How to Survive a Blizzard in Your Vehicle

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How to survive a blizzard if you get stranded in your vehicle. Smart to plan and think ahead, just in case! | via

How do you survive if you become trapped in your vehicle during a blizzard? With winter fast approaching, this is a good question.

The last few years have seen unseasonably cold and snowy winters in the U.S. Along with sustained cold temperatures, many regions experienced blizzard conditions, including heavy snowfall and accumulation, combined with strong winds. Numerous areas were affected, including thousands of miles of roads ranging from major commuter highways down to narrow, twisty mountain roads. This became a recipe for motorists getting stuck in their vehicles during these tough weather conditions, and they did.

Blizzards and winter storms are generally forecast by our nation’s weather services. What is not easily predicted is the true amount of snow, wind speeds, and the areas where snow and ice will accumulate.

This means that if you live in or are traveling through to an area that gets winter snow storms, regardless of whether it is urban, suburban or rural, you need to be prepared. Whenever I pack an emergency kit for my car, my backpack, or throw a few EDC items together, I keep in mind the 5 S’s of Survival: shelter, sanitation, survival, sustenance, and security. You can read about the 5 S’s in-depth here.

Here’s how to survive a blizzard in your car.

Winterize Your Vehicle, personal gear, and emergency equipment

Your Vehicle

  • Get your vehicle winterized including, engine, radiator, and windshield washer fluids. Don’t forget new wiper blades as well.
  • Have your battery checked.
  • Get your tires checked. Do they have enough tread to last the winter or do you need to change them for all season or snow tires?
  • Put your tire chains or traction mats in the trunk.
  • Print out this free download of what you should keep in a vehicle emergency kit.

TIP- Scheduled vehicle maintenance can often catch potential problems before they happen.

Emergency Equipment

  • Verify that you have a windshield scraper, tow rope, jumper cables, flares, or portable emergency roadway lights. If you have a larger vehicle, in particular, make sure your tow rope is up to the task. You don’t want a 10,000 lb. rated tow rope to pull out an Escalade, but you don’t need a 30,000 lb. one for a VW Bug.
  • Include a small folding shovel and bag of sand or cat litter (the old cheap kind, not the newer clumping kind) in case you get stuck and need to dig out or provide extra traction for your tires.
  • Check your first aid kit and replenish any used supplies.

Personal Gear

  • Winterize your emergency gear with a couple of space blankets as well as one wool blanket or sleeping bag. The cheap mylar space blankets are great to have, but they rip easily so you might want to splurge on the reusable, higher-quality ones to keep in your car.
  • Make sure your emergency kit includes, among other things, glow sticks, knife or multi-tool, duct tape, flashlight, extra batteries, a lighter, matches, candles for melting snow, pen and paper.
  • It’s important to have a metal cup or can for melting snow into water. Even an empty soup can will do, provided its metal. Most H2O containers will freeze once your vehicle cools down.
  • Store some extra water and high energy foods or snacks like protein bars in the vehicle.
  • Pack a small gear bag with extra clothing. Jacket, hat, socks, and gloves are a minimum – preferably wool or something high tech and waterproof. If you dress up for work, add a complete change of appropriate winter clothing, including snow boots. I also add a couple packs of chemical hand and foot warmers.

If You Become Stranded

First and foremost, keep calm and stay focused on what you need to do to survive.

Stay With Your Vehicle

It is much easier to spot a vehicle than it is a person. Only leave to seek help if you have 100 yards (a football field) of visibility or more and you have a clear, visible objective to go for. Do not just get out and start walking along the roadway hoping someone will find you. That is a good way to freeze to death, literally.

Make Your Car as Visible as Possible, Quickly!

This is a priority. Turn on your emergency flashers and dome lights while your engine is running. Tie something bright, like a bandanna, to your antenna or roof rack, if you have one, or hang something bright out a window. If you have glow sticks, put one on both your front and back windows. A mylar blanket stretched over the roof of your car and secured on by sides by the car doors will make a giant reflector for anyone flying overhead. All these steps will make your vehicle (and you) much more visible, even when it is snowing and blowing heavily. Finally, when the snow has stopped, raise the hood of your car.

