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Video: Prepare to survive in your car during a winter storm

A survival situation can start with a vehicle sliding off the road in bad weather. (Pantenburg photo)
600 400 Survival Common Sense Blog | Emergency Preparedness

Travel can be very dangerous this time of year.  It doesn’t matter if you live in the Oregon high desert or the frigid Midwest.

If  your car slips off the road in an isolated area, during a blizzard, a routine drive to visit the family can turn into a nightmare.

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by Leon Pantenburg

Nationwide attention was brought to winter survival in a stalled vehicle in 2006.

In December, Californian James Kim, 35, died in Oregon’s Rogue River Wilderness after leaving his wife and children to get help. The family car was stuck in snow on a remote road for several days.

A survival kit for your car can be indispensable when the weather turns bad.

A survival kit for your car can be indispensable when the weather turns bad.

Mr. Kim departed from the car, left the road and apparently got lost in the deep snow. He bushwhacked five miles down steep canyons, covering about eight miles through rough country, but ending up only about a mile as the crow flies from his car. Mr Kim’s body was found several days later, and he had apparently died of  hypothermia. His family was found alive in their car a few days later.

Here are some things you can do – before you leave on that holiday journey –  to make that road trip safer.
Leave a note, telling someone your route, and when you intend to reach your destination.  If you don’t arrive on schedule, the designated person should contact the area highway patrol or state police. If you have changes in plan, call that person to update the schedule.

      • Warm clothing: Make sure everyone in the vehicle has, as a minimum, a warm coat, hat, gloves and boots along. Throw in a couple of blankets and a sleeping bag in the trunk for extra protection.
      • Lots of Gas: The vehicle should have a full tank of gas before you leave to go anywhere. Top off the gas tank when it gets to about half full.
      • Daytime travel: If possible, schedule your travel in the daytime.
      • Known routes:  Only travel routes you know to be safe – not rural service roads and cut-off roads that are unfamiliar to you.
    • Food and Water: Assemble a complete emergency kit to carry in your car. Periodically update the kit by checking the food and water and making sure you have spare batteries for emergency flashlights.  These days you can acquire car chargers and solar charging kits for cell phones.

Winter survival can start by assembling a selection of easily-obtained items. Here are some suggestions from survival expert Peter Kummerfeldt on items to  include in a  car kit.

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  • Leon

    I’m wide open for ideas! I don’t know how to keep those items from freezing, other than to take them inside at night. A thought might be to pack all the things that might freeze together, and remove them.

  • Buff Rassmussen

    One problem I have found living in the Oregon High Desert is that spare water bottles and even baby wipes will freeze overnight in the car. Other than repacking everytime you leave for a trip, what do you suggest?

  • Shootit

    You need a rope. You can get lost going to your trunk if you have one in a blizzard. Tie it your belt loop or hang onto it when you leave the vehicle. Best advice is stay home. Thanksgiving travel is not worth it.

  • Leon

    It is not safe to use any sort of open flame in a closed, sealed area, like a car with all the windows rolled up. I would stock up on the handwarmers, and pack whatever you need to get by. In some frigid areas, you need all the items you mentioned!

  • Patti, SW MI

    Is it safe to burn a candle in your stranded car? If it is safe, what type of container would you put it in? And then where would you place it in your car? If you put it on the dash could the heat from the candle crack the windshield? Almost every place I go, my dog goes also. Just a bit afraid to have a lit candle with a very active dog in the car/truck. Any suggestions are appreciated. I do have some of these suggested items, plan on adding more. I did just recently have to spend about four hours in my truck. Temps in the low 20’s wind chill about 5 above. It gets really cold really fast. I think to be comfortable you need more than a couple of blankets. More like a very good sleeping bag AND a couple of blankets, AND good warm hats/gloves/mittens. Maybe some of those hand and foot heaters too. Thanks!

  • Dagny T

    A few more suggestions for surviving being stuck in your car for a day or two, or even longer.

