How to Survive a Desert Breakdown

The keys to survival when your car breaks down in the desert are good preparation and staying calm until help arrives.

Mary Kurz
How to Survive a Desert Breakdown

Prepare yourself and your car beforehand if you’re planning to drive through a desert. Temperatures skyrocket during the day and plummet at night. Pack a survival kit, even if you drive that road regularly and your car doesn’t ever break down. Be prepared for the cold, the heat, hunger, and thirst then stay calm and level-headed until help arrives. In this article, Part 1 tells you how to prepare before you leave and Part 2 advises you on what to do during a breakdown.

Part 1 of 2: Prepare before you leave

Materials Needed

  • Antifreeze
  • Blankets
  • Bottled water
  • Cellphone with charger
  • Extra clothing for warmth
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • GPS device
  • Matches
  • Road flares
  • Snacks
  • Spare tire with jack
  • Sturdy walking shoes or boots

Step 1: Charge your cellphone. Make sure your phone is fully charged before setting out.

Step 2: Do a maintenance check on your car. Top off the fluids and gasoline. Change your oil and check your air filter and fan belt.

Make sure you have a spare tire with air in it and a jack. Put a gallon of antifreeze in the car.

Step 3: Put six to eight bottles of water in your car and healthy snacks. Pack nutrient-dense food. Protein bars, nuts, or trail mix are good foods to have.

  • Tip: Tell a friend, relative, or coworker where you are going and when you expect to arrive so that will know if you are late.

Step 4: Put a blanket or two in the car. Take a jacket, long pants, and protective shoes along, too.

Step 5: Put a flashlight, matches, and road flares in the car. Make sure the flashlight has fresh batteries. You can get battery-operated LED road flares, which are safer around dried brush.

  • Tip: Throw a white rag in the car, too. A 3 foot long piece of an old sheet is ideal.

Step 6: Put a well-stocked first-aid kit in the car.

Step 7: Put a GPS device and an up-to-date map in the car. Your cellphone battery will quickly lose power if you turn on its GPS locater and is only useful if you can get cell service.

Part 2 of 2: Stay safe and out of the elements while you wait for help

Materials Needed

  • Antifreeze
  • Blankets
  • Road flares
  • Water
  • White rag

Step 1: Pull your car as far over as possible. Turn your flashers on right away.

Step 2: Put the hood of your car up. This will signal to other drivers that the car is broken down and you need help. Tie a white rag to the antenna or close the rag in the door.

Step 3: Set up road flares. Place the first flare 100 feet away from your car and the second one about 50 feet away. Put them behind and in front of your car, if you can. If you only have two, place them behind the car.

  • Tip: If you decide to leave your car to find help, leave a note stating what time you left and which direction you headed.

Step 4: Call for help. If you can reach a friend or relative, let them know your car broke down in the desert. Tell them approximately where you are and ask them to send help.

Step 5: Try to get your car running again. Do not add coolant to the radiator if the car overheated. Check the clear, overflow reservoir.

The antifreeze or coolant should be a little below the maximum line when the engine is hot. If it is low, add coolant to the reservoir. Never try to take the cap off of the radiator of a hot car.

Step 6: Call a tow truck if you can’t get your car running. If you can’t reach a tow truck, friend, or relative, call 911. They can send a trooper to come and get you.

Step 7: Remain in your car and wait. If you have power windows and can’t put them down, sit next to your car in the shade. Use one of the blankets to make some shade or crawl underneath the car.

Step 8: Stay hydrated. Take frequent sips of water. Don’t wait until you are extremely thirsty to begin drinking water. Dehydration can impair your judgement.

Before you leave to drive across the desert, make sure you have the car insurance you need. Having roadside assistance can give you extra peace of mind.

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