive engineers.

Do you carry a first-aid kit, fire extinguisher, jumper cables, hand tools, tire chains, extra clothing and rain gear, food bars, water, a empty fuel container, a can of pressurized flat-tire goo? If your vehicle burns oil, do you carry a spare quart or two? If you have an automatic transmission, do you carry a bottle of transmission fluid…a container of radiator coolant…an additive to stop a leaking radiator?

Preventative Maintenance:

Preventive maintenance may require a shift in attitude. If you think of maintenance as an annoying expense you may put it off, but if you think of it as an investment in reliability you are more likely to stay on top of it. Following are a few examples of small items that can stop or slow an otherwise reliable vehicle. V-belts and serpentine belts can fail, as can radiator hoses. If you carry a spare belt and hoses and the tools to replace them, you’re good to go. Why not replace belts and hoses (anything made of rubber) more frequently, before they become brittle and prone to fail? Do you carry extra fuses? Lack of windshield wiper fluid can be a nuisance or slow you to a crawl (in the worst possible place) depending on weather conditions, so carry extra. How old is the battery? When was it last tested? Is it heavy duty or marginal? Will the anti-freeze protect your engine in your climate? When was it last checked with a hygrometer? How old is the engine’s thermostat? Do you carry a spare and know how to replace it? When were your air, fuel and oil filters replaced? Are they light, medium or heavy duty? The preceding may remind you of the attention to detail required to keep a reliable vehicle reliable.

Think Things Through

If you foresee having to navigate a highway or road littered with abandoned vehicles, can your vehicle and its bumper stand up to pushing cars and trucks out of the way? A reinforced, thick steel bumper can prove very useful. Will you have to tow a trailer or pull a boat? How much experience do you have towing? How much experience do you have backing a trailer? Can your passengers safely drive a vehicle pulling a loaded trailer if you become ill or need to sleep? A topper or slide-in camper on a pickup truck is an option that enables the owner to stock it with necessities, keep the cargo out of the elements and provide shelter in a pinch. The camper should not be so large, however, that it makes the truck unwieldy. The table below highlights the benefits and drawbacks of various vehicles and optional equipment.

Editor’s Note: N.E. MacDougald recently wrote a book titled Soldier of Fortune Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse: The Ultimate Source for Protecting Your Family Against Societal Collapse. The 200-page book features scores of color photographs. Look for it online or on shelves.

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