This article originally appeared in Issue 18 of our magazine.

Every season has its dangers. If you live in an area that offers the extremes of all four seasons, you know you need to prepare for all the challenges each brings. In the case of winter, travel presents its very own set of potentially fatal hazards.

To make traveling safer, we put together a winter car survival kit. Some of the elements chosen for the kit are common to other seasons. For the most part, we’ll take a more in-depth look at items and techniques that’re more useful in winter.

Stuck in a Rut

Getting stuck is more likely to happen in the winter season than any other, depending on where you live. Winter’s probably also the most dangerous time to be stuck as well. Here are some ideas to keep you on the move.

Sandbaggers: Sometimes we’re stuck only because our tires can’t find traction on a slick surface to get us moving again. One tool to get you back on the go is a bag of sand or cat litter stored in your trunk. You can buy either from a number of stores.

In the event your tires can’t get any traction, just retrieve the cat litter or sand and sprinkle some under your drive tires (make sure you know whether your car is front- or rear-wheel drive). In a pinch, you can use your car’s floor mats.

When getting underway, apply the gas slowly. Too much right foot and you’ll burn through the sand or cat litter and end up right back on the ice. Once the car starts to move, keep it going and don’t stop until you know you’re someplace safe to stop. Keep this in mind even if some of your passengers hopped out to push the car. Keep the car going. It’s better they walk to meet you and get back in the car than getting stuck again.

Gain Some Weight: On occasion, a vehicle is stuck because there’s not enough weight over the drive wheels, preventing it from getting traction. This problem is more common in rear-wheel-drive vehicles. Avoid this situation by creating a winter weight system. Using bags of sand or other weights, load them as close to directly over the drive axle as possible. It’s important to position them so they don’t move while driving. The extra weight will help maintain traction. During winter, if you’re stuck and you don’t have any weights, you can load the back of the bed of your truck with snow or simply move some of your passengers to the bed or rear of the vehicle until you’re back on the move.

Strap It On: On a bad snow day, it’s a guarantee you won’t be the only one stuck. So, if you get stuck in a ditch or a snow bank, you could end up waiting for hours for a tow truck to show. An essential piece of kit to keep in your car is a tow strap with a weight rating at least twice that of your car’s weight.

Above: These strong nylon straps can make the difference between being stranded or being on your way. You might not have enough people to get you unstuck, but if an SUV or truck happens to come by, this tow strap will take the place of half a dozen people. 

Because there’s some inherent risk in using them, we recommend you do two things first: 1) teach yourself how to hook up to both the front and back of your vehicle; 2) use it in situations where you need only a little bit of extra force to get yourself free.

You might hit a rut or go nose first into a snow bank. Either you don’t have enough people to push you out or, even if you did, there’s no way to get them in a position to push. Out comes the tow strap. They’re lightweight and compact compared to old towing ropes and chains. As for cost, they run only about $20 to $40, depending on the size and weight rating.

We think of a tow strap like a set of jumper cables. Other cars or trucks are often around, but none can help if they don’t have a set of jumper cables. With so many SUVs and trucks on the road these days, if someone stops to offer help, they’d be able to help because you have your own tow strap. Make sure you’re following the law when you get yourself towed out. If there’s any property damage, you can’t just celebrate your vehicular freedom and leave. You must take responsibility for the damage or face charges of hit-and-run property damage.

Just Shovel It: Lastly, always keep a shovel available — in fact, in the winter, make that two shovels. We’ve heard people suggest keeping an old coffee can in the car. Their thinking is that it’s free (since you bought it for the coffee), and you could stash survival gear in it until you need it for shoveling. Clearly these people have never actually used a coffee can to shovel snow. Or, at best, they don’t realize that portable, purpose-built shovels exist.

Above: CRKT Trencher on the left and a telescoping snow shovel on the right. The snow shovel will move more material quickly, but the trencher, with its steel blade, can cut through harder ice that the plastic shovel blade can’t.

A small, collapsible snow shovel costs roughly $15 to $30. Using a shovel is more efficient and therefore less likely to cause you to overwork yourself. If this happens, you’ll start sweating, which could lead to hypothermia when you stop shoveling.

We suggest carrying two shovels because they’re often made of plastic and can’t easily pierce the surface of hard crusty snow. A backup shovel made out of steel will remedy that. We keep a Columbia River Knife & Tool Trencher as our backup. It looks like an old-school military entrenching tool, but made with modern, lighter materials. Between the snow shovel and the e-tool, you should be able to dig yourself out.

Staying Found

Making sure others can come to your aid depends in large part on making sure others can see you in the first place. You also need to let others know you need help. Every kit should have multiple ways of signaling for help.

Above: Keeping a good flashlight handy is always a safe bet. Adding a signaling cone to it will increase its utility.

So, here are some signaling items for your winter kit.

Flag Flying: It’s always good to carry an orange flag or distress signs. You can attach the flag to a door handle or an antenna. Distress signs can be put in both the front and rear windows. And if your car is still able, turn on the hazard lights (just be mindful of your remaining battery life). These are all methods that allow you to remain in the car and signal for help while staying out of the elements.

