Winter is the hardest season to cope with, and one of the worst things that can happen is that your car would happen to break down in the middle of nowhere in 32ºF or lower climates. My mom's side of the family lives in the Appalachian mountains in rural Pennsylvania, so it's a major concern and could be a crisis situation if the family car were to break down, or there was too much snow fall to continue driving, and we had to stay where we were. In such situations, if you're not well equipped, things could get very desperate fast, and your lives could very well be on the line (ref: James Kim).
I've already stocked the car up so that we're ready to easily survive the first 72 hours if needed should the car become immobilized and unstartable. This list of items that are currently in the car comes from hours of research and bag optimizations with cold weather situations in mind.
There are four things that I knew we'd need if things got desperate:
- Food & Water
- Basic Communication
Keeping this in mind, I also had to pack the car for six people at a maximum (people in our family) should this crisis occur.
Shelter from the Cold
On any winter road trip, we've always had blankets and pillows for the kids. One blanket is a warm wool 52"x 180" blanket that the kids can easily wrap up in. I know that blankets alone will not provide shelter or insulation from the cold, so here's what I have:
Mylar Emergency Blankets
There are 12 mylar blankets (that each come in a 3"x2.5" package) that can be put together to make tents and wind barriers. Consider carrying at least one for each member of the family, plus a minimum of one for every person to make a tent. These unfold to 52"x80" and two or more can be taped together using duct tape while the car is still warm to create a tent. Ideally, you'd want to tape a few blankets together to make a tent big enough for everyone to fit into so the body heat can build up inside.
200' of 550- 7 strand Paracord
used to string up the tents and wind barriers, this paticular paracord can hold up to 120lbs, more than enough for mylar blankets serving as shelter from the wind and cold.
Metal Binder Clips and duct tape should also be packed in case you have to make a tent out of the mylar emergency blankets.
4 wooden + 8 metal ground stakes
Being able to stake your tent down is essential. The four wooden stakes would provide the best resistance to being pulled back out by wind, and would be used for the wind barriers. The metal rods that are the smaller ground stakes would hold the corners of up to three tents if needed. If you don't have ground stakes, take wire shirt hangers and make your own "U" shaped stakes that you can drive into the frozen ground to secure the blanket/tent.
Three 100 hour emergency candles
Having a constant source of heat is essential to survival. These candles can burn for up to 100 hours and keep the tent warm enough to keep you alive.
"Hothands" Hand Warmers
I threw a box of 64 8 Hour hand warmers into the trunk this year. If you were in a true emergency situation, you'd need a minimum of two warmers per person at the foot of their blanket to keep the toes and legs warm enough not to get frost bitten. I tested one out about a week ago, and it does actually stay warm enough to be usable for about 7 hours. In the final hour and a half, the handwarmer quickly lost heat and was useless. The handwarmers also take about 20 minutes to fully activate for full heat.
The blankets and pillows would be used for insulation against the snow and cold as well, and a mylar blanket would go on top ensuring bodyheat would be radiated back toward the persons.
Camping Stove and 6 packs of 4 hour Sterno
The camping stove is essential for melting snow and boiling it. If you have a water purifier, you can also filter the water for extra safety. It's also good for cooking dry packets of soup and other non-perishable meals on. In a real emergency, we'd boil the water needed, put it into the three Sawyer 1 litre water pouches I have and keep it from freezing by putting the pouches in a bag with four "Hothands" hand warmers so it wouldn't freeze or get too cold to drink.
Food for Winter Emergencies
Food that you put in the car in winter will generally last a long time. The only issue that you have to contend with is that if there's any liquid, it will very well freeze. I have found that carrying dry goods and instant meals is perfect for winter traveling.
You'll want to pick up at least a 1/2 pound of trail mix per person for 72 hours of survival. This can keep you going for a while and alive if necessary while providing some energy and calories to burn, but doesn't last long and doesn't really fend off the hunger.
Having jerky around will also help to keep you alive. Even if you're vegitarian, keep meat in your survival pack in the car. If things become that dire, eating a beef jerky will help to keep you alive and give you a bit of strength. Also, if it's life and death on the line, I don't think I'd care if it were even skunk that I was eating. I'd just want to stay alive and make it.
Liptons Dried Chicken Soup with Chicken
Dried soup that you just toss in boiling water is also one of the best ways to get warm and get some good food in you. Make sure to pick up three packs for each person assuming that you're planning for a 72 hour disaster. You can stay alive on just one soup a day if needed, and it only takes 5 minutes to make even if you can't fully boil the water (like you're using a couple candles and a 8-10oz metal camping cup -- water would reach about 100ºF after 7-10 minutes if sheltered from the wind).
Freeze Dried Meals
Meals Ready To Eat, or MREs are also popular to pack in the car. Most civilian MREs come with a food heater that you activate with water to cook the meal to where you have a hot dinner in about 30 minutes. The only issue you need to make sure of is that you can actually melt water to add to the meal heating pack. The downside to MRE's is that they're about $7-$10 per meal, and you'd need at least 3 per person for 72 hours of survival.
