Earlier this week we talked about an emergency kit for your home, now it's time to focus on your car and how to be prepared for the unpleasantness of being stranded in a winter wonderland.
Compared to creating a home winter emergency kit a car emergency kit has two principle differences. First, you're severely limited on space compared to home preparations—and you burn extra gas hauling your loot around. Second, when the power goes out and the party stops at your house, you're still at home safe and sound. When your car gets stuck in the middle of no where and it's 12F out, it's a radically worse situation that could end tragically.
Keep Your Car Topped Off and Well Serviced
You can't avoid every curve ball Old Man Winter will throw at you, but if you run out of gas on a lonely and frozen highway because you'd passed a half dozen gas stations while running on less than a quarter of a tank, you can't exactly point your finger at anyone. The same goes for having your tuned up and road-ready. We know it's not cheap and owning a vehicle can be quite a monkey sink, but nobody huddled in a broken down car on the side of a deserted road and slowly losing the feeling in their limbs has thought "Man I'm glad I skipped that $200 tune up." Photo by Tome Lemo.
Assess Your Driving Patterns and Plan for the Worst
The amount of inclement weather preparation you'll need to undertake is largely dependent on the kind of driving you do. Winters can be bitter in New York City, but you won't need the kind of gear in your trunk that someone who commutes on the rural highways of North Dakota would need.
When it comes to planning for the worst, you don't need to plan for the absolute worst mind you, nobody expects you to keep a surgical kit and a guide to field surgery in your car. Most emergency kits fall woefully short through. What if the accident/stranding/car breaking down leaves you stuck in the middle of nowhere in a blizzard for a day or more? It sounds preposterous to a city dweller, but the US is a very big place and in bad weather you'll find many a road goes untraveled for long stretches of time. Having an ice scraper, a half eaten bag of Combos, and some frozen gum isn't going to buy you a whole lot of time or comfort. At minimum you should plan to be stuck with your car for a day—it's a rarity to be in such a situation but the cost of being prepared versus the cost of being unprepared makes it a veritable bargain to make sure you have the right supplies.
Hydration and Heat are Critical
Staying warm and staying well hydrated are the most important things to consider when contemplating being stranded in your car. You can go a long, albeit uncomfortable time, without food. If you're an average American you can go a very long time without food. You won't last very long frozen solid and you won't last very long without water, and you'll hasten the former by getting the water you need from the icy snow around you.
The water situation can be a tricky one, after all if you've been driving for hours out in the cold the giant jug of water you've got in the trunk is likely as frozen as the snow on the back bumper. This is where having smaller water containers is much handier, smaller bottles are easier to thaw out in the heat of the car. Alternately you can keep your water in a small cooler. I have a $19 Coleman cooler that can keep drinks cold in my trunk for almost a week, it could certainly work in the opposite direction and keep things unfrozen longer. If you live in a particularly rough and isolated area, you might consider keeping an emergency stove and small camp pan in your kit for melting snow—the two will run you under $15.
Food is, as noted above, not as critical as water but you should include it anyway. You'll want to focus on packing calorie-dense, non-perishable foods. Energy bars, nuts, granola and dried fruit are all great choices. It is best to select food you actually normally enjoy eating and then rotate it out of the car every few weeks. That way you won't be stuck gnawing on a four year old protein bar when you eventually have to bust into your emergency kit.
Have a sleeping bag—winter weight!—in the truck, along with winter boots and additional winter clothing. The clothes don't need to be fancy they just need to keep you warm, so throw in some older winter gear that doesn't see much use. Don't overlook hats, scarves, and gloves here, they help keep heat in at high loss points like the neck and head. Photo by Muffet.
Be Able to Signal
You know what a light colored car, in a ditch, in a snow storm looks like? Nothing. You don't want to be looked over by other motorists and rescue workers as you sit in your car freezing. You need a way to signal. Plan on your car's electrical system being out of commission and have an LED emergency beacon or two in your car.
They aren't particularly expensive, you can pick them up at backpacking and outdoor stores and they even have ones designed for automotive emergency use at many auto supply stores. For the unfamiliar it's essentially a battery powered strobe, like the kind of little and intense strobes above emergency exits. It's highly visible for long distance, even in a snow storm, and it lets emergency workers know that you're in need of help. While you're shopping for a beacon, don't forget to get an LED flashlight or two. Aim for getting a lower power flashlight with a long battery life, some of the high-intensity models chew up batteries really fast. Photo by S. Diddy.
Dealing with the Little Things
Our list up to this point has leaned towards the extreme side of things like preparing to make sure you don't freeze to death on the side of the road, a rather important thing to be prepared to ward off. On the less-fatal side of things, and certainly the more common, you'll be dealing with things like getting stuck but having assistance nearby.
Here having things on hand like a bag of sand in your trunk for additional traction and a tow rope or chain if you've got a good Samaritan at hand but the tow truck is no where to be found are extremely helpful. In addition to a bag of sand, a shovel is always handy. Look for a sturdy one sized for a child, it'll fit in the trunk better and still have a fairly wide surface area compared to a tiny emergency shovel. Photo by Kennymatic.
Think of something we didn't include in our list? Have a story or two about being stuck in the snows of the great white north? Let's hear about it in the comments.