THE WINTER DRIVING rule of thumb is simple—expect the unexpected. Don’t rule out the chance—even if you’re a seasoned driver—that someday you might find yourself stuck and stranded in a monster blizzard. Survival depends on the preparation, keeping a cool head, and following these ten blizzard survival steps:
Don’t Wander or Overexert 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. This means you can become disorientated after just a few steps away from the vehicle.
Monitor your body temperature while you are outside. Don’t overexert yourself digging or expose yourself to the elements for too long. You 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?
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 antennae.
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 the 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 about ten minutes per hour; this is long enough to heat up the car but not long enough to empty the fuel tank. For this reason, alternative emergency signals are essential.
Stay Calm and Make a Mental List of Priorities
Your vehicle will provide adequate short-term shelter. Stay calm. Slow down. Think. If your cell phone works, use it immediately to call for help. Remind yourself that stress will tax your body and lead to poor decision making.
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 your supplies are limited, however, you’ll need to focus on making the best what you have.
Periodically Use the Heater to Warm up Your Vehicle
Always make sure that your vehicle’s exhaust pipe is clear of snow before using the heater. A blocked exhaust pipe will cause your vehicle to fill up with deadly carbon monoxide. Crack open a downwind window for ventilation. 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 the gas for the heater, as you may need it to excavate the car after the weather clears up.
Start Drinking Water
The most important element for staying alive in any survival situation is water. The more hydrated you are, the warmer you will be. 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 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 won’t feel that 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.
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 and the engine gets cold. Good fuel and 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 then your core temperature will quickly drop off.
Use whatever you have in the vehicle to keep yourself warm. Ideally, dress yourself in layers, so you sweat less. Sweaty clothing drains body heat. Wrap yourself in a wool or mylar emergency blanket. In a pinch, use maps, newspapers, and even floor carpets.
Block Off Unused Space
If you’re in a large vehicle, try to make the space smaller by hanging a blanket or sleeping bag. We all know that a small space is easier to keep warm than a large one. If you’re not alone, huddling together in a small space can increase the amount of heat in that area. Also, burning candles in a coffee can create enough heat to stave of the chill. But be careful, any fire, even one from a small candle, can produce poisonous carbon monoxide. You should have a window cracked to ventilate carbon monoxide if you have any sort of open flame. Chemical hand warmers are an excellent alternative to an open flame. Simply place a couple hand warmers inside your jacket or in a pocket and they will keep you warm for several hours. Fifteen hand warmers per person will keep everyone warm for about seventy-two hours.
Don’t Forget to Move
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. Why eat? The body will generate heat while you sleep digesting the food that you just consumed. Why urinate? If you don’t urinate before sleeping, the body will have to work harder to keep the excess fluid warm
Keep in mind, shivering is not moving. In fact, it’s a signal that your body temperature is dropping and needs to be raised. Shivering (spasmodically expanding and contracting muscles) is a trick your body uses to warm up. But this warm-up trick burns calories and drains valuable energy.
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 unprepared out in a storm.
The Basic Winter Survival Kit
It’s been said that it’s better to look ahead and prepare than to look back and regret. When it comes to winter driving, nothing could be more true. Before the snow starts to fall, you should build a basic winter survival kit for all your vehicles. Make sure that your survival kit is equipped for the needs of multiple passengers and tailored to the needs of your particular climate. Use this list as a starting point:
- Food: Protein bars, peanuts, etc.
- Wool & thermal blankets
- Hand warmers
- First Aid Kit
- Phone Charger
- Traction: Sand, Ash, chains, maxtrax, etc.
- Emergency flashlight
- Emergency Road Markers, Flares, glow sticks
- Duct tape
- Jumper cables, jumper starter
- Tow Strap
- Nylond 550 paracord
- Emergency candles
- Flashlight batteries
- Hats and Gloves
- A coffee can
- A metal container for melting snow