This is part of a series on using a bus or coach as a bug out vehicle. If you arrived here from a search engine or link, you might like to consider starting your reading at the first article in the series, and then working through the complete series in sequence. But you’re of course free to roam through the series in any order you wish. Links to all the parts are at the end of this article.
Buses come in almost as many makes and models and variations as do passenger cars. It can be hard to know what to look for when first approaching such an enticing range of choices and options.
This article is not intended to be a complete buyers guide to buses, but rather, it looks at the specific issues to do with selecting a bus to be used as a prepper’s bug-out vehicle. The factors you consider in such a case are of course different to the factors a local church group might consider when seeking a vehicle to take members from an adjacent car-park to the church door.
Some things also are so self-evident as to not need stating (don’t get a bus that is half-way rusted through, or if the engine won’t start, etc!), and others are covered in the next part of the series, which looks at things to consider when buying a bus.
The first thing you want to understand is the range the bus offers on its tank of diesel. How many gallons does it hold, and how many miles per gallon does it provide? The fuel economy of course varies depending on the total weight of the bus and the type of driving you’d be doing – you can make reasonably accurate guesses about both.
You know the route you’ll probably take to your retreat, the distance, and the type of driving needed, and then of course allow a major ‘what if’ factor on top of that to give you a safety margin of extra fuel, ‘just in case’. You also will have a sense if you’ll be fully loading the vehicle with passengers and gear or not, based on the number of people in your group, and the probable total weight of them and the gear you take with you, so that helps you to know if the fuel economy will be higher or lower than standard.
It goes without saying that the bus must be able to get you all to your retreat with only the fuel in its tank and whatever additional amount you have stored in its luggage compartments, with a reasonable remaining reserve of fuel for ‘just in case’ issues that might arise. If it can’t do this, you need to look at other buses than can.
As a general rule, you’ll see quite a wide variation in mpg performance of coaches. We’ve seen some heavy coaches (50,000 lbs GVWR) with claims of as much as 8.5 mpg on their manufacturer’s websites, and we know of coaches that regularly provide 7 – 8 mpg on the open road, but we suggest you start off with a pessimistic expectation of 6.5 – 7 mpg, and then adjust upwards if appropriate.
Weight and Weight Carrying
The next thing we suggest you consider is exactly how much weight the bus can take. To understand this, you need to understand the maximum gross weight of the bus and also its ‘wet weight’. The wet weight should be how much the bus weighs, empty but with a full load of fluids – fuel, coolant, oil, and also water for the restroom and drinking water for passengers. The difference between the wet weight and the gross weight is how much extra weight you can load onto the bus – extra fuel (diesel is heavier than gasoline and weighs about 7.15 lbs/US gallon), people, spare parts, supplies, stores, and whatever else you might load onto the bus.
This will probably not be a limitation because we’re guessing you won’t be filling the coach up with the maximum number of people it has seats for, but you still should check you have sufficient spare capacity. As motorhome owners know, it is amazing how quickly all that spare capacity gets used up. Besides which, the more weight it can carry, the more versatile the bus becomes, giving you more opportunities to consider taking extra ‘last minute’ stuff with you, more fuel, etc. (A word of warning – don’t let the ability to take more ‘last minute’ stuff with you tempt you into not ensuring your retreat is well stocked prior to your arrival.)
Talking about weight, we’re going to assume the bus you select has a GVWR greater than 26,000 lbs. That means your drivers will need to have Class B commercial drivers licenses, and they will need to follow the requirements for maximum driving time, rest times, etc. This can be addressed by having multiple drivers on the vehicle if you are planning for a long distance nonstop journey.
If the GVWR is over 33,000 lbs that makes it a Class 8 vehicle. Between 26,000 and 33,000 lbs is a Class 7 vehicle.
You should also consider not just the bus’s weight carrying in terms of pounds, but also in terms of cubic feet. Although that probably won’t be a problem, because you can carry some stuff in the passenger compartment, it is still good to know just how much space there is underneath the coach for heavy and bulky items.
This might seem obvious, but some buses are bigger than others.
There are two standard widths for buses – 8′ (96″) and 8’6″ (102″). This width does not include the extra width taken up by outside mirrors. The wider bus is of course more comfortable inside, but slightly harder to keep in its lane on the road. You’ll probably have non-professional drivers, and so might find the six-inch saving to be helpful.
