Using your RV to survive in an earthquake or other natural disaster

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May 15, 2010

By Bob Difley

earthquake_northridge2The sudden shaking of my office, pens and paperclips skittering across the desk, and the rental motorhomes outside on the RV  lot dancing like it was a Saturday night beach party. As any Californian instantly comprehends–another earthquake!

Even after the worst of  Hurricane Katrina had passed over, when the levees broke, every New Orleans resident knew–we’re still in for a BIG problem.

Mid-western tornadoes ravish the land, stacking what were once homes into piles of kindling. But those who stared in disbelief at the devastation knew of the extreme difficulties that still lay ahead.

In each of these circumstances, thousands of people are left without a roof over their heads. In the earthquake my sister-in-law’s house was knocked completely off it’s foundation, red-tagged. The earthquake only took a minute to render five people–including two young children and a grandmother–homeless. For the next four days, their only option was to sleep in their cars. No bathroom, no shower, no cooking facilities. Have you ever stopped to think how a natural disaster of similar proportions would affect your life?

Having a mechanically maintained and fully stocked RV could make a huge difference in the quality of your life following such a disaster. But do you have the skills to live in your RV for an extended time without support such as the hookups you normally take for granted? Obtaining supplies–food, water, and electrical power–may be  impossible due to flooded roads, fallen or damaged bridges and highways,  supplies inaccessible due to damaged or closed stores, power supplies cut off, water mains broken.

As an RV owner, to assure that you will be prepared for emergencies only takes a bit of planning, and if you develop the habit following each camping trip, no extra effort. To be sure of your preparedness leave your RV in a ready-to-go state , rather than wait until your next trip.

  • Replace all food used on trip, including adding several days more of  canned and dry stores (with long expiration dates) than you might carry for just a weekend trip–including extra toilet paper, paper towels, dishwashing and bar soap.
  • Fill your fuel, propane, and fresh water tanks.
  • Dump both holding tanks.
  • Launder all clothes, bedding, towels, etc. and return to rig.
  • Keep plenty of fresh batteries for flashlights, book reading lights, and all battery-operated devices. Consider buying a solar battery charger.
  • Fill at least one 6-gallon Jerry jug of back-up fresh water.
  • Verify that your fire extinguishers are up to date.
  • Upgrade your first aid kit and check that all contents are replaced after usage.
  • Keep on board an emergency backpacker’s water filter that would enable you to produce drinking water from even foul water sources, one that removes the microscopic bugs that could cause dysentery and other water-borne illnesses.
  • And don’t underestimate the emergency value of duct tape, wire ties, adequate tools, emergency instruction, repair, and survival manuals.

In an earthquake disaster, don’t extend your levelers until the aftershocks have stopped. And lastly, hone your boondocking skills, so that you can live comfortably without outside support until services return and roads and power supplies are repaired.

Check out my eBook, BOONDOCKING: Finding the Perfect Campsite on America’s Public Lands, to learn more about camping without hookups and other boondocking skills that could serve you well in a disaster.

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  3. Frenk Stayl

    Great advice and a unique perspective on the advantages of owning an RV. Thanks for sharing the information.

  4. Frenk Stayl

    Good Article… Well Presented. As a firefighter / EMT and an Amateur Radio Operator, my 28 ft. 5th wheel RV is equipped with an all band Ham Radio station and an all band ham radio antenna that snaps into antenna mounts attached to the roof ladder. The RV can be transformed into a transportable communicatioins center in minutes.Nice article. With my tendencies I’d be inclined to kick it up a few notches, though. I’d get a remote piece of land to take my RV to.

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  6. Nice article. With my tendencies I’d be inclined to kick it up a few notches, though. I’d get a remote piece of land to take my RV to. The land could just be a place to pull, but would ideally have a nice big shed to hold additional gear, fuel, etc. If the location was someplace decent, the remote land could double as a low-cost weekend getaway destination.

    – Ranger Man

  7. Jerry Whalen

    Good Article… Well Presented. As a firefighter / EMT and an Amateur Radio Operator, my 28 ft. 5th wheel RV is equipped with an all band Ham Radio station and an all band ham radio antenna that snaps into antenna mounts attached to the roof ladder. The RV can be transformed into a transportable communicatioins center in minutes. A 7 1/2 KW generator accompanies the RV.

    A large EMT first aid jump kit with extra trauma supplies & fire extinguishers can be found in my tow vehicle.

    our RV is stocked with clothing and family medication that we can evacuate at a moments notice.

