I live in a warm part of the country now, so winter isn’t a big deal. Actually, it’s my favorite time of year, because it’s not hot. But it wasn’t always that way. I grew up and learned to drive in Colorado, where the mountains make it so that a winter blizzard can sneak up on you and leave you stranded before you know it. I can’t remember how many people I rescued; they simply were good drivers who were trapped by winter weather.
I don’t care how good of a driver you are — there are situations where you can’t keep on trucking. I remember an icy parking lot that put me in a snow bank, simply because I couldn’t get enough traction to overcome gravity (the parking lot was sloped, and the exit was uphill). I’ve seen the same happen to truckers, who literally had to bail out of their rigs when gravity overcame friction and their trucks started sliding backwards, down the mountain. Then there were the times when blizzards cut visibility to the point where I or someone else drove off the road, thinking we were driving on it.
That’s why I always kept my car prepared to deal with emergencies, especially the emergency of being stuck in the snow. I never could afford a fancy four-wheel drive, so I was stuck trying to make do with a sedan — and that was in the day when sedans were rear-wheel drive, not front-wheel drive. So they were even worse in the snow.
Preparing my car for winter weather consisted of two basic areas: preparing the car to survive and preparing so that I could survive. Both were necessary, because in the wintertime, that care was an important piece of survival gear.
Preparing The Car To Survive
I’m not a big fan of playing mechanic, although I’ve done more than my fair share through the years. Even worse is having to play mechanic in the cold and snow. I replaced more than one frozen thermostat in below-freezing temperatures before I learned that lesson. After that, I always made sure my car was mechanically ready for the winter.
Wintertime is hard on cars, so they need to be in good shape. The old cars I was driving didn’t automatically have that going for them. So I had to make up for what they lacked. That meant going through the car from end to end, before the first real freeze hit. I checked all the fluids, the rubber on my tires, the battery, and the condition of all of the “regular maintenance” items, like hoses and belts. Better to spend a few bucks replacing one when it’s convenient, than getting stuck because you didn’t (which will cost more).
The next important thing was the gas tank. In the wintertime, I’d always keep a minimum of half a tank of gas. That way, if I did get stuck somewhere, I could use the engine for heat. Used cautiously, running the engine only in short bursts, that half a tank will last the night.
In addition to those two items, I’d put some things in the trunk, to help my car or the car of someone else who was stranded:
1. Sand – The extra weight of two bags of sand made a huge difference in traction. Of course, that was rear-wheel drive, so it’s not so important today. But if you drive a pickup truck, you’ll need to add some weight over the back wheels, where they are notoriously light.
2. Chains – If your state allows chains, get some. Just be sure to take them off, if you get to dry pavement or even spotty drive pavement. Otherwise, they’ll break.
3. Shovel – You never know when you might have to dig your own car out.
4. Tow strap – I prefer the nylon straps to a chain, but to each his own.
5. Basic tools – For emergency repairs.
6. Spare battery – Batteries are one of the things that go out easily in the cold. I’d carry a spare, as crazy as that might sound. Today, I’d use a lithium ion backup battery pack, such as a Pocket Power X.
I also carried the following:
7. Plastic bags – To use as a makeshift toilet. You don’t want to have to go outside for that. Just do it in the bag and set it outside.
8. High energy food – High calorie food bars will help your body produce heat.
9. Water – The trick here is keeping it from freezing. I kept mine in the passenger compartment.
10. Flashlight — With extra batteries.
11. Rope – Avoid getting out of the car. But if you have to go outside for some reason, tie one end of the rope to the steering wheel and the other to your wrist. That way, you can always find your way back, even in whiteout conditions.
12. Blankets – A couple of wool blankets makes a world of difference. I carried a couple of old Army blankets. Wool is the only material that maintains some of its insulating value even when wet.
13. Gloves, hats and scarves – An extra set you won’t wear anywhere else.
14. Space blankets, duct tape, candles and matches – More on that in a moment.
Additionally, I carried a full survival kit. Since I didn’t have to carry it on my body, I carried a rather robust one, more along the lines of a bug-out bag. That way, I had enough with me to use, in case I was actually caught in a situation where I would have to walk out. That never happened, but there were places in the mountains where my car might not have been seen if I went off the road.
As part of that kit, I had a portable stove and fuel. That allowed me to prepare warm drinks. You don’t want to eat snow for water, as your body has to warm it. Better to melt that snow and drink hot water, which will add heat to your body, rather than take it away.
Preparing For My Survival
Even with the best driving practices and a properly equipped vehicle, you still might end up off the road in a ditch somewhere. I remember once when the snow had drifted up over the road and I couldn’t get through. So I turned around. But by then the snow had drifted up a couple hundred yards behind me, as well. I was trapped on the road until the next day, even though I had done everything right.
Whether you’re off the road in a snow bank or sitting on the road as I was, you want to stay with your car. While a car isn’t the best shelter there is, it will protect you from the snow, wind and to some extent from the cold. When you’re trapped, you can help it to keep you warm by improving its ability to hold in heat. You’ll need:
- At least three space blankets.
- Something to cut them.
- A roll of duct tape or other strong tape that will stick in cold weather.
- Some large candles.
Line the inside of the passenger compartment with the space blankets. If you’re alone or just a couple, you can line just the front seat, allowing one of the space blankets to form a curtain behind the seat. So, you’d use one for the dash, down to your feet; one for the roof and curtain behind you; and cut one in half to cover the doors. If you have a family, just extend to include the back seat, as well; but you’ll need a couple more blankets to do that. Fortunately, they’re cheap.
What else do you carry in your car during winter? Share your tips in the section below: