What to Do if Your Vehicle Breaks Down in theOutback

October 01, 2015
What to Do if Your Vehicle Breaks Down in the Outback

It’s hot. It’s hot. It’s bloody hot.

It’s hard not to think about anything else as you sit in the cab of your 4WD. But all there is to do now is wait…

“One guy was found in WA a couple of months ago. His wife was found okay back at the vehicle, but he had died two kilometres from the main road.”

Bob Cooper has countless stories similar to this one. As Australia’s leading Outback Survival expert, he is all too familiar with what can go wrong in Australia’s harshest environments when you are unprepared and when you make decisions based on your fears, real or perceived.

This story, in particular, is a tragic example of the most common mistake people make when their vehicle breaks down in the Outback — they leave it, hoping to make it to safety on foot. They think, no one will find me out here…no one knows where I am. I had better try and get back to the road and flag someone down.

What started out as a mishap has turned into a tragedy; it’s not uncommon for rescue crews to find an abundant supply of water in vehicles left in search of aid. With the help of Bob Cooper, we’re aiming to give you the knowledge so that if you are ever in a similar situation you will take action based on what you know, rather than what you think you know. Knowledge dispels fear – an old saying but very true.

Bob Cooper 4 wheel drive

See also: The two biggest misconceptions about survival situations

Preparation and Prevention

This might seem the like the most obvious point to make, but it is unfortunately also the most frequently overlooked. If you take the right supplies and equipment with you in the first place (i.e. 20 extra litres of drinking water) there is a good chance you can survive a breakdown or a bog.

There are a number of other preparations you should have already made that will ensure that – even if you end up spending a few days with your vehicle – you will eventually be found. Before you even get behind the wheel, you need to make sure that someone knows where you are going, and for exactly how long. It’s no good telling your friends or family members that you might be back on Sunday night. You need to give them a precise expected time of return, and also, make sure they know when you expect them to notify the authorities should you not have returned at that time.

If your friend is able and prepared to, they can set out in search of you; but, they then need to also tell someone where they are headed and their own expected time of return. You don’t want them to end up in the same situation as you.

If you are not from the area, (or you don't have anyone to notify) before you set out on your Outback adventure “you can always notify a local police station before you go.” Bob said. If you are passing back that way on your return home, you can drop in and tell them that you have got back safely. If you are leaving the desert by another route, you can notify any police station. They will make sure the station you initially contacted is aware you have returned.

Think of driving into the desert as going out to sea. Follow the example of boaties: make a trip report detailing your departure and expected return times. Close the report upon your return to ensure no one goes looking for you unnecessarily.

Broken down – steps to ensuring you return safely

Something has gone wrong with your vehicle. Perhaps the radiator has overheated. Perhaps you forgot to bring enough fuel with you. Maybe you are severely bogged and can’t get your vehicle unstuck. Whatever has happened, one thing is certain: your vehicle is not going to move…

You might be thinking at this point that your vehicle is useless, but in actual fact, your vehicle is your most valuable piece of technology, even when it won’t go anywhere.

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See also: Top tips for first time four-wheel drivers

Step 1: Stay with your vehicle

It is a seemingly rational thought – my vehicle has broken down. If I stay in the desert I will die. I need to go and find help. Staying in this heat will kill me.

Unfortunately, what seems rational is often misguided when we lack the skills and knowledge to handle extreme survival situations. Your vehicle is useful for more than just getting you from A to B:

  • A: It is a lot more noticeable than you — especially with the hood up.

Bob reminds us that “It’s the international sign of distress. If your hood is not up, a plane flying overhead or a vehicle off in the distance might just think you are prospecting, or taking pictures, or camping.”

  • B: Your vehicle is your study room.

If you have read Bob Cooper’s advice on "What to do if you Get Lost in the Bush Hiking" you will be familiar with this concept.

We all get scared in these situations initially, but there is a way to help dispel that fear before it fully sets in. Bob suggests you take out pen and paper, make a cup of tea (if you have the supplies - if not then drink a cup of water) and write down the five essentials for survival: water, shelter, warmth, signals, food.