Call 911 and a Friend

After you are sure you are stuck and in danger of being snowed in, do not hesitate to call 911. Answer all questions and follow all directions given by the 911 operator. Your life may literally depend on it.

After your 911 call, or if you can’t get through to the operator, contact a family member or friend and give them the details of what has happened to you. If you haven’t reached emergency services, have them call for you. Remember, you are in a blizzard and who knows how long phone service will stay up or the battery in your phone will last.

Stay Warm

Turn on your engine for 10 minutes every hour and run the heater at full blast. (Keep your tailpipe clear of snow.) At the same time, crack open a downwind window just a little to let in fresh air and prevent carbon monoxide build up.

Put on extra clothing if you have it, especially a jacket, hat, socks, and gloves (see above). Do you have a winter emergency kit in your vehicle? If so, take out the space blanket, wool blanket, and/or sleeping bag and wrap it around you. If you have all or some of these coverings, layer up. Use them all, but not to the point of overheating.

If you don’t have a winter emergency kit, use things like maps, magazines, newspapers and even removable car mats for insulation under and around you.

If you are traveling with someone snuggle up, huddle, and share the body heat. A bivvy like this one is both water and windproof and designed to reflect back your body heat. It is far more durable and useful than the mylar survival blankets, although they do have their uses.

hand holding survival frog tact bivvy emergency sleeping bag

Get moving

OK, so it is a little hard to run in place in most vehicles. But it is important for mind and body to keep your blood circulating and muscles from stiffening up. You can clap your hands and stomp your feet. Move your arms and legs. Do isometric exercises and don’t stay in any one position for very long.

Fuel Your Body

Eat and drink regularly. Not a lot, just snack, so that your body doesn’t pull too much blood from your extremities to digest your food. Follow the instructions in this article to keep water unfrozen in your car.


If you are stuck for any prolonged period of time, there are three things to be on guard for carbon monoxide poisoning, hypothermia, and frostbite. The good news is these threats are fairly easily dealt with if you take action to protect yourself, as soon as possible. Keep a window slightly open periodically (usually when you run your vehicle engine) to allow just a little fresh air in. This will combat carbon monoxide build up. As for hypothermia and frostbite, layer up with your extra clothing and coverings, keep moving (see above), take in liquids and food frequently and in small amounts-snack. Stay moving and stay fueled!

Keep Motivated and FocusedThink, Act and Survive!

The longer you are stuck in your vehicle, the easier it becomes be to get demotivated, thinking help will never come. It is vital that you keep a positive mental attitude. This one thing will strengthen your will to live. Stay focused on the positive things you need to do to promote your rescue and your survival. Attitude is everything in survival. Like the will to live, keeping and cultivating a positive mental attitude (PMA)  is central to your success. I would wager more emergencies have gone from bad to worse because of a lack of PMA, usually caused by fear and panic followed by depression and apathy.

Things to do to promote a positive mental attitude, defeat fear and control panic as well as ward off depression and the onset of hopelessness and apathy:

  1. Once you deal with any immediate and urgent safety or medical issues, Stop! Take a moment and be still.
  2. Focus on your breathing. Breathe slowly and deeply. This promotes relaxation and helps reduce anxiety.
  3. Slow down your thinking. Focus on positive thoughts and feelings. Fear and panic are at their strongest when your mind is racing and your imagination is running rampant with negative thoughts and ideas. Drive these thoughts from your mind.
  4. Create your survival plan. Focus on what you need to do to survive.
  5. Get busy and be proactive. Concentrate on the fundamental things you need to do and keep doing while you are stuck in your vehicle.
  6. Improvise: Be willing to think outside the box as you create your survival plan and act on it. Look around and be creative in the use of your resources at hand.
  7. Adapt: A blizzard means COLD! Adjust to your circumstances and surroundings, possibly including huddling for warmth with people you normally, literally keep at arm’s length. Be willing and able to tolerate discomfort. Know your strengths and weaknesses: mental, emotional, and physical. Push your limits, endure what is necessary, and make “I will survive” your mantra. Stay Strong.

The vast majority of survival events, including getting stuck in a blizzard are short-lived – less than 24 hours. That said, during any major weather event including blizzards, road crews, law enforcement, and sometimes even rescue teams are out looking for stranded motorists. However, there is a lot you can do to help keep yourself safe and alive until help arrives or you are able to rescue yourself.  Remember, first and foremost, you are responsible for your safety and survival.