  8. Good brief article, and the ideas expanded on in the comments are excellent. I will probably link to this article in my blog,, in the near future. Hopefully your site will do more articles of this nature in the near future.

  9. I am impressed and grateful to all of you that commented and added your own terrific tips and anecdotes. The information you have provided here not only is a functional and complete course in case of emergencies or natural disasters, but also for improving everyone’s–not the least my–preparedness and knowledge if–or when–I need it. Thanks again to all of you.

  10. Silas Deane

    Lots of good advice. I had a couple of experiences already. I bought an old class C to use on job sites.
    1. Shortly after Katrina hit and we were asked to go help. 4 of us traveled the 500 miles, and lived in it for over 2 weeks. We always had AC at night and that was the real blessing. At first there was no power anywhere, but big generators (light rigs) started appearing at relefe centers and at the churches we were working with At night we just plugged into one of them. No one seemed to care. As some power was restored, I found that nearly any business would let us plug in for the night for free. The other thing I noticed was that residents that had motorhomes and campers often stayed under overpasses and bridges for shade and weather protection.
    2. During the Ky Ice storm with no electricity for over 3 weeks in January, we pulled the class C (actually had to drag it with the farm tractor) up near the house and used the 4000 w Onan to power some essentials in the house.
    3. I just recently bought a Class A with a 6000 w generator and am better prepared.

  11. Don Bledsoe

    I read the orginal article and all the posts. Have to agree with most of them. Two things I feel are missing; Money & prescription Rx’s. ATM’s will go. Try to keep some ready cash. If the power is down doctors offices cannot access your medical records. Get a copy of your records and a 3 week supply of your meds. Keep them in a carry-all, along with insurance cards etc. where you can grab it as you leave the house. Also, be sure if you have pets, the same thing for any meds they have to have. FEMA and the Red Cross teach us to be prepared to be self-sufficent for at least 72 hrs. Remember, the Red Cross is made up of your neighbors, as is the fire department, local police and the entire Emergency Management Department. They may have the same problems you have. Take classes, get informed, get involved!

  12. Jack L Haskins

    Good article, but based on personal experience one thing is missing. When all of Pensacola lost electrical power in hurricane Ivan in 2004 I quickly found out how fast a generator running 24/7 will use gasoline. I had enough (almost a full tank) to keep me going until a few gas stations were open, but at 10 gallons a day, that would not last long. When my cousin in Atlanta called and said she was coming down to get her mother, and could she bring me anything. Yes! A gas can! (I did not ask them to transport it full in their trunk!) There were none to be had within 50 miles of Pensacola and I did not want to be breaking camp every few days to go fill the RV tank. With the 5 gallon can we were able to keep cool and comfy in our motor home for 3 weeks-until electricity was restored to our remote location. Get a gas can!

  13. P

    My parents lived in their RV for 9 months in their driveway following Hurricane Charley’s destruction and back to back hurricane season of 2004 in Florida (Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne).

    Thank God they had it. It was a life saver!

  14. Darlene Loilet

    The original article was very helpful, but I was shocked by some of the comments. I live in LA and was at the epicenter of the San Fernando earthquake. My Black, White, Hispanic and Asian neighbors were as calm, resouceful and kind. to my family and me as we were to them. We all took heavy losses. The rubble from my cupboards and refrigerator was over a foot deep. Most of our houses were damaged, but our losses seemed small because many people had died. We had no power for weeks and no water to our hones for months. Water trucks and portopoties were stationed in neighborhoods. It was tough, but we helped each other. That is the American way. Why do so many of you people from other areas think that we Angelenos are savages? Most of us are good people.

  15. Jack Nixon

    Remember if your RV is next to your house or in the backyard it will likely sustain the same damage as your home. An accessible high ground storage site away from home might be a good idea.

    Giving a contact phone number to your family is the same. Use a contact person 100 or more miles away who would not be as likely to sustain utility damage the same as you. Plan on a meeting place for family members who are trying to get home from work or school. Remember to keep some money on hand. When the power goes out so do the ATM machines.

  16. Dave Bryant

    Lots of good advice here. I live in Tampa in a restricted community. However, when a hurricane warning is issued for my area our Winnebago gets moved from the storage lot to my driveway in front of my garage door. It is stocked with all tanks empty and full as needed. That way I effectively have a spare house for a worst case scenerio. On e more addition is one or more quality firearms and extra ammo. Get some good training with it too. As a police officer who served on a mutual aid task force in Mississippi dafter Katrina, I can tell you that when the lights go out and emergency services are overwhelmed and unavailable, you need to be able to protect yourself. Having the means to do so reduces your need to do so. Be a survivor not a victim!

