You don’t need to have a 6-month supply of emergency food and water to be prepared for disasters (though that certainly isn’t a bad idea!).
Often, it is the small things we do that can make a huge difference.
With winter around the corner, you must take the time to look at winter car survival kits if you have a breakdown during bad weather.
What to Do If Your Car Breaks Down in Winter
Many of the deaths during winter breakdowns are because people didn’t follow smart practices, like the lady who froze to death during the 1997 Colorado blizzard because she decided to try to walk home.
Or the many people who die from carbon monoxide poisoning in their vehicles.
So, make sure you know these steps to take if you get stuck in your car during winter!
1. Call for help.
PennDot came to the rescue for these people, but it took 18 hours for them to get there!
Don’t let your ego cost your life. If your car breaks down, immediately call for help instead of hoping you’ll get out of it on your own.
2. Stay in your car.
Unless you can get to a populated area very quickly, you should stay in your car and wait to be rescued.
You generally have a better chance of being rescued if you wait in your car. The car will also shelter you while you wait to be rescued.
3. Run your engine sparingly to heat the car.
A plugged tailpipe like this one can kill you!
You can turn on your vehicle to run the heater. It will help keep your battery from dying and prevent fuel lines from freezing.
However, you have to be very careful about doing this, so you don’t drain the battery or die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Important – Make sure your tailpipe is clear of snow before turning on your car!
- If you have more than a half tank of gas, you can run your engine about once per hour for 10-15 minutes.
- If your gas tank is less than half full, only run the engine about 1-2 times per day for 10 minutes.
- Always roll down the window a crack when heating the vehicle. This will prevent carbon monoxide buildup.
An 8-cylinder engine will use up about 1 gallon of gas per hour at idle, whereas 4 and 6-cylinder engines will use less. Keep this in mind before running your engine.
4. Keep your car clear of snow.
This will make it easier for rescuers to find your vehicle. However, if a snowbank completely covers your car, do NOT get out to clear the snow.
The amount of energy it would take to clear the snow isn’t worth it. Plus, you’ll start sweating from exertion, and that will make you wet and colder.
5. Avoid using the dome light.
This will drain your battery. Use a flashlight if you want to read to kill the boredom.
6. Don’t eat snow.
Snow is very fluffy and doesn’t contain that much water per volume. If you eat snow, you’ll cause your core body temperature to drop without actually getting much hydration in the process. Always melt snow before consuming it.
Also, remember that even clean snow can contain parasites, bacteria, and other pathogens. It might not be your top priority when trapped in your car during a blizzard, but you’ll want to purify the snow water first.
The last thing you need is hypothermia and diarrhea!
7. Signal for help.
Use signaling flags and reflectors to alert rescuers to your location.
You can also honk your horn using the SOS Morse code (three short, three long, three short). However, only honk when your car is running, so you don’t drain your battery.
8. Exercise to stay warm.
Move your arms and legs to improve circulation and help you stay warm. It makes a huge difference.
9. Insulate your car.
Cars are very poorly insulated. You’ll lose a lot of body heat through the windows and doors. Even a small amount of insulation around those spaces can make a big difference to your level of warmth.
Use anything you have available to block cracks in the windows and doors. Duct taping trash bags, for example, is a great solution. You can also stuff newspapers into cracks.
You should also try to block up unused space in the car. For example, if you have a large SUV, hang a blanket behind the front seats to block off the back area. More of your body heat will stay in the front section.
10. Beware of condensation.
Winter backpackers know about this problem!
Your breath and body heat can create a lot of condensation, which in turn creates a wet environment in the shelter.
Don’t be surprised if you see drops of water forming on the ceiling of your car. It might seem counterintuitive, but you should open the windows of the vehicle a crack if you notice condensation.
Winter Car Emergency Survival Kit Checklist
1. Shovel, windshield scraper, and small broom
These items are used to keep your car clear of snow so you can be found easier.
2. Headlamp and spare batteries
I prefer rechargeable headlamps to standard flashlights. They free up your hands so you can clear snow from your vehicle with more ease. Imagine trying to shovel while holding a flashlight!
