It’s an all too common scenario making news headlines at least a couple of times a year. A vehicle becomes stranded, broken or immobile in an inhospitable, hot and remote location and its occupants abandon it to try to walk to safety. The results are all too predictable and almost always tragic.

[blockquote cite=”” type=”center”]”If it all goes wrong and you find yourself stranded with a busted 4WD in the middle of nowhere, have you got what it takes to make it back alive?”[/blockquote]

Surviving a situation that has gone completely pear shaped comes down to two key factors; preparation and luck. For the most part, luck is just that; a flip of a coin or a complete fluke, however as avid 4WD enthusiasts the preparation part of the equation should be well and truly in our favour.

The scenario of a disabled 4WD in an isolated location is not as farfetched as you may believe and is one that faces many remote area 4WD enthusiasts every year. Given the nature of the terrain, style of travel and prior preparation for the intended trip; such a disaster actually happens when most are as well prepared as they possibly could be. Yet we still hear of tragedy where the chances of rescue and survival are extremely high.

The basics of any survival situation comes down to four key elements; FOOD, FIRE, WATER and SHELTER. These can be viewed as the building blocks for making it out alive and each plays a critical role. The heartening news is that becoming stranded with your 4WD, means you are already in a commanding position from the get go.


A survival or emergency situation will create stresses you may not be used to at a time when you need to deal with them the most. The following is a list of just what you may need to overcome while dealing with your physical situation:

  • Cold and or extreme heat
  • Pain, illness or injury
  • Fear
  • Thirst and hunger
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Isolation or loneliness

It isn’t a matter of can you cope with these, you simply have to.


The truth of the matter is that it will take a healthy human a fair length of time to die from starvation yet exposure to the elements can kill you in a matter of hours. Life-threatening heat and cold is your top enemy and shelter from these extremes is paramount to any survival situation. Your vehicle is your number one asset in this situation.

Under only the very last resort type scenario should you ever leave your vehicle and attempt to walk to help. In short, never leave the vehicle; it will keep you alive. A 4WD can be seen from the air far more easily than a human. A vehicle has an abundant supply of survival aids.

The most likely scenario in Australia is that of extreme heat. Within the arid interior of Australia the average day time temperature is between 37 and 39 degrees Celsius. At these temperatures the risk of serious heat stroke resulting in fatality is high. Water loss due to sweating must be avoided and activity severely curtailed during the hottest parts of the day.

Use your vehicle to shelter from direct sun. Roll out awnings or roof top tents to provide shade. Do not sit inside the vehicle where temperatures can double that of outside highs. Lay under the vehicle for shade if nothing else is available. Restrict all activity and use the middle of the day to rest. Try to position yourself to gather any available breeze yet still stay shaded.

Should your environment be reversed and severe cold be the enemy; put on all available clothing and get inside the vehicle. Use window shades to block any exposed glass and keep windows up to avoid wind-chill. If conditions become unbearable and you can start the vehicle, turn the heater on for short periods to warm the interior of the car, keeping a close eye on fuel reserves. Burning a candle or fuel stove carefully inside the car will heat the small space surprisingly well but be sure you have adequate ventilation.

During the cooler hours you may venture from the shade of your 4WD and begin to assess and work on your situation. Remove large items from your vehicle and spread them around to increase your footprint making you more visible from the air. Remove your side mirrors and have one ready to flash any passing plane you might hear. In short, actively plan for rescue and be ready to give yourself any and every edge you can of being found. Do not wait till you hear a plane to start thinking about how to signal it.


As previously mentioned; given the nature of travel and the means by which you are undertaking it, chances are you have a healthy supply of drinking water with you. This does not however, mean it’s time to make cups of coffee or wash your hands. Your water reserves are your lifeline and must, at all cost be used sparingly and with close consideration.

The science behind survival water consumption says that your first 24 hours after acknowledging that water is going to be severely rationed, you should restrict or not drink at all. This shocks the body into slowing down all water loss. Then, you should divide your water into daily amounts based on your total. Then divide your day amount into 4 or 6 lots. Then rather than sipping your water throughout the day, drink your entire allotted amount of each 4 or 6 doses in one go, at regularly spaced intervals. The concept behind this is that it triggers your body’s response to use the water (sipping will not do this) yet it doesn’t let your body think the drought is over and thus shed water unnecessarily.