  17. sue kubecka

    We’re on the Texas Gulf Coast and have just seen Alex arrive; luckily just a lot of water and wind; no problems w/electricity this time. Have enjoyed the previous comments; sure make you think! Thanks for the info.

  18. onetimetraveler

    All good advice. I have a few to add. if your in the city, try to get out, get to the country or suburbs. The have’s will lose when the have not’s gather and the mob mentality sets in.
    For fresh water refills consider having on board a small 12 volt pump and collapsable hose, with a portable battery at the water source and pump, the reason is, it is easier to push water up a hose than to suck it from the source. carry bleach and if your handy. Fashion a filter from 3 inch pvc with end caps and hose fittings, fill it with charcoal, fish tank type will do. boil all water you intend to drink.
    Personally I can my own meats, a quart jar of chicken,beef,venison, or pork will feed a family of four with leftovers. to keep the jars safe from vibration, I slide old socks over the jars cut to size. ( I said old socks guys, not dirty!) keep plenty of noodles and rice on hand. As for sharing…personally I wouldn’t. dropping your defense shield and allowing someone past your door exposes your family to danger.
    Teach everyone old enough to shoot the weapons you have, don’t wait till you need the extra protection, teach them in a controlled setting without pressure. I know! as the man you feel protecting the family is your job. just remember…the criminal type knows that too. and keep in mind that we are animals too. just slightly civilized, but that will change as soon as the lights go out and the creature comforts are gone like water, food, electric. Most people are decent, god fearing people, But the con man knows how to pretend. keep your family safe, keep a low profile. (don’t run lights at night, you’ll attract more than bugs) .

  19. I’m a seminar instructor who drives all over the country in a Sprinter van and have come close to being in major disasters like tornadoes and earthquakes dozens of times. So I also carry a basic GO KIT in the van which includes food, water, and tools such as a folding saw, candles, matches, etc… However, one other thing you should consider for your RV is family communication and weather alert radios. Sure, your in-dash radio is useful as a general intel tool and certainly Ham radios are great for long distances. But you can get hand-crank radios from companies such as Eton that also include the weather radio bands as well as a flashlight and solar/crank/DC charging system for less than $50.

    Also, I think it’s a good idea to throw in a few FRS walkie-talkies in your glovebox along with spare batteries or a crank charger. These little $10 radios will not only let you communicate with immediate family around your campsite, but also can aid search and rescue efforts since they can be picked up by rescue teams for miles, depending on the terrain. Check out the National SOS radio group at on how to use your FRS walkie-talkie to summon help in an emergency such as a hurricane.

  20. Excellent Article!

    We have kept our RV stocked with food (mostly canned & sealed and even then we rotate it), fresh water, gasoline, and fully charged batteries (to run the inverter so that the generator is only occasionally used) since 1991.

    Before moving to Oregon, I lived most of my life in California where earthquakes are common. In 1994 we actually used our RV for just this purpose, but not for us but for close friends whose home was destroyed by the Northridge earthquake (they lived in it for about two weeks before finding another place to live)

    One thought/opinion is that assuming your RV is not parked where something may fall on it, the RV is especially useful in the event of an earthquake. I would hover question whether the RV is going to be of much use in the event of a tornado should your RV be parked next to the home as my bet would be that the home stands a better chance of surviving a tornado than the RV

  21. LkaeLili

    As recommended by most states and provinces, everyone should be maintaining a 72-hour preparedness kit, and most states/provinces will have a basic list on-line. These should be kept in your RV. You should also have two predetermined locations that you will go – two because one may be rendered inaccessible.

    Almost everywhere we camp there is a bathroom of some sort, so we took ours out and use the space as a pantry/walk-in closet.

    Also watch where you park your RV – you don’t want it somewhere when a wall will fall on it or behind electronic gates that might not work if the power is out.

    A reminder that most children will quickly require the re-establishment of the familiar – so have lots for them to do.

    Berkely water filters are the way to go to ensure quality water.

  22. Magster

    Since we leave Florida during the summers, I have always thought of our fifth wheel as something to live in while we are rebuilding a house that could be damaged or destroyed by a hurricane while we are away, If an early/late season storm is headed our way while we still are in state, see us hitch up and get outta Dodge.

  23. Mike Overton

    I have been thru this when we were hit with the worst ice storm we have ever had in this area of KY. We lost power for about three weeks, and with an all electric home and a small business to run we moved to the RV. We moved the RV to the business location and used the generator to keep the business open on a small scale while living in the RV. This was not a problem except I forgot to fill the propane thank after the last trip out. We were able to get the tank filled. A lesson learned (always top off your tanks) I’am glad we have the RV this was a life saver.


