Low thunder filled the early-morning air, rattling the windows and setting off car alarms on the street. With clear skies and no chance of rain, you suspect something is happening. The TV channels are all “snow,” and cell reception is nonexistent. The power soon goes out, followed quickly by water pressure. The smell of cordite drifts through the air as the booming gets closer.
Rumors fill the streets: Invasion? Military action? Marshal law?
Throwing your gear into the back of your truck, you take the backcountry roads out of town to avoid the exodus of people. Three hundred miles from home, your engine conks out. You’ve run out of gas.
If only you owned a diesel vehicle, you’d still be heading toward safety.What Is Diesel Fuel?
We all know gasoline is made from refining crude oil, but exactly how oil is refined is a key concept that is often misunderstood. The basic method for refining is to boil the crude oil and then capture the various components of the crude by their boiling points. Heavier oil products can be used to create asphalt and tar. Somewhat lighter distillates produce gear oil, motor oil, and similar products. Moving up the scale, you get diesel/heating oil, kerosene, gasoline, and then various lightweight oils and naphtha, all the way up to petroleum gas—the lightest of all.Return of the Diesel
Diesel cars have long had a bad reputation in the United States, and it’s generally a fair rap to say that they’ve been dirty, underpowered, and no fun to drive. Part of that is because American #2 diesel has been a dumping ground for the gunk and grime left over from the petroleum refining process, but part of that has been the fair market evaluation of previous generations of diesel-powered cars.
The current crop of diesels you can buy—from the VW Jetta to the Chevy Cruze to the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel pickup—is a far cry from the diesels your parents bought after the first gas crunch in the 1970s. The new bywords for diesel are “power” and “performance.” And, if you’re ready to step up to a heavy-duty pickup, any of the “Big Three” automakers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) can give you a ¾- or 1-ton truck with a diesel engine that can pull an entire city block—with the street still attached.
J.D. Power & Associates has projected that diesel-powered vehicles will rise to 14 percent of total U.S. auto sales by 2017. This means that the availability of diesel vehicles and diesel fuel will continue to rise across the country. That’s good news for people looking for an emergency or bugout vehicle with range, reliability, and flexibility.Get Farther Away
There are many good reasons to choose diesel for your bugout vehicle. The first—and perhaps, the most important—reason is that a diesel vehicle generally has a much longer range than a gas-powered car. Diesels such as the VW Jetta are rated at 46 mpg on the highway, but any diesel Jetta owner can tell you that you can get up to 60 mpg in real-world circumstances if you’re careful. The new Ram 1500 EcoDiesel gets 29 mpg on the highway and advertises a total range of 754 miles on a full tank.
So, combine the excellent fuel economy of any diesel with a largish tank and you’ve got the ability to get where you’re going without stopping; and that, right there, can make all the difference in the world. When you’re bugging out and time is of the essence, having enough fuel on board to take you anywhere you need to go is a benefit far beyond the price difference of a diesel when you bought the car. Also, in a bugout situation, you can’t rely on the availability of any fuel along your route.A Reliable Performance Car
Diesel engines are every bit as reliable as gasoline-powered engines, in large part because they have no ignition system to go bad. In addition, modern turbo-diesels deliver excellent torque and horsepower, so don’t feel you’ll be driving around in a slow and dirty penalty box until bugout day. A full-size ¾-ton pickup with a turbo-diesel engine can out-accelerate many hot rod sport compact cars, and tuners can dial up even more power with a quick software change.A Safer Fuel
Diesel is a much easier fuel to store and carry than gasoline. You can carry 5 or 10 gallons on top of your car without worrying that you have a potential bomb over your head. You can also store your diesel quite effectively at home or at your bugout location. You just need to follow some simple rules for effectiveness and safety.
First, get good containers. Most modern containers are made of plastic, and that’s good. Gasoline is supposed to go in red containers, while diesel goes in yellow containers and kerosene goes in blue containers.
