Last week, an accident in the middle of a winter storm on a major highway – I-95 – left cars with families inside stranded for up to 24 hours. Desperate calls and social media posts chronicled the motorists’ concerns and fears as they began to run out of food, water and fuel. Major news outlets showed long lines of cars and trucks with nowhere to go, blanketed in snow and ice.
This scary scene played out on a stretch of highway between Richmond, Va. and Washington, D.C. This is not an isolated stretch of highway, and yet every year someone gets trapped in a snow bank on a lonely highway and survival become paramount.
A few days ago, 22 people died while trapped for 24 hours in their cars during a snow storm near a popular Pakistani resort. Ten of those who died from the cold were children.
What would you do in a similar situation took place while driving with your family?
Design a Kit of Your Individual Needs
Regardless of how careful you are to avoid hazardous driving conditions, if you live in an area that gets cold, snow and ice, or travel a lot, there is a good chance you will have to deal with them at some point.
Road conditions can deteriorate rapidly, so you need to plan and have the supplies you need to survive a car emergency.
In this article, we cover what items to consider for your kit. At the end of the article, there is a downloadable checklist of the items discussed here. Use the list to check off what you need as you pack a winter car kit, and enjoy knowing you did not forget essential items.
Remember to design a kit for your unique needs. You might not need to haul around everything suggested in this article. For example, if you just drive around your town or a few miles, you can reduce what items you carry for emergencies.
People who travel on highways with no resources for miles should carry a more substantial car kit. During spring and summer, kits can be reduced for the weather and to make space, but don’t forget as the temperatures drop each season replenish the items when the weather turns frigid.
A good flashlight is essential. The size is up to you. If you choose a one that takes batteries, you should keep standard batteries in it and some spare batteries just in case. Rechargeable batteries lose their charge over time no matter what brand you buy. The last thing you want is to find that your flashlight batteries are dead.
Silver mylar blankets are compact and inexpensive, and designed to maximize your natural body heat. An emergency bivvy sack is another more durable option.
There is a lot of survival food to choose from out there. What you keep in your car should be very shelf-stable and require either no or very minimal preparation. Emergency car food should be calorie-dense. Some manufacturers design food to be stored on ships for up to five years, yet are available at stores like Walmart. These will work in you car as well. Here is a shortlist of good emergency foods for your car:
- SOS Food Lab Millennial Bars or Emergency Rations
- Dymax Survival Ration Bars
- Granola and Protein Bars
- MREs (Meals Ready To Eat)
- Ready to Eat Food Pouches (Prego to Go, Tasty Bites, etc.)
- Trail Mix
- Dried Fruit
- Beef Jerky
The challenge with storing water in your car is keeping it from freezing. Smaller bottles are more convenient but less dense, so they are more likely to freeze if you keep your car in a cold garage or outside at night. Keep a few gallons of bottled water in your car during the winter months.
We live in increasingly violent times. Everyone should keep some type of self-defense weapon in their vehicle at all times. Many people choose to get a concealed carry permit to carry a firearm in their car. Check your state laws. In some states, a car is considered an extension of your home and a permit is not required to keep on in a console. Even if you carry a gun, you should consider something less lethal. Only use a gun when there is no other choice. Here is a shortlist of weapons to consider for your winter car kit.
- Pepper Gel Spray
- Pepperball Gun
- Short baseball bat
Tools are useful for defense as well. A tire iron, for example, makes an excellent bludgeon. A hammer is another option.
Tire Changing and Repair Kit
Even if you have a good spare tire, you may need to repair a second tire. It’s a good idea to have a tire repair kit on hand. Here are a few items to consider.
- Several cans of Fix-a-Flat
- Car Jack
- Tire Iron
- Patch Kit
- Pump ( A 12V tire pump is nice to have, but manual is better than nothing.)
A small battery bank allows you to charge your phone or other small devices. While there are plenty in the 10,000 mAh range, buying a battery bank with at least 28,000 mAh of stored power is worth it. The amount of space the larger battery bank takes up is negligible and well worth it if you find yourself stranded or delayed in travel.
Small Emergency Radio with NOAA Weather Band
A small radio keeps you informed (and entertained) without using your car radio. The weather band is nice because you can stay current on incoming weather so you can plan your next steps.