    To “catches the wind” on 5-15-10-I live in California and don’t agree with the ban on Arizona. I think these issues should be dealt with by each State as they see fit. That said – I have no love for Arizona – each time I have been there for job training – we were treated like second class citizens because everyone was fed up with the “tourists”. So let that state do what it will and who cares.

    To the subject at hand – this was a great article and we do have a motohome that is self sufficient for 2 to 3 weeks. It is stored in a storage yard and we do have concern about not being able to get it out if other rigs are pushed over, but we will still have a roof over our head if necessary.

  25. HJ Lamb

    I read the plugger for this book and ordered one. My survival skills are a tad rusty, but before I went to ‘nam, I had to go to all the military survival training schools. The main idea I remember being fused into everyone’s mind was in order to survive, you must have the will to do so. One thing I did not notice, but may be in the book and I realize is not a favorite subject amongst those with a liberal mindset is the aspect of suitable personal protection in the form of weaponry. I have a small group of wepons that I carrey with me and have available to grab and go in the blink of an eye. They consist of 2 hatchets, 2 kukri knives, short barreled 12 gauge pump shotgun with 250 rounds of mixed fare (25 rounds of #4 buck, 25 rounds of 00 buck, 25 rounds of slug and the remainder in #6 shot. I also carry a thompson center encore with 3 barrels for 30-06, .22 long rifle, and .405 winchester (for big game like elk or moose since I live in Montana). I also carry/pack a .45 auto and .357/38 spcl with 500 rounds for each pistol/revolver. I have a concealed carry permit and have undergone many years of firearms safety and training. It sounds like a lot but the weapons break down small enough to fit into a plastic water tight container (the kind you can fit under your bed or under the couch in my class C rig). I stay proficient at the range and can do my own repairs with many of the spare parts I carry in my tool box. My next acquisition will be a solar kit to help keep batteries charged. I also have a good stocking of MREs I purchased at the local military exchange. These things beat the heck out of the old C and K rations and have a long shelf life if kept cool and dry. My early warning system is a pair of highly trained Weimaraners that can retrieve wet or dry. They are not aggressive but will react if my family is threatened. I am not by any means a survivalist but my boy scout years always gave me an appreciation for their motto, “Be Prepared.”

  26. Duffer

    Bob Difley,
    I’m really glad you wrote this. There is a lot to consider, and many of your suggestions are spot on for surviving disasters. One nagging thought that I’ve mulled over and over with no good answer is what do you do when strangers come knocking on your door asking you to share your shelter’s stuff. Especially during a disaster. You only have so much water and so much food and so much tank storage capacity.

    For example, what do you say to them when they come a knocking asking to use your head facilities because their kid or grandma just can’t wait any longer. So then a line forms outside your door. Or they say that some member of their party is sick or infirm and they need the shelter from the elements that your RV offers….just for a little while. So then a line forms outside your door. Or when they say they are completely out of water or some other supply and they want to know if you have some. Of course, you do, so then a line forms outside your door.

    One answer I have is to say that as long as I have something they need, they can have it, but if I give it to them, then I don’t have it for my family, who will surely need it soon. I’ve prepared my RV for emergencies to support my immediate family, and I’ve searched my soul for what I could say if a stranger came a’knockin’.

    Even imagined being on the Interstate, driving us up an evacuation route and while traffic is stopped, the strangers form a line outside my MH because they believe that the head in my MH is the answer to their bowel or urinary issues. Yes, I have protection aboard, but it’s just not right for this kind of situation. I’d like to assist, but just can’t without removing the planned accommodation for my own family. What do you say?? How do you approach that kind of emergency situation? Do you just give up your reserves to strangers who have a compelling story and think that since you have an RV that you have ‘plenty’ to spare?

    You know, there was a movie a few years back where one of the characters had to ‘really go bad’, in a traffic jam in California, and he forced himself upon a motor home driver to use the head and made an unimaginable mess in the guy’s RV.

    Up until now, my standard answer, if asked, has been, “It’s not working”, and “Sorry, I’m out”.

  27. Tige

    You can outrun a tornado. We were driving through Oklahoma once, listening to a local radio station for weather information so knew where not to go. We could see a twister in the distance but were able to avoid it.