If your needs run to more than a few gallons, you can buy empty drums at farm supply stores. You can get the standard, 55-gallon drums or smaller, 30-gallon drums quite readily. You want to make sure your drums are completely dry before filling them, and then, leave them filled and sealed tightly until you plan to use the fuel. If you have a partially filled drum, the air inside will introduce water to your diesel fuel through condensation.
If you’re going to store fuel in drums, you need to keep that fuel safe, which means away from your home, your garage, and any sources of heat, sparks, or flame. A metal garden shed at least 50 feet from other structures is a good choice.
You also need to consider heat from the sun and air as dangers. If you fill your drum or plastic jug in winter, the fuel will expand as ambient temperatures rise, and the drum might burst. You’ll want to open it up from time to time and let the fumes out. Opening the drum will allow some moisture in, but that’s minimal and unavoidable.Driving Diesel Is Patriotic
We all know that diesels get great fuel economy, but there’s more to that than just saving some money at the pump.
The EPA estimates that if ⅓ of vehicles on the road in the United States were powered by diesel engines, we would save 1.4 million barrels of oil per day. That is exactly the amount of oil we import daily from Saudi Arabia.
We can dream about discovering new oil fields to make this country less dependent on foreign oil, or we can embrace the technology that achieves the same result. Contact your local, state, and federal representatives and ask them to reduce the taxes on diesel fuel, which are substantially higher than the burden placed on gasoline.A Multipurpose Fuel
Standard #2 diesel fuel in America is the same stuff as home heating oil. If you have a few drums sealed and stashed at your bugout location, you can run your heater and your vehicle on the same supply, greatly simplifying your stocking requirements and long-term needs.
You can also purchase electric generators and water heaters that run on diesel fuel, and thereby provide your bugout location with all the comforts of home using the same fuel source for heat, transportation, and electricity.The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, you need to rely on your bugout vehicle, and you need to choose a vehicle you can afford to buy and drive until bugout day. As you make your plans and decisions, it’s wise to consider standardizing on diesel as your fuel-of-choice. But be sure to make certain that diesel will work in your daily life—where is the nearest diesel station to your home and work? How much does diesel cost in your town, and does the price fluctuate during the winter and summer? Perhaps most of all, will you enjoy driving a diesel vehicle? If the answers are acceptable and fit into your plans and needs, a diesel-powered bugout vehicle could be the right answer for you.
16 – percentage of refined petroleum that becomes diesel
75 – percentage of diesel used by “on-highway” vehicles
8.73 million – barrels of gasoline used in the United States daily in 2012
50.9 – percentage of oil imported from other countries
74,000 – U.S. production of biodiesel in 2013
25.6 – percent increase in diesel car sales in 2012
796,794 – number of registered diesel cars in the United States in 2012
80.6 – cent tax on diesel fuel in Connecticut (highest in the nation)
32.4 – cent tax on diesel fuel in Alaska (lowest in the nation)
55 – percentage of gas stations in the United States that offer diesel fuel
“Bio-diesel” is a name given to a variety of fuel oils made from renewable plant mass. That’s a fancy way of saying that bio-diesel is made from grasses, canola, and other vegetable oils. This is then mixed in some measure with conventionally produced petroleum diesel.
The amount of biologically produced diesel is shown in the fuel grade at the pump. B5 fuel is 5 percent bio-diesel and 95 percent petro-diesel. B20 is 20 percent bio; B50 is 50 percent bio; and B99 is almost all bio-diesel.
Here’s the main thing to remember: Commercial bio-diesel can be used in any modern diesel engine with no changes, as long as the ambient temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Below that, the bio-diesel starts to congeal and can clog up your fuel filters. So, keep it to B20 or B5 in the winter; in the summer, you can safely use B99.
Note that bio-diesel is not the same as running your engine on vegetable oil or used French fry oil. That requires substantial changes to your engine and fuel injection systems. Commercial bio-diesel sold from a pump is the way you want to go.
Best of all, bio-diesel is produced in the United States from renewable resources, so you can feel good about where your money is going.
Jeff Zurschmeide is a freelance writer from Portland Oregon, who covers motor sports, cars, and other topics for many different newspapers, and magazines.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2019 print issue of American Survival Guide.