Winter Vehicle Survival

When it comes to winter survival around a vehicle, traveling far or not, there are some key things to keep around and in mind. Snyder gives his thoughts and some lists to keep handy to prepare.

By EJ Snyder

Photo by Aleksey Kuprikov

Winter is coming… are you ready? As colder weather approaches and the last leaf has fallen, it won’t be long for many before that white stuff starts to fall, temperatures drop and Old Man Winter’s icy grip grabs us. Now is the time to get your winter survival hat on and get prepared for it! You definitely do not want to be caught out in the cold “Naked and Afraid” without a good plan and the winter vehicle survival kit that will help you deal with a winter emergency while out and about. A good winter vehicle survival kit will help make the situation easier to manage, aid in being self-reliant and heaven forbid… save your and your loved one’s lives. There are more than 2,000 crashes in wintery conditions across America annually. Each year, 24 percent of weather-related vehicle crashes occur on snowy, slushy or icy pavement. 15 percent happen during snowfall or sleet. Over 1,300 people are killed and more than 116,800 people are injured in vehicle crashes in these conditions. Five times that many wind up stuck or stranded along their routes. If you survive a winter wreck, get stuck on the side of the road in a ditch or from a breakdown in your vehicle… now what?

Like all survival situations that haven’t happened yet, it is all about preparation. You can save yourself a lot of pain and grief by taking a few steps to help make sure you don’t wind up a statistic or if you wind up in a bad situation, give you a snowball’s fighting chance to make it out of there. Preparation is everything and key! It starts with normal vehicle checks, putting together a basic vehicle winter survival kit, a basic survival kit, your own personal item backups, mental preparedness and planning for that winter vehicle survival scenario. I am going to offer you some tips in this article to aid you, but it all starts with a good mindset, planning and preparation; it’s all about staying calm and executing your plan of actions you have planned.


MINDSET – You want to put some thought into the “What- ifs” scenarios that you may encounter. As you think of stuff just jot it down on paper and make short lists that will get you thinking about plans of action for them and certain items and gear that would help in that scenario. A little basic first aid training, getting some basic survival skills and even gathering books of reference material to have on hand to help when things get stressful. Getting your mind in the right frame makes everything else flow better.

  1. Get some basic skills training in first aid.
  2. Get some basic survival skills knowledge.
  3. Mentally work through emergency action plans and write them down if you need to, as having something written down to look at takes away stress, gives you peace of mind and you have a ready-made action steps list to execute in that scenario.

ON YOUR PERSON – Stepping out your door in the winter, you need to have the “mindset of winter survival” already in your head. This starts with proper winter clothing in layers, even if you are getting into a vehicle, you need to think about the “what-if” in which you may have to walk. You can always bring extras with you. It is better to have and not need than to need and not have!

  1. Proper winter clothing. Bring a coat, hat, gloves, underlayers and boots.
  2. Have a fully charged cell phone with a backup portable charger fully charged.
  3. Have all your roadside assistance contact numbers and membership cards ready.
  4. Carry your IDs, credit cards and have some cash on hand just in case you need to tip a good Samaritan that may help you.

VEHICLE – Your vehicle needs to be winter ready and that starts with making sure it is “Road Ready.” No matter what type of vehicle you drive, you need to ensure it is mechanically right. Having a good running and properly equipped vehicle makes things safer for you on the road, can eliminate one issue that may cause a breakdown and, in some cases, easier to operate in bad winter conditions which in turn will hopefully keep you from getting into an accident. Your vehicle may also become your shelter in a Winter Vehicle Survival emergency!

Now we can debate all day long in this day and age about gasoline vs electric powered vehicles (EV), but my personal and professional opinion is that you can fair better in a gas vehicle over an electric one in these types of situations. You can always carry extra fuel cans, where I haven’t seen any portable electric recharge setups. If you’re stuck and your rationing gas to stay warm, you can refill with your extra cans, but once an EV is done…so are you, sadly. Roadside assist carries extra fuel, but I don't think they are equipped with recharge capacity. Batteries during the cold always tend to have issues in normal gas engines, and I have yet to find any studies on the effects of EVs in the winter. Lastly, I believe it's easier to find gas stations out there than charging stations.