The length of a bus depends on how many rows of seats it has (and the spacing between each row too of course), and you don’t want to go over 45′ if possible. Some states have maximum length regulations which start to kick in at 45′. This is unlikely to be a problem, because you’re unlikely to need or want a maximum sized bus.
In general, the shorter the bus, the easier it will be to drive and maneuver, so if you have a choice between a longer and a shorter bus, then, if all things are equal, get the shorter one.
On the other hand, all things are rarely equal! Do make sure you’ve a bus that is big enough for all of you, plus able to absorb a few more people and a few more things, too. From that perspective, better to be a little ‘too big’ than a little too small. You’ll need to decide where the ideal compromise point is for your group, and as we mention in our article about the pluses and minuses of using a coach as a bug-out vehicle, in all seriousness, if your group size grows beyond a certain point, you would be much better advised to operate two smaller buses in convoy than one large bus traveling alone (due to the added ‘fault-tolerance’ you get from two buses – if one has a failure en route, you can hopefully squeeze everyone onto the second and still complete the journey).
Bus heights vary too. Generally most roads are built to have a minimum clearance of 13’6″, with occasional exceptions, particularly on secondary and local roads. If your bus is taller than 13’6″, you might start to encounter problems, and you’d have to scout out your route to check if/where you would run into problems and how to bypass them.
You will ideally also have some antennas on the top of your bus, and while you could have very short little antennas, the longer they are the better, so the less tall your bus, the more air space above it you have to ‘fill’ with antennas.
One more thing about bus heights. Don’t get a double-decker bus. They have lots of limitations and problems. They might look nice, and can be fun for a short around-town sightseeing tour, but they do not make good comfortable touring buses. The main reason for this is that the bus’s motion is magnified on the upper deck, and unless you have smooth straight roads, you may find the rocking and swaying on the upper deck is unpleasant and uncomfortable.
Their top-heavy nature also reduces still further their performance and cornering. You’re not going to be aggressively cornering in any bus, but a double-decker is even worse than a regular bus.
While you’re thinking about dimensions, have a thought about ground clearances, too. Does the bus have adjustable air suspension and can it be lifted up higher than normal if necessary on rough and uneven ground? What are the maximum approach and departure angles it can handle?
Of course, you also need to understand what the requirements for other than ordinary normal road driving might be on your bug-out route and any alternates you might need to consider as well.
Your Bug-Out Bus Doesn’t Need to be Able to Get All the Way to Your Retreat
You also need to appreciate that you don’t need your bus to be able to get all the way to the front doorstep of your retreat.
While that would be wonderful, the key requirement is to use it to get to within the last mile or so of your retreat. Once you’ve got to that point, you’re presumably in a fairly safe location, and your group members can complete the short remaining balance of the total journey any which way.
Maybe one member of your group can walk or bicycle or whatever the short distance to the retreat, get some sort of other vehicle from the retreat, and use it to ferry your group the short distance to the retreat from the bus (and to transport any heavy/bulky freight that was brought too).
So if there’s a narrow windy uneven forestry road leading the last half mile up to your retreat, it isn’t essential either that you improve the forestry road to handle a bus, or that you get a bus with off-roading capabilities. It is perfectly valid to consider some other approach to get your group that last remaining distance, and that will allow you to be more realistic about the capabilities of your coach.
Here’s an interesting point that you should think about carefully. You don’t want your coach to ‘look like a million dollars’; on the other hand, you don’t want it to look like a hippy/beater of a bus, either. As well as general appearance and condition, you also don’t want a bus that is either unusually old or brand new, either (although it is much more difficult to identify a brand new bus than it is to identify a brand new car).
You want your coach to look functional, utilitarian, ordinary, and not out-of-place in a varying range of situations.
Although it is hard to identify a brand new coach, it is easier to identify a very old one (ie 1970s or earlier). So perhaps try to choose one that doesn’t date back beyond the 1980s and choose a body style and shape that is as inoffensive and unremarkable as possible.
From the point of view of not looking like a million dollars, we would argue against a Mercedes branded coach. If you do get a Mercedes coach, you might want to consider removing the badges so that it becomes a generic rather than ‘deluxe’ seeming coach.
The very first thing you should do with any coach is make sure it has a plain paint job, and we’d suggest no identifying marks or logos on it. You can decide what color is best, but we’d suggest that urban camo is not the style to use!
