Winter Is Coming… No, that wasn’t a Game Of Thrones reference… Winter is the harshest season here in the northern US and Canada, and you want to be sure that you’re prepared when you take your holiday road trips to Grandma’s house or wherever you happen to be traveling to.
It’s gotten really cold here in Michigan over the past couple weeks. It feels like I just got done raking leaves. Now I’m putting together my winter survival kit for my car, and I realized that it’s time for my 2017 Winter vehicle survival kit blog post. I’ve written a couple of these types of posts before, but this time, we’ll take a look at the things that you might want to have in your car in case of emergencies, getting stranded, or breaking down on the road as you travel these holidays.
Having the right gear in your car in the event that there’s a breakdown or accident during winter is essential.
If you’re traveling across town, you probably won’t need this article, but if you have to do interstate or across state travel, then you might want to think about the things that you want to put into your car in case of winter road emergencies.
January 9, 2015 was one of situations where if you weren’t prepared, things went from bad to horrible in seconds literally.
That was the day there was the massive 150+ car pileup on Michigan’s I-95 highway.
Michigan I-94 150+ car pileup on January 9, 2015 – Source: ABC News
Simply, the road conditions were so bad, vehicles could not stop, and ended up piling up on top of one another (view the video from the crash here).
There’s tons of stories from people that were stranded in winter and weren’t prepared for the harrowing experience.
Just a little bit of Winter preparation will go a long way.
Putting together a winter emergency bag for your car doesn’t take a long time, but the benefits of doing so, especially during those unexpected times when you find yourself in an accident or broke down on the side of the highway, can go a long way towards comfort and in extreme cases, survival.
Now, this bag that we’re putting together isn’t a normal Everyday Carry bag, it’s designed to help you survive if your car breaks down, gets into an accident, or you get stranded on the road due to blizzards, bad visability, etc…
There are three areas to focus on when it comes to an Emergency Bag for the car:
Warmth and Heat
Food and Drink
While these three items are the focus of this article, you also have to consider your personal situation. Making sure you have what you need on a personal level is also essential. Medications if someone needs them, are an example of something you’d have to think about outside of what’s covered here.
There are usually three situations you have to consider and prepare for when it comes to keeping warm:
When your vehicle can produce heat for a finite period of time while waiting for rescue
When you can stay with your vehicle for shelter, but the vehicle cannot run to produce heat.
When you are forced to leave your vehicle in search for help
Of course, when possible, the first situation is most preferable. Staying with your car is the best option, especially when it can run and keep you warm.
In this situation, you’d want to run the car to keep the temperature above freezing, but you also want to be frugal with your resources, and not run the engine more than absolutely necessary either.
In this case, you’ll want to have food and drink available while you wait for help. Generally this is one of those situations where you are just waiting for a tow truck or flatbed to change a blown out tire or get you off the highway to a service station.
The second situation is when your car is intact and can provide shelter from the elements, but it cannot run to produce heat. One of the situations when this happens is when there is engine failure (thrown rod, belt failure, etc…).
This is the time when having heat producing supplies comes into play. From candles to foot warmers, you’ll want to have the items needed to produce enough heat to keep you warm while waiting.
The third situation is the worst possible situation. Your car is wrecked, there’s no shelter from the elements and you have to abandon it in search for rescue or shelter.
This is the situation where you have to be prepared on all fronts to survive.
Your emergency bag will have to travel with you, providing heat, shelter and food/drink.
The Emergency Bag Itself
When it comes to having a carry all, you want to have a bag that’s large enough to contain your gear, but not so big (or heavy) that you can’t take it with you if the need arises when you have to leave the vehicle.
Look for a standard sized duffel bag or backpack. You don’t want to have to deal with something that’s unusual or has too many pockets.
The bag should have some kind of weather resistance, assuming that if you leave your car, it will be exposed to the elements. A good recommendation is the FirstGear Torrent 25 liter duffel bag. This bag is a perfect size for teens and adults to carry. It’s not that much bigger than your gym bag, and has enough room for all the items you need.
FirstGear Torrent weatherproof duffel bag – $60
Warmth and Heat Supplies
Keeping warm is imperative. Obviously, without heat, you’re at risk of suffering from hazards like frostbite and freezing to death. Appropriately, your emergency pack should have supplies for both keeping you warm, and keeping your environment warm.
