Every year, travelers die of exposure when caught unprepared. These deaths don’t have to happen, however. Simple precautions could likely have saved these lives. Be prepared is known as the Boy Scout Motto. It should also become yours if you intend to travel safely in winter. Those of us with a true Boy Scout bent will often over-prepare- no one can ever accuse us of being unprepared for emergencies. This should become your attitude if you hope to keep yourself and your passengers safe in all circumstances.
“Discretion is the better part of valor” is a saying that fits in well with winter travel planning. Watch your local weather channel and decide if the trip is worth it if conditions will be hazardous. Certainly some occasions call for absolutely necessary travel-perhaps you are in labor? Or Grandma is at the airport waiting for you. Other than emergencies and leaving someone else stranded, most severe weather is better ridden out at home in front of the fireplace.
Assuming you cant always sit the storm out, there are certain tools you should have in the trunk to take care of unexpected emergencies. One essential is a small “fox-hole” shovel-available at military surplus outlets. These can help dig your way out of a snow bank if you’re not stuck too badly. For those occasions you cant dig yourself out of, a good road service plan is invaluable. Another very necessary tool is a package of road flares. Because of their high heat and bright light, these can be seen in a blinding snowstorm much farther than any other type of light. One cheap and extreme-situation item to keep in the trunk is an orange or red bicycle flag that can be attached to the antenna if you end up off the road or in a snow bank-the visibility factor makes your vehicle easier to find and protects you from the eventual arrival of a snowplow who likely won’t know you’re there (you can also print “HELP” on it in indelible marker to call for help). A spray can of lock de-icer can also save lots of hassles should your door locks become frozen. A bag of de-icing salt or kitty litter will be helpful for gaining traction on ice. Also in the trunk, you should have a spare set of wiper blades, spare headlight and the tools to change it, a jug of windshield de-icer washing fluid and a flashlight-preferably a wind-up flashlight/radio. A good jump start power pack with internal battery is always a useful item and can come in very handy if you end up stranded far from help. Insulated gloves are also necessary for the unexpected chore such as digging.
Somewhere inside the vehicle, you will need to place a container packed with the following items: duct tape, plumber’s candles, lighter or waterproof matches, a large package of four to eight Mylar space blankets, cans of tuna or tinned beef, candy bars and other quick energy foods, a small military can opener, and possibly additional canned or shelf-stable foods. A couple of gallons of drinking water should round out your emergency supplies, along with a heavy stadium blanket or two. It never hurts to have a pair of heavy winter boots and a pair of dry socks packed away in the car also.
Every winter traveler should be equipped with a cell phone and vehicle charger. As all cell phones now are required by law to be GPS-enabled, you will be findable as long as you are within range of a tower and family or friends know the name of your cell phone carrier and number. Small solar chargers are available for little money for those occasions when you end up with a dead battery-the battery jumpstart unit can also be used for phone charging. Even if you can’t call for help, the phone gives off location signals as long as it’s turned on.
In case of emergency, it is better to stay with your vehicle unless you are in extreme danger where you are. Your car gives you shelter and the necessities you have packed in advance. Few people travel prepared with all of the extreme weather gear they would need to trek to safety and the chance you would become lost are too great. If you slide off the road and cant easily dig your way out with the handy little shovel, better to stay in the vehicle out of the wind. You can run your vehicle for heat upon occasion for short periods of time assuming you have filled up on gas before starting out. Make sure to periodically get out and clear the snow away from the tailpipe to prevent fumes traveling into the car and always keep a window cracked open.
If you are in danger of running out of gas or if your battery dies, the plumber’s candles can be a minimum source of heat and will keep you from freezing to death. Placing two or three of them in an empty coffee can provides enough heat to stay above freezing. And here’s where the package of four to eight Mylar space blankets becomes invaluable: they reflect heat extremely well. Duct tape them along the top of the windows and let them extend down inside the sides of the vehicle for extra heat retention. Make sure to cover the front and rear glass as glass allows for much heat loss. Although you likely wont be warm enough to sit in your shirtsleeves, wrapping yourself in a space blanket helps to conserve body heat and will keep you relatively comfortable. They can even be duct taped into a sleeping bag shape for better body coverage.
Eat enough of your carbohydrate-rich food to pump up your body temperature and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Keep your socks and gloves dry to cut down on lost body heat-hung above the candles, they should dry quickly. Now, fed, warm and dry, all there is left to do is wait until help comes. The wind-up radio should be a source of both news and entertainment and a paperback or two will help pass the time. You will also have plenty of time to make a mental list of things you wish you had added to your extreme weather car kit, like instant coffee and a rig to heat water in the empty tuna tin over the candles. . . When rescuers arrives, they will be grateful for your ability to take care of yourself and avoid a further emergency.