Blinkers: A strobe is a good way to signal for help. Sometimes help might be looking from overhead (e.g. search airplanes and helicopters), or your hazard lights might be buried in snow. A good strobe lets you signal for help at night; typically the signal can be seen for miles. The Streamlight Siege series is a great addition to your emergency kit. It takes AA batteries and has a magnetic base. Some models include a red LED strobe. If you’re stuck out at night, just slam it on the roof and let the strobe do all the work while you stay warm in the car.

Above: The magnetic Streamlight Siege AA can attach to a car’s roof, making it more visible from the ground or air.

Reflect It: Signal mirrors are great, but on a snowy day they most likely won’t be effective, as direct sunlight would be limited. If stranded for a long period, or even overnight, you might find a signaling device useful once the snow stops on the next day.

Stay Warm

Imagine it’s so frigid that the fuel line in your Honda Civic freezes up while you’re on a downtown freeway. It’s so cold and the snow is piled so deep that tow services are backed up for hours as they respond to call after call of cars lodged in snowbanks all around the city. This actually happened to the author. The lesson? You don’t need to be in an isolated area to end up exposed to the cold.

Bundle Up: You never know when disaster will strike. You could be in your work clothes or on your way back from a wedding or funeral. There’s always a chance the clothing you happen to be wearing isn’t up to the challenge. Keeping an extra set of the basics can make the difference. Always keep extra gloves, socks, and a toque (what Canadians call a beanie or knit cap) in the vehicle. Room permitting, keep extra boots and an oversized set of jogging pants to slip over your clothing.

Above: Versatility is always a plus for preppers. The waterproof bag containing your extra clothes could make a good mat to help keep you dry if you have to work on your vehicle.

Space Age: Mylar blankets, also called space blankets, are good multi-use tools. Carrying a lot of them isn’t an expensive proposition (one usually goes for a couple of bucks). In the event you’re in for a long ride — say, stranded on a back road with no way to signal for help or on a highway during a blizzard — you can use the blankets to insulate the car. Trying to stay wrapped up in one is difficult in the tight confines of a sedan.

Car windows are the greatest source of heat loss. A good plan is to use several blankets and a roll of duct tape to cover the windows. By covering the windows you’ll also contain some of the heat your body generates in the car.

If you’re lucky enough to still have a running vehicle, the heat will be better contained. Candle lanterns are an amazing piece of old-school kit, or you can just use some candles — perhaps placed in an old coffee can that you didn’t use to dig snow. Using a lantern or emergency candle with a globe over the burny end is a good safety feature and can prevent accidental fires. Though, it takes a lot of attention, and it’s not the safest option. A good candle lantern will carry a large candle and provide plenty of heat for hours.

Above: Using thin Mylar blankets to cover the windows will help retain heat in the vehicle. 

Bag It: If space permits, carry a sleeping bag in the vehicle. [Editor’s note: See our cold-weather sleeping bag buyer’s guide elsewhere in this issue.] If you’re short on space, a good fleece throw will work. The sleeping bags don’t have to be arctic-rated bags; they can simply provide an extra layer on top of what you’re already wearing.

Stay Hydrated: These days, we tend to drink a variety of beverages that contain caffeine. As a result, our bodies may be closer to a dehydrated state than we realize. A dehydrated body doesn’t function properly and, when left untreated, can lead to serious medical conditions. So, it’s important that any emergency kit provide hydration, even in the winter. You can carry water in the car, but if it’s kept in places that experience long and very cold winters, it’ll probably freeze. And, no, it’s not smart to eat snow for hydration, as it’ll lower your body temperature and complicate matters even more.

Above: Extra water can be used for drinking or to refill a radiator that is low — for example, from a hose leak. One item we added to this Adventure Medical Kit is a Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter. Dehydration can strike even in the winter.

However, believe it or not, if you drive your car on a regular basis and the winters aren’t too extreme, a gallon jug of water can go the entire winter without freezing. Another option is to keep a water filtration system on board with some kind of container. Bringing snow into the car in a container will eventually melt the snow. The resulting water can then be run through a filter system.

For a good compact system, look at the Sawyer Squeeze water filtration system (SP131, SP129). It’s important to remember that once you use a filtration system you mustn’t allow it to freeze, as that will ruin the filter. The Squeeze system is nice, compact, and easy to use.

Above: The Survive Outdoors Longer Urban Survival Kit puts many of the basics together in one kit. There’s backup water, food, first-aid supplies, signaling devices, and even
fire-starting supplies. 

Conclusion

As we approach winter, it’s a good idea to add those seasonal components to your vehicle emergency kit. Most importantly, get your car checked and prepared for winter. Make sure you have plenty of gas line antifreeze on hand and have your coolant checked and winterized, along with a good set of snow tires.

If you do break down, or get stuck, stay with the vehicle. In extreme winter conditions, be aware that walking as little as 50 feet can be dangerous, even fatal. Thoroughly evaluate all your options before trying to walk for help and only do so if help is within sight.

Recommended Reading: For more on how to bug-out in winter and other winter tips, see “Snow Worries” in Issue 17.


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