  1. Tires are probably the most important for winter driving. What type do you have and what tread condition? Are they snow tires or off-road? Do you have snow chains on hand? Proper inflation?
  2. Check all the fluids to ensure they are at the proper level. You should use de-icing windshield washer fluid for your vehicle. Always top off your vehicle with gas and have an extra fuel can in your trunk, cargo area or truck bed. Have your vehicle winterized before the season hits and make sure radiator fluids have been flushed.
  3. Check for proper wiper blades and operation.
  4. Check lights and turn signals.
  5. Make sure your battery is good and not expired, as batteries can act really funny in the cold, especially if it is an older battery.
  6. Check to make sure your heater and defrost are working right.
  7. If you have four-wheel-drive, make sure it’s operating properly.
  8. Have a flashlight and extra batteries. I also have a Husky portable shop light that is magnetic and has an adjustable folding stand.
  9. Keep a basic first aid kit and fire extinguisher.
  10. Have a vehicle road kit on hand, ready to go as well as jumper cables, flat tire equipment, Fix-A-Flat, a portable air pump compressor and a working jack. Have a basic tool kit and I like to throw in a roll of duct tape and gorilla glue. An emergency kit with road flares, warning triangles, reflective vest and tow straps.
  11. Bring towels and extra rags.
  12. Have a machete or hatchet for clearing debris.

PERSONAL SURVIVAL KIT – You should always have a basic survival kit on you, whether in your purse, backpack or a full kit itself. So that you are always ready for any survival situation, the kit needs to, at a minimum, cover a couple of ways to make fire and purify water, contain an edged tool for tasks, cordage for shelter building with a good tarp, navigation items and a few passive ways to get food. You can stop by my survival gear store for ideas, gear and ready-made kits.

VEHICLE WINTER SURVIVAL KIT – Now this is where the rubber meets the snow folks! The vehicle winter survival kit is “the thing” that will save your frozen butt in a winter vehicle survival situation. It may seem like a lot, but the things listed here are food for thought and there are other ways you can go. These are just suggested carry items. I have found several ready-assembled kits on the market ranging in price from the basic Lifeline AAA Premium Winter Safety Kit at $49.97 to the Winter Cross Country at $79.95 and there were a few others priced in between this found at Lowes, Home Depot and online. You can just grab one of these to start, if you don’t have time to shop and build one yourself, and then add to it. Building your own means you get to pick the individual items, price them out and determine the quality of the items. Some of these may include:

  1. Snowbrush and or ice scraper to keep your windows clear.
  2. Portable snow shovel with an adjustable handle, a folding camp shovel or an actual snow shovel to dig your vehicle out if need be.
  3. Regular axe for getting firewood if needed.
  4. Cat litter or safety absorbent which will help weigh down your back end for extra traction but also to place on the ground by your tires to help get you traction when you find yourself stuck.
  5. Bags of ice melt also add back-end weight for traction and will melt any ice keeping you stuck.
  6. Extra tow straps and/or rope to help with vehicle extractions.
  7. Blankets, and I recommend wool as they keep you warm even when they get damp or wet. I suggest keeping one per vehicle occupant capacity, plus one extra to help keep everyone warm. (You may be called to help others).
  8. Extra clothing, hats and gloves to back up what you already have in case something happens to your primary set. I always have these in a waterproof bag easily accessible in the cab of the vehicle to grab quickly. Also bring extra winter boots if you are not wearing them while you are out.
  9. Extra water but remember it can freeze, so I suggest having a small camp stove with a pot ready to melt it down.
  10. Heavy Duty Tarp which can be placed over the top of the vehicle cab roof to help trap in heat. It can also be a makeshift shelter, extra blanket and has many other uses.
  11. You can pack a small amount in a box of non-perishables like granola bars, protein bars, canned goods, jerky, nuts or dried fruits. MREs (Military Meals) are a good option because they come with a non-flame meal heater that only needs water. You can also have dehydrated/freeze-dried camp meals, but these will require a way to heat and rehydrate them.
  12. Candles are a great item to have. Keeping the vehicle running to stay warm can be dicey. For one thing, you'll eventually run out of gas(though your car can run for a few hours on a full tank) and you'll need some fuel to get your car moving again, when help arrives or when the weather clears up. More importantly, snow and ice can block your engine's exhaust and lead to deadly levels of carbon monoxide in the vehicle's cabin. So, make sure you pack a simple candle-powered heater. All you need is a metal can (like a coffee can), an emergency candle and a lighter. A candle can make a surprisingly effective ad hoc heater in the confined space of a vehicle and can raise the inside temperature by 5 to 10 degrees at least.
  13. Emergency Blankets. These mylar blankets trap your body heat and have other uses. If you are stuck long term, you can duct tape them up on the inside of the vehicle to help trap your body heat in or have it work in conjunction with your candle-powered heater.

