Common Car Breakdown Problems

For those of us that like to travel slightly further than the city limits to enjoy the wilderness means that we have to be self-sufficient. Help is a long way away if we break down out in the middle of nowhere. So how can we repair our vehicle when things go wrong without the proper tools?

Here are the top 10 common car breakdown problems and how to deal with the most common roadside emergencies.

Be aware that takes no responsibility for any damage to your vehicles or yourself from following these DIY car wilderness repairs. You can also be breaking road rules if driving unsafe vehicles on the road.

Common Car Breakdown Problems – Flat Tire and No Jack

flat tire no jack what to do

This actually happened to me a few years ago. I was out 4×4 driving in a national forest and my front left tire hit a very sharp tree trunk that was sticking out from the side of the road.

The tree completely pierced the side of the all-terrain Cooper tire and it was well beyond repair. Not even 10 tire plugs would fix this puncture. So no big deal I got the hydraulic jack out of the car and proceeded to jack up the car.

I didn’t even get the car front wheel off the ground before the main jack seal failed and the hydraulic fluid went everywhere. The bad part was that there was no way I could jack up the car to change the wheel.

This is where I had to think outside the box. I was in the middle of nowhere with no help, except for my wife and a few cold drinks in the cooler for comfort. So the solution was simple enough instead of jacking up the car we would dig under the car.

The first part is to put some rocks under the differential or jacking point to take the weight of the car. Logs would also work if they are cut short. Next loosen the wheel nuts slightly and then dig under the wheel you need to change. Start digging from the outside and work inwards.

Eventually, the car wheel will lower into the hole and the rocks will take the weight of the front end. Now, this is very dangerous so be careful and make sure the car is well supported with the handbrake on and in the park position or in 1st gear.

Once the hole is deep enough you can remove the flat wheel and replace it with the spare one. Now we can refill the hole and start to dig around the rocks slightly to release some of the weight. We should be able to drive off without too much trouble.

Never put any part of your body under a vehicle if its not mechanically supported 

Plugging a flat tire

If you get another flat tire and you have some tire plugs handy you can plug it yourself. Remove the wheel from the car to make the job easy. I have plugged a tire still on the car and it is hard work. Very uncomfortable lying down on the ground to fix it.

Locate the hole and remove any foreign objects. Use the reamer or rasp tool included in the puncture repair kit and push it through a few times. Now get the fiber plug and start inserting it into the hole you have just reemed out. This will take a bit of force to push in. A little bit of vaseline will help. Leve a 1/4 inch of the fiber plug exposed and trim it off.

Now you just have to pump up your tire, hopefully, there is an air compressor in the back of your car. I like to travel with a Stanley jump starter air compressor combo.

How to repair a coolant leak in the wilderness

car broken down in the wilderness

Keeping your engine cool is the number one priority. The radiator cools the coolant which in turn cools the engine and the cycle repeats. Usually, low water level or coolant will cause the engine to overheat.

Leaks usually appear in the following 3 places.

  • Broken or cracked radiator core fin.
  • Leaking radiator hose connection.
  • Leaking or rusted-out Welsh plug.

Let’s look at how to repair each one without any help from the local mechanic’s workshop. If you are still having issues with your car overheating then further investigations will be required back in the workshop.

Broken radiator fins are usually caused by a rock striking the radiator core at high speed. The offending vehicle in front of you has kicked up a stone and its now nicely wedged in your radiator fins and fluid is leaking.

The simple fix is to use a pair of pliers to crimp the radiator core fin to stop water passing through it. Don’t forget to remove the rock first if it is still there. Cutting off or crimping a few of the core fins will be totally fine in the short term to get you home safely. Just monitor the engine coolant temp closely.

How to repair a leaking radiator hose?

Hoses can leak at the hose connection point or develop a ruptured hole in the rubber pipe. If it is at the hose connection try to use a screwdriver to tighten up the connection. Every car should carry basic hand tools.