It would take 3x longer and cause you to be exposed to the cold longer.
3. Crank-powered emergency radio.
You’ll need your emergency radio to keep up on road conditions.
Crank-power means you don’t have to worry about batteries dying on you.
A radio also comes in handy to help kill boredom while waiting to be rescued. A lot of people make poor decisions when they become bored. Here are some of the best emergency radios.
4. Hygiene kit
Your driving survival kit should include toilet paper, baby wipes, trash bags, feminine items, and diapers (if you have an infant). You can urinate into an empty water bottle to avoid going into the cold.
5. Hats, socks, mittens, jacket, and boots
You should have these items for every member of your family. Yes, I know you will probably already be wearing these items in winter. However, they could quickly get wet, so you’ll want spares.
Also, you’ll be grateful to be able to double up on the clothes when it gets cold!
Imagine if you had to walk home in your work shoes! Keep boots in your driving survival kit!
6. Blankets and/or sleeping bags
If you can afford them, get sub-zero sleeping bags for each member of your family. The shape of sleeping bags makes them better at trapping body heat than blankets.
If you have to go with blankets, opt for wool ones. Wool blankets dry faster and do a great job of trapping heat.
Recommended Reading: Best Blankets For Survival
7. Bivvy Bag
A bivvy bag is essentially a waterproof sack that you can get into. Many people think it is okay to only have a bivvy bag in their winter car survival kit.
Yes, a bivvy bag will trap your body heat and get you warm – but it will also make you sweat like crazy. After a few hours in a bivvy bag, don’t be surprised if you are completely drenched in sweat. This, in turn, makes you colder and defeats the entire purpose.
Note – A bivvy bag must be used OVER a sleeping bag or blanket.
First, you get in your sleeping bag or wrap yourself in blankets. Then you crawl into the bivvy bag. The sleeping bag/blanket will provide enough insulation to keep condensation from building up in the bivvy bag. The combo is very effective at keeping you warm. (6)
There are plenty of cheap emergency bivvy bags for $5 that you can buy. These are generally not any better than crawling into a trash bag. I suggest getting something a little better.
The best ones are breathable but quite pricey, like this one. (Amazon Link)
For a more affordable bivvy bag, this Tact Bivvy is decent:
8. Emergency car tools and supplies
You can avoid getting trapped in your car in winter by having tools to fix the problem that has you stranded.
- Car fire extinguisher – Read this article on the best car fire extinguishers.
- Spare tire, jack, and lug wrench
- Can of tire inflator and sealant (Amazon Link)
- Tow chain – this one is highly rated (Amazon Link)
- Recovery strap (for pulling out stuck vehicles; different than a tow chain)
- Spare fuses
- Road salt, sand, or cat litter
- Booster cables
- Motor oil
- Antifreeze, coolant, and windshield washer fluid
- Pocket knife and multi-tool
Of these emergency tools, the jumper cables are arguably the most important. Unfortunately, there are many issues with standard jumper cables – particularly that you need to lug around a spare battery or wait for someone else to come and offer a jumpstart.
These pocket jumper cables (Survival Frog Link) are really cool. They act as a portable power bank for your devices and can also be used to jumpstart your car. It weighs just 2lbs 7oz and can jumpstart your car 20 times on a single charge.
No need to connect to another car’s battery! Click the image for more info.
9. First aid kit
You should have a first aid kit in your driving survival kit regardless of the season. Be sure to include any medications that you need to take.
Also, pay attention to where you keep the car first aid kit. If you have an accident (like sliding off the road on black ice), you might not be able to get to the trunk of your car. It’s better to keep the first aid kit under the passenger seat.
10. Emergency signaling items
In case of an accident of getting stuck in your car during winter, you need to have a way to signal for help. No – reflectors will NOT be enough! They are important to have in your emergency kit but won’t help rescuers spot your vehicle from a distance.
