The polar vortex is back, and with it come blizzard conditions, ice on the roads and generally foul weather for driving.
It’s times like this that your hour-long commute on the interstate can turn into an unexpected adventure, and a ski trip into the mountains can leave you stuck in a snowy ditch miles from help.
In most cases you can expect to be there for no more than a few hours, says Tony Nester, founder of the Ancient Pathways survival school in Flagstaff, Ariz. and author of the e-book A Vehicle Survival Kit You Can Live With.
“Statistically, you’re more likely to encounter small scale episodes where there’s a blizzard, you spin off the road and you’re there for maybe a day or overnight,” he said. (Nester is also an EMT.)
But in freezing temperatures even a few hours can lead to life-threatening hypothermia if you’re not prepared.
“If you make a mistake out in the wild, out in the elements, in the summertime you might have a cool story to tell,” said Nester. “If you make that mistake in winter you might not have a story at all—or you might have one minus a few fingers or toes. There’s not whole lot of forgiveness in the winter.”
And at the very least: “It’s just not fun being stuck in your vehicle for a couple hours or overnight.”
The key to dealing with these scenarios, he says, is to be prepared before you leave your house. “Just a few minutes in your driveway can prevent hours or potentially a night of misery on the road.” Check the pressure in your tires, he says, and observe the ‘quarter tank is empty’ rule—meaning you should treat a quarter tank of gas as if it were an empty tank.
Make sure you have everything you need to change a tire—a full-size spare, a can of Fix-a-Flat, an air compressor—as well as a cell phone charger and a wool hat and insulated gloves.
And once you’re on the road, says Nester, be aware of what he calls ‘shortcut syndrome’: “It’s when you say, ‘I’m just going to take a shortcut. I’ll take some back roads or a secondary highway and it’ll be faster.’ Maybe that road’s even worse than the main road because it’s not being salted and plowed, and it’s more likely you’ll get stuck out there.”
But even if you take every precaution, sometimes the weather can roll in more suddenly than you anticipated—and that’s where the next level of preparedness comes into play.
“Your vehicle should be looked upon as a rolling survival kit,” says Nester. “It’s a primary shelter system. You can sleep in there, you can melt slow on your engine block and hopefully you’ve got it loaded up with some rations you don’t have to cook”—as well as water and other supplies.
If you get stuck, Nester advises running the engine for 20 minutes every hour for heat and cracking the window to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. “Periodically check the exhaust pipe to make sure it is not blocked by snow or ice,” he advised in a recent article.
In addition to the items above, Nester listed several more essentials to stash in your car for the winter. “Put them in a duffel bag and throw it in your trunk,” he says. Read on to see what they are—and how they could save your life.
For a more detailed kit, information on rigging your vehicle and personal anecdotes, read Nester’s e-book, A Vehicle Survival Kit You Can Live With, for $0.99 on Amazon.com.