The average American spends 101 minutes a day behind the wheel. Couple that with the record-breaking snowstorms we’re experiencing, and chances are those 101 minutes could stretch into interminable hours, especially if you happen to get stuck during whiteout conditions.
In this article, we offer more detailed tips on what to prepare and how to survive getting stuck in your car during a particularly fierce blizzard.
1. Wait it Out, Don’t Get Out
The first, and a very important step in surviving a blizzard while in a stalled or stuck vehicle is to stay put. Don’t go stumbling out in the cold unless better, warmer shelter is within reach. Your vehicle is much easier to find and more likely for rescue teams to see in the snow, while acting as a safe and secure cocoon for you. Never leave the relative safety and warmth of your vehicle in this situation unless it is in an unsafe location on or off the road.
2. Warmth and Hydration Come First
When you get snowed in inside your car, two very important elements for surviving are top priority – heat and hydration. Listed below are the items to stow in your car beforehand.
Wool blanket – Wool retains body heat better than most other materials and works better in keeping you warm.
Sleeping bag – Retains heat and offers some comfort while resting or sleeping; use this if there’s enough space.
Extra hats, wool socks, jackets, scarves and gloves – Pack an extra or two of these items, in case other passengers don’t have them or anyone gets wet or sweaty. Clothes made wet by melted snow or sweat can undermine the effort to stay warm.
Extra boots – An extra pair or two of insulated boots should be kept in reserve, in case anyone doesn’t have the right footwear. Rain boots are also a good multi-purpose item to have, since these can keep your feet dry and reduce the risk of hypothermia or frostbite.
Hand warmers – Not only can these warm your hands, hand warmers can be inserted into your boots to warm your feet or stuffed into your hat to warm your head, or even wrap your ears if you don’t have earmuffs or a hat with earflaps. Just don’t place them against bare skin as they may cause burns. These can even be inserted into a sleeping bag to increase warmth and comfort.
Coffee can with lid and candles – Use these to obtain hydration if you run out of bottled water. Collect some clean snow or ice, filling the can about ¾ of the way, then heat the bottom with the candles to melt the snow into drinking water. NEVER “eat” snow as-is, for this will only bring your core temperature down and render you more susceptible to hypothermia. If possible, process the water with a water filter to ensure it’s safe to drink.
Lighter or waterproof matches – For lighting the candles.
Cooler or ice chest – This will insulate and prevent any water bottles stored in it from freezing. If you don’t have a cooler, an airtight container buried a foot under the snow will work the same way; snow actually works as excellent insulation and will prevent your water from freezing.
3. Have Some Food Ready
Food that provides calories your body uses to keep warm is likewise important. Pack food items like energy bars, candy, beef jerky and trail mix to sustain you while you wait out the storm. Check the food you put in your kit, and make sure to replace any items that are close to their expiration date.
4. Have Tools to Avoid Getting Stuck, or to Get Unstuck
Even if your car remains in perfect running condition, you won’t go anywhere in a whiteout and blizzard snow conditions. Have the right items ready to get your car unstuck once visibility and weather improve. When the weather clears, snow plows can get to work clearing the roads and you may soon be able to drive yourself back home.
Shovel and snow brush – You’ll need a shovel and snow brush to keep your car visible after a snowfall. When the storm lets up or the weather isn’t as harsh, get out of the car occasionally to clear away snow on and around your car. Pay particular attention to your grille and tailpipe and remove any snow blocking them to eliminate the risk of overheating the engine and carbon monoxide poisoning when you run the engine to use the heater. Be mindful not to overexert yourself when shoveling away snow.
Snow tires and snow chains – Having these on can help you avoid getting bogged down in the snow-filled roads, and make it safer to drive.
Windshield scraper – Sheets of snow and ice can accumulate on your windshield, windows and mirrors. Use a scraper to allow you to see out your car and signal for help if you see any other vehicles or rescue teams passing by. Honk your horn and flash your headlights only if you see anyone.
Kitty litter, sand or salt – A large bag of any of these items can give grip to your car’s tires should it get bogged down in the snow or ice.
Tow chain or tow rope – Have these handy if your car needs more than just traction to get unstuck.
Jumper cables – Extreme cold can cause your car’s battery to discharge making it unable to start the car. Pack jumper cables and use them with the assistance of any helpful motorists or rescue vehicles that pass by once the weather improves.
Ax – This can be used to clear any felled trees or branches that may be blocking your path.
Survival knife – It’s always good to have a knife as they can serve a lot of uses and often come in handy.
5. Have Comms Backups
When you’re on the road and the weather looks like it’s going to worsen, immediately call and inform your family members, co-workers or friends of your location and intended route; that way they can inform the authorities and send out a rescue team for you should the situation require. If you get caught by the storm and are forced to wait it out, you must have the means to call for help and a way of staying informed about the weather.
To increase your chances of survival and rescue, be sure to have these items:
Cellphone, phone charger, power bank and cords – Charge the phone and the power bank beforehand to full capacity and use the phone only for emergency calls or texts. Turn off the phone to save power if there’s no signal and keep it in a pocket in an inside layer of clothing to extend the battery life. Call 911 when there’s a signal and don’t hang up until you’ve informed the operator of your location, the condition of your vehicle and all its passengers, and you’ve been given specific instructions on how to get rescued. You’ll likely be instructed to stay put while rescue teams are advised of your location.
Hand-crank, solar or battery-powered radio – Keep these as an alternative to your car radio and avoid discharging the car battery; reserve your car’s battery for turning the engine on to run the heater for a few minutes each hour. Use this radio to remain informed of any developments in the weather or road conditions. Some of these radios can also charge your phone and other small devices.
CB Radio – Don’t write off this old-school communication tool; a CB radio is still a good way to call for help in a SHTF scenario. Get in touch with truckers or get on the emergency frequency, Channel 9, which is still monitored by local authorities.
6. Have Important “Just-in-Case” Items
Another important part of your winter survival kit is medical supplies. In addition to a first aid kit, store whatever medicines you or your other passengers might need, like inhalers, antihistamines, EpiPens, insulin injections and other relevant maintenance meds.
Tools to increase your chances of rescue
Include these items to enhance your car’s visibility to rescuers, or ensure that any incoming vehicles don’t crash into your car:
Road reflectors/Safety Triangle – Position these close to your car to alert and warn any approaching vehicles or rescue teams.
Road flares – The bright light emitted by a flare can be seen for miles around. Activate one only when the weather is clear so it doesn’t go to waste.
Emergency whistle – If visibility is a problem, you can blow loudly on a whistle. Use the whistle only if you suspect other people or rescue teams are nearby.
Fluorescent distress flag – Take at least one of these flags and tie it to your car’s radio antenna. This can alert rescue teams to your presence even at night, and even while you’re sleeping.
In any event, whether you’re stuck on a freeway or busy city streets, all you must do is not to panic and stay put. If possible, never abandon your vehicle as it’s much easier for rescue teams to find it, and not a person wandering aimlessly in the snow. Apart from it being easier to spot, your stranded or stalled vehicle already provides some measure of protection and warmth, particularly if its properly equipped with the items suggested above.
Note that the items needed for weathering a blizzard aren’t strictly limited to what’s listed here. Consider the sort of roads you traverse, how often you travel, how distant your trip is, the size of your trunk space and the amount of money you’re willing to invest on items for your survival, before you go driving in winter. If you’re at a loss as to what and how much of it to stock, prioritize on what will help you stay warm, hydrated, manage any of your special medical needs, and give you the ability to call and signal for help. If your car still has the space, add more items as you see fit.
Stock up on enough supplies to last a couple of days, as most stranded motorists get rescued in a day or two.