How to Clean Up Oil Spills on the Trail

How to Clean Up Toxic Oil Spills Promptly, Thoroughly, When Driving Outdoors

By Tom Severin, volunteer Tread Trainer and 4×4 Coach


We four-wheelers are naturally conscientious folks, and are always concerned about our impact on the environment. Unfortunately, we  sometimes are faced with leaks and spills from our vehicles.


Engine oil, transmission oil, gear oil, brake fluid and radiator fluid can have a devastating effect on the environment and wildlife. Radiator fluid is particularly hazardous, as its sweet taste makes it attractive to mammals. Worse, it doesn’t take much to kill. One teaspoon of ethanol glycol will kill a cat; three tablespoons will put down a dog. I highly recommend you switch to a propylene-based radiator fluid like Sierra brand. If by chance you spill some and don’t get it cleaned up thoroughly, there’s less of a risk to native animals.


As with any exercise, planning and preparation are key.  Essential clean-up items include a plastic container with a tight lid (Tupperware products work nicely), kitty litter, paper towels or rags, and a shovel. You probably already have paper or plastic cups in your vehicle. If not, grab some. High-tech absorbents and wipes are available for large oil spill situations and to wipe down rock surfaces.  You may want to pick up some to help with those problems.


If you choose to build a spill kit, I highly recommend you include kitty litter. It is one of the most absorbent materials around. NewPig offers a variety of useful materials as well as complete spill kits.


Before dealing with any spill or leak, make sure that the vehicle is secure and that all passengers are safe.


First, catch any dripping liquid in a plastic container. Use a cup to scoop up pools of liquid. If need be, dam up the area to keep the spill from spreading. Use special absorbent rolls like the Pig Blue Socks, or build a mini earthen dike around the spill.


Next, spread kitty litter or other absorbent material to soak up the spill. Paper towels, rags, diapers, even a t-shirt or sweatshirt will do in an emergency.


You should also pack absorbents and wipes designed for oil spills. Two others that are particularly effective are PeatSorb and Oil-Dri. You may find these products locally, but look for a retailer who breaks down the bulk quantities and offers these materials in smaller units. You’ll save money by buying larger quantities and breaking them down for yourself and friends into individual spill kits.

PeatSorb is ideal because it is very effective on grease and oil spots (even on rock), and it is naturally decomposing.


Everything is hauled out. Proper clean up means that the spilled liquid and contaminated soils are removed for proper disposal. All material and soil should be collected in plastic bags; double-bag, if possible. Place the bags on the rubber floor mats in case there’s a leak. Gear oil, in particular, leaves a nasty smell in your carpet that is very difficult to remove. Remember to wipe down rocks with the proper absorbent pads available from PeatSorb and Oil-Dri.


Make sure the lid is secure on your container(s). You don’t want the fluids and kitty litter spilling all over the inside of your vehicle.


When you get home, dispose of the mess in the proper manner. Call your local authorities if you have any questions about how to handle this material. You may be able to use PeatSorb-treated soil. The manufacturer claims that the soil is safe to use for planting in three weeks.


Toxic spills are a potential with off-road driving. Quick action on your part, using ordinary household products, will ensure you leave the area as you found it.


Tom Severin, 4×4 Coach and Tread Lightly! Master Tread Trainer, teaches 4WD owners how to use their vehicles safely and confidently over difficult terrain in adverse conditions. Visitwww.4x4training.com to develop or improve your driving skill.


Copyright 2009, Badlands Off-Road Adventures, Inc.


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