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How to Hotwire a Car When the SHTF (With Pictures)

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We’ve seen it a million times in movies and TV shows: a guy breaks into any old car, ties a few wires together below the steering wheel and, bam, drives off without any issues. Unfortunately, that’s Hollywood Hotwiring. Real life hotwiring is a little different, so before we begin there’s a few important things to keep in mind.

The reason for hotwiring is simple; to allow you to start a car without the need for a key. There are a few occasions when you might need to legitimately do this to your own car; maybe you’ve lost your keys or your lock tumbler has jammed. It’s important to remember that hotwiring any car that doesn’t belong to you is highly illegal (even though that likely wouldn’t be a concern in a SHTF scenario).

Secondly, there are several methods to hot-wiring cars, but the one we’re going to focus on is the one which requires the least tools. We’re going to keep things as minimal as possible. It’s not possible to do this entire process with your hands alone, although it is achievable with just a knife and providing you’re also built like Rambo. The tools you’ll ideally need are: pliers, knife, screwdriver, strength. Also, here are the tools you will need when SHTF.

Lastly, you may have heard people mention that it’s impossible to hotwire a car newer than around the mid-nineties. This isn’t strictly true. Cars up until around 1999 can be hotwired with the standard method which is outlined below. After this, it doesn’t get impossible, just more difficult and will require knowledge specific of certain vehicle makes and models.

It is true that cars newer than around 2004 are largely impossible to hotwire. Modern vehicles come with a chip in their key fobs which are required for the ignition to start at all – no amount of hotwiring can bypass these. There are a multitude of other ways to commandeer such vehicles, but all require either technological hacks through the use of smartphones or laptops, or just straight up stealing the keys.

Related: 12 Essential Things You Can Scavenge from Cars when SHTF

But for now, let’s go back to basics.

We must understand what’s happening when we put a key in our ignition and turn it. With each turn, switches are being closed. Turning the key three times connects the three components needed to start a car: the battery, the ignition and the starter motor. Hotwiring connects these three things without the need for a key.

So where are these wires located?

Step 1: Remove The Plastic Covering

This POV is from underneath the dash. This is where you need to start. See that little screw there? That’s connecting the plastic cover which conceals all of the wires below the steering column. This is what you first need to remove. Depending on your car, there can be up to four of those screws, and you’ll need a Phillips-head screwdriver to take them out. Alternatively, you can brute force your way through without a screwdriver, however will render you unable to repair the column if that’s your intention.

Related: How to Conceal Weapons in Your Vehicle

Step 2: Locate The Correct Wires

You will then be greeted with an overwhelming amount of wires. Don’t worry though, because it’s easy to work out what they’re for by looking in the direction they’re going.

You should be able to make out three separate bundles of wires; one going to the left, one going to the right and one going straight into the steering column itself. It’s the steering column bundle we need.

The bundle you need will be taped or attached together with either industrial tape a clip of some kind. There should be five wires in total in the bundle and they will all be connected to the ignition cylinder (the piece of metal you would normally put your key into).

Step 3: Prep The Wires

The easiest way to do the next part, in my experience, is to isolate that whole section. Pull out wires along with the ignition cylinder so that you can manipulate the wires more easily. For ease of instruction, this is how the one I removed from the above vehicle looks like:

Now, in a survivalist situation, you probably won’t have chance to check the car’s manual in order to determine which wire is which, so it would be useful to practice this step beforehand. The next stage is to locate the three wires required to start the vehicle: battery, ignition and starter.

The colors of these wires will vary depending on the make and model of the car. In my example, the wires I needed were blue, white and green, however, these were specific to my chosen vehicle. In general, red wires often indicate the battery and ignition wires, and started wires are usually brown/yellow. You can negate this issue, however, by pulling out the ignition cylinder with the wires. It will be the first three wires in the sequence which you need.

Step 4: Connect The Wires

Cut these three wires loose from the ignition cylinder and fray the protective rubber so you can expose the raw wire. Be very careful at this point. Do not touch the exposed wires with your bare hands.

You first need to attach the ignition wire and the battery wire to ‘light up’ the ignition (the same state the car is in when you turn your key twice; when you’re able to access your stereo but not able to drive). To do this, wrap the wires together and make sure they don’t come apart. Use protective gloves throughout (or a piece of clothing or cloth in a survival scenario). The dashboard should light up.

Then, hold the starter wire against the two battery wires until the engine kicks in. This will only take a second at most (imagine turning the ignition on with your key).

Immediately move the starter wire away and make sure it won’t come into contact with the battery wires while you’re driving. If necessary, use industrial tape around the edges of the wires to protect both yourself and the vehicle.

Related: Emergency Bag to Keep in Your Car in Case of an EMP

And we’re done. Rev the engine until it sounds healthy. The only thing to do in order to drive the vehicle normally is crack the steering lock, although this isn’t difficult. The lock can be broken by forcefully turning the wheel harshly in one direction until the lock-pins holding the wheel in place breaks.

So, the car is running, the steering wheel is free; what next? Well, it depends on your intentions. If you want to use the car again under normal circumstances then you will need some significant repair work done to the ignition cylinder, the battery wiring, the steering wheel lock and steering column.

If you’re planning on using the car regularly in its current iteration, you simply disconnect the two battery wires from touching each other in order to turn off the ignition. To restart it, re-attach the battery wires, then use the starter wire to fire it up.

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    Total 3 comments
    • Air Quotes Shill Air Quotes

      Yeah, old cars, it’s easy, but even a lot cars from the late 90s, before the 2004 key fob thing, this won’t work.

      Steering wheel won’t unlock, for example, even if you get the motor started, you’d need to run power to that. Which isn’t easy unless you know exactly what you’re doing.

      The cars computer, even in a 99 needs to check with the keyed ignition also before it will start also, if that keyed ignition is bypassed, it won’t start. And if you do get it to start, it likely won’t start again until you reset the computer and program it back to the ignition for the car.

      Basically only try this guide on a car from the early early 90s, preferably the 80s or older.

    • Redlist Renegade

      Who’s car is this , how should I know ?! The keys aren’t there…Hop in Let’s GO !!!

    • Anonymous

      The good ol days when you could just use a slap hammer and turn with a screwdriver.

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