How to Survive in a Stranded Car in Winter

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car driving on snow covered road in snowstorm, how to survive stranded in car winter

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.

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment, though. What if you didn’t tell anyone where you were going? What if people know where you’re at but conditions are deteriorating so rapidly that remaining in one place could prove catastrophic? How does one decide whether to stay or to go? Read this post for an eight-step process to help you decide whether you should try to save yourself.

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.

hand holding survival frog tact bivvy emergency sleeping bag

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.

Toileting Needs

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?

30 thoughts on “How to Survive in a Stranded Car in Winter”


  2. Hi, Lisa:
    Excellent advice. One thing I would add, and you mentioned it at the very end of your blog. In the winter, always, ALWAYS let someone else know where you are going and when you expect to be back. If no-one knows where you are or when to expect you back, it could be a very long time before assistance arrives.
    Your advice to keep an extra battery pack in the car is a really great idea! I had not thought of that one. Our travels frequently take us into Seattle, which is about a 2 1/2 hour trip one way and part of that trip is on a very lightly traveled road along the edge of the Olympic Mountains.
    Thanks for the great ideas and advice!

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  4. Reflex Handgun

    Really excellent article. I like the advice for various heating mechanisms. I find that folks who live in rural environments are at least a little bit better about keeping warm clothing and other essentials in the car. I live in a large suburban area and we had a storm several years ago in which hundreds of motorists abandoned their cars on the side of the highways. Most who did so were walking in only their dress cloths, slick shoes, and maybe a coat. The ‘it won’t happen to me” mindset is universal among city people. I bet few of these same people have changed their behavior since.

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  6. Long johns? Seriously? I ain’t undressing in a freezing car. I would think sweatshirt/hoodie/jacket and sweatpants would be more practical.

    1. The Survival Mom

      I have a set of silk longjohns that act as my primary layer under long pants. In really cold weather, I’ve been known to wear fleece leggings over the longjohns and then a pair of pants over those. So, yes, long underwear are the primary first layer when it comes to keeping warm. As far as the sweatshirt/pants suggestion goes, that fabric isn’t the best when it comes to thermal qualities, but it would be better than nothing, for sure.

    2. Trust me. I’m typing this stuck in a ditch. It’s worth it. If you have heaters in your seats turn them on and sit on top the long johns and then put them on. It’s what I’d kill to do right now. My turtleneck, blazer, hoodie and sweats I’ve got on aren’t helping as much as a close to body thermal fabric would that’s designed to keep in heat.

  7. Immediately change your VM on your phone to give location, conditions and to send help. So even if you don’t have cell service people will get your message when trying to get hold of you.

    1. I’ve seen this advice circulating on social media this year, but according to law enforcement, and search and rescue, this is a myth. Changing your voicemail requires cell service, and if you have cell service, you should just call 9-1-1. If you don’t have a cell signal, you’ll be wasting battery life attempting to change VM. Also, if your cell signal is too weak to make a call, or your battery is too low, you may still be able to send a text. Some emergency dispatch centers can get them. Also, to conserve battery life, you should close all apps and turn off WI-FI and Bluetooth. Some of them eat through battery life rapidly. That being said, seriously consider a secondary power source for the phone, so you CAN potentially call 9-1-1, or at least send a text even with a weak signal.

  8. It could be a couple of days before some going to look for you in that ditch if you do not have a cell phone connection.
    No one is looking for you if there is no missing person report filled and then there is still a 24 hour that has to pass before they actually are looking for you.
    A solar powered phone charger may not be a bad idea. Covers some food, something to make a fire with and maybebe some candles.

  9. This is ridiculous, maybe you’ll need this for certain trips into very secluded areas, but in all honestly this is overkill anywhere else. If you carry all that crap in your trunk all winter, you better drive a big a** suburban or something or you’ll have no trunk space left to use. “a training toilet” !? come on lady, calm down

    1. Survival Mom always recommends tailoring supplies to the needs of your family. And moms are very resourceful when it comes to finding ways to carry/store what they need for their families, which might, especially for a mom of littles, include a training toilet.