Keeping a stock of hand warmers is the most important thing you should pack. Hand warmers can be stuffed in your shoes, and will keep your hands warm, but they also can be placed against your thighs, arms or against your torso to keep warmth up.
Hand warmers also can be used to keep your precious water supply from freezing. Wrapping two 20oz water bottles up in a t-shirt or sweater with a single hand warmer will keep them from freezing for a minimum of six hours.
Fire Making Supplies
Keeping weatherproof matches, lighter, candles, and other fires making supplies is essential. If you are stranded in the car, it’s said that a single candle can keep you alive. I recommend having enough emergency candles to last for at least eight hours.
If you have the funds, grab a few Sterno 100 hour liquid wax emergency candles. They put out more heat than a standard candle, and last longer too.
Put some dryer lint into a ziplock freezer bag. If you have a need where you have to light a campfire, dryer lint will ignite with very little effort.
Fire Starters – Have a few fire starters in the bag too. The hardest part of starting a fire in the winter is starting the fire. Consider that almost all the wood you might find will be wet, so having something to get things going will increase your chances immensely.
Emergency Mylar Blankets
Mylar blankets will help a lot with keeping heat close to your body. Wrapping up in one can help to keep you alive, but these blankets are so much more useful.
If you are stuck in a non-running car, putting the mylar blankets between the door and seats on the interior sides, and over the front and rear windows will greatly help to keep what heat there is in the car there.
You trap the mylar blankets between the door and the frame, and drape down between the door and your seats. Then, on the front window, you attach the top of the mylar against the window using your visors. You can place an object on the bottom of the mylar blanket on the dash as well, and that will create a buffer area to help keep heat in.
Mylar blankets also can be used to make makeshift tents and blinds if you do have to leave the car, plus they reflect heat from fire well, increasing the amount of heat that you’ll feel.
Extra clothing is one of those things that is in constant debate. Some say you shouldn’t pack extra clothing, but in a real survival situation you will want all the help you can get.
I recommend having at a bare minimum, a set of knit gloves and hat, an extra pair of socks, and a set of thermals packed away. This won’t take up much room in your bag, yet provide the extra layers and heat retention when needed.
Food and Drink
Having nourishment during times of trouble will sustain you and will do wonders for your morale. I suggest keeping your food in two separate bags that go inside your main bag: Items that aren’t affected by cold, and those that can freeze.
Freeze Resistant Foods
Freeze resistant foods are foods that simply can be left in the car all the time, and if you need them, even in frozen condition, the lower temperature will not affect their edibility much.
These foods are mostly your dry foods. Breakfast Oatmeal packets, Lipton’s Cup ‘O Soup packets, dry granola bars, beef jerky, crackers, dried fruits and nuts, powdered drink mixes, coffee packets (instant), teas, and even those emergency high calorie ration bars.
Meals Ready To Eat (MRE)
Another alternative is to get a box of MREs. These meals will withstand extreme cold. The ones that you would want to get are those that come with their own individual water-activated heaters. Your only task would be to keep the water supply from freezing (see the next section). MREs can be pretty expensive, but then again, if you’re stranded, and help isn’t going to get to you for days, will you care how much those MREs cost, or will you just be glad to have them?
MREs will also give you a better meal than just a few jerky strips and crackers. They’re built to be a small, but complete meal. Put one of these MREs with a chunk of one of those high calorie ration bars mentioned above, and you’ll have a great meal… or at least you’ll think it’s great while your under duress.
Meal Ready To Eat – Source: PRI.org
Foods That Can Freeze
This group of foods you’ll want to pack separately, and keep in your house until it’s time to go. During your trip, as long as the car stays warm, they’ll be alright. In the event that you are stranded and the car cannot maintain heat, you’ll just toss a couple hand warmers in with these foods to keep them from freezing.
The main thing about these foods is that you’d want to keep them in an insulated lunch bag that you’d normally take you lunch to work in to provide some protection and insulation from the cold.
While you might be required to carry this bag separately if you needed to move from your car to a place of safety and shelter, you should still be able to attach it to the main bag so you can carry both without additional difficulties.