"Always make food your last priority because no-one in Australia has died of starvation; it has been from dehydration or exposure to the elements."

Your vehicle should also have a radio, in which case you should be listening to the ABC Regional radio channel because they are responsible for broadcasting all bad weather alerts and road closures, and will announce any search and rescue operations taking place.

Water Procurement Methods

Now that you have established your immediate priorities you can set about ticking off your list. With each tick comes a little bit of confidence; with each tick, you dispel more fear.

In any survival situation, these are your priorities. If you know a little bit about obtaining water from your vehicle and from your environment, you will find that ‘water’ is ticked off your list before you even start to worry.

The great thing about your vehicle is that in some cases it immediately takes care of ‘shelter’ and ‘warmth’ for you. You can get out of the sun or rain and create a microclimate quickly if it’s cold.

In your comfortable study room, you can now list the ways to obtain water in the Outback...

  • Clear plastic bags over non-toxic trees: A plastic bag is quickly turned into a vital tool in the outback. When pulled over the ends of trees and left in sunlight even for a few hours, transpiration (water vapour) condenses and collects, clean and ready for you to drink.

  • Collect dew in the morning using your clothing: You can use a rag or your clothing to collect dew by wrapping it around your legs and walking through dew-laden plants or by wiping the surface of your vehicle. Soak up every last drop, and wring it out into a dish and drink when thirsty.

  • You can collect water from the roots of non-toxic trees: This one requires a working knowledge of some regional plant species. Carrying one of Bob Cooper’s books in your glove box isn’t a bad idea at all (just in case you need to refer to some sketches of the process).

  • You can squeeze water out of succulents commonly called Pig Face (carpo brotus)

pig face

See also: Great tips for driving long haul

  • You can collect water from the condenser pipe of the air conditioning system of your vehicle: Another excellent reason to stay with your ‘inoperable’ 4WD. You can get around two litres of fresh clean water from half a tank of fuel if your car engine is running. A plastic bag proves its worth again, but you should have an empty container of some sort lying around because you wouldn’t go into the desert without any water at all would you? And don't forget to put on the ABC regional radio station while it's running.


You’ve got water, now it’s time to be seen. Your hood’s already up which is a good sign that you are having vehicle trouble and increases the apparent size of your vehicle.

Now there are a few things you can do to further increase the likelihood that, if someone passes through the area, they see you – even if they weren’t looking out for you in the first place.

“Remove your wing mirrors. You can use these to signal aircraft and other people driving through the area. The next step is to build a tripod of sticks about two metres tall next to your vehicle. You will then hang everything off it that will shine, or that will provide contrast to the surrounding environment. This is called a signal tripod. You can then flash the wing mirrors confirming to someone looking your way that you are indeed in trouble. White toilet paper works well wrapped around sticks to spell out HELP or SOS – as large as possible.”

“The next thing you can do is take your spare tyre – a short safe distance away from your vehicle this time – deflate it and set it on fire. That acrid black smoke and the pungent smell may alert search teams or people nearby, and is very different to the smell or appearance of bush fires or campfires.”

“In areas where bushfire risk is high, pull away all the vegetation from around the area where you plan to light the fire. This is called a mineral earth firebreak. It needs to be at least 3m wide to ensure that flames won’t reach anything that will catch. If it’s windy, or if it’s too dangerous, stick with the signal tripod and delay burning anything until it is safe to do so.”

It’s hot. It’s hot. It’s so bloody hot.

Sitting in the front seat of your 4WD, you’ve been running the AC every now and then with the engine on, collecting some water and enjoying the respite as the cool air fills the cab. You flick the radio on and roll the dial round to the ABC Regional radio hoping to hear something.

They should have reported me missing by now, you think to yourself.

But all you can do now is wait, knowing that you’ve done everything right and that searchers or anyone nearby would be hard-pressed not to investigate the billowing cloud of black smoke spiralling into the atmosphere only a couple of metres away from your signal tripod and ground to air signal.

I've done everything right. I've got water. I'm with my vehicle. They will find me, you remind yourself. Just as you pick up your wing mirror and reach for the door handle you hear a low familiar hum and step into the hot desert air to wave them down.

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