If you’d like to read more on the subject, this article has instructions for assembling a Winter Survival Food Kit (very handy for every vehicle) and additional tips to survive stranded in your car.



18 thoughts on “How to Survive a Blizzard in Your Vehicle”

  1. One thing no one ever talks about in this “survive winter in your car” articles is — how to deal with elimination of body wastes. Sooner or later we all have to pee, etc. How about making some suggestions for this that are safe as well as useful? Wandering away from your car for privacy is likely not a great plan, but peeing into a cup is not so easy for a woman in a car either!

  2. Just wanted to say that I live in Buffalo New York. A recent snow storm here had cars and trucks stuck on a hi way for just over 30 hours. This stretch of hi way has a problem, people got stuck in this area last year but only over night. 30 hours is a long time to be stuck in a vehicle, packing a small bag and having the knowledge from this article would have helped many of these people to have helped themselves.
    Same storm, on another road a gentleman was trying to get home, he was in a pickup truck he slid off the road and was not hurt but the truck was stuck. This happened in an industrial area. The man froze to death. He did not have a cell phone charger. His poor wife got a few calls from him during the storm but he was telling her there was not much gas in the truck, so he could not keep running the vehicle for warmth and the battery on the phone was low.
    My husband complains that I pack all but the kitchen sink. I think over packing is a better thing than under packing!!

  3. Winter car bags are the easiest thing in the world to pack, so I just don’t understand the people who don’t have them. Nearly everybody has a spare jacket they don’t wear but won’t get rid of. Add in those ugly boots you bought on sale, toss in a few spare socks (which can be used in place of mittens), and round it out with that hideous afghan Great Aunt Mary gave you as a wedding gift. If you don’t want to leave food and drinks in the car, keep a totebag by the front door to grab every time you go somewhere by car. It can hold a couple bottles of Gatorade or some juice boxes, along with whatever snack you happen to have on hand. Your gear doesn’t have to be top of the line or elaborate. The point is to just have SOMEthing to get you through.

  4. I agree with Pauline that being stranded in a car and HAVING to go is certainly an issue, especially for women. Being a Colorado Mountain Native, I can attest from personal experience – I have attempted the pee-in-a-cup method on multiple occasions …. without the best success. Depending on how severe the situation, if it is possible, the easiest option is often just to grin and “bear” it, literally, going outside next to the vehicle (preferably on the leeward side of the vehicle). However, if we are talking about a situation where you are literally stuck IN the car relying on your survival bag, I carry a few Depends underwear in a large Ziplock bag. I know this certainly isn’t glamorous, but it is effective. I also carry a kitchen-size garbage bag to use as a port-a-potty when you have to, you know, poop.

  5. Pauline – short of an explanation on how to turn urine into drinkable water, I think its safe to say opening the door/window and digging a hole or even getting out of the car is a good idea for this one.

  6. Thank you for this info. I was stuck waiting in my truck for the fairly short time of about four hours. The temps were in the low 20’s, wind chill about 5-10. It gets cold fast, it’s like the metal in the truck just sucks the body heat off of you. I was lucky enough to have snow pants, extra hat, over sized mittens, and an extra large parka to go over my regular clothes. Plus several blankets. But what really made the difference was my 95 lb boxer/lab dog. Never underestimate the power of shared body heat! I did not have any food or water. (I do now!) and a snack would have made the time go faster. Also now in the truck, an extra book! It was only about four hours, but it was a very boring four hours. It is difficult to get comfortable in side a small truck. Changes have been made, if there is a next time, I am better prepared with food, water, entertainment, hot packs, additional sleeping bag, flares, tow strap, potty arrangements.

  7. Something to remember if you are stuck in an out-of-the-way area: A burning spare tire will send up a very visible black plume of smoke, and it will burn for hours if not days. Yes, it releases all kinds of nasty compounds when it burns, but when your life is on the line…

  8. Pingback: 9 Ways to Train Your Brain to Respond in a Crisis | Survive Buzz

  9. Arthur Raynolds

    Some people need to be reminded to wear hats, even in the car or in your home if you have limited heat. People can lose 40% of their body heat through their heads. As a man who is nearly bald, I have no problem wearing a watch cap to bed, or in the house. Better than being chilled.