Include in your winter car kit:
- Phone plus charger
- Roadside flares (Amazon Link)
- Reflectors – put next to your vehicle to increase visibility. (Amazon Link)
- Whistle – for calling for help without having to use your horn and drain the battery. (Amazon Link)
- Fluorescent distress/HELP flag (Amazon Link)
- Notepad and pencil (in case you evacuate- leave a note saying where you are headed)
11. Emergency heat sources
Cars are very poorly insulated. Even in a sleeping bag/bivvy bag combo, you might still find it very hard to stay warm. Yes, it is possible to heat your car during a breakdown without turning it on (which you should only do for 10-15 minutes at a time every hour, assuming you’ve got enough gas).
Here’s what you need in your vehicle to stay warm:
a. Hand warmers:
Put these in your gloves and shoes to prevent frostbite. Buy on Amazon.
b. Duct tape + trash bags:
Tape trash bags (or newspapers, blankets, bubble wrap…) around the windows and doors to seal off cracks.
This is a trick I learned while winter camping. You’d be surprised how much heat a few candles can put out. A single multi-wick candle can keep your car comfortable for up to 24 hours.
More candles equal more heat. Of course, you need to be careful that the candles don’t tip over, so make sure you get candles with sturdy bases. (7 )
d. Indoor-Safe Heater
Most heaters are NOT safe to be used inside a car.
However, this heater (Amazon Link) is safe for indoor use as it will automatically shut off if turned over or if low oxygen levels are detected. It’s pretty small, so you can easily keep it in your trunk.
Do note that it generally isn’t advised to keep propane in your car because of fire risk during accidents. Weigh whether that risk is worth the security of having an emergency heater with you at all times.
IMPORTANT: Emergency heaters – including propane and candles – produce carbon monoxide. CO poisoning is a leading cause of death during emergencies.
If you are going to put a propane heater or candles in your car’s winter emergency kit, you must also include a CO detector. These are small and can easily be kept in your trunk.
You can buy mini CO detector strips on Amazon (usually used by aviators); they are cheap. It is only activated once you open it.
Alternatively, pay a bit more for a battery-operated CO detector. Just put the batteries in it once you are ready to use it in your car.
12. Emergency Food
In most survival situations, you can go for 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. However, your body uses significantly more energy when trying to stay warm.
Since you’ll probably also be shoveling snow off your car, you will need a lot more calories.
When choosing food for your winter car survival kit, you’ll want sugary foods that provide quick energy. Candy bars are especially great for fighting off hypothermia.
Include in Your Kit:
- Energy bars
- Candy bars
- Raisins other dried fruits
If you want to take your winter car survival kit to the next level, consider getting some self-heating meals. These meals are reasonably cheap, and they come with a “heater” that works through a chemical reaction.
A hot meal can go a long way towards warming you up when trapped in your car!
*Remember also to pack a mess kit if you want to include some of these self-heating meals!
Read more about what emergency food to store in your car.
During a winter breakdown, you will have water all around you in the form of snow. But you should NEVER EAT SNOW. It will cause your core temperature to drop.
Since there isn’t that much water in the snow anyway (it’s fluffy), it isn’t worth freezing your body for the amount of water you’d get.
Make sure you have plenty of bottled water in your car emergency kit. You’ll also need a way to melt the water in case it freezes.
Include in Your Kit:
- Bottled water – the bottles shouldn’t be completely full to prevent cracking in case they freeze
- Tin can or pot (for heating frozen water or melting snow)
- Matches or fire starting method – Learn more about waterproof lighters.
- Stove or candles (use outdoors or follow the same safety protocols for using emergency heaters in your car!) I use this clever bio-lite camp stove which also doubles as a phone charger.
- Water filter or purification tablets (even clean-looking snow should be purified before consuming). Check out this guide to the best water filters for more.
Read more about storing emergency water in your car.
Winter Car Bonus Survival Kit Tips:
- Store important items under the passenger seat in case the trunk is jammed shut.
- Check your kit items before the start of each season.
- Water bottles should be rotated every 6-12 months to prevent leaking.
- Read more about cold weather survival
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