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Monday, May 11, 2009

Upgrades to Your Bug Out Vehicle, by Nickey C.

There have been several excellent articles in SurvivalBlog on Bug Out Vehicles (BOVs), but there may be a few gaps to fill.

A REPAIR MANUAL for your model vehicle. A shop manual from a dealer can be quite expensive, but a Chilton’s or Haynes manual available from most auto parts stores is usually less than twenty dollars and is a wealth of information. [JWR Adds: I recommend buying a full length service manual and a maintenance code reader. If you do some searching on Amazon and eBay, you can often find a used factory service manual for just a bit more that you would pay for a new copy of a short Chilton's "excerpt" manual. It is also noteworthy that there are presently lots of car dealerships that are going out of business. This should provide a bonanza of service manuals and diagnostic boxes, if you call the right place at the right time. Typically, most of the tools at a dealership service department belong to the individual mechanics, but the reference books and diagnostic kits belong to the dealership.] I know a few “preppers” who will spend big money to buy the latest tactical-stealth-ninja gear and then pay someone else to change the oil in their vehicles! You should do as much of the work on your vehicle as possible, both regular maintenance and repair work; you will learn an amazing amount about how the various vehicle systems work, you will know the work was done correctly with the right parts, and many repairs are much easier the second time you do them (much better to learn now rather than on the side of the road somewhere or after TSHTF). If you do not have some of the tools you need, you can often buy the needed tool, learn by doing it yourself, and still spend less than having a repair shop do the same work, plus now you have more of the tools you need.

PROPER TIRES are vital; they are your vehicles only contact (hopefully) with the ground and can make a huge difference in how your vehicle performs. Many of us (probably most) drive trucks or SUVs as our daily drivers and/or BOVs, and we often succumb to the temptation of installing larger tires than the original equipment tires. We use the excuses of more ground clearance, etc., but the real main reason is usually we think they look cool on our trucks. That is fine; just understand that if you “upgraded” your tires by going bigger, you just “downgraded” your braking and fuel economy and if you went much bigger you may have seriously compromised your vehicle’s handling and steering as well. Braking distance will increase with larger diameter tires because there is usually more mass rotating farther from the center of the tire and because the larger diameter acts as a longer lever the brakes must act upon when you try to stop.

It is true that a larger tire will travel farther with each revolution, therefore creating the effect of lower engine RPM at a given speed (it will also affect the actual speed versus the indicated speed on the speedometer, which is not a free pass on a speeding ticket) that some assume should result in better mileage, but it will also increase the force required to turn the tire and create more stress on all the drive train parts. In the auto maker’s battles for better fuel economy and meeting CAFE standards, if gaining mileage was as easy as sticking on a bigger set of tires (making us happier in the “looks cool” area at the same time), a room full of really smart folks with engineering degrees designing vehicles would have probably stumbled across the idea on their own.
If you are willing to take the hit on lower mileage and longer stopping distances at least ensure the tires are rated for the loads you will place on them. Ratings for traction (wet, dry, and snow), load, noise, tread wear and other information is readily available at web sites such as You can compare the various tire parameters based on your needs and make a much more informed choice on which is the best tire for your vehicle.

While you are dealing with tires, consider the spare; most pickups and SUVs have a full-sized tire that matches the four road tires, but on a cheap steel wheel. Tire makers say that by the time you have to replace your tires, the spare should be replaced as well. This is because the tire, especially the sidewalls, will deteriorate from hanging out under the truck in the weather and not being flexed from driving. Buy an extra wheel that matches the four main wheels and rotate all five tires. You will noticeably increase the life of each set of tires, saving considerable money in the long term. If you go way out in the boonies, you can get a used tire of the same size and type (maybe the best tire from your last set) and put it on the original spare steel wheel and have a “spare spare”.

AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSIONS are often one of the most under-maintained vehicle systems. Those of us with a preparedness mindset tend to ask a lot from our vehicles. We haul things, tow trailers, drive on trails, etc. and therefore operate under the “severe operations” side of the maintenance list. Much of this added stress goes right through the transmission. The problem for most vehicles is that you must completely remove the transmission pan to change the fluid and filter, making it rather expensive to have a shop change the fluid for you, or a big dripping mess to do it yourself. A simple solution is to replace the stock transmission pan with an aftermarket pan that has a drain plug. You can find a pan that is made from aluminum and has extra fluid capacity without extending any lower under your vehicle than the stock pan. Heat is a major enemy of automatic transmissions and the aftermarket pan has the added benefit of better cooling and therefore longer service life. Most have a magnetic drain plug that will collect the tiny bits of metal created as transmission parts wear. This will appear as a thick paste on the drain plug, so ensure you clean the plug well before reinstalling it.
The aftermarket also has a means to deal with the transmission filter, which is located inside the pan. You can get a remote mounting bracket that uses a standard oil filter and can be used to provide the filtration you need and enable you to change filters when you change the fluid without removing the pan. Automatic transmissions have either a separate radiator in front of your regular engine coolant radiator or a separate section within the main radiator to help cool the transmission fluid, so lines are already routed from the transmission to the front of your vehicle. It is a simple task to mount the bracket near the radiator, cut the rubber portion of the existing transmission line, and plumb in the bracket with a couple of brass fittings, clamps, and some rubber hose. Be careful to route the fluid to the inlet and outlet ports on the bracket correctly, if the filter has an anti drain-back valve, the fluid can only flow in one direction. When you use the remote filter, you must leave the original internal filter in place if it is used (most are) as the pick-up point for the pump that circulates the transmission fluid. Simply cut a hole in the paper filter media before installing the internal filter and it will still work as the fluid pick-up but will never clog. Now, changing your transmission fluid is truly as easy as changing the engine oil and the total cost for the pan and the bracket is less than having a shop change the fluid a couple of times.