High Output Flashlight
Having a high output flashlight and plenty of batteries is a good start. If responders are out looking for people, using a powerful light drastically increases your chances of being seen. Many tactical flashlights have lighting options such as "strobe" and "SOS" mode that prolong the battery life and increase visability when responders are looking for you.
Lasers have an even longer range than high power tactical flashlights. Over distance on a clear night, their light beam degrades very little. The average high power handheld laser has a usable range of almost 10 miles (but the beam can travel much further), enough to get noticed by a truck or car in the distance. Never point lasers at aircraft. PERIOD.
Lasers such as the one linked here, have been used for signaling by the Syrian refugees because they do reach such long distances, and the opposition forces has a much smaller chance of seeing the light or it's originating source. For you, if you're stranded and in dire need, you can signal cars and people on the ground at very great distances with a laser. Green and blue lasers are recommended as opposed to red because red is associated mentally for most people as a sniper bead. If you use a laser, best to aim as best you can somewhere in front of your target, not at them. At 5KM, the beam will spread to roughly 6" due to degradation while traveling through air.
Most of the time if you're traveling major highways, you'll have cell phone coverage, but if you go a half mile on either side of the highway, cell coverage becomes uncertain especially if you're in a rural area. A handheld CB radio can be a lifeline for rescue in the event that you'd have to travel by foot towards the nearest place of shelter. CB Channel 9 is constantly scanned by Police and first responders for accidents and medical emergencies, and even if your radio isn't powerful enough to be picked up by police, you can always put out a general call for help on Channel 19, the general channel truckers use with their high power CBs. More often than not a distress call on 19 will be picked up by a trucker within the area. The only caveat to this is that you can't stray too far away from the highway, and make calls for help often.
If you have GMRS family 2 way radios and you can scan channels, look for channel 20, 462.6750 or GMRS7. It's the unofficial emergency/traveler assistance channel and is often monitored in rural areas by local authorities. Keep in mind that a GMRS family radio has a 1-2 mile range, 4 miles at the very most with unrestricted line of sight. If you are reduced to using a family radio to call for help, get to the highest point possible and make repeated transmissions for as long as your batteries hold out.
What To Do If Your Car Breaks Down During Winter
There are two major situations that you should be prepared for if your car is for whatever reason, immobilized:
- The Car Can Run / Provides Heat
- The Car Will Not Start / Will Not Provide Heat
In either situation, try to stay with the car if it's possible. The car is a large object and can be detected more easily than humans trudging through the snow. If the car does run, use the car for heat as long as possible. Remember those mylar space blankets? Open them up and put one across the windshield, one across the rear window, and one over each door, securing all of them inside the doors as you close them. This will provide some heat retention. You then will want to start the car only when necessary and run it for just long enough to warm up the interior to comfortable level. As soon as you can, shut down the car again.
If you do have cellular service, make the appropriate calls and gauge how long you have until rescue. If you don't, you'll have to start thinking about what you need to do in order to get help. 90% of the time, people that break down on highways are able to flag down other motorists for assistance with no real danger, although it does lurk.
It's the 10% of the breakdowns that you should be ready for: the ones where you have to leave the safety and shelter of your car to get help. In rural Pennsylvania, if we do travel those roads, it can be miles before you can get to anyone, and there are quite a few cellular dead zones where you just can't make a call.
This should be a no brainer, but in many of the situations, people did not have all the protection necessary for prolonged exposure to freezing weather while hiking to find help. Wrapping yourself in a mylar emergency blanket will help buffer the wind, although you will look like an alien -- but that attracts attention and is a good thing. You should have appropriate hats, gloves, coats and at least long johns. Lacking all else, pin disposable hand warmers to the inside of your clothing, in your shoes or boots, and in your gloves. These warmers will save you from frost bite! Before you leave your car, make sure everyone puts a ziplock bag over their socked feet, throw in a hand warmer and then put the shoes or boots on. This will keep your feet from getting wet and cold for as long as possible. The hand warmers need oxygen to create heat, however, so it may be necessary to stop and shake them out to increase the heat production from time to time.
Take Sure Fire
Making sure you can start a fire is vital to your survival in the open elements. Carrying a fire kit in your car that's small and mobile will really help. Lacking this, make sure you have at least a couple BIC lighters that you can put in your pocket along with a hand warmer so that they maintain enough gas pressure to light when needed. I also have a striker and magnesium block when all else fails. Before you leave, take a fire log that you'd throw into the fireplace to get things started, and cut large 2"-3" block-chunks of the log away and place them into a heavy duty Ziplock freezer bag or better, a waterproof container. You will need these, and they will last about 20 minutes each, giving you time to get your fire started! If you have some spare reflectix, cut a 8" wide by 18" strip and fold to keep in the car. Also put a coat hanger in the car as well for this. If you are truely without good shelter, the reflectix can stand up around the fire log chunks protecting it from wind as you add kindling to your fire. The coat hanger's curved top will be driven into the ground, and the loop part widened to hold the reflectix in place.
