Preparing Your Car for Winter Survival

Pretty much everyone knows that traveling in the wintertime can be hazardous. Some avoid the hazard by avoiding traveling. But that doesn’t work for everyone; some have to travel. But few of those people take the precaution of preparing themselves and their car, in case they have some sort of problem along the way.

A winter emergency kit is really a must-have if you’re planning to be on any long highway trips, particularly at night and/or through mountain passes with long stretches between services. It’s always a good idea to store some items in your trunk and others inside your car so you have certain things kept warm and close at hand.

It’s very easy to go off the road when it’s icy or snow-packed. Winds can drift snows to the point where you end up stranded on the road, without any way of moving your car. Fortunately, in either of these cases, you will most likely be found and rescued within a day. So, the trick is being able to keep yourself alive, while you wait for someone to find you. More than anything, that means keeping yourself warm.

Proper preparation can reduce the likelihood of you having problems along the road, while traveling in the wintertime. A little more preparation will make sure that if you are trapped in your car, that you can survive while waiting for the Highway Patrol to find you and get you recued.

Reduce Potential for Car Problems

The first thing you should do is make sure that your car isn’t going to cause you problems. Wintertime is hard on cars, and if your car isn’t properly prepared, it could break down on you. Be sure to check:

  • Gas – a full gas tank is the most important piece of survival equipment in your car.
  • Tires – good tires are essential for traction on the roads. Check the tread; if it’s wearing out, replace them.
  • Battery – batteries are much more likely to go bad in cold weather. If your car battery is weak, replace it.
  • Anti-freeze – your car’s engine should have a 50/50 mix of antifreeze and water. If you have been adding just water, then drain it and refill it with a 50/50 mix for maximum protection.
  • Hoses – hoses deteriorate over time. They will often form bubbles, especially near the ends, when they are wearing out. Don’t wait for it to bust; if it has a bubble, replace it.
  • Wiper blades – removing snow from windows is much harder than removing rainwater. If your blades are leaving streaks, replace them.

Emergency Equipment for the Car

Even the best maintained car can have problems on the road. A few pieces of emergency equipment can make all the difference in the world in those cases.

  • Spare tire – check your spare and make sure it is aired up. Make sure you have all the pieces for your jack as well; sometimes they get lost.
  • Fix-a-flat – this wonderful product is a canned tire sealer with a charge of air. It will at least partially inflate a flat tire that’s gone flat from a nail, assuming the damage isn’t so bad that it can’t seal the hole. Make sure you warm it up before using it in cold weather.
  • Air compressor – the Fix-a-flat won’t be able to fully inflate your tire, especially in the cold. A portable compressor that plugs into your cigarette lighter can finish the job.
  • Jumper cables – for jump starting your car. Spend the extra money for the good ones.
  • Tow strap – It takes a little skill and can result in car damage if not done correctly, but a tow strap can get your car out of a shallow ditch and save a bundle in tow-truck charges. Especially in remote areas, be ready to rig up reliable, strength-rated tow straps if you get stuck. Just be sure the vehicle pulling on the other end is capable, use strong points on both the towing and towed vehicle (not the bumper!), and beware of traffic and other hazards.
  • Signal Device – If you’re stranded, you will want some way to flag down passing motorists to get help. A brightly colored bandana can be tied to a disabled vehicle as a widely recognized signal for help. Road flares are a good option, too, and will greatly increase your visibility on a stormy night.
  • Collapsible Fuel Container – A common reason people become stranded? Running out of fuel. A collapsible fuel container will fold flat until you need it. This way, you don’t need to rely on a service station having a spare gas can available after you hike to the pump.
  • Sand/Grit – Icy roads and gravity can work against a vehicle trying to make its way uphill on a remote stretch. Or, you might need added traction if stuck in a ditch. A sealed container of sand or grit rock can offer ad-hoc traction if thrown under the tires. It gives grip on slick snow or ice where no tread can grab hold.
  • Antifreeze and Radiator
  • Windshield wiper operation and fluid check (no-freeze mixture)
  • Heater and Defroster
  • Brakes and Brake Fluid Level
  • Emergency Flashers
  • Tire Pressure and Tread Depth
  • Fuel Level
  • Oil Level
  • Battery Charge and Terminal Cleanliness

Survival Equipment for You

Any time you are stranded in your car in the wintertime, stay in your car. Your car is much easier to see than you are, increasing your chances of rescue. It also makes a descent shelter, especially if the engine is still running to give you heat. However, some basic survival equipment will help.

  • Rescue blankets (at least 3) – use these to line the passenger compartment of your car, covering the roof, windows and doors. This will help hold heat in to keep your warm.
  • Duct tape – for use in attaching the rescue blankets.
  • Piece of rope – if you have to go outside the car for any reason, tie one end of the rope to the steering wheel and the other end to yourself. That way, if you have white-out conditions, you can still find your way back to the car.
  • Plastic bags – so you can go to the bathroom, without having to leave the car.
  • Toilet paper – for use with the bags.
  • High calorie food bars – to provide your body with energy to burn and help keep you warm.
  • Some large candles & matches – will help provide some heat. Don’t use a butane cigarette lighter as they don’t work when cold.
  • Blankets – to help keep you warm.
  • Cell phone charger or adapter – your best bet is to call for help. Make sure you can charge your phone if the battery goes out.
  • Water—plastic bottles that won’t break if the water freezes (replace them every six months)
  • Extra clothing and shoes or boots
  • First aid kit with seatbelt cutter
  • Small shovel, scraper and snowbrush
  • Candle in a deep can and matches
  • Wind‑up flashlight
  • Whistle—in case you need to attract attention
  • Roadmaps
  • Copy of your emergency plan

If your engine is able to run and the tailpipe isn’t blocked, run the engine every fifteen minutes for fifteen minutes. This will allow you to generate some heat and keep the car from getting too cold. By alternating it on and off, your gas supply will last longer.

Tips to Follow if Your Car is Stuck in the Snow

If in the worst case scenario and you and your car is stuck in the snow, the first thing to remember is do not panic. There are some tips that you can follow or need to remember until you can call for help. Here are some of them:

  • Try to stay calm and don’t go out in the cold. Stay in your car: you will avoid getting lost and your car is a safe shelter.
  • Don’t tire yourself out. Shoveling in the intense cold can be deadly.
  • Let in fresh air by opening a window on the side sheltered from the wind.
  • Keep the engine off as much as possible. Be aware of carbon monoxide poisoning and make sure the exhaust pipe is not obstructed by snow.
  • If possible, use a candle placed inside a deep can instead of the car heater to warm up.
  • Turn on warning lights or set up road flares to make your car visible.
  • Turn on the ceiling light; leaving your headlights or hazard lights on for too long will drain the battery.
  • Move your hands, feet and arms to maintain circulation. Stay awake.
  • Keep an eye out for other cars and emergency responders. Try to keep clothing dry since wet clothing can lead to a dangerous loss of body heat.

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