Disposable or USB Rechargeable Hand Warmers
Disposable hand warmers have been used by hikers for a long time. They are convenient and very affordable. Rechargeable warmers are fairly new products, and only a few companies choose produce them. Rechargeable hand warmers are more expensive initially too but pay for themselves fairly quickly if you use hand warmers often. Zippo makes an excellent USB chargeable hand warmer. Consider a carrying a battery bank in your car to keep your warmers going for longer.
First Aid Kit
A small first aid kit is all most people need for their car kit. If you travel in more remote locations, a more extensive kit would be required. I recommend the First Aid Only 299 as a base kit. Like many kits, you should add the following items to complete it.
- Blood stop powder (also called blood clot granules)
- Benydryl Liqui-gels
3 days of prescription medications
When it comes to prescription medications, it is best to plan for a longer emergency and hope it ends sooner, especially if you take medications for a chronic condition or have severe side effects if you stop taking them suddenly.
Many Peak Prosperity readers carry a good multi-tool daily, however it is still a good idea to stash one in your vehicle if you find yourself without your old reliable. Leatherman makes top-quality multi-tools, but Gerber and Schrade make decent tools for less money. You do not need to purchase the multi-tool with the most tools on it either. The Leatherman Wingman is a good choice as is the Gerber Suspension. You might consider adding a keychain multi-tool as well. The Gerber Dime or Leatherman Micra are good options to check out.
When credit card systems are down, cash or checks are the only options to pay for goods or services. Many retailers will not take checks, especially if the check is from out of town. In these situations, cash is your only option. I recommend $100-$300 depending on how expensive things are where you live or if you tend to travel a lot for business.
There are plenty of places in a car where you can hide some cash if you do not want to carry it on your person.
Even if you carry several gallons of water in your car, you should always have a water filter. I recommend a Sawyer Mini with squeeze bag. A water filter allows you to melt snow and filter it to stay hydrated if you find yourself stranded for a long time.
It is always a good idea to have an extra car key hidden. Magnetic key holders that attach to the undercarriage of your car are popular. This allows you to access your car if you lock your main keys inside or lose your set.
Sleep is necessary if stranded for a long time. Sitting in a car for a long time is typically not that comfortable. A pillow will make your situation more bearable. Consider an inflatable pillow, it takes up less space and can be stored in your car.
Many people just use their phone for entertainment, but during an emergency, you may need to conserve your battery life. Cell phone towers may not be up and running for you to access the internet. A few paperback books, an e-reader that you keep charged, or puzzle books and pencils are all reasonable choices.
During a whiteout, it is nearly impossible to see in front of you. Emergency flares will help keep you safe by allowing rescue workers to find you even during tough conditions.
Battery Jump Starter
A battery jump starter is basically a lithium-ion battery pack with jumper cables attached that you keep charged and in your car. These packs come in different amperages for various-sized vehicles. Your jump starter pack means you don’t have to find someone to give you a jump start. Just be sure to get a jump starter that is powerful enough for your vehicle. The more amps, the higher the cost.
A few disposable Bic lighters is all you need to stash in your car. Do not waste your time with off-brand disposables. Cheap disposables have a very high failure rate and thus do not save you any money. Also, consider storm-proof matches.
Snow, ice, and mud are unavoidable at times. If you find yourself stuck, traction boards will help get you out. These boards do take up some space, so you will want to take them out during times of the year when it is not likely that you will need them.
A good folding shovel can help you keep snow from building up around your vehicle. You can use your folding shovel to help get your car unstuck if conditions are muddy as well. Digging and using some traction boards will help avoid towing in some situations.
Any ice scraper is better than nothing, but it sure is nice to have one that has a glove attached, so you don’t soak your gloves or get really cold hands.
Car-sized fire extinguishers are inexpensive and save lives. Some drivers choose to mount them in their vehicle using a special bracket, while others just stick them in the driver’s side door storage area.
Hopefully, you never have to use a tow strap, but you will be glad you have one if you get stuck. A tow strap makes it easier for another vehicle to help you out a situation, and it can save you from having to wait for a tow truck. While a tow might be included in your AAA plan, it can be a long wait if a lot of other people are stranded. If you have to pay for a tow can take a big bite out of your budget. I remember living in Ketchikan, Alaska, more than a decade ago and a tow costing several hundred dollars.
A good pair of rugged gloves and liners to keep hands warm is a good idea.
Rain gear needs to be larger than what you would normally buy. You need to be able to layer rain gear over other warm clothing.