You will want to have water available to you if there isn’t an ample amount of snow. You should try to have at least 40 oz at the ready for each member of your family per day (this is the minimum folks. Better to pack a lot more if possible).
The water can be kept from freezing completely for at least six hours by putting hand warmers in between the bottles, and wrapping them in a towel or mylar blanket.
Foods That Could Freeze
My Opinion On Foods
In times of duress, when you’re already stressed from your car breaking down, kids crying and the blizzard is stopping anyone from getting to you for 48 hours, you really don’t want to have to stop and think about how to make sure your family can eat.
While it’s very important, the prospect of making food can be stressful, especially if you don’t have a good way of preparing it while sitting in your car trying to preserve heat.
When you try to piece everything together, you will find that you might need a fire in order to cook dry soup or make oatmeal. You need hot water for your coffee or tea (preferably), or that you just can’t make anything substantial. I mean beef jerky and crackers only go so far, right?
MREs, food ration bars and water is the best way to go in these conditions. Open an MRE, add water to the heater and food packages, then let sit for five minutes. Voila! Hot meal with biscuit! Done.
For those who are on a budget, I suggest getting the civilian MREs (from makers like Mountain House) one or a few at a time from Walmart or online during summer months. When cold weather hits, you’ll have them ready to go, and with a five year (or more) shelf life, you won’t have to reinvest for a long time provided no emergency calls for their use.
The last of the three main things that you want to have with you is ways to communicate with potential rescuers. In times of need, you want to give yourself the best chance at attracting someone’s attention as possible.
Your Mobile Phone
This is probably going to be your main source for communication. Provided that you have signal, you can make calls and send texts via mobile networks, even if you have no mobile internet.
NOTE: 911 services in the USA can accept text messages, so if voice communication is not possible, or you need to conserve battery life, then sending a text to 911 will be your best option. Text messages sent to 911 will include GPS coordinates if your phone has GPS and it can acquire the necessary satellites to pinpoint your location.
If your phone is an older flip without GPS, automatically sending your location is not possible, although once they have your MDN (mobile number) they can triangulate your signal using the towers. Problem is that they don’t usually do that right away as it takes more emergency resources and phone company involvement to perform a triangulation.
HAM or CB Radio
If you are old enough to remember these, they can be a true lifeline. Mobile HAM and CB radios will often work where cell phones won’t, but there are draw backs.
HAM radios require a license, CB radios don’t.
There are two issues: The first is that there would have to be someone listening in on the same CB channel to hear your distress call. Second, they have to be within radio range and hear the call.
While I don’t know that much about CBs or HAM radios, I do know that they can be a good alternative when your mobile is useless for emergency communications. For much better information on this topic, check out this page from HAMUniverse.com.
High Powered LED Flashlights
I highly recommend that you pack a couple really bright flashlights in your bag, along with extra lithium batteries.
If you aren’t familiar with flashlights, then here’s a bit of relevant information to help you choose one.
Since you probably will want to use this flashlight for both regular uses as well as emergencies, you’ll want to get one that has at least a few different “modes”. Modes are options where the flashlight can toggle between different brightnesses and light output patterns.
You’ll want a flashlight that at the very least, can do high and low outputs. This way, you can use the high output when you need a lot of light, but low output when you need the batteries to last a lot longer.
Getting a flashlight with “strobe” and or “SOS” mode is also helpful. Strobe is the mode where the flashlight blinks rapidly like a strobe light. SOS mode is when the flashlight blinks out SOS in morse code automatically. Most people still know that three dots, three dashes and three dots is S-O-S, but I fear that this knowledge is becoming less and less common with our youth.
I have a Nitecore P12 flashlight in my bag. It can run for up to 500 hours on low mode, but also puts out close to 1000 lumens on high. For comparison, those store-bought Eveready flashlights usually put out no more than 45 lumens. It also offers strobe and SOS modes. It’s weather resistant, but I keep it in a clear drybox along with three extra batteries and charger.
NOTE: Lithium batteries work in cold conditions a lot better and last longer than alkaline or rechargeables (source: Energizer).
Some people have mentioned that Laser pointers can be good for getting attention. I would say that if you’re a Syrian refugee where you only want a friendly seeing the beam of light, then yes, but for us here in the USA and Canada, that’s really not an issue. If you’re that stuck, and you need help that badly, then you want anyone and everyone to see your signal.
