“Food is critical this time of year because you have to feed that furnace,” says Nester. The calories you consume will be converted into much-needed body heat and can help stave off hypothermia. He recommends carrying 3,600-calorie S.O.S. Emergency Food Rations ($10; Amazon), which won’t freeze: “Even if it’s the middle of winter, you’re not going to break a tooth,” he says. “If you’re looking to have something in your vehicle and leave it there for a year or two, these don’t require cooking and can handle extremes of heat or cold, whether you’re in Phoenix or Minnesota. [They’re] basically like a shortbread cookie.” Nester himself also carries packets of freeze-dried camping food and instant soup in his vehicle.
Water is essential for survival in any situation. Nester recommends always keeping a couple gallons on hand for drinking or cooking: “Here [in Arizona], we don’t even drive to the grocery store without two gallons of water.” In winter, of course, those jugs in your trunk might freeze, and lack of water isn’t necessarily going to be your problem. A stainless steel or enamel cup, such as this cheap 12-ounce camping mug from Coleman ($4; coleman.com), is durable, good for scooping and can be heated directly over a candle or on your engine block for melting snow.
Multi-wick survival candles allow you to light one or more wick at a time to vary the amount of heat or light. “These usually last 36 hours,” says Nester, “and you have enough [fire] to take care of lighting needs. A couple wicks can heat your vehicle or melt snow. They’re non-toxic. You just crack a window to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.” Coghlan’s 36 Hour Survival Candle ($7; Amazon) is widely available in stores.
Nester recommends Adventure Medical Kits survival blankets made from Heatsheets material ($7; adventuremedicalkits.com). “These are very puncture-resistant and tear-proof emergency blankets. They only cost [a few] bucks and are worth the investment—and they definitely last a long time,” he says. “You can wrap up in there, you can use it as a ground-to-air signal, you can use it for passive solar to melt snow.” They can also be used to make heating your vehicle more fuel-efficient: “If you have a van or SUV—or even a big car—you can string it up behind your driver and front passenger seat,” says Nester, in order to section off a smaller amount of space to be heated.
Nester has a word of warning about using one of these to stay warm, though: “One thing people often don’t realize, if you wrap up in them, all it does is keep the wind off you and traps in your body heat—which means after two hours you’re going to be a soggy wet noodle.”
Duct tape—“or gaffer’s tape if you want to take it a step further, because it is laced with fibers”—is one of the ultimate survival tools, says Nester. “I once used it to fix a leak in a radiator hose, and I’ve used it to repair a cracked sole on a boot and patch clothes. If you can get pink or orange, it can double as a signalling device if you wrap it around a nearby tree or pole”—or your car’s antenna.
Nester has also gotten in the habit of using it to tie a loop around all the critical tools in his pack: “on my lighter, on my sparking rod, on my Leatherman.” He learned this lesson the hard way. “I was going to light a fire once and I pulled out my lighter and dropped it in two feet of snow. [Now] when I go to pull out my lighter and my knife it’s attached to my wrist until it goes back in my pocket.”
Whether you’re just driving half an hour to work or road-tripping to the ski mountain, you should dress as if you'll be spending time outside—or have the right clothes with you. “If I get stuck in the road, at least I have all this stuff,” says Nester. “A layering system is key. People who go cross-country skiing have it down to a science, but the key is you want to avoid having [your clothes] be 100-percent cotton.” Besides your t-shirt and sweatshirt that you may be wearing, he says “Throw in some quality wool pants, a wool sweater. Wool retains its insulation even when it’s wet.” Nester also recommends carrying a winter coat, Sorel Pac boots, wool mittens and socks, polypro long underwear and sunglasses.
Wrapping up to conserve body heat can save your life: “If you’re stuck in your vehicle and the heat’s not working, [a sleeping bag] will allow you to take care of that critical priority of staying warm and fending off hypothermia,” says Nester. “You can get ones these days that scrunch down to the size of a loaf of bread or smaller for $50 to $100.” He suggests taking the sleeping bag you use for camping and “throw[ing] it in your vehicle from October till May.” Marmot’s Trestles 15 (left) is an affordable cold-weather bag that insulates down to 15 degrees ($109-$119; marmot.com). Cheaper options include REI’s Polar Pod (middle), rated to 31 degrees ($65-$80; rei.com), and the Siesta +25 (right), rated to 25 degrees ($50; rei.com). And if you don’t have a sleeping bag, a wool blanket is better than nothing.
That high-output tactical flashlight may be useful in a pinch, but its batteries won’t last long. Because you don’t know how long you’ll be stranded—and might want to use your hands—Nester suggests throwing an LED headlamp into your emergency kit. “LED ones will last a couple days,” he says. “I go a step further and add lithium batteries—they cost a little more but they’re definitely worth it.” Look for a headlamp with a strobe feature for signalling, he says. Black Diamond’s new Spot headlamp lasts up to 200 hours on its lowest setting, includes a strobe feature and a red LED to preserve night vision ($40; blackdiamondequipment.com). Last year’s model is still available for cheaper ($28), and you can also find plenty of budget options at your nearest Walmart or outdoor outfitter.
Glow sticks be a great passive lighting device for your vehicle’s interior, a distress signal and also increase visibility “if you’re changing a tire on a poorly lit section of highway,” says Nester. He hastens to add that glow sticks typically have a shelf life of two years, so be sure to check expiration dates once a year. And because they’re so cheap—industrial grade Cyalume sticks sell at $9 for a pack of 10 (Amazon.com)—you have no excuse not to have fresh ones at the ready.
A first aid kit is essential any time of year, but in bad weather, especially, the stakes are higher. “You’re your own first responder,” says Nester. He recommends Adventure Medical Kits (adventuremedicalkits.com) because they are designed for remote medical needs. “These are superior to the average Red Cross kit,” he says. Compact and well organized with instructions for treatment, AMK's kits range from $12 for 1-2 person kits, to $60 Weekender kits for group adventure, up to professional medic-level kits.
Getting stranded in the snow without a way to dig your car out is not a pleasant situation to be in. “I have a Lifeline shovel, which is a collapsible telescoping shovel made from aircraft aluminum,” says Nester. Popular among snowboarders who ride in avalanche country, these lightweight shovels can help you get out of a ditch. $19; Amazon
You can use carpet strips 12 inches wide and 4 feet long for traction if you get stuck in the snow, says Nester. “I find they work better than spreading cat litter,” he says, referring to a common trick for getting unstuck. “[These are] what’s used in the Jeep community for when they go off-roading and get their wheel or axle stuck in the mud.”