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Wilderness Essentials For Your Car

by Bill Greer

Most everyone who has been hiking for very long has heard about the "10 essentials", items you should always have with you when hiking in the wilderness. But what about the car that you depend on to get you to and from the trailhead? Driving far from pavement is just as different from driving in town as hiking in the wilderness is different from walking around White Rock Lake. It’s not much fun to arrive safely back at the trailhead and then have to spend the night there because your car wasn’t prepared as carefully as your pack was.

Here are the "essentials" for your car. Like the hiking "essentials", they can mean the difference between a major disaster and a minor inconvenience. Like all emergency gear you hope you will never need any of this but you will be very happy you’ve got it should the need arise!

1) Carefully inspect your car. Before you leave home check all fluids (oil, coolant, transmission fluid, transfer case, battery, brakes, washer fluid, etc.) Check tire pressure and condition. Worn or under inflated tires are a worse idea off pavement than on. Check all your lights to be sure they work and have clean lenses. Dark mountain roads are no place for "one eyed monsters." Be sure all engine belts and hoses are in good shape.

2) Properly inflated spare tire. Unpaved roads are hard on tires designed for highway use. I’ve seen many flats on the way to and from the trailhead, but I’ve yet to see a spare that had enough air in it. All tires will loose pressure if ignored long enough. If you haven’t checked the thing lately, it’s flat. Be sure you know how to change your tires. Know where your jack is. If you have wheel locks be sure you’ve got the key. A full size spare is much better than an undersize donut.

3) Tire pump. Get one that plugs in to your cigarette lighter. Often a flat just has a slow leak and you can avoid changing a tire by just pumping it up occasionally. The pump is also handy when you are confronted with a flat tire and a flat spare. I have used mine many times. Try it out before you really need it and test it occasionally.

4) Jumper cables. If the weather turns cold or you leave something turned on while hiking you can easily return to your car without enough battery power for a start. Be sure you know how to use them. Incorrect use can cause a dangerous explosion or ruin two electrical systems. Owner’s manuals will usually explain how to "jump" a dead battery.

5) Tow strap. If you get stuck in a small patch of ice or mud this can save waiting many hours for a tow truck. Be sure you have any extra hardware needed for attaching to either end of your car. Some cars will need a large, heavy duty steel caribiner from any good hardware store. Since you can’t tell what the other car might be, it’s good to have some extra hardware. Try it out to be sure you know how to use it without damage.

6) Flares. If your car becomes disabled on a dark night you can be in great danger if you’re not able to get far from the road. Flares alert other drivers that there is a problem ahead. Expend one of them to be sure you know how to use them.

7) Plenty of fuel. Trailheads are often many miles from the nearest fuel and rural stations are often closed at night. Fill your tank at the last large town before you head back into the woods. Don’t forget that many hikes will involve a car shuttle between trailheads before the hike can start. If you really want to make yourself unpopular one of the best ways I know of is to run out of gas on the shuttle. Don’t carry a gas can in your trunk. That is really dangerous.

8) Basic tools. Have an adjustable wrench, screwdrivers, pliers, etc. Often simple problems can be fixed on the spot.

9) Window cleaner & paper towels. Muddy unpaved roads can quickly render your windows and headlights opaque. Flying blind down a mountain road is no fun.

10) Good road maps. What happens if the road you came in on floods or washes out? Have maps for the whole area.

11) Car Compass. It really helps keep you oriented getting to and from the trailhead. Take the Wilderness Navigation Class to find out how to use it. A mapping GPS unit can help too but consider it a supplement to your compass.

12) Roadside assistance. AAA or whatever your favorite is. A cell phone to contact them might be nice but if you get very far from major highways it’s probably not going to work. Check to see how far from pavement your assistance will assist you. Some plans are good for only a short distance. If your car dies on the River Road in Big Bend, will they help you? How about Caney Creek in Arkansas?

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