Roads can become perilous during a winter storm or extreme cold snap. There are countless stories of people getting trapped in their cars overnight or even longer when conditions deteriorate. FEMA reports that there are over half a million vehicle crashes each year during winter weather, resulting in 2,000 deaths and over 140,000 injuries.
In 2011, The New York Times reported on a blizzard that left thousands of Chicagoans stuck in their cars, enduring blinding snow and 70 mph winds. One look at the pictures shows you why preparing your car for such an event could very well save your life – or at least prevent an expensive trip to the hospital or urgent care.
How to Prepare Your Car for Winter Storms
Preparing your car for winter storms doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Since you’ve probably already prepared your home for winter emergencies, chances are you already have much of what you need at home. It’s merely a matter of pulling it out of closets and pantries and organizing it into a kit for your car.
1. Pack an Emergency Kit
Every fall, assemble an emergency supply kit for your car and put it in the trunk until spring. Supplies you need include:
- Enough nonperishable food for 24 to 48 hours – pack high-calorie foods like energy bars, peanut butter crackers, nuts, and candy bars
- A folding shovel for shoveling dirt for traction
- A battery-powered radio or hand-crank radio, ideally one with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather alerts and an emergency phone charger
- An ice scraper and small snow shovel for moving more substantial amounts of snow
- Traction mats for additional traction in snow
- Tire chains if you live in a particularly snowy or steep region – make sure you measure your tires carefully before purchasing them online
- A tow strap for towing yourself or someone else out of the snow
- Jumper cables
- A high-quality emergency blanket or wool blanket – cheap emergency blankets rip easily and quickly become useless
- A multitool
- A small candle and a metal can – such as an empty soup can – for melting snow and an emergency lighter or stormproof matches
- A set of winter-weather clothing for everyone who frequently travels in your car, including a few layers for each person as well as hats, gloves, and extra socks – if you dress for work, add a complete change of winter work clothes, including a heavy coat and snow boots
- A first-aid kit
- Emergency flares
- Air-activated hand and foot warmers
- Sand or kitty litter for traction
2. Winterize Your Vehicle
Winterize your vehicle in the fall, long before winter weather is due to set in. Have your mechanic check your battery, exhaust system, heat and defrost system, and all fluids and hoses.
Check your car’s window wiper fluid periodically during the winter. You can go through a great deal of wiper fluid during the winter, and running out while driving on a freshly salted road can quickly become dangerous. It’s also a good idea to buy new wiper blades before winter sets in.
Lastly, keep your gas tank at least half full during the winter. While it’s inconvenient to fuel up more often and rising gas prices make it tempting to avoid the pump, it ensures your lines won’t freeze in particularly cold weather and that you’ll have extra fuel for heat in case you get stuck in a storm.
3. Check Your Tires
You also need to check your tire tread and invest in new tires if the tread on your current ones is getting low. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends all tires have a tread of at least two-thirty-seconds of an inch.
You can quickly check your tire tread by performing a “penny test.” Firestone Tires recommends you take a penny and place it into several of the grooves of your tire’s tread with Lincoln’s head facing toward you and pointed down. If the tread covers the top half of Lincoln’s head above the ear, your tires are fine. However, if you can see the top of Lincoln’s head in any grooves, your tread is shallow and worn, and you need to replace your tires.
Make sure you know where your spare tire and jack are and how to use them before you get stuck somewhere with a flat. Bridgestone Tires has a video that walks you through the ins and outs of changing a tire.
Last, check your tire pressure regularly to make sure it’s inflated to your vehicle manufacturer’s recommended psi. You can find this information in your car’s owners manual.
Many tire manufacturers recommend inflating your tires 3 to 5 psi more than you do during warm summer months. When the outside air is cold, your tires lose pressure. According to Firestone Tires, you lose 1 to 2 pounds of pressure for every 10-degree F drop in temperature.
Underinflated tires can result in increased stopping time, reduced fuel economy, and decreased life span for your tires.
4. Keep Lock De-Icer on Hand
Snow, ice, or sleet can freeze over or even into locks. If your car has manual locks, a small can of de-icer helps you get into your car during a storm. You can also use de-icer on home or gate locks that freeze during winter months.
Even cars with automatic locks can be challenging to get into during the winter months. Sometimes, the edge of the car door or the handle can become iced over. Lock de-icer works in a pinch, but using rubbing alcohol also dissolves the ice enough for the door to open.
What to Do if You Get Stuck
If you do get stuck in the snow during a winter storm or extreme cold event, follow these tips to stay safe.
- Make Your Car as Visible as Possible. Put out flares and turn on your hazard lights.
- Stay in the Car and Buckle Your Seatbelt. Just because you aren’t moving doesn’t mean other cars can’t hit you.
- Stay Put. Don’t leave your car unless you can see a building and have at least 100 yards of visibility. People have frozen to death trying to walk down the road after they’ve gotten stuck in the snow.
- Don’t Keep Your Car Running to Stay Warm. Staying warm in your car requires different strategies from staying warm in your home. Turn on your car for 10 minutes each hour. But before you do, check to make sure your car’s exhaust pipe is free of snow or other obstructions. A clear exhaust pipe prevents fatal carbon monoxide from building up inside your car.
- Don’t Eat Snow for Water. The Weather Channel interviewed Charles Dornford, a staff sergeant in the United States Air Force who teaches cold-weather survival to U.S. Department of Defense professionals. Dornford says eating snow for water is a bad idea, as it lowers your core body temperature unless you’re being extremely active. Instead, put snow in a container or zip-close bag and put it in between layers of your clothing to melt. It takes longer since every 10 inches of snowfall yields only 1 inch of water, but if you have no other way to melt snow, it’s the best option.
Imagine you’re driving your kids to their afternoon activities when the flurries weather forecasters called for suddenly turn into whiteout conditions. The road quickly becomes covered with snow, and you can’t see a thing. Your old wipers aren’t doing much to keep the windshield clear, you’re out of wiper fluid, and your vehicle’s worn tires are continually sliding on the slick pavement.
It’s a situation every parent wants to avoid. And whether you have kids or not, preparing your car for winter storms is just as important as preparing your home for winter. It’s a crucial step in staying safe and preventing a car accident — saving you money and even your life.
What do you keep in your car to stay safe during the winter months?