[blockquote cite=”” type=”center”]”You can live for significantly longer with no food than you can with no water”[/blockquote]

It is also wise to try and dissolve a small amount of salt in your mouth before you drink your scheduled water ration. This allows the body to better store or retain the water. If none is available, lick your skin to reuse salty sweat.

Resting during the heat of the day is utterly vital, especially in hot, dry arid conditions. Even while lying in a shady environment, the average adult will lose about a litre of water simply through, respiration and perspiration. That figure is greatly increased during activity. Refrain from talking and avoid breathing through your mouth, only your nose. These seem like inconsequential acts yet even the simplest water saving technique could mean the difference.
If water reserves are restricted, refrain from eating or eat as little as possible.

You can live for significantly longer with no food than you can with no water. Without adequate water intake, fluid is taken from vital organs to aid digestion which increases dehydration. Fatty foods further enhance this. Likewise, as tempting as it might be, do not drink alcohol. This also takes fluid from vital organs to break down and is also a diuretic meaning it makes you pee more than usual, thus wasting more water.

If you have pitched near a water source of suspect quality such as water trough, mud hole or stock infected water, it is vital that you treat the water before drinking. The simplest method is to bring all water to a rolling boil for greater than one minute. This will effectively kill all bacteria rendering it safe to drink.

Perhaps the simplest and least energy wasting method of supplementing your water supplies is to use condensation. Tie large rubbish bags around tree branches (choose branches that are thickly vegetated) and let the midday sun evaporate water stored and brought up by the tree into the bag. Other methods such as distillation and solar stills will produce water yet require considerably more energy to produce. The old adage of “ration your sweat not your water” rings true here. Another easy water collection method is to harvest morning dew off your surrounds such as awnings, vehicle and vegetation.


Mammals: Most mammals require water daily, especially grazing animals. If you can see grazing animals you will not be far from a water source. Converging game trails or trails heading downhill usually lead to water.

Birds: All seed eating birds require water dawn and dusk and do not move far from it. When seen flying straight and low they are generally water bound. Water birds are poor water indicators as they can travel vast distances to reach water.

Reptiles: Very poor indicators of water as they can live with no water source, instead getting moisture from food.

Insects: Very good indicators, especially bees as they require water often and rarely fly far from it.


Nothing lifts the mood like a fire. It is a primal response and one we all still enjoy today. In a survival situation, fire is a critical and key component both as a tool and a measure of wellbeing. Lighting said fire when stranded with a 4WD should be an easy task. You would be equipped with multiple sources of ignition from the obvious matches and lighters to gas burners, and cooking aids. However if for some reason you are without the usual method of lighting a fire perhaps the simplest alternative is to use the spark created when battery leads are crossed. This spark in a pile of dust dry tinder is all that will be needed to get a fire going. If a little more help is needed, a piece of material soaked in a small amount of petrol or diesel will aid combustion. Be sure to remove the battery from the 4WD before attempting this; burning your shelter and resources to the ground is not part of the survival plan!

As mentioned, restrict all activity during the heat of the day and do firewood collection late in the afternoon. Keeping a fire smouldering during the day is easily done with larger pieces of wood which can be brought back to “life” once night time temperatures begin to drop. It’s imperative that you are always thinking of rescue and for the most part it’s search by air that will locate you. Be ready at any time of day to increase your visible footprint from the air by increasing smoke production from your fire. Burning anything noxious such as tyre tubes, fabric, seat covers etc will produce thicker more visible smoke. Have these ready and stock piled next to the fire for easy and immediate access.

Night time temperatures within the centre of Australia can at any time of year drop well below freezing. Your fire will at night become your best friend. Try to avoid exposing one side of your body to the ambient environment and the other to the fire; instead place your fire close enough to the side of your vehicle or awning such that heat can reflect off and back at you keeping you significantly warmer.

Often when camping we will build fires of excessive proportions; something we all enjoy in areas with a good supply of wood. However in a survival situation the very opposite should be the case. Minimal use of wood should be the key for two reasons, maintaining supplies close to where you have become stranded and of course, to greatly minimise the effort required to fetch it. Adding wood to a fire should be done sparingly and only when required. Do not waste energy breaking wood, instead lay larger pieces across the fire and let them burn through before repositioning as appropriate. Keep a supply of smaller, easily combustible timber close by for signalling should it be needed. Green braches placed directly on a well-established fire will produce large plumes of smoke visible for a long distance.

