Skip to content
Stranded with an Empty Tank? Here’s What to Do If You Ran Out of Gas

Stranded with an Empty Tank? Here’s What to Do If You Ran Out of Gas

We’ve all experienced that heart-dropping moment – watching the fuel gauge flirt dangerously with the red zone, realizing we’re miles away from the nearest gas station, and then, the ultimate dread: the sputter and abrupt halt of the engine. When you run out of gas, the situation can escalate from a simple delay to a severe safety concern, especially if you’re stranded in an unfamiliar or remote area.

This unfortunate scenario can happen to any driver, regardless of whether you’re a seasoned traveller embarking on long journeys or a daily commuter navigating the familiar routes of your local area. But before panic sets in, remember that there are always strategies to manage the situation efficiently and safely.
Preparation and calm can transform what seems like a dire situation into a manageable inconvenience, ensuring you and your vehicle remain safe until help arrives or you can refuel. Here’s our guide on what to do when you run out of gas on a highway.


What Happens When You Run Out of Gas

First: What are the Symptoms of Being Out of Gas?

  • Engine Trouble
    The initial indicator of engine trouble frequently involves the engine struggling to perform as expected. If your car begins sputtering or making unusual noises, this could signify that it’s running low on fuel. The engine’s operation is heavily dependent on a consistent and steady flow of gasoline. Without an adequate supply, the engine shuts because it cannot maintain its power, leading to noticeable performance issues, like lack of acceleration when you push the gas pedal. This is a critical sign that your vehicle needs immediate attention to prevent being stranded.
  • Rough Idling and Stalling
    Another common symptom of not having enough fuel is when your car starts to idle roughly, indicating an inconsistent delivery of fuel to the engine. This rough idling can be particularly noticeable when you’re stopped at traffic lights or when the vehicle is idle. If the situation worsens, it may lead to the engine stalling completely. Stalling while driving can be dangerous, so it’s important to recognize these signs early. When your car shows these symptoms, it’s advisable to find a safe place to pull over and assess the situation.
  • Potential Backfiring
    Although not a universal issue across all vehicle types, some cars might exhibit backfiring. Backfiring occurs when unburned fuel ignites in the exhaust system, leading to a loud noise that can be startling. It’s not only a sign of fuel inefficiency but also indicates that the car is not operating correctly.

Specifically, it suggests that the car is running on very low fuel, to the point where the fuel combustion process is not completing properly in the engine. Backfiring should be taken as a serious indication of fuel system issues and warrants immediate inspection and repair to avoid further damage to the car.

Understanding these signs and responding promptly can save you from the inconvenience of breakdowns and potentially expensive repairs. Always keep an eye on your vehicle’s performance and ensure regular maintenance checks to catch and address such issues early.

What are The Consequences of Running Out of Gas?

Loss of Control Systems

  • Power Steering: Power steering significantly reduces the effort needed to steer the car, making maneuvering through tight spots and parking much easier. This system relies on the engine’s power to operate efficiently. Without it, the steering wheel becomes significantly harder to turn, especially at lower speeds, which can increase the physical effort required to control the car.
  • Braking: The braking system in your car will continue to function even if the engine is off, but it will lack the vacuum assist feature that normally makes braking smoother and requires less force. Without this assist, you’ll find that you need to apply much more pressure to the brake pedal to achieve the same stopping power, which can lead to slower response times and increased stopping distances.

Other Potential Issues

  • Fuel System Issues: Occasionally, air can enter the fuel lines during the refilling process, leading to challenges in restarting the engine. While this issue can be frustrating, it is usually temporary and resolves as the air works its way through the system.
  • Strain on the Battery: Operating the vehicle’s electrical components, such as the lights, radio, or AC, without the engine running can quickly deplete the battery’s charge. This not only strains the battery but can also leave you with a vehicle that won’t start without a jump-start or battery recharge.
  • Clogged Fuel Injectors: Running out of gas can also potentially damage the fuel injectors, which are responsible for delivering fuel to the engine. Without a sufficient supply of gasoline, these sensitive components can become clogged or damaged, leading to expensive repairs, especially for a modern car. Consider investing in a fuel filter to minimize the chance of clogging your fuel injector.

Long-term Effects

  • Modern Fuel Pumps: Modern fuel pumps are designed with efficiency and durability in mind. They are cooled and lubricated by the gasoline that flows through them, which helps in maintaining their optimal performance over time. However, consistently running your vehicle on an empty tank can potentially reduce the lifespan of these pumps. While the risk of damage from a single incident of running out of gas is minimal, regularly putting your fuel pump through this stress can lead to premature wear and tear.
  • Catalytic Converter Damage: Damage to the catalytic converter from running out of gas is an uncommon scenario but one that cannot be entirely dismissed. The catalytic converter relies on a proper balance of air and fuel to function correctly. Running the engine on an inadequate fuel mixture can lead to overheating of the converter. Over time, this can cause damage to the converter, leading to costly repairs. Maintaining a healthy level of fuel in your tank is a simple yet effective way to avoid such potential issues.

What to Do if You Run Out of Gas

Safety First

As soon as you find your car out of gas, you need to stop. Carefully pull over to a safe location, ensuring it’s away from fast-moving traffic. Once stationary, turn on your hazard lights to alert other drivers of your presence and safety needs. Securely engage the parking brake to prevent your vehicle from moving unexpectedly.
Ideally, you should aim for a flat shoulder of the road or a parking lot if one is nearby, as these locations provide a stable surface and reduce the risk to both you and passing drivers.


  • Walk to the Nearest Gas Station: Before deciding to walk, locate gas stations near you to carefully evaluate both the safety of the route and the distance. It’s important to ensure it’s a feasible option. Always remember to take your ID and a payment method with you to avoid any issues once you arrive.
  • Call for Help: Many organizations, like CDRA, offer emergency fuel delivery services as part of their roadside assistance programs, including a towing service. This can be an extremely convenient option, saving you the hassle of leaving your vehicle.
  • Use a Gas Can: If you have a gas can available, or if you can borrow one from a nearby gas station, a friend or, family member, this could be a viable solution. It’s crucial to follow the proper safety procedures when refilling your fuel tank to avoid any accidents. Make sure the engine is completely off before you begin, and always take precautions to ground the gas can to prevent static electricity from igniting the gasoline vapours. This approach requires a bit of manual effort but can be a quick fix to get you back on the road.

Additional Tips

Especially during the winter months, being well-prepared for emergencies becomes even more crucial. It’s essential to keep items like warm blankets, flares, a first-aid kit, and other survival gear in your car. This preparation can be a lifesaver in case you find yourself stranded due to severe weather or car problems. Ensure you have enough supplies to stay warm and safe until help arrives or conditions improve.
Moreover, it’s always crucial to follow fuel-efficiency procedures to avoid depleting fuel quickly and getting stranded with an empty gas tank.

The Takeaway

If your car runs out of gas, it will not be merely an inconvenience; it can pose a serious hazard.
Understanding the warning signs that your car is low on fuel, about to run out of gas, and knowing the appropriate steps to take can significantly protect you from potential dangers, ensuring you get back on the road with minimal stress.
Key indicators, such as the fuel warning light, a sputtering of the car’s engine, or a noticeable decrease in power, should not be ignored.
In such situations, it’s crucial to safely navigate your car to the side of the road and seek assistance. Remember, it’s always more prudent to refuel your car before your gauge dips into the red zone. Familiarizing yourself with nearby gas stations along your route and planning fuel stops on longer journeys can prevent unexpected issues. Safe travels!