Good planning and preparations go a long way to set you up for success in a winter vehicle survival scenario. It all starts before you leave your driveway, ensuring your vehicle is working properly, you have your basics covered with the right gear and you know how to use it all. You leave with peace of mind, some confidence and your rear end covered. Now, let’s talk about your actions going down the road.


DRIVING – It starts here with being extremely cautious and paying attention to the road and conditions. This will keep you from ever even having to break out any of your kits in the first place.

  1. The road is going to be slick with snow, slush and ice, so slow down first off. Visibility could be degraded based on whether snow is falling, how hard it’s coming down and the density of the amount. Slow down and proceed with caution.
  2. Ice will form around shaded areas, overpasses and bridges and the worst is black ice as it blends in and is very hard to see. Speed needs to stay in check and 45 mph is usually the max safe speed in extreme conditions!
  3. Other vehicles ahead of you could be having issues, there may already be wrecks ahead, vehicles stuck or stalled or roads not properly cleared. All these things create hazards to you and your reaction time will be less than normal.
  4. If you find yourself in a skid or slide, you need to take these actions: First remove your foot from the accelerator, as using your accelerator will spin your vehicle's wheels and make the situation worse; it's the last thing you want to touch. Avoid slamming on the brakes as that can cause the vehicle to abruptly go into a spin. You then steer into the skid by turning into the slide. Try not to oversteer. This means that you should turn your steering wheel in the direction that your back wheels are moving.

CRASH – During winter hazard conditions these will happen. You just need to try to stay out of them!

  1. If you so wreck into another vehicle and everyone is ok or has only minor injuries and there isn’t anything life-threatening going on with the vehicle like fire, stay inside the vehicle until help arrives. This is much safer because the conditions are bad and you don’t want to be out where other vehicles coming your way may not see you walking around. Call for help.
  2. If you are off the road, make sure you are not in danger of going into a water body. If you are and do, try to evacuate as fast and as safely as possible. Remember to grab that waterproof bag of extra clothing in case you get wet. Again, be cautious getting clear of the vehicle for oncoming vehicles, as they may hit the same trouble you did, and soon be heading your way. Look around and stay aware when you are assessing yourself and your occupants, as well as vehicle damages. Call for help.
  3. If you have crashed into a tree, utility pole or other objects, try to look out the windows and check for other hazards, like a large tree branch broken that may break off and fall, downed power lines or other hazards before exiting the vehicle. Call for help.

WINTER VEHICLE SURVIVAL – Now this is where all your preparedness and planning come into play!

  1. Now is the time to assess your situation.
  2. If you can self-rescue, get yourself dressed for it and take the actions needed depending on the issue. You may be stuck and able to dig yourself out or lay down some kitty litter for traction and get back on your way. You could have a good Samaritan come by and use a tow strap to help pull you out.
  3. Cell phone time! Depending on where you are and the weather conditions, you may not have a signal on your cell. If you do, you should let a family or friend know what’s going on. Try to get them your location so they can direct help your way. Next, you should try to call for help as well. If you don’t have a portable cell charger or a car charging plug, you may want to consider trying to save battery power for your only form of communication. If you have more than one cell phone with you, turn all but one off.
  4. Check to make sure the exhaust pipe isn’t buried or covered up, so you don’t have a carbon monoxide issue while the car is running. Know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. If it’s an issue, turn the vehicle off. Better safe than sorry.
  5. Assess your situation and if it looks like you are going to be there a while before help arrives, or find yourself out in the boonies and it could be a substantial amount of time before any help may arrive, it’s time to get settled in for the long haul. Break into your winter vehicle survival kit and make use of items like blankets, extra clothing, etc. Keep everyone as warm as possible, stay hydrated and eat some food. Monitor everyone as things progress you may need to take other actions to keep everyone’s core body temperature warm and make sure you know the signs of hypothermia.

So, Survival in a Vehicle in the winter depends on you, your planning and preparations and your actions to determine whether you will make it out alive or not. You need to stay calm and keep your head in the game. Know basic first aid and the signs and symptoms of trouble. Get some basic survival skills training. You don’t need to be an expert, but some base skills can save your butt out there. Get your vehicle online and running right. Build kits with quality gear so when you need it, it’s ready! Your winter vehicle survival rests on your icy shoulders, so be the ice warrior in the situation and slay the frosty dragon if it comes preying on you the next time you may be stranded on the road in a blizzard! Survive on!