The use of fire in a survival situation cannot be stated enough; from cooking to warmth to signalling to providing a feeling of wellbeing, fire should be a high priority.


Survival shows and literature will often play food gathering as the hero in any pear shaped survival situation. Elaborate traps made to harvest mammalian game, spears, odd fishing rigs and countless other fanciful ideas are often depicted, however the reality of survival food gathering is often so much the opposite.

Firstly it is important to understand that while hunger is unpleasant in the short term, exposure to the elements and water shortages are far and away your biggest threat. A healthy adult can survive for a surprisingly long time with minimal food intake but will perish in a very short time without water or thanks to exposure. Without adequate water, food can also be detrimental as it takes fluid from bodily organs to digest, increasing dehydration.

Once again, the chances of being stranded with your 4WD means there is a better than even chance you’ll have food supplies on-board. Fresh fruits and vegetables should be consumed first to avoid them spoiling and of course to gain as much water from them as possible. Avoid cooking vegetables so as to minimise water loss and boiling vegetables destroys their vitamin C.

Any foods that do need cooking such as meats should only be cooked enough to make them palatable. Over cooking reduces nutrients, the higher the heat the greater the loss. Of course the flip side to this is if food is being cooked to kill suspected germs or parasites.

Canned vegetables and fruits should never be drained. This is a valuable source of moisture and everything should be consumed. As supplies run low, ration how much preserved foods you eat versus your resources. Preserved foods can be high in fat which will further dehydrate you if adequate water is not available.

When it comes to harvesting food from your surroundings, once again the less amount of energy you can expend the better your chances. The idea of a roasted wild pig over coals is highly attractive but the reality is far more down to earth than that; literally. Scavenging for bugs, insects and smaller critters is far more viable. The idea of chowing down on a handful of worms or a frog isn’t appealing right now but when it matters, these will be foods of the highest order. As well, slow and precise scavenging will use far less energy and reduce water loss.

Insects and worms are best boiled or dried and crushed into a powder which can be added to water to make thick soups. Small reptiles are best gutted then placed in hot coals till the skin splits. Be sure the meat is well cooked. Frogs can be skewered on sticks and roasted over coals. Any aquatic shellfish are safer boiled to remove harmful organisms. This will produce a broth that is highly nutritious and no water is wasted when everything is consumed. Eating local vegetation is fraught with danger unless a clear and accurate knowledge of their safety is known.

[blockquote cite=”” type=”center”] Surviving in an emergency comes down to luck and preparation. Because we can’t control luck, we must be prepared.[/blockquote]


This, it must be stressed, is a last resort option, however if you are faced with no choice but to leave your vehicle and continue on foot be sure you know where you are headed, what direction and how far. Travel only during the cool parts of the day and rest in shade during the heat of day. Leave a note with accurate details with your vehicle so that rescuers know you have left, when and in what direction.


The end goal for a vehicle and its occupants becoming stranded is for all parties to make it out alive. This can be greatly, massively stacked in your favour with some simple prior preparation. First and foremost is communication. Letting a third party know you are in trouble is paramount to rescue.

A charged satellite phone that can be easily grabbed at any moment is perhaps the number one choice. The key here is making sure you can get to that phone and, quickly evacuate the vehicle with it in hand should you need to. Think vehicle fire here. A sat phone is of zero use if it’s in a bag in a drawer in the rear of the 4WD which just went up in flames.

A close second is an EPIRB. Once again this needs to be situated such that it can be grabbed and taken within seconds. Unlike a sat phone, reserve EPIRB use to utter, life threatening emergencies. Becoming stranded on the QAA line when all is well except for a stuffed 4WD is NOT the time to push the EPIRB button. Get comfortable, help will arrive, there is no need to alert the authorities.


Waving your hands in the air at a passing plane is virtually useless and just burns energy and wastes water. Remove your side mirror and use the sun to flash the plane. Aim by holding your hand at arm’s length with two fingers in the “peace” sign. Place the plane between your fingers and then reflect the sun’s light across your hand. This can be seen for very long distances and will catch a pilot’s eye easily in a desert of nothingness. Likewise a plume of smoke seen from above in a vast emptiness is a sure sign something is not right and all pilots would investigate.
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