You should never rule out the chance—even if you’re an experienced winter driver—that someday you might find yourself stuck and stranded in a blizzard. Is it possible? Yes. Will you survive? That’s up to you.
Winter has a way of testing even the most seasoned driver. A road trip, a hunting expedition, even a drive across town can take you in and out of a variety of climates and road conditions.
Taking reasonable precautions isn't always enough. Weather forecasting is an imperfect science. Variables like highway closures, black ice, and jackknifed semi-trucks are often beyond our control. Because a harmless flurry can quickly transform into a blinding blizzard, the winter driving rule of thumb is simple—expect the unexpected.
1. Don’t Wander or Over-Exert Yourself
Whatever you do, avoid wandering far from your vehicle looking for assistance unless help is visible. Remember, other cars (if you are on the side of a road) may not be able to see you. Most blizzards are accompanied by high winds and whiteout conditions, which means that you can become disoriented after only a few steps away from your vehicle. Monitor your body temperature while you're outside. Don’t over-exert yourself digging or expose yourself to the elements for too long; you'll risk dangerously lowering your core body temperature. Be smart, remain calm, and take the long view. You’ll most likely be rescued soon, but what if rescue is hours or even days away?
2. Set up Emergency Signals
Make your vehicle as visible as possible. Your best bet is a combination of flairs, a flashlight on emergency mode, and reflective road markers. Glow sticks, though not as visible as flairs, are another option. In a pinch, you can also attach a swatch of colorful material to your antenna. Don’t underestimate the importance of emergency signals. Visibility increases your likelihood of rescue and decreases your chance of being hit by another vehicle. Many people mistakenly believe that a vehicle’s hazard lights are adequate in an emergency situation. They are not. Preserving fuel and battery strength is crucial in a winter emergency, so you should only run the engine (and the hazard lights) about ten minutes per hour; this is long enough to heat up the car but not long enough to empty the fuel tank. Running the hazard lights when the engine is turned off drains the battery. For this reason, alternative emergency signals are essential.
3. Stay Calm
Don’t panic. Your vehicle will provide adequate short-term shelter. Make a mental list of priorities. Slow down. If your cell phone works, use it immediately to call for help. Remind yourself that stress taxes your body and leads to poor decision making.
4. Assess and Ration Your Supplies
Move any water and supplies that are in your trunk to the inside of the vehicle then settle in and assess your situation. If you’ve planned ahead and have a well-stocked winter survival kit, you should be prepared to last for up to three days. If, however, your supplies are limited, you’ll need to focus on doing the best with what you have.
5. Periodically Use the Heater to Warm up Your VehicleAlways make sure that your vehicle’s exhaust pipe is clear of snow before using the heater. A blocked exhaust pipe can cause your vehicle to fill up with deadly carbon monoxide. Crack open a downwind window for ventilation when the engine is on. Reexamine the exhaust pipe each time you start the vehicle. Don’t run the engine for longer than 10 minutes per hour. Remember, you don’t want to use all of the fuel running the heater. Once again, taking the long view is crucial. Staying warm is important, but you may need to excavate the car (and hopefully drive to safety) after the weather clears up.
6. Start Drinking WaterThe most important element for staying alive in any survival situation is water. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, staying hydrated keeps you warm in winter. Dehydration happens quickly in winter because there is less humidity, which has a drying effect on the body. Fluid loss is also caused by respiration and perspiration. Research suggests that even mild dehydration can interfere with your physical performance as well as with your ability to concentrate and manage stress. Hydration is tricky in winter because cold blunts your body’s sense of thirst. As a result, your mind and body are fooled. The result: You don’t feel thirsty (though you are) and your body doesn’t conserve water (which means you urinate more). It’s a vicious circle: You’re dehydrated, yet your body wants to urinate (a condition called cold-induced urine diuresis). Each time you urinate, you become more dehydrated. Plus, to relieve yourself, you have to go outside in the cold. The only solution is to make yourself drink, even though you may not feel thirsty. You should always carry water in your vehicle. If you don't have water, you will need to melt snow. Don’t eat snow; eating snow causes your body temperature to drop, which speeds up the dehydration process. Use the car heater or candles to melt the snow. Be mindful that it will take some time and energy to make drinkable water, so don’t wait until the first symptoms of dehydration appear: Plan ahead.
7. Stoke Your Inner-furnace with Food
The digestive process helps maintain the body’s core temperature. Think of it this way: Your body is like a wood stove that needs fuel to stay warm. No fuel—the engine gets cold. Good fuel—you stoke a fire that heats your core. Proteins and fats make the best fuel because the body burns them slowly (protein bars, nuts, etc.). Sugar is better than nothing but don’t overdo it—it will give you a quick spike of energy, but the spike will soon be followed by a drop in your core temperature.
8. Create Heat
Burning candles in a coffee can will create enough heat to stave off the cold. But be careful, any fire, even a candle flame, can produce poisonous carbon monoxide. Crack a window to ventilate carbon monoxide if you have any sort of open flame. Chemical hand warmers are an excellent alternative to an open flame. Place a couple of hand warmers inside your jacket or in a pocket and they will keep you warm for several hours. For a 72-hour period, plan on stocking at least 10-15 hand warmers per person.
If you’re in a large vehicle, try to make the space smaller by dividing the space with a hanging blanket or sleeping bag. A small space is far easier to keep warm than a large one. Use whatever you have in the vehicle to keep yourself warm. Ideally, dress yourself in layers, and wrap yourself in a wool or mylar emergency blanket. In a pinch, use maps, newspapers, and even floor carpets. If you’re not alone, huddle together with the other passengers.
10. Keep Moving
Try not to stay in one position for too long. Move your arms, legs, and feet to improve your circulation and keep warm. If more than one person is in the car, take turns sleeping. Eat and urinate before you sleep. If you eat before sleeping, your body will generate heat (while you sleep) digesting the food. If you urinate before sleeping, your body doesn't have to work to keep the excess fluid warm. Keep in mind, shivering is not moving; it’s a signal that your body temperature is dropping and needs to be raised.
Don't be a statistic. Be prepared
Be mindful of weather warnings, drive defensively, and stock your car with a winter survival kit and extra clothes. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 25 percent of winter-related fatalities occur when people are caught off guard.