INTAKE AND EXHAUST SYSTEMS are common upgrades. We have been told that gasoline engines act as big air pumps, not a bad analogy. The engines uses a small but definite percentage of its power pulling air in and pushing exhaust gas out, so it is reasonable that anything that eases the flow of air in or exhaust gas out will let the engine work more efficiently. This gain in efficiency results in more available power and better mileage. Original equipment intake and exhaust systems tend to be restrictive because they are designed to operate as quietly as possible. Intakes can benefit from a low restriction air filter, but will gain much more from a complete intake system. These systems use a high flow reusable filter combined with larger, smoother tubing to replace the original system all the way to the throttle body. These are set up to use the original airflow sensors and some compartmentalize the filter away from engine heat.

You can also noticeably improve performance with an aftermarket exhaust system. The most common is the “cat back” system; it replaces the original exhaust system from the catalytic converter to the rear of the vehicle with smoother, larger tubing and a less restrictive muffler. There are two main types of replacement mufflers used in theses systems. Some use fiberglass or similar material to absorb sound, these are often referred to as “glass packs”. The disadvantage to these is the material will deteriorate and let the muffler get louder over time. The other, and in my opinion better, choice uses specifically designed chambers and baffles to cancel out sound waves, especially in the range that would cause resonance inside the vehicle. The advantages to these are they don’t change or get louder, they are less restrictive, and you save about thirty to forty pounds from the original system. Many systems are offered with dual outlets, but there is not a great gain from two outlets, since the muffler is still fed by one tube coming out of the catalytic converter. Systems are designed for specific vehicles, but check the specs carefully; some require relocation of the spare tire, not a good option if you don’t want your spare banging around in the back of your truck. If you tow a trailer, especially a camper, the side outlets instead of rear outlets are recommended to help prevent exhaust gas from entering the trailer. Most manufacturers offer varying levels of sound output and many want the loudest option, but you really gain little or no benefit from going louder, and if things do get bad do you really want to announce your arrival from two blocks away?

MILEAGE/POWER ADD-ONS are controversial to say the least. Look at any auto parts catalog or web site and you will find a profusion of parts that offer better mileage and/or more power. If you buy into the ads of “up to 2 MPG and 10 horsepower” for this widget, “up to 3 MPG and 15 horsepower” for that widget, you can soon be convinced you can have a truck with 600 HP that gets 40 MPG while pulling a trailer up a mountain trail. While any manufacturer will want to cast his product in the best possible light, the magic advertising words here are “up to”. Even with reputable manufacturers, advertised gains usually indicate the best result achieved within the best possible test parameters, and may not reflect your driving results in the real world. The irony of installing an intake system that claims to increase performance by smoothing airflow and then putting in another piece that claims to increase performance by creating turbulence should not be lost on the reader. Just as with our firearms, any upgrades must maintain or improve reliability. You should also have a realistic view of any mileage improvements. If you are currently getting 15 MPG and a product gives you an improvement of 10% (a fairly good result) you will now be getting 16.5 MPG. With gasoline at $2.00 per gallon you will save about one penny per mile in fuel cost, so if you spent $300 on the "upgrade", you will have to drive 30,000 miles to pay for the cost of the item before you start saving any money from the increased mileage. Some things will give better mileage, more power, and better throttle response, some not so much; do some careful research before spending your money. My approach is usually to upgrade as repairs are needed, for example; after damage to my exhaust system from road debris, I replaced the stock system with aftermarket, when it was time to change the transmission fluid, I replaced the pan and added the remote filter. The best mileage improvement device available is wearing your right shoe (i.e. your driving habits). [JWR Adds: Beware of any "mileage boost" product that involves either chemicals or magnets. They are selling Dr Feelgood Snake Oil, folks. The electronic ignition upgrades might have some merit, but like Nickey says, do the math, first!]

ELECTRIC AND LIGHTING: A small (up to about 750-800 watts [if wired directly into high amperage terminals]) DC to AC inverter can be installed to power AC appliances like cell phone chargers, laptop computers, and even small power tools for about the cost of a DC adapter for either item. A set of fog lights can really help illuminate the road directly in front of you or when visibility is poor due to bad weather. A pair of low profile fog lights (wider beam than driving lights) under the rear bumper can help immensely when attaching a trailer or working behind the vehicle at night. For rear mounted lights I recommend an illuminated switch mounted in direct view of the driver to insure the lights are not left on accidentally. DC current is notoriously less efficient than AC at carrying voltage, so if your installation requires a long run of wiring, use at least one size larger wire than specs call for to avoid voltage and wire overheating problems.

BE PREPARED for your vehicle to break down at the worst possible time and place and in the worst possible weather. Most of us have a good basic tool set and we know about extra belts, hoses, etc. You should have clothes and shoes/boots to change into if you must work on your vehicle or if you have to walk out of the woods or to call a tow truck (cell phones don’t reach everywhere). Be sure to include clothes and shoes for all who are likely to be with you. This lesson was reinforced for me in Alaska when my vehicle broke down, luckily only about three miles from home. I had the proper clothing stored in the car and was able to walk home, get my truck and retrieve my car. Next was the task of replacing the serpentine drive belt in the dark at -35 degrees. Proper gloves are critical in a situation like that, but can also be important in hot weather; metal parts can get hot enough to cause burns in the summer even without factoring in engine heat. Many people have work gloves that would be fine for shoveling your way out of a mud hole, but you should also have mechanic’s gloves that will protect your hands but are thin and flexible enough to allow you to work with small parts that are very hot or very cold.

There are obviously many other possibilities for upgrades and additions, but I hope the ideas offered here will help. - Nickey C.


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