    1. The Survival Mom

      When I was sick a few days ago with severe chills and fever, I was wearing my Icelandic wool cap. 🙂

  10. I am a former long distance backpacker, and have spent many nights in my tent. Peeing in a cup isn’t that difficult to do, just move out and off your sleeping bag when you do it “just in case”. The trick for me was to hold the cup right up against me so the pee would go straight into the cup. If I was in a car I would try to kneel on the seat facing the rear of the car; just spread your legs enough to keep the cup pressed right up against you and go for it. Try it when you aren’t in a disaster situation.

  11. Consider adding the following .. Rations and Water (plenty of both). A couple half rolls of Toilet Paper (another one in the glove compartment with an unopened bag of baby wipes) (all vacuum sealed) Duffie Bag.. 1 sleeping bag per person.. A $20 Swiss Army Bag from Sam’s Club will do.. 1 wool blanket per person (I got nice ones from a thrift store before washed and good to go) (Stuff it in your sleeping Bag if your really awesome). 6 or so Moving/Cargo Pads.. $8 a piece and a dozen or so modest sized spring clamp 99 cents each from Harbor Freight. Cold and Carbon Monoxide are the obvious risks.. $15 at Wall Kart will put a CO Detector in your kit, Other than running a function test.. keep it (Battery and spare battery Bagged and Duct Taped in the original the box.. Stuff everything but the food water and sleeping bags into the duffle bag.

    The reason your vehicle gets so cold so quickly is that the single pane windows work like heat sinks.. You can address this with those inexpensive Cargo Pads.. they are durable relatively thick so decent insulators. leaving at least one lee side window cracked maybe 1/3- 1/2 inch. ( You can place a cargo pad along the windward side using the windows to hold it in place..Run it down to the floor your goal is to achieve double insulation.. Folded lengthwise and stuffed into the back window shelf (propped by what you have with you, same with the front window , Lay a couple on floorboards and at least partially on the lee side windows of the vehicle (Keeping that window opening unobstructed .

    This all works.. spent many nights in a Jeep at 50 below and worse. Keep moving though.. the risk of DVT for normal humans in such conditions is real.

    Last but not least never go anywhere in the winter without a good supply of all essential medications and a Bible.. (good reading_…

  12. Carbon Monoxide poisoning probably a greater risk than cold if you have other wise prepared properly.. You need to read up and understand the danger..

    I included the following link below to show just how fast it can come upon you.. Keep that window open and don’t go to sleep with the motor running clear the exhaust pipe before your run the engine each time.Have your exhaust system inspected before winter hits ..Sleep in shifts if you can…. I have been in some storm conditions where with three of us in a tent.. One had to stay awake at all times and every so often shake the tent walls to insure ice did not form a capsule around us (from our breath on the inside and the storm outside that would then cause us to use up all the oxygen in the tent. We would never know we would just not wake up.

  13. My little dog and I traveled from California to Wisconsin by pickup in the middle of December a few years back. I traveled during the day but slept every night in my pickup at truck stops. A couple of nights were -15 degrees. It wasn’t a life or death situation like being stranded, but it showed me it could be comfortably done. Things I learned besides dogs don’t like to go out and pee when the snow is 2-3 feet over their heads…
    *I tried to fuel up before I got to 1/4 tank of gas, (closer to 1/2). Yes this was slower, but I felt worth it.
    *It was an extended cab so I was able to keep food and water in the back seat, not needing to get out to get in the back(or trunk).
    *I used fleece fabric and clothes pins to make a wraparound drape of sorts for insulation and privacy. I kept a window down about 1/3″ for fresh air at all times.
    *I kept a plastic coffee can w/lid to pee in.
    *I slept on a thick quilt and covered up with another one. I used 2 pillows since my head was by the cold door.
    *I had a timer that I set for 1 hr, would turn on the engine, setting it again for 10 mins in case I fell asleep, then repeated.

    Of course if stranded, there’d be more to deal with, but you can survive if PREPARED.

  14. Thank you for this post. It came up when I was stuck in the snow today. There was nothing new, but it was comforting to know that I was doing the right thing.

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