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If you close your eyes and envision the ideal bug-out vehicle, what does it look like? Most of us know the key aspects to consider—a powerful engine, excellent reliability, high ground clearance, four-wheel-drive, bright lights, and plenty of storage space for all the gear you might need. You might even think of less obvious elements, such as long-distance fuel economy, ease of repair, and the ability to maximize capability while still blending into traffic. If you're in a really extreme scenario, you might wish for armor plating or bulletproof glass.
However, there's one essential component of every modern vehicle that can make or break your bug-out plans: tires.
Without these seemingly simple pieces of rubber, your car or truck won't be going anywhere, and every other feature we listed above will be rendered meaningless. Just imagine trying to weave through congested traffic on a set of bald or punctured tires, or trying to tackle a steep mountain path while riding on bare metal rims. You'd be stuck literally spinning your wheels while SHTF, and that's not a situation anyone wants to be in.
Given the importance of tires to any vehicle-based survival plan, we've been on the lookout for an opportunity to demonstrate this point firsthand. Fortunately, that opportunity was presented to us on a silver platter by the folks at Continental Tire and General Tire. They sent us an email letting us know about the launch of two new tire models, the Continental TerrainContact all-terrain and the General Grabber X3 extreme-terrain/mud-terrain. Rather than simply informing the public via a boilerplate press release, they invited us to come out to rural Pennsylvania and put some actual miles on these new tire models.
So, we jumped at the chance, and hopped on a red-eye flight from our home base in California. A few hours later, we arrived at the Unpaved event in Farmington, Pennsylvania (about 1.5 hours from Pittsburgh). Product engineers from the Continental and General teams gave a short presentation about the features of each tire, but rather than bore you with these details, we'll jump straight to the main event, and cover the features of each new tire as we go.
Our tire testing started with the milder of the two off-road capable tires at this event, the Continental TerrainContact A/T. This all-terrain tire is designed for drivers who spend most of their time on paved roads, with sufficient added capability for wet conditions and some off-road use. Think of it as a choice for the daily-driven bug-out truck or SUV, since it provides solid traction and durability without sacrificing a smooth and quiet ride. Not everyone wants (or needs) to be roaring down the road on knobbly mud-terrains 24/7, so the TerrainContact acts as a nice middle ground.
First, we tested the TerrainContact behind the wheel of some Ford F-250s, via a wet “stop box” test. Hoses sprayed water across an asphalt runway, as we pushed the F-250s to 55 miles per hour and slammed on the brakes after entering the wet zone. The 6,000-pound behemoths skidded to a halt, and an onboard data-logger listed the number of feet it took to cease forward momentum. In our testing, we found the Continental tire stopped about 6 feet sooner than its closest competitor—that's more than enough to avoid a rear-end collision while panic-braking in the rain.
Other testing for this tire included some on-road cruising, as well as a drive-by noise test that compared the Continental to other similar all-terrains. We found the TerrainContact to be easily at the top of the pack in each of these tests, making it a strong choice for daily-driven vehicles that see occasional off-road use.
While we liked the TerrainContact just fine, we won't lie—we were far more interested in the new General Grabber X3. This new “extreme-terrain/mud-terrain” tire is built for the serious off-road enthusiast, and it would be well-suited for any bug-out truck build. It's certainly not going to be as smooth and quiet as the TerrainContact during on-road use, but it makes up for this with truly incredible off-road performance.
The X3 in this tire's name indicates its three-point goal: extreme performance on mud, dirt, and rock. It uses large voids in the tread pattern to scoop its way through mud, features stone bumpers in the tread channels to release dirt and debris, and includes alternating sidewall lugs for grip on steep rock faces. Years of R&D were spent on this three-ply design, and 16 different tread patterns were tested before settling on the final tire you see here.
Our adventure with the Grabber X3 started behind the wheel of one of over a dozen Jeep Wrangler Rubicons, all of which General had outfitted with their new tires. We then spent several hours in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, on an off-road course that included narrow forest paths, steep dirt ridges, deep ruts, mud, water, and an obstacle known as the Rock Garden. These tests were surprisingly challenging, both for our Jeeps and the tires themselves.
The course began in a relatively tame manner, following sandy tracks that weaved through trees and undergrowth. However, the terrain got progressively steeper, climbing over hills and ridges that left some of our Jeeps riding on three wheels and clawing for traction.
Eventually we reached the first major obstacle of the course: the Rock Garden. Our Jeeps approached the ascent one at a time, with tires aired down to 14psi, 4-Lo engaged on the transfer cases, and the transmissions locked into first gear.
Each driver crawled over the angular rocks, taking care to maintain a safe line and not smash the differentials or axles into outcroppings. Spotters on the course were on hand to help out, as the angle of the grade made it tricky to see the rocks directly ahead.
After each driver cleared this obstacle course, we continued down another dirt path to the next event: the mud pit. Mud might not be the right word for it, since it had turned into more of a water crossing by the time we arrived. However, there was still plenty of mud to be found on entry and exit.
We had to approach the pit carefully, since the high water level reached dangerously close to our Jeeps' air intakes, which sit directly behind the passenger-side headlight. If any driver entered too quickly, there was a risk of water rising into the airbox and getting sucked into the engine, which can result in hydrolock and serious internal engine damage. Despite some disconcerting noises from the radiator fans as they dropped below the water's surface, everyone made it out unscathed.
After the mud pit and some more time on the trails, we headed back to civilization. We had tested the Grabber X3 thoroughly, and each of the Jeeps was caked in mud to prove it.
We had a blast at the Unpaved event, and got to learn firsthand why good tires matter—especially in tough off-road conditions. The TerrainContact performed well for day-to-day use on the road, and the Grabber X3 seems to be a very worthy replacement for the venerable red-letter Grabber that preceded it. With a capable off-road vehicle like one of these Rubicons shod in Grabber X3s, we'd feel confident heading out into the backcountry.
Even if you're not passionate about off-roading, it's essential to understand that the tires you choose for your vehicle can make or break its capabilities in emergency situations. They're more than just rubber, and if you choose the cheapest option available, you might just find out why. Quality tires are necessary for a bug-out vehicle, and based on our testing, these Grabbers appear to fit the bill.
As if all this wasn't enough manly activities for one day, we then headed out to a nearby range to do some skeet shooting with the other Unpaved participants. (Not to pat ourselves on the back, but our team did take first place.) The evening ended with dinner and drinks—a pretty awesome day, if you ask us.
Many thanks to the team at Continental and General for the invite, and for letting us hoon around the off-road course in the name of testing. We had a great time, got muddy, and learned a lot about the years of work that go into designing an off-road tire.