Personal experience is often the greatest teacher. When we make it through difficult situations, especially those which could have easily become life-threatening, it leads us to contemplate how we can prepare ourselves to better cope with those situations in the future. And more importantly, it helps us consider what we'd do if things took a turn for the worse. This is why we've created our Survival Scenarios article series — to help you think through problems before they arise.

The following scenario is based on my own experience during a recent 8-hour road trip between California and Arizona. After pulling off the road for a bathroom break, I returned to my car only to find the battery had died unexpectedly and the engine wouldn't turn over. Ambient temperature had been hovering around 116°F (47°C) for most of the afternoon.

Desert road trip vehicle breakdown temperature heat summer thermometer 1

This wasn't a problem with the air conditioning at full blast, but without a running engine, A/C was no longer an option. My wife and dog were in the car with me, and it was getting hotter by the minute. Anyone who has experienced this extreme desert heat knows it's more than just uncomfortable. Prolonged exposure can be dangerous if you're unprepared.

Fortunately, I had a portable lithium-ion jump-starter in the glovebox and was able to get the car running again in less than a minute. Without this item, I would've been forced to pull out my jumper cables and rely on the kindness of a stranger. And if I found myself in this situation in a more remote area without these tools, I could end up in serious danger.

A handheld jumpstart unit like this one can get your car started without the aid of another vehicle.

A handheld jumpstart unit like this one can get your car started without the aid of another vehicle.

This leads us to an interesting question: if you found yourself in a broken-down vehicle on a remote desert road, what would you do? Stay with the vehicle and take shelter, hoping for a passerby to spot you? Or set out on foot to reach a more heavily-trafficked road, attempting to wave down another motorist?

This is the question we’ll address in today’s Survival Scenarios article. As usual, we will ask you how you’d handle a difficult choice in a hypothetical survival situation, given the background information below. The article will end with a poll where you can make your choice and see how others felt.

Background Info

AWD vs 4x4 off road vehicle jeep suv truck 4

In this scenario, you're traveling north on Route 95 from Yuma, Arizona towards Lake Havasu. You're in your compact SUV, headed out on a Thursday afternoon to meet some friends for a weekend at the lake. A few hours into the journey, you spot a sign for a campground and hiking area, so you decide to check it out and stretch your legs. But as you pull to a stop in the empty dirt parking lot, your vehicle's engine sputters and stalls. Turning the key produces nothing but a faint click — it won't start.

It's late summer and stepping out of your air-conditioned vehicle feels like walking into an oven. According to the temperature reading on your dash, it's close to 120°F outside, and extremely dry without a hint of breeze. You know that the onset of heat exhaustion and heat stroke can be sudden in this weather.

The surrounding terrain is mostly barren, with low-lying bushes and cactus as the only vegetation. You estimate you're about two miles from Route 95, but passing traffic is sparse at this time on a weekday.

In your vehicle, you have the following items:

  • Cell phone with a full battery, but it currently reads “No Signal”
  • A cooler containing most of a 24-pack of water bottles (roughly 2.5 gallons worth) and two six-packs of light beer, but no ice
  • Four 250-calorie protein bars and a half-eaten pack of beef jerky
  • Duffel bag with spare clothing and toiletries
  • Vehicle emergency kit with a jack, jumper cables, tow rope, two road flares, a small tarp, a pair of gloves, and a multi-tool

Desert road trip vehicle breakdown temperature heat summer thermometer 2

One thing's for sure: sitting in your enclosed vehicle isn't an option. The intense sun and greenhouse effect is making it unbearably hot inside. You can either take shelter in the shade and wait for rescue, or set out on foot to reach a main road or a location that has enough cell signal to call for help.

Staying Put

If you choose to stay with your vehicle, priority number one is finding shelter from the sun. There are no large trees or manmade structures nearby, but you can use the tarp from your emergency kit to rig up a shelter alongside your car. If that doesn't work, you can crawl underneath the car itself, although the undercarriage is probably still warm from your trip.

Emergency water prep filter purifier disinfectant plastic bottles 6

The good news is you've got quite a bit of lukewarm water (and beer) to stay hydrated. The water can also be splashed on spare clothing and wrapped around your body for evaporative cooling. Food is limited, but exposure will threaten your health long before lack of calories becomes a problem, so it's not a top priority.


By staying with the vehicle, you can use the road flares and some collected brush to start a signal fire. Burning the spare tire will create thick black smoke that will hopefully serve as a distress signal. However, this relies on someone spotting your signal and calling the authorities.

Desert road trip vehicle breakdown temperature heat summer thermometer 3

Your friends expect you to arrive in Havasu by dinnertime, so they'll probably know something is wrong within a few hours if you don't show up. They can report your vehicle type and approximate route to rescue personnel, but they'll have no way of knowing where in the 150 miles of desert you ended up — or how far you are from the main highway. Rescue might take 24 hours or more to arrive, and that's a long time in this extreme heat. Even after the sun sets, you can expect temperatures close to 100°F.

Walking to Find Help


If you set out on foot from your vehicle, it'll be wise to leave signals indicating your distress. You can prop the hood open to indicate a breakdown, and in case a plane flies overhead, use the international ground-to-air signaling code to leave a marker on the ground. This could be built from brightly-colored items from the car, or dark stones that contrast with the sandy ground.

Before leaving, you'll want to leave a written note in the car indicating details rescuers might need — your name, the circumstances of your breakdown, emergency contact info for friends/family, the time you left the vehicle, your physical appearance, and the direction you headed.


Covering your skin in fabric will help you avoid the direct sunlight. Photo:

You can load up the duffel bag to take some items with you, most importantly plenty of water. It'll also be wise to loosely wrap your exposed skin in lightweight garments to escape the harsh sun, as Bedouins and other desert-dwelling people have done for centuries. The road flares can help with signaling once you reach a main road.

Setting out on foot increases your odds of a quick rescue, since you might walk a short distance and reach cell signal, or you might reach the highway and flag down a motorist. However, it also poses a huge risk. Leaving your vehicle will make it harder for rescuers to find you, and could cause you to become lost or injured in the desert with even less supplies.

The Decision

Given the circumstances above and the pros/cons of each choice, it's time to decide which course of action you'd take. Would you prefer to leave your vehicle, knowing the high risk and high potential for reward? Or would you take the safer route, staying with your vehicle to conserve energy and remain in the shade?

Enter your decision into the poll below, and feel free to justify that choice in the comments section.

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