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Winter Driving and Survival

Posted on March 8, 2014

(feature photo from Lesley Wimbush)

Stranded in your car:

Winter driving isn’t fun and some drivers have a visceral fear of it. Some people feel safe in their skills as a driver, or in their denial, and think that getting stranded in the snow would never happen to them. It’s a scarey thought so perhaps ignorance is bliss. It doesn’t matter however, how good of a driver you are…you can still easily find yourself stranded in your vehicle for a long period of time.

In January and February of 2014, North America got absolutely hammered by extreme weather events. Heavy snow, freezing rain, extremely cold temperatures…you name it…we saw it. The ice storm that hit my area, just a month before, resulted in me losing power for three days. Even Atlanta, GA got freezing rain and it pretty much crippled the entire State…many States actually. Just to add insult to injury…the South got hammered hard again just a couple of weeks later. They simply aren’t used to driving on wintery roads and in no way whatsoever were they prepared. The result was grid-locked traffic from hell and tens of thousands of cars being abandoned all across the Southern US. Many people found themselves stranded in their vehicles for about 24hrs (a couple cases I heard of involved being stranded for 30hrs). Spending a couple days in your car doesn’t sound too horrible…in the summer. In the winter however, when the temps drop down to -20c (-4F), or much colder, it can be lethal if you’re not prepared for it.

We like to believe that we’re great drivers and never going to crash into a snowbank. Come on…we’ve all said it..”It’s not me…it’s everybody else”. Well lets think about that. Time and time again, drivers have found themselves stranded in their vehicles because of massive pile-ups around them (ahead and behind) thus leaving them stuck on the highway. Other times, the road conditions get so bad that authorities close down the roads while you’re still on it leaving you stuck. Both scenarios happen quite a lot and it’s not something that most drivers think about.

Certainly, drivers in Canada and the northern US are more aware of the possibility of getting stuck on winter roads but many find that they are still not prepared for it. At most, they may have a couple blankets in their car along with a shovel and some salt or sand but they still don’t plan for being stranded in their car for a couple of days.

24hr Winter Car Survival Challenge:

Sometimes the best way to really know what it’s like to be stranded in your car and know what it takes to survive, is to just go ahead and do it. My friend and Automotive Journalist Lesley Wimbush joined me and we challenged ourselves to surviving 24hrs ‘stranded’ in a vehicle. In hindsight…I wouldn’t recommend people do this just for kicks and giggles…especially if they aren’t damn sure that they are prepared for anything that could happen. My background and training has provided me with survival training in various situations and climates but every situation is slightly different.

Lesley and I found a safe spot just off a back country road in Ontario, surrounded by snow in sub-freezing temperatures. We got bored. We got cold. We suffered Hypothermia. We got a touch of frost bite. We recorded it. I edited it down to just over an hour and you can see the progression from being ok, to getting hypothermia (and a serious case of the sillys), and recovering in the morning. The temps dropped to -18c (0F). During the video, we had some great discussions about winter driving and survival. We also discussed some of the mistakes commonly made by people who have gotten stranded in the past. We also demonstrate some basic survival gear and provide some tips to help you stay warm and keep your sanity. Please forgive the quality…as we started having trouble thinking, we forgot to turn on all our lights for the video.

A BIG Thank You to Volvo Canada for providing the XC60 for this experiment!

Prepping your Car:

Winter

Lesley trying to sleep and stay warm

Prepping your car isn’t all that hard and with some basic gear, you can likely get yourself unstuck. If you’re stranded for some other reason, like road closures, some simple equipment can help keep you warm until you’re rescued or the road is re-opened. The items below are just the bare essentials and could help you handle a few hours easily.

  • first aid kit
  • flares, shovel, salt/sand, jumper cables
  • SOL emergency Bivvy bags for each person in your car
  • sleeping bags for each person in your car (preferably ones rated to -10c) or at least heavy, warm blankets for each person
  • thermal underwear
  • toilet paper – trust me on this one
  • warm winter boots (just leave them in the car. You shouldn’t wear winter boots while driving anyway because it’s dangerous)
  • a GPS unit is handy to have (especially when trying to provide your location to others)

NOTE: I’m not a fan of keeping water in the car during the Winter (other Seasons yes but not Winter). Once it freezes, it’s pretty much useless unless you have a way of melting it. I prefer to put water in the car every time I go for a drive and then remove it when I park. I always have water in my shoulder bag anyway so I always have some water on hand no matter where I go.

Prepping your Gear:

The following items are from my shoulder bag that I carry around with me everywhere (my ‘murse’). As my every day carry bag (EDC), I switch up the contents regularly depending on the season or what I expect to be doing on any given day. Some items I use almost daily, whereas other items are in there ‘just in case’.