It is also probably best not to add lots of ‘aggressive’ accessories to it such as bull bars or winches or other ‘off-roading’ or ‘expedition’ type equipment – leastways, not to the outside that are plainly visible. Do whatever you like to the interior, and also keep accessories and equipment in the cargo bays ready to deploy as may be needed, but don’t have them visibly installed unless you do indeed need them.
Talking about the interior, we also suggest that windows should be tinted, so as to obscure who is inside. You don’t want to have such a high degree of tint as to become unusual, but enough tint to reduce the visibility of the people inside keeps other people guessing, and the less they know, the better it is for you.
Engine and Powertrain Issues
It goes without saying that the more powerful the engine, the better. When looking at power, you should consider it in the context of the likely total weight of the vehicle when you drive it to your retreat. How many pounds does each horsepower have to manage? The fewer, the better.
Private cars can have as few as 10 or less pounds per horsepower (very fast sportscars) to something over 20lbs/hp (stodgy cars). But with buses, you’ll have massively more pounds per horsepower than even the most underpowered car.
The most powerful ratio we’ve seen is about 90 lbs/hp, and the least powerful is more than 130lbs/hp. Most modern buses seem to be in the 110 – 130 lbs/hp range.
Something else you should look out for is the type of transmission. You want as many gears as possible – hopefully six, and ideally many more. Older buses will have fewer gears than newer ones.
The diesel engines in buses have a very narrow power band, much narrower than in a gasoline powered passenger car, and so you will need more gears to keep the bus in the sweet spot, power wise, no matter what speed it is proceeding at. Extra gears are particularly beneficial when climbing hills.
These days most buses have automatic transmission, but some buses (particularly older ones) have manual transmissions. If you get a manual transmission bus, you should understand if the gears have synchromesh on them or if they have an old style ‘crash’ gearbox. If you have a crash style gearbox, you will find it more difficult to change ‘up’ gears (ie going from 4th gear to 3rd gear, etc).
It would be very nice to have ABS on the bus. Hopefully you’ll be driving safely and sedately on the way to your retreat, but you have no way of knowing when some other vehicle on the road won’t do something stupid, and ABS might make all the difference between a close call and a nasty accident that disables the bus and prevents you traveling the rest of the way to your retreat. As truck and coach drivers well know, some passenger car drivers act crazy around large vehicles, cutting in front of them and generally failing to appreciate the space needs large vehicles have.
Passenger Amenities – Bathroom
You’re not seeking a deluxe ultra-luxurious experience, of course. This is a bus you’ll probably only ever ride on a very few times – there will be occasional ‘rehearsals’ for the group and then of course, a ‘for real’ bug out at some time.
But there are some things you should have. Most important of all is a rest room on board. This is for two reasons, one obvious and one not quite so obvious.
The obvious reason is, of course, so you can travel long distances without the need for ‘comfort stops’. The less obvious reason is that a ‘comfort stop’ takes a terribly long time when it is a group of you on a coach, and will need to occur more regularly than if just two of you in a private car.
Unless you have an unusually disciplined group, when you make a comfort stop you will first take several minutes while people meander off the bus, then the women will make their way to the ladies’ restroom and the inevitable waiting in a long line occurs. Some people will stop for a smoke, if there is a store nearby some will go to the store, and annoyingly, some will only do these things at the very last minute. Then you have time to board everyone back onto the bus again, and wait for the last few stragglers. There’s no way this can be done in less than 20 minutes, unless you’re somewhere with lots of stalls and have a very disciplined group.
Furthermore, if there is no onboard facility, you’ll find you need to make comfort stops more regularly than you expected. Some people like to swill several cups of coffee immediately prior to a journey, then ten minutes into the journey discover an urgent need for a bathroom break. Others will drink on board, a few people might have prostate issues, and maybe someone has an upset stomach.
Sure, we’ve been on 2 – 3 hour nonstop drives with a coachload of passengers and no bathroom, but there have been a few very unhappy and uncomfortable people among the group by the time we finally got to a comfort stop!
One last thing about comfort stops. Depending on the degree of collapse when you bug out, you may find many fewer places with ‘normal’ restrooms available for travelers. Another reason to seek out a bus with its own self-contained facilities.
Note that some bus restrooms have a washbasin, others do not. It would be nicer to have one that comes complete with a washbasin.