    $10 or $20 in quarters. If you get stuck at work or an interstate rest area (someplace with vending machines), you’ll be able to eat.

    Something to -do-. A couple of paperbacks, some playing cards, crossword/word search/soduko books, even pen(cil) and paper. If you’re traveling with kids, stock up at the Dollar Store so you have a couple of handfuls of “new” toys/distractions for them too. Consider some projects, too…a pack of “learn these knots” cards along with some rope pieces… an origami instruction book and a big ol’ pad of origami paper (250 sheets in a pad sold at Target and most crafts stores), etc.

    An Oilcamp Space Saver cup, a soda can alcohol stove, a couple of empty water bottles and a stash of food you/yours will eat. With the one cup and the alcohol stove you can melt (and then boil) snow for drinking water, heat water for instant coffee/tea/hot chocolate/instant oatmeal/soups/Raman-like meals, fry Spam slices and add (safe!) water to any freeze-dried packaged foods. Add a bag of hard candies (root beer barrels and cinnamon candies are my favorite) to your stock, too… a little sugar rush never hurts and it’s a great morale boost, too.

    A selection of medium and large trash bags. Everyone has to pee & poop and not being prepared won’t make the issue go away. Use the medium trash bags first to contain your waste & try to keep the large trash bags for other uses like as a layer of protection when you must leave your vehicle (to dig out the tail pipe or dispose of trash… NEVER to abandon your vehicle and try to hike out). And remember, you don’t know how long you’ll be stuck, so use the ab, tie a LOOSE knot in it and place it outside your vehicle to be used again. Add a roll of TP and/or a box of baby wipes to make the whole process less icky. A small container of sanitizing gel will keep your hands (relatively) germ free.

    A LARGE metal can or a small metal pail… you can put an 8″ w x 10″ h 3-wick candle in the can/pail and get both light and heat, albeit not a whole lot of either, but it can be enough in the middle of the night. I suggest white candles for the most light and you might want to pierce the upper half of the can/pail to get more light/heat. The can/pail can also help stabilize your soda can alcohol stove when in use.

    Another use for a small tarp if you’re driving a large vehicle is to use the tarp to section off the back of the vehicle so whatever heat you can generate (from the vehicle’s heater, you & your traveling companions, candles, etc.) will be mostly restricted to the passenger compartment. Lacking a tarp, use whatever clothing/rags/suitcases/solar shades or any other materials to slow down the transfer of heat from the passenger compartment. A handful of upholstery twist pins will secure a tarp or other light material to your vehicle’s headliner.

    The last two items concern your daily meds and wee widgets. I’m never without my basic daily meds… I keep a set in my purse and another set in my vehicle and I swap ’em out for fresh meds every 60-90 days. I know, I know… it’s a PITA to remember to swap ’em out and all, but consider what life would be like if you didn’t have your heart/cholesterol/antidepressant/bladder seizure/diabetic/etc. meds for a couple of days and the task suddenly becomes a whole lot easier to remember. Many physicians will give you a prescription for a short supply (5-10 days) if you explain the purpose… once filled you can swap ’em out with your regular prescription meds as time goes on. And as for the wee widgets… you’ll never know the comfort of having a couple of cans of formula and a pack of diapers & baby wipes until you’re without ANY such supplies. A fresh tube of diaper ointment and as many of the “ugly” baby blankets you got at the baby shower and you’ll be well ahead of the “adventure.”

    Hope this helps.


  • Pete m

    I agree with all of your advice about preparing to stay in your vehicle in cold weather. A few more items for consideration: A box of 12 hour candles and some small jars that fit in your cup holders. Some MacGuiver insulation stuff. And some basic off road, get your vehicle unstuck, items like a hand cable winch, a coil of strong rope, a large metal spike and a 5 lb. sledge hammer. After all it can be an adventure getting stuck and can even be fun getting unstuck but not being able to get unstuck… Sucks!

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