Steven Law

7 essential items to have in your vehicle during a backcountry journey

By Steven Law, Contributor | Posted - Mar 13th, 2014 @ 11:13am

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SALT LAKE CITY — I used to own a Geo Prizm and, despite what you may think, I loved that car. It was zippy and fun to drive, it got great gas mileage and it was dependable in every way but one — If I left my headlights on it had no dinger to signal me to turn them off. And one time, during a snowshoeing outing in the Yellowstone backcountry I left them on. When we returned to my car eight hours later, my car battery was dead.

We were more than 20 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs, the nearest town. We had no cellphone reception. The temperature was already below freezing and still dropping. It was going to be dark in about 10 minutes. And after snowshoeing more than 10 miles through deep snow we were already exhausted. It could have turned into a very dire situation.

Fortunately, I carried a self-contained car battery jumper in my trunk. I hooked it up to my car, gave myself a jumpstart and 30 minutes later, we were back at Mammoth Hot Springs eating appetizers.

If things go wrong when you’re in the city it’s inconvenient to be sure, but in a city you’re surrounded by resources. If something goes wrong when you’re deep in the backcountry you are your only resource. I’ve spent decades exploring Utah’s amazing backcountry wonders — encountering a few problems along the way — and when I embark on a new adventure, I make sure I have seven essential items packed in my vehicle for the trip.

A self-contained battery jumper

If your car battery dies when you’re a hundred miles into the interior of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, your options just got very limited. You can hunker down and wait for someone to pass by and hope they have jumper cables or you can start walking. And depending on other factors — how much water and food you have, and severity of weather — being stranded in the middle of nowhere could become a life-or-death situation.

A fully charged battery jumper has more than 10 jumps in it. It attaches to the terminals of your battery like regular jumper cables. Of course, make sure it’s charged before you leave on your adventure. You can find them at Wal-Mart, PepBoys or order online for between $65 - $209.

Cellphone booster

Even with immaculate planning and preparation, things can go wrong when you’re roaming around in the backcountry and when that happens a cellphone booster can save your bacon. A good cellphone booster can boost your signal from one bar up to full strength. But in order for it to work you need to have at least one bar. If you have zero bars, your cellphone booster will also have zero bars. I prefer Wilson Electronics' version. It's compact and very easy to use. You just slide your cellphone into a cradle built into the booster, then use your cell as you normally would. They're also available at Radio Shack and Wal-Mart.

Car cellphone charger

When you return to your car after a three-day backpacking trip, your cellphone may be dead. Most of us have one of these in our cars already. Even if you don’t need to use your phone for emergency purposes it’s nice to call your loved ones and let them know you’re safe and on your way back home.

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GPS with bread crumb capabilities

If you’ve spent any time exploring southern Utah’s backcountry then you’ve noticed that those BLM roads can quickly become a confusing maze. The only thing worse than getting lost on the way to your backcountry destination is getting lost on your way out. For that reason I bring a GPS with me.

Most GPS units have a “bread crumbs” feature that, when you activate it, marks the route you’re traveling as a line of dashmarks on the screen. Four days later when you’re on your way back home and all the branching dirt roads look the same, and you’re not sure which one to take, you can consult your GPS and follow your trail of “bread crumbs” back out.

Fold up shovel

Whether it's mud, snow, or deep sand vehicles get stuck and digging yourself out goes a lot faster if you have a shovel.

Four small rolls of carpet

If you’ve ever traveled through southern Utah’s backcountry you’ve encountered driving through deep sand, and you know it’s easy to get stuck in deep sand. There are a few tricks you can use to help you avoid getting stuck in the sand, but sometimes it happens anyways. For those occasions, I keep four strips of carpet rolled up in the back of my vehicle. They should be a little wider than your tires, and about 4 feet long. If you get stuck in the sand dig your tires out with your shovel, creating a ramp, then place a strip of carpet in front of each wheel. Try to jam the carpet up under the tire a little ways. Now, slowly drive forward, and instead of burrowing deeper into the sand your tires will drive forward onto the carpet.

Onboard air compressor

One great trick for driving through deep sand without getting stuck is to lower the air pressure in your tires. This makes them softer and wider (thus more traction). And sometimes you have to drop your tire pressure as low as 18 or 20 pounds. But when you get back to the highway you’ll need to air those tires back up and for that you’ll need an onboard air compressor. You can get a real serious compressor that mounts beneath your truck, but you can also keep a stowaway model in the back with your off-road supplies that plugs into your cigarette lighter.

Steven Law is a frequent contributor to's Outdoor and Recreation page.


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