The only real benefit for a laser pointer is that the beam can travel a lot farther than a normal flashlight.
The downside? You can’t aim the laser at a lot of things legally, and you might scare people away if they see a laser dot moving around.
In the best conditions, a survival whistle can be heard up to a half mile away. It’s good when you know rescue is in your vicinity, and they need a bit of help finding you. It’s also easier to blow a whistle than yell, if you’re on the precipice of death. Having a good, loud whistle is a good idea, but keep in mind that it’s only good in a limited area.
I don’t know about you, but most winter days here in Michigan don’t have any sun. I wouldn’t rely on a survival mirror during winter months here in the north.
Flare guns and pop flares can be a good idea, but you’d probably have to know that rescue was near and looking for you for these to be any good. Most commercially available flares have a 7 to 10 second burn time, and don’t go higher than 500 feet. If you just sent up a flare, and no one knew you were stranded, your chances of rescue coming are pretty low.
Most Expensive Option: Personal Locator Beacon
Last but not least, if you have money, and you really want to make sure you can be found, get a Personal Locator Beacon. These aren’t for the budget minded, but when all else fails, these work. Starting at $250 for a decent emergency PLB, these devices will send a beacon signal to satellites with your GPS coordinates. Emergency services will be alerted automatically when this device is activated and dispatched to your location for assistance (Read more on PLBs here).
Since the personal locator beacons operate on satellite communication, you can be in the middle of the ocean and still get a distress call out.
NOTE: if you do choose to get a PLB, keep in mind that there are two different kinds of devices. There are the emergency PLBs that are usually yellow and do start around $250, and there are Satellite Communication Devices, which start as low as $100. Both will work, but the SCD does not work on its own. You have to be actively using it.
The PLB will operate on its own after you activate the beacon. The benefit to this type of beacon is that if you do have to move from your car to safer shelter, the PLB will update emergency services of your location while you’re on the move. The only drawback to a satellite device (PLB and SCD) is that it needs to have a clear line of sight to the sky.
This is another reason that the PLB is preferable in emergencies: PLBs are weatherproof, most come with a strobe beacon for visual sighting, and you can leave them in clear line of sight, regardless of weather, while you sit under a rock or in a cave nearby waiting for rescue with a small fire going, eating MREs, etc…
My thoughts on PLBs
Unless you traverse very long stretches of remote highway in Montana where you may not see other vehicles for hours or have phone signal, you probably won’t need a PLB. If you’re on Interstate 80 in Ohio between Toledo and Cleveland, chances are you’re going to see at least a couple salt trucks come through… oh, and any normal cell phone will work there.
A Couple Other Things To Pack
These other items bear mentioning, but don’t really fall into the above three categories.
First Aid Kit
Having a good first aid kit is always a good idea. You should have one in your car anyway, and if you don’t, here’s the perfect time to get one. You don’t need anything fancy or expensive, but you should have one that has most of the things that you’d want in a car collision.
Portable Battery Packs
It’s always reassuring when you know that you won’t have issues with your phone staying charged when it’s needed the most. Having a good, large capacity battery pack to keep your phone charged up can be a life saver, especially when it’s the only way rescue will be able to find you. I carry two Anker Powercore 20100 chargers. One is in my EDC, and the other sits in the emergency bag. Between the two of them, I have enough power to keep at least one phone charged for nine days.
Stay Safe, Stay Warm, Stay Fed, Stay Alive
Winter is the harshest season and for good reason. When you’re traveling, you really have to be mindful of the weather and prepare adequately. While you could put together a bag that has everything plus the kitchen sink, you have to consider your situation, the people traveling with you, and your travel plan.
There’s nothing better than good communication with people at the destination to let them know when you’re leaving and what time you should arrive. Using Google maps, you can estimate how long the trip will take. If it’s hours past your estimated arrival time, even if you’re incapacitated in some way, where you can’t get a line out, they can still call help to find you.
There’s nothing worse than being stranded and knowing that no one else knows where you are or where you were going.
The emergency bag will only help you for so long. Most of the time, supplies will only last you 72 hours or less. Having that lifeline at your destination can mean the difference between knowing rescue will come and fear and desperation.