If the leak is in the rubber hose pipe then you will have to slow down the leak. Think of it like this, the more pressure we can apply to the hole the slower the leak will be. The best thing to do is turn off the car, wait for it to cool down and then wrap the leak with masking tape.

Be sure to completely dry and clean the area before applying the tape. Any tape will do, just wrap it tightly and over the hole as many times as you can. I would wrap at least 3 inches either side of the hole. It may still leak but it will be a lot slower. My Toyota Highlander radiator cap says 1.1 bar which is roughly 15psi, and 1.3 bar is around 18psi. So there is a lot of pressure in the radiator system.

How to fix a leaking welsh plug

leaking welsh plug bush repair

Welsh plugs are simple metal or copper plugs that are hammered into an engine and are part of the engine building process. Over time without the proper coolant, these can corrode and rust out.

When they fail coolant will leak out of the corroded hole. The only way to repair the failure is to completely replace the welsh plug. But out in the wilderness, we can’t replace it. Not many people carry spare welsh plugs in their toolbox.

If it is leaking from around the edges try to hammer it in further a few millimeters. If it is leaking from a hole like the picture above then try to hammer in a sharp piece of wood to plug the hole. Its crude but can be effective.

How to start a car with a flat battery without a jump starter.

how to push start a manual car

If you have a flat battery and your car is a manual then great all you need to do is put the car into second gear, turn on the ignition, push in the clutch and ask for someone for a push to jump start you.

Once you have some vehicle speed, let go of the clutch and the car should start right up.

If you have an automatic then a flat battery is a common car breakdown problem that is slightly harder to rectify. You cannot push start an automatic. The first thing you need to do is disconnect the battery and remove it. Make a campfire and place the battery close to the fire and turn it every 15 minutes. This is so each side of the battery is being heated up evenly. 1 hour should be enough to warm up the car battery.

Don’t place the battery so close that the plastic melts. Only enough so the battery acid can heat up slightly. A warm battery will have more starting power than a cold battery but you will have only one shot at this so make it count.

Jump-Starting from another car is easy with a set of jump leads. If you don’t have a set remove the good battery from the other car and place it near the flat battery. Use a screwdriver or another metal object to bridge the two positive terminals together and do the same to the negative. Get a good connection otherwise, sparks will fly.

Can you change a car battery with the car running?

Yes, you can. If you have no other way to start your car try replacing the flat battery with a good one from another car and then start your car. Remove the good battery while the car is running and replace it with the flat battery. Your alternator will begin to charge it up. Some new cars don’t like this procedure and may shut down. But it is possible. Doesn’t hurt to try.

At the end of the day save yourself a headache and get yourself a lithium-ion jump starter.

No car headlights

The first thing we need to work out is why the lights are not working. Common problems can be the following

  • Blown fuse
  • Lose light globe connection
  • Faulty light switch
  • Flatcar battery

If you have a blown fuse you will need to work out why it has failed. Usually its a short in the wiring circuit caused by a break in the cable. Sometimes water can cause a short circuit especially salt water which has a higher conductivity. So if you did happen to go for a drive in the ocean a fresh water flush out will be in order.

Dry your car completely in the sun before trying another fuse. If you are out of fuses you could always remove the fuse from a circuit on the car that you are not using. Eg radio or horn circuit.

If it is a loose connection you will have to check all of the push-on connectors. Start from the light fitting and work your way back. Just trace the wires one by one.

For the bush mechanic if you are in the middle of nowhere on a dirt track at night you could always strap some torches to the bonnet of your car to give you some light.

Be aware this will not be street legal.

Car engine oil low or completely out of oil

I have heard many stories of cars breaking down because their engines have run out of oil. A car engine can quickly run out of oil if the sump has a major leak, the oil filter comes off, or the main engine seal fails.

Before we can top up the engine oil the problem needs to be rectified. If the leak is because of the oil filter just cool down the engine and then hand tighten the filter. This should be enough to get you home without any more leakage.