Extra warm clothing
Cotton is comfortable but it does not keep you warm if you get wet. Long underwear made of wool or synthetic fibers is advised. Keep a thick hooded coat and several hats in your vehicle at all times.
Always have a pair of shoes that are warm, waterproof, and rugged enough to walk in. Plenty of people do not own a single pair of sensible shoes.
Physical Map or Road Atlas
Nowadays, everyone relies on GPS, but that doesn’t mean you should not have a backup. A good old-fashioned road atlas is strongly advised for those who regularly travel more than a short distance from home.
Consider what hygiene items you might want if you had to stay in your car for a few days. Some people find it easiest to just buy a small travel kit that contains basic hygiene items and a big container of wet wipes—pack at least the bare minimum items listed below.
- Toothbrush and Toothpaste
- Wet Wipes or Shower Wipes
- Toilet Paper
- A few large and a few small trash bags
Smaller bags are handy if you have to isolate some waste or use them to relieve yourself. The larger bags are useful for throwing smaller bags or larger trash into.
Urinal and Adapter for Women
Just being stuck in slow-moving traffic seems unbearable when you have to go. Sure, you can squat or stand outside and do your business, but you may not want to if the weather is awful or there are a lot of other people around that are stranded too. This is a good solution for parents that travel with kids that really cannot hold it for long too.
Infants and Children
- Formula (Even if you breastfeed, it is a good idea to have a small can of formula on hand just in case)
- Age-appropriate foods
- Disposable diapers
- Extra warm clothing
- Several very warm blankets. Wearable blankets are nice to have for young babies and toddlers.
- Several toys
- Coloring books and crayons
- Any necessary medications
Children lose body heat much faster than adults. It is essential to keep plenty of warm layers and blankets in your car if you travel with children often. Emergency mylar blankets are great but do not breathe, so you must be very careful when using them on children.
Remember to rotate clothing and diapers out as children grow. I have a six-month-old child and know that it can be hard to remember to rotate items for his car kit because he is growing so quickly.
Cans or pouches of baby food are a good idea. I like the pouches because they are easier to store and not made of glass which can break. Depending on your child’s age, they may be able to just suck the food right out of the pouch.
Kids can make a lot of messes. Pack plenty of wipes and bibs to minimize them getting their clothes wet.
- Travel food and water dishes
- Any required medications
If you travel with your pet, you should always have a few days’ worths of food on hand for them and a dish for food and water. Collapsible water and food dishes store flat in your car, so you get the most out of your cargo space.
There are plenty of pre-made car kits to choose from, but they tend to be very basic. Even if you buy a kit, there are many items you will need to make it suitable to the unique needs of you and your family. A simple search at any large online retailer will yield a number of kits. I advise looking at some reviews and not buying the least expensive.
Practice good winter car maintenance
Keeping up on maintenance helps prevent trouble out in the open road. It is easy to overlook basic maintenance. Having a checklist helps.
- Make sure you are up to date on oil changes
- Have brakes inspected and serviced
- Change out your warm-weather tires to winter or all-season tires
- Replace windshield wipers if necessary
- Top off antifreeze
- Check service manuals for any routine maintenance.
If you run your car to use the heater, make sure that snow, mud, etc., is not blocking your tailpipe.
Many people have died using their car heaters because they did not check and ensure their tailpipe was free of blockages. A blocked tailpipe will result in carbon monoxide poisoning and death. Remember that snow can pile up fast, so a clear pipe may not be five minutes later if you are in a real snowstorm.
Stay at home during bad weather or at least minimize travel
Keep enough necessities and vice items at home, so you are not tempted to go out during bad weather.
Some people have a hard time staying at home regardless of how hazardous conditions may be. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of accidents each year. Keep in mind, the more people there are on the road during bad weather, the harder it is for emergency personnel and snowplows to do their jobs.
If you are easily bored, find a hobby or something entertaining that you can do at home during bad weather.
Practicing good vehicle maintenance and keeping an emergency kit appropriate for your unique needs and the weather where you tend to travel is smart. Building a kit is inexpensive and easy to do a little at a time. Purchasing a basic kit and adding items is a good solution for those that want to simplify the process.
Do you have any suggestions for a winter car kit?
For a complete printable list of car kit items discussed in this article, click here: Winter Car Travel Kit Checklist