I’ve experienced that gut-jolting feeling more than once, and you have too. You turn the key to your car expecting to hear the roar of the engine…and…nothing. Or, you’re cruising along the highway when you notice that the gas pedal isn’t quite working right. Then it dawns on you, you’ve run out of gas. Or, a flat tire leaves you stuck on the roadside. Even on a pleasant, balmy day, these scenarios are frustrating. On a cold day with freezing temperatures and dangerous driving conditions, they’re potentially deadly. If you can’t phone AAA or a friend, do you know how to survive stranded in a car in winter?
Before you even leave home, do these two things.
One, tell someone where you are going, the route you are taking, and when you anticipate arriving. If you don’t contact them within an agreed-upon timeframe, they can alert emergency personnel that you’re missing and provide the information that makes their search most effective.
Two, make sure your vehicle has the necessary supplies. You’re going to need supplies if you’re going to survive in a stranded vehicle in cold weather. Replace anything you’ve used. Here’s a list for a basic vehicle emergency kit — handy for any season of the year.
If you’re going to survive in a stranded car in winter, do this first.
Stay with the vehicle, either in it or very near it. Resist the temptation to strike out on foot.
Because the car provides shelter and protection. It’s also much more visible to searchers and should contain supplies to help you survive until help arrives. (If it doesn’t now, it’s going to after you read this article, because you’re going to assemble them, right?)
Therefore, unless you are 100% certain that a well-traveled road or occupied home/building is within a very short, easy walk and the weather allows, stay put. Rescue occurs much more quickly if you’re with your vehicle. In addition, any exertion causes a lot of sweating (moisture). That only makes it more difficult to stay warm. Dehydration also happens more quickly.
Now let’s talk about supplies.
Dress For The Occasion
Any time you’re traveling in a vehicle through winter weather, you should first dress for that type of weather. You can always change when you get to your destination or remove a layer or two. However, if you are well and truly stuck in snow and ice conditions, that business suit, party dress, or fancy shoes is likely to be the death of you. Atlanta drivers were reminded of this fundamental truth a few years ago. Snowstorms hit their city and stranded thousands of commuters, many in warm-weather business attire.
The main challenges are moisture from precipitation and the cold, so plan for both.
In the great Atlanta Snowmageddon of 2014, I remember reading about one businessman who left his car and set out to walk for help and safety. The cold was so extreme that he ended up with frostbite on his toes. He was wearing only his everyday business shoes and was completely unprepared.
If you can’t dress for the weather, then at least have these items in a waterproof pack or maybe one of those storage bags that allows you to squeeze all the air out so the bag takes up less room — like these. If you change into warmer clothes promptly, you’re going to be better off in the long run even if you have to change clothes in the back seat of the car!
Clothing Items In A Storage Bag
- one pair of wool socks for each person in the family
- sturdy walking shoes or boots, waterproof if possible. If you have hiking boots but rarely wear them, why not keep them in the trunk of your car or underneath the back seat?
- a tube of Shoe Goo to seal the exterior of shoes against water (Carry a tube of this in your emergency kit, too.)
- hand warmers
- warm, waterproof gloves
- rugged work gloves (In case you need to change a tire, clear a road, or do some other manual labor in freezing temperatures.)
- foot warmers
- fleece-lined tights — wear these under dresses, jeans, skirts. You’ll love them!
- knitted wool caps (These are my favorite for keeping my head warm, the key to keeping the entire body warm.)
- rain ponchos with hoods (large “contractors” trash bags are an okay substitute)
- wool long johns — The Cuddl Duds brand is highly recommended.
If you’re packing these things for multiple members of the family, make the entire pile easier to organize. Separate out each person’s set of clothes/gear and keep them in separate bags. This way there’s no need to dig through a huge bag of clothes to find one pair of socks.
Keep your feet, hands, and head warm and dry at the very least. You can find more cold-weather clothing tips in my trip report from Iceland.
Stuck In The Car, With Nowhere To Go
If the weather is so bad that you can’t even get out of the car, then those warm clothes are critical. The temperature inside your car can quickly drop to just a few degrees warmer than outside. The warm socks, caps, clothes, and hand/foot warmers are going to help a great deal.