A rear main seal leak is not fixable in the field so all you can do is keep topping up the engine every few miles or so. Usually, these leaks are slow.

A leak in the sump is a different problem and usually caused by either a loose drain plug or a cracked sump pan. If it is a leaking drain plug then wrap some tape over the threads and re-tighten.

A cracked sump will be harder to fix but it can be depending on the size and hole dimensions. Start by making a wedge out of wood and use a hammer or a log to jam it into the hole. Hopefully, it will stop the leak or at least slow it down. The hot oil should leach into the wood and cause it to swell further plugging the hole further.

Out of engine oil what to use

If your car uses say 10-30 engine oil you can use 10-40 or above until you can purchase the proper oil. Mixing synthetic and mineral oil, as well as different brands, will be fine in the short term until you get home.

If you can’t get hold of any engine oil you could use vegetable or olive oil, but only in an emergency only. Thanks to Project Farm for testing it in a lawnmower.

Cracked Windscreen

cracked car windscreen

A small crack should be fine until you get home, but a larger full-screen cracking will obscure your vision. You will have to remove your windscreen. The simple way is to kick it out from the inside of your car. It is best to use sunglasses to prevent any small pieces of glass from getting into your eye.

If you have gloves put them on, as there will be small very sharp pieces of glass everywhere after you remove your car windshield.

Drive slowly until you can call for help or get a tow truck.

What to do when bogged in the sand

I have been stuck in the beach sand many times in my 4×4. Often its because I haven’t, let my tires down far enough. Reducing the pressure in your tires will give you a larger footprint to get traction in the softer sand. Being bogged is a common car breakdown problem as you are technically not going anywhere fast.

Reducing the tire pressure to around 16psi per tire will double the footprint of a standard tire from around 32psi. Just don’t drive fast at this lower pressure or take corners fast as you could roll the tire off the rim.

If you still can’t get your car out of the sand use a shovel to dig around the wheels to make a slight ramp out of the sand or mud. Use tree branches, sticks, logs or rocks to provide extra traction for your wheels.

If you have another vehicle nearby, they can give you a pull out using something called a snatch strap. This is a long stretchable rope of webbing that is designed to take large loads of pulling force. Check out what can go wrong when being bogged.

Broken Alternator Fan Belt

V-Belts for your water pump and alternator can fail at any time. Provided you replace them at regular service intervals you should have no issues. If you do manage to break a V-Belt, there is a real issue with the engine overheating and your battery going flat.

A quick DIY fix is to use some pantihose or women’s stockings to tie it around both the water pump and the alternator. If it slips to much while powering both then choose the water pump and hope there is enough reserve battery power to get you home. Keep a close eye on your engine temp and stop if you notice the coolant temp getting hot.

Thanks to DeBoss Garage for providing this tip.

Run out of fuel

As a teenager, I lost count of the times I ran out of fuel in my car. When you only put in $10 of fuel each week its no wonder why. Sometimes as teenagers, we were so desperate to get somewhere we even used 2-stroke fuel in the little Datsun 200B, it ran but it sure did smoke a lot.

Always use a filter when draining fuel from another car, generator, or jerry can. Especially if it is old and been sitting for a while. This will prevent rust and scale from entering your fuel tank and causing blockages down the track.

A simple piece of cloth can act as a fuel strainer, just pour it in slowly. Manual and automatic fuel pumps are great to siphon out fuel from old cars that don’t have an anti-siphon device fitted.


Hopefully, there are some good ideas on how to get yourself out of a sticky situation. Try to think outside the box. Especially if you are in the middle of nowhere and lives can be at risk. Always stay calm and call for help as soon as possible. Check out these other DIY interior car hacks for your car, that you can make yourself cheaply.

Never drive an unroadworthy vehicle as it can put lives at risk. Not only yours but other road users as well.

Let me know in the comments below what other DIY car mechanic hacks have you done to get yourself out of a breakdown situation. Stay safe everyone.

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