    2. Your comment reminds me of people who screech, “I only eat keto so there’s no way I can do food storage since it’s all about stocking up on wheat and pasta.” Think for yourself, man! If your mindset is all about following advice that makes no sense for you, your lifestyle, your circumstances, then you aren’t much of a survivor.

    3. I don’t think any of this would be considered overkill to the 22 year old that lost her life a few days ago. What a “normie” non prepper thing to say. Shortages and turmoil are always around the corner. Be prepared. You are on a survival website – most people on here appreciate this advice. I know I do. Thanks Survival Mom!

      Also quick question – my father says to just crack a window when you have the car running to avoid CO poisoning. Would anyone else agree?

  10. Please tell that to the people who are/were stranded on the highway yesterday(jan 3rd 2022) unexpectedly when a massive pile up closed the road off in both directions during a snow storm that dropped 14inches of snow. Pretty sure most of them are wishing for items on this list.

  11. I’d add some hand and foot warmers . The Dollar store has small boxes of Tuna with crackers or Chicken with crackers to add to your food list. There are also packets of Tuna and chicken which don’t take up a lot of room. I keep extra bottles of water in my vehicles at all times too.


    Heating cars with fuel based heaters may reduce available oxygen levels. Study up on this topic before firing one up in a closed vehicle or with partially open windows. Possibly by a battery powered Carbon Monoxide meter to warn you if passengers or space heaters are stuck in a stopped vehicle and oxygen is being depleted below safe levels

  13. A shall shovel and a cardboard box are great when you can’t get traction rip the box in half and tuck it in front of the tires

  14. I live in Stafford, Virginia and just went five days with no power with a 9 year old, two dogs, a betta fish and three foster kittens. It’s below freezing outside and many side-roads weren’t treated or plowed for days. These tips and this website empowered me. I knew how to keep us safe, warm and we had hot meals and hot water everyday. I feel more prepared now. I would probably add snow cleats into my car as any refreeze made places slick. Even just pumping gas I saw people slip. Thank you for this site.

  15. I just read that 22 people died in stranded cars in Pakistan. The temp was 17F. Sadly, none of these people were prepared for this.

    1. The Survival Mom

      That was a horrible nightmare. The snow level was incredible, which made it extremely difficult to get any help or rescue to those stranded. Very sad.

  16. Just went threw this extreme cold and wind-chill last night in OKC and thankfully I had rubbing alcohol and a can of ravioli in my truck when my heater core froze up and my heater would not work! I ate the ravioli and then poured the alcohol into the empty can and lit the alcohol which burns really slow with a lighter and it saved me I’m sure if it! Puts off alot of comfortable heat for a few hours!! Must vent periodically!! But life saver!! 25 below zero wind-chill OKC ok!!

  17. Not many people know how to “fix” their cars, but a roll of duct tape, and a small coil of baling wire and a pair of wireman’s pliers (to cut and twist the wire) will fix most coolant hoses (at least temporarily)…these three items could also be used for re-attaching / holding loose outer parts of a car together after a mild fender-bender (or smacking into a snowbank) situation to get you back on the road headed home.

    Not many people carry jumper cables anymore either. Of course, none of the above matters if you aren’t a little bit “handy” with tools and knowledgeable about how things work. Research on cars and red-neck repairs (with a basic tool-kit) would definitely be advantageous, though, but that’s just one more thing most people don’t do much of these days.

    Most folks leave far too much in the hands of the “experts” and don’t often question “why” things are done the way they are done. Those so-called experts include the medical profession, IT, tradespersons, repair shops, even financial folks.

    I’m afraid that over dependence on others is what will eventually get most people eliminated from the planet in a grid-down or other severe SHTF situation.

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