Take enough food to survive, but not so much it's all you've got in your pack. Generally speaking, take enough for two days. Foods you'll want are high energy protein bars, nuts, and if you have that stainless steel cup, mentioned above, you have more options, such as dry soups and bullions.
This is also where those MREs come in to play. If you have packed three MREs, one can survive for 72 hours, eating just one a day. This will save your life if it ever comes down to being stranded for days in a winter storm.
The Bags You Need
Bags play an important role in your survival, and are vitally important. They can they be used to carry stuff, keep it dry, and keep you alive. If the bag is a normal backpack, it's already too heavy.
Get some drawstring nylon bags and in each one, make sure you have plenty of 1 gallon Ziplock Freezer Bags (I have 5 bags in each drawstring), plus at least one heavy duty contractor grade (3mil or thicker) trash bag. The uses are endless for the ziplocks, and the trash bag can be used to put leaves from under the snow into for bedding to get you up and off of the freezing ground if you have to sleep. If you have to travel, you're not putting on a significant amount of weight with the drawstring bags. If possible, before you leave on your trip, make sure that you have at least two high heat retention blankets with you (wool, for example) that are packed and ready to go in a couple of the drawstrings. Also throw in extra hand warmers and a mylar space blanket in there so that you can increase the heat depending on how cold you get. The space blanket will keep the wind from cutting through and radiate the body/handwarmer heat back to you and your family under the blankets.
I got my drawstrings from trade shows, conferences and other random places, so I never needed to pay for them, and I have 10 of them ready to go. If you do need to buy drawstrings, here's the best ones that I've found. The 14"X18" work the best because both children and adults can carry them, and most adults can actually carry up to four without difficulty.
What's In The Bag?
One bag should have at least six mylar space blankets (52"X84" size or larger), duct tape, 1/2" screw-in rings, small metal high strength binder clips, 100' - 300' of 7strand, 550 paracord or similar (high tensile strength to resist breakage in wind). You can make a shelter out of these emergency blankets that completely covers you and family if needed. You will need to find at least one tree or upright object to create a tent. Screw the eyelets into the tree or telephone pole to loop the rope through to keep your mylar tent up. Use the binder clips to hold it in place on the lines. If you're in a plains state, you can even create one that's low to the ground by putting your drawstring bags at each corner to keep the tent roof up.
Also have one bag dedicated to food and fire making.
While you might be tempted to take a suitcase, DON'T. Take just one to two additional pair of socks for each person. Socks can be used over the hands if needed (even over the gloves for extra protection), or to replace the ones if your feet get wet (put the dry socks on, then put them in one of those 1 gallon Ziplock bags, throw in a hand warmer and finally put the shoes or boots on. It's imperative to keep your feet dry and warm!
Ditch the Unneeded Junk
If you do have to travel on foot in winter, leave everything unnecessary in the car. Laptops, MP3 players, four extra pairs of underware, etc... They add weight and are just not things that you absolutely must have. Do consider taking paper and crayons because both can help get a fire going, by the way.
Head In The Direction Most Sure Of Reaching Help
Since you came from one direction, you need to remember how far it's been since you saw a place you could get help from. If you think it's been an hour since you saw a house or building, then take your rate of travel (MPH/KPH) and estimate the distance. If fore example, it's been an hour since you remember seeing a house, and you were traveling about 30 miles an hour in adverse weather, you can figure on having to travel 30 miles back to get help. That's not good odds, by the way. Do you know roughly how far it is to the next town or village (or farmhouse even)? If not, go in the direction you're sure of eventually finding help. If its night, also look for lights. House lights, street lights, anything that indicates civilization and help. If you have a decent point and shoot camera or SLR, use its zoom to zoom in and scan the area for houses, life or just shelter.
Before leaving on the trip, download an offline maps application so that you can use just the GPS to pinpoint your location, even without cell or data, and provide you information on which way may be the best way to go. Also make sure you have a good compass app if you don't have a mechanical compass that you can keep in your pocket (you should have one). You have a pretty good idea of how long it takes your phone batteries to die, so conserve as much power as possible if you're stranded. Shut down the phone until its needed. If you can get your car on to the point where it can charge the phone batteries, make sure to wait long enough for the phone to be charged completely before setting out. Do NOT use the phone as a flashlight! you're wasting batteries every second its on! If all else fails get the info you need before setting out, and don't deviate. Get a good compass reading, figure out which direction you need to go, and just head that way.
As a final note on this very long article, Whenever possible, travel as quickly and lightly as possible. You will burn a lot of energy just walking through snow, or in very cold conditions. Retain as much heat as possible by using space blankets to keep as much heat in and wind out. Finally, travel in only the direction you're sure of getting help.