It might pay to check how many gallons of water can be stored for use in the bathroom and how many uses/flushes that gives you. Check also what the capacity of the holding tank is, and how easy it is to dump the contents of the ‘black water’ (and ‘grey water’) tanks – the bathroom’s capacity is of course limited both by the amount of fresh water available and, until you can dump it, the amount of black water it can store.
Other Passenger Amenities
If you have a choice between a bus with two entry/exit doors and a coach with only one, take the double doored bus every time. It can make a big difference in loading/unloading time, particularly in an emergency (see our separate article on tactical considerations).
Older buses have a front door that swings open, more modern buses have doors that slide open. The sliding open doors are preferable because they don’t require as much clear space alongside the bus.
For a similar reason, if there is a bus with openable/closable emergency exits, rather than one where you must smash a window out of the frame, the one with proper emergency exits is again preferable for tactical reasons. The same for a bus with a door for the driver.
Some coaches have a separate entry for a wheelchair. If that is something you need, it would be nice, but if you do not need it, there still might be value in having that feature because it provides another entry/exit, particularly if you need to exit the coach in a hurry for, ahem, ‘tactical’ reasons.
If you anticipate a long journey to your retreat, it would be nice to have a basic kitchenette on the bus as well. The most important capability is being able to boil water – if you have hot water, you can make coffee, instant soups, and instant noodles. Beyond that, a microwave would greatly increase the range of food items you could heat up, and a bit of bench space and even a tiny sink would help still further.
A refrigerator is also good to have, but in an emergency, any type of cooler bin would be satisfactory.
One other thing that seems to vary a bit from bus to bus is the overhead storage inside the passenger compartment. The more overhead space to put things inside the passenger compartment, the better. Some overhead space is an open parcel shelf type, and sometimes it has doors that can close like on a plane. But whether it has doors or not, you need to realize that this space is massively smaller than on planes (because there’s not as much vertical height available). Your people won’t be able to bring as much stuff into the passenger cabin on a bus as they can on a plane – well, not unless you have a designated area where people can pile up their bags. A typical rollaboard type bag will not fit in the overhead, and the overhead is probably not built to hold great weights, either. It really is intended for only things like jackets and other outer clothing, and a limited number of true essentials for the journey.
Your people need to realize that the benefits of carrying luggage onto a plane aren’t applicable on a coach. There is no way their bag can be lost if they place it, themselves, in the under-floor cargo compartments, and there’s no measurable extra delay in getting on or off the coach if their luggage is underneath rather than in the coach. Only essential items for the journey should be in the passenger compartment – food, drink, meds, books, etc.
It seems common on more modern and upmarket coaches to have DVD players and flat panel screens positioned around the coach, and some even have at seat power – either 110V and/or USB power sockets. These things are entirely unnecessary in your situation, but if they are provided, well, you wouldn’t refuse it, would you. And, when negotiating on the price of the coach, if it doesn’t have such things, you could pretend it was important to you and ask for a price reduction as a result!
You are choosing a bus for a very utilitarian purpose – the prime mission is for the bus to get you safely, securely, and certainly to your retreat in an emergency situation.
Nothing else much matters, as long as the bus is guaranteed to fulfill its only purpose and mission. You can compromise on any of the ‘nice but not essential’ features, just so long as you don’t compromise on the ‘must have’ features.
Perhaps the most important consideration of all is one we’ve not yet touched upon – the reliability of the bus. We discuss those issues in the next part of this series.
At the risk of complicating issues, if you do end up with a good quality coach, there might be tempting opportunities to charter it locally, and for reasonably good sums of money too. That might be an interesting sideline or even main business for you, and one thing is for sure – coaches like to be driven. You won’t wear it out by adding another few hundred thousand miles onto it, and will be keeping up to date with any issues that might be developing and needing attention.
But that’s a very optional ‘extra’ or ‘bonus’ consideration way removed from the core purpose of owning some type of coach. Don’t get distracted by it – but don’t overlook it, either.
Please Continue Reading Our Bus Series of Articles
This is part of a broader series of articles on the concept of using a bus as a bug-out vehicle. You can see our other articles, conveniently linked below, and of course, we have plenty of other articles on the broader subject of bugging out as well.
Part 0 – Introduction
Part 2 – Things to Consider When Evaluating Buses/Coaches as Bug-Out Vehicles