Along with some additional resources to stay warm, food, water, and a toilet (of all things!) are going to become necessities. And of course, entertainment options help pass the time. Especially if there are kids in the car.
I recommend putting together a cold-weather food kit — items that can be stored in freezing weather, such as apple cider mix and granola bars. I’ve written about this in more detail here, along with a handy list of foods.
Other Sources of Heat
If you’re going to survive stranded in a car in winter, the more heat sources you have, the better. Therefore, add a small heater that is safe to use inside a vehicle. This portable, small space heater runs on propane and would be a safe choice. Store a couple of extra propane containers in your vehicle to ensure you have a supply to last a few days, just in case. Since body heat counts for something, even in very cold weather, you might need to run this heater for just a few minutes every hour or so.
If your car has plenty of gas, turn on your car’s heater every so often as well. Just make sure that the exterior exhaust pipe isn’t clogged with mud or snow. If it is, clear it out completely before turning your car on, otherwise, carbon monoxide can build up inside the car, causing another deadly problem worse than being stranded. This carbon monoxide detector for the car looks intriguing, although I haven’t used it personally.
Another heating option is a survival stove car heater that uses a couple of cans, a roll of toilet paper, and a bottle or two of alcohol. This DIY emergency heater requires some practice using it. I recommend watching this video to see how the heater is put together and reading the results of actual use in a car. I file this in the “emergency use only” category, but it definitely won’t hurt to have it put together with a bottle or two of alcohol — just in case.
If nothing else, a large metal can with a small votive candle can provide heat. Just be sure to crack a window by a half-inch or so.
Do you have some spare blankets around the house? Go ahead and roll those up, store them in a space-saver bag, and add them to your supplies in the trunk. I’ve kept spare blankets and towels underneath my Tahoe’s back seat for many years, and they come in handy, no matter the weather.
Toss rarely used sleeping bags into the trunk of the car. You might as well store them there as in the garage or attic. Caught in cold weather, they could very possibly save your life.
Food and Water
This article details how to store water in a vehicle during the winter. It’s important to know that snow, while technically water and life-saving, also works against you when eaten by lowering your core temperature. Granola or energy bars, crackers, beef jerky, lollipops — all do well when stored in cold temperatures. Sugary and salty snacks, though, increase your thirst, which leads us to the toilet situation.
Nature still calls even when you’re trying to survive in a stranded vehicle in winter. Most likely, you’re just going to hop out of the car, do your business, and then hop back in. Therefore, store a child’s training toilet in the trunk, along with some plastic trash bags and toilet paper.
Ways To Pass The Time
Finally, put together a sanity-saving kit to wile away the hours until rescue. It might contain a charged and loaded mp3 player with earphones, a book you’ve been meaning to read, paper and pen, coloring books and colored pencils for the kids, hard candies, and so on. Your “adventure” may last just an hour or two but you might also be stranded for much longer. If that’s the case, these supplies are indispensable for morale.
For a thorough list of what to keep in your car, this printable is ready to download!
Getting Help When You’re Stranded In A Car In Winter
Obviously, getting stuck in your car is a situation that isn’t desirable! Even if you’re toasty warm, the kids are napping, and you’re listening to your favorite Pandora channel, you want to get home!
A charged cell phone is a necessity, as is an external battery pack. This Halo power bank comes highly recommended and has 2 USB ports and an AC/DC outlet. for A charged battery pack has saved my bacon on many occasions when my cell phone was nearly dead. With your phone, you can utilize Google maps, emergency scanners, and first aid apps. This survival manual app has extensive information at your fingertips.
How To Make Yourself More Visible To Searchers
In a winter landscape, bright colors are easy to spot. Imagine a bright red cardinal against the white snow and bare, gray tree branches. If your vehicle is off the main roads, you may need to figure out how to make it more visible for rescue workers or casual passer-by. For example:
- Stretch a mylar emergency blanket across the top of your car and secure it in place with your car doors.
- Tie brightly colored clothing to an antenna.
- Flash a mirror at passing cars or airplanes.
- Honk your horn or flash your headlights to attract attention.
If you’ve told someone where you are going and when to expect you back home, it won’t be long before an active search is called and help is on its way.
What supplies do you recommend to survive in a stranded car in winter?
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