  28. Jim G

    Great advice and a unique perspective on the advantages of owning an RV. Here in RI we experienced flooding rains in March and while it would be unadvisable, even dangerous, to venture out during the rains having the RV came in handy as it served as an ideal temporary residence, in our driveway while we cleaned up and pumped out for several days post rain/floods.

  29. Jim Meehan

    One question I have always had is what do you do in a natural disaster if you are in the RV. Take a tornado and you are on the road. Do you stop and go outside into the lowest point (usually a drainage ditch). This spring I was noticing a number of culverts on one road and thought that getting into one at the end would be good, then if a flash flood came it would pop you out the end
    Whats the best way when you see evidence of a twister?

  30. Tige

    Good advise Bob and thanks to Larry–I guess I should get a ham license again. I let mine go 50 years ago (W5RLC)–glad to know I won’t have to pass a code test again!

  31. catchesthewind

    Step 1. Stay out of Kalifornia.
    Step 2. Because of the stupidity of the LA and S.F. city councils boycott california and spend your money in Arizona then follow Bob Difleys advice.

  32. Thomas W. Pittman

    the one item that was left out of the necessary listing is self protection–a pistol or shotgun is handy to have when the bad & evil folks show up & theycould injure or kill you & your family & steal you RV–i would never in an want to be at the mercy of criminals & thiefs without a way to defend myself & family–also of course you should have your cell phone & charger–we are provisioned for an extended stay–with genertor & fuel for it–

  33. charles cox

    Two or three?? winters ago we had a severe ice storm here in the midwest. No power for several days, temps below freezing, and roads mostly impassable for the first few days.
    Our 1991 class C was our home for 4-5 days. The generator won’t run when the rv fuel tank gets down to 1/4 full.
    I happened to be looking at my generator manual tonight when i opened your article. My genset uses 0.6gal/hr of fuel at half loads and 0.8gal/hr at full-loads. when you multiply this times 24hrs/day. we haven’t had a lot of experience at boondocking so the gas went pretty fast.
    Fortunately we got power restored just about the time we got to the 1/4 full mark.
    Since then I try to keep 10-15 gal of gas stored (with stabilizer) in a site away from the house at all times.
    The idea of having a water filter is a good one that I hadn’t considered (we keep quite a few gals of drinking water stored). I could imagine a time when the stored water would be gone or not available and the water filter would literally be a lifesaver.
    thanks for a good article.

  34. First my house burned down in 89. So I stayed in my travel trailer while I rebuilt.
    Then after the flood of 1994 ruined my six months old new house, I was very glad that I had the sanctuary of my little 18′ Class C. That was my home for many weeks, until I was able to find, and buy, a used 40′ park model. I lived in that for 3 years while I built again for the third time. Life happens, deal with it, and be prepared with an RV.

  35. Larry

    One thing RV’ers should consider is becoming a Ham Radio operator. Cell phones go down within minutes, CBs have very limited range, and land lines are useless – Having lived in California, Alaska and now Oregon I know how ugly it can get after a major quake. Those who need to contact family members in other states have few options for communiation with folks outside their area once the disaster strikes, but amature radio provides a method that can span the globe. Check it out. It is relatively easy (no morse code or heavy math for those who fear either) and the cost for a mobile transciever is modest compare to what we all spend on the rest of our rig’s amenities.

  36. Sheila Allison

    super advice to everyone. Wayne and I have always kept this in mind and kept the camper supplied. Even a house fire, trees landing on powerlines, woodfires, evaucation for hazard spill, ect. One other thought is pet owners. we can’t leave them behind. canned food and dry and replace them ever so often. Maybe rotate them with the house food. An easy put up and take down pen for them while outside.

  37. Sterling Fritz

    Excellent article. I work as a volunteer in community disaster preparedness, response, and recovery, and I have even thought about how I could use my motorhome to bring relief to others, as well as provide shelter to myself and my family. I jokingly tell my fellow disaster prep buddies that my entire motorhome is my personal preparedness kit.

  38. Great advice!! I have a pop-up and it would be different if I had to live out of it for several weeks, but it is my second home. Some of the things you said we already do, other things we are going to think about. Thanks Fred

  39. Gord

    Hey, we were in Yuma for the 7.2 this year. Normally, we get a lot of tremors and generally pay them no mind. This one was different (for me being a Snowbird). What impressed was the frequency of shaking – it was very high. Didn’t think my motorhome could vibrate that fast as there is a lot of mass to move back and forth. But it did. Everything off the table/shelves. A few broken things. Scary!
    I have a lot more respect for Mother nature doing her thing. Several people died within 50 miles of where we were. Would not want to experience anything stronger.