By Mark Lebetkin
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.”
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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.
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 signaling, 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."
Leatherman’s top-selling multitool can help you MacGyver your way out of any number of situations. “For a vehicle they’re outstanding,” says Nester: "A snowmobile, an ATV -- anything with a lot of screws and wires where you need to make small-scale repairs and you have to improvise.” $60; Amazon.
For the complete list of items in the Winter Survival Kit for Your Car, go to TheActiveTimes.com.