  • cell phone and car charger
  • At least 1L of water
  • about 2000 calories worth of energy/meal bars
  • 2 disposable lighters
  • 4 tea candles
  • a decent folding knife
  • emergency survival whistle with a button compass and some NATO matches inside
  • multi-tool (Swiss, Gerber or Leatherman)
  • several hot packs
  • baby wipes
  • a couple flashlights (consider headlamps for hands free use) plus extra batteries –consider a small wind-up light/radio unit as well which you can just leave in your car
  • extra clothes (wool socks, mits or gloves, warm hat, balaclava, a sweater)
  • large heavy duty double zip freezer bags (to pee in and use as hot water bottles)
  • handful of glow sticks
  • chap stick
  • small bottle of hand sanitizer
  • 10-20m (30-65ft) of para-cord braided up so it doesn’t take up much space
  • a sturdy bag to carry it all around in (shoulder bag, backpack or duffel bag)

NOTE: My bag contains other items also but everyone’s bag needs to be packed based on your own needs. Not mine or anyone else. The items listed here are what I would suggest but you may want/need to add or remove certain items.

Survival Tips:

This could easily be a rather long section so I’m just going to focus on some important things and a few simple tips. I’m certainly not going to write a full blown survival handbook. If you’re really interested in one, there are lots to choose from at your local bookstore. Natural and man-made disasters happen quite a lot so there are plenty of books out there on survival.

  • Always travel with a survival kit in your car. Something containing most, if not all, of the items I listed above and be sure to personalize it for your own needs. If you have very young children, remember to pack some diapers. You get the idea.
  • Never let your gas tank go below half way. A simple 30min commute could easily turn into 3hrs and running out of gas is simply not acceptable. If you find yourself stranded for any reason, you will need to warm your car every so often. A general rule of thumb is to run the engine for 10-15min every hour or so to keep warm. Make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of snow and open the window slightly. This will help prevent Carbon Monoxide building up inside the car which can be a lethal mistake.
  • Communicate. Call your family or friends and let them know where you are, what your status is and what supplies you have. If conditions are bad, Emergency services will be busy so don’t waste their time unless you really need too. Now is also a good idea to put some distress signals outside your car. Turn on your hazard lights, put a couple glow sticks in a clear water bottle and put it on your roof which may attract some attention (works like a lantern), put out a road flare, hang something brightly coloured from your window, etc. Be creative and be seen.
  • Don’t piss away your body heat. This sounds strange but hear me out. Your body wastes a tremendous amount of energy to keep a full bladder warm. You’re going to piss that away eventually anyway so it’s better to do it early and not waste energy to keep urine warm. With that in mind though, don’t waste it…it is after all…warm. Urinate into a bottle or large double zip freezer bag and you’ve just made yourself a hot water bottle of sorts. Put it inside your jacket against your body. If you don’t have to pee outside, do it in the car. Every time you open the door, you’re letting out the heat. For the ladies, urinating into a large freezer bag works well. You can also get a ‘SheWee’ so that you can pee in a bottle. Look it up online and you will see what I’m talking about.
  • As soon as you get stranded, layer up. Put on all your extra clothes and slip into your survival bivvy and sleeping bags. Trying to warm up is hard so it’s more important to retain heat…not try and warm up once you’re cold. In winter, heat is another essential of survival and if your body core temp drops by just a few degrees, you will become hypothermic.
  • If you’re in a blizzard…stay with your car! Far too many people have died trying to walk to safety. It’s very easy to get disoriented and lose track not only of where you’re going but also where you came from. You may think it’s only a short walk but I can assure you…it’s always farther away than you think. Walking in a snow storm always takes longer and your footprints will cover fast making it impossible to find your car again. Your car is your shelter and shelter is an essential for survival. If you’re in a heavy blizzard and you have to get out of your car for any reason, use your para-cord to tie yourself to your vehicle. Even just stepping a few metres (10ft) away from your car, and you might not find it again.
  • Don’t chow down. You’re food supply is for when you REALLY start getting hungry, not just for snacking on because you’re bored or a bit peckish. You’re better off going hungry when you’re trying to fight extreme cold. If you fill your belly, your body needs to use a lot of energy to start digesting your food. That energy is better used for keeping you warm. Food is actually the last essential of survival and you can go about three weeks without any depending on the fat stores in your body. If you’re cold…don’t eat. You’re just wasting energy.
  • Save your water. In a survival scenario it’s better to NOT drink any water for the first 24hrs. This puts your body into conservation mode. If you drink too soon, your body will demand more which may use up your supply rather quickly. Once you’ve gone 24hrs without water, you can sip at it but don’t chug it. Water is the second essential of survival and you can go about three days without any. However, once you reach the second day, you start losing your ability to think straight so knowing how to conserve your water supply is essential. So no drinking for the first 24hrs and after that, sip at it slowly and you can last several days with a very small supply if needed.
  • Light some tea candles. Open flames aren’t a good idea in a car but tea candles can be ok if you’re careful. They will slow the rate at which the car cools but won’t restore heat. They are also really good psychologically and help keep your spirits up. Do NOT use a camp stove or any other type of flame based heater in your car to keep warm, melt snow/ice, or warm food. The risk of Carbon Monoxide poisoning is very high, not to mention the risk of setting your car on fire.

Hopefully you’ve found this information useful and if so, please share this with your friends and family (there are some handy buttons below to help you pass this around online). If you know anyone who drives in winter conditions, they should be sure that they are prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. Common sense can go a long way in a survival situation and some specific gear can be the difference between life and death. Don’t panic, stay with your vehicle, stay warm and conserve your supplies.

Click here to read Lesley’s article in Wheels.ca.

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