Your Car Breaks Down and You’re Stranded — Now What?

What if your car breaks down and you are stranded?

Say you find yourself in a remote area and discover your car won’t start, has a flat, and you have no spare or just won’t run for one reason or another. The nearest thing to civilization is miles away. You have no cell phone service — no bars. You don’t have OnStar, and no other human life is around.

This is a pretty prevalent scenario in movies — prevalent in the B horror movies Judi loves to watch. The characters never know what to do once they discover their cell phones aren’t going to be of any help. They walk around trying to get a signal — that’s the extent of their plan.

Judi’s response to my comments about the characters not knowing what to do was, “it’s just a movie,” because that’s not how we would react if in the same situation. That then started a conversation about some things they could use their car for until they got found. And this article was born. So, what can you do?

  • Of course, the best way to prepare for this scenario is to pack an emergency kit before you take a trip into any unfamiliar territory. A backpack is pretty cheap, and you can easily stock it with the necessary basics. I wrote about putting a car kit together here: Prepping Tips: Basic Survival Gear for Your Car.
    Why not put one together this weekend and put it in your trunk? (And you can avoid being compared to B movie actors!) Even with a backpack stuffed with all the emergency items that will fit, it pays to educate yourself on how to glean available resources if needed.
  • It’s growing dark, and you are still stranded. Having a fire is a crucial first step — heat good. A fire can signal for help, purify water, you can use it as a cooking source, for light in the dark, and to keep insects and animals at bay.
  • If you don’t have a fire starter in your backpack, did you know that certain parts of your car are made of magnesium alloy? If you are able to produce a spark onto magnesium alloy, it will catch quickly and keep a flame — even if it is raining. Good to know, right?
  • Engine blocks, certain types of wheels, housings, and other parts are often made of this substance. It can be scraped off with a tool such as a screwdriver or pocket knife, or if you don’t have something like that, then see if you can find a rock or broken piece of glass along the side of the road. No reason not to have a multi-use tool with you at all times. I carry Judi’s late father’s Swiss Army Knife and have lost count of the times that little thing has come in handy!
  • A large fire at night may aid you in signaling for help. During the day, depending on how desperate you become, you could burn rubber tire tread to produce a thick, black smoke that can be seen for miles. If you’re near a road, see if you see any tread lying to the side; otherwise, you may have to use your own tires. Here in the south, they call those roadside slivers of tire tread “gator-backs”.
  • You can produce a spark by using electrical wire and attaching two pieces to the terminals of your car battery. Then touch the two pieces of wire together over the magnesium alloy shavings, which should be placed in a container of some sort — preferably fireproof. Example containers could be hub caps or perhaps the manifold cover. Make sure you have gathered a supply of tinder and wood and have them ready to go before you ignite the magnesium alloy so you can quickly begin to feed your flame.
  • It may be necessary to use other parts of your car as well. Hoses can be used for siphoning. Chrome may help to attract attention from any aircraft passing overhead or aiming toward the sun and starting fires. And the oil filter cover may serve as a container.
  • One thing about being stranded in an area you are not familiar with is to be cognizant of the plants around you. If you find you need to gather tinder, be careful to stay away from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, which are plentiful in most wooded areas — it’s smart to know what they look like so you can avoid any contact.
Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Suumac, and Poisonwood
Credit: (Source: Cook 2012; Larry Korhnak, UF/IFAS)
Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Suumac, and Poisonwood
Credit: (Source: Cook 2012; Larry Korhnak, UF/IFAS

These are just a few things that I jotted down off the top of my head that you could consider if you are stranded in the middle of nowhere. Of course, having your car preparedness kit can make that experience a whole lot less stressful.