Be Prepared For Winter Emergencies

Winter Travel Emergency Survival Tips

As a society we are much more mobile than we've ever been at anytime in history. The automobile has been largely responsible for our travel freedoms. Prior to the era of the car, it was not uncommon for men, women and children to perish in the harsh cold winter. Long trips were treacherous and often deadly.

Those who dared to brave the elements in winter took precautions and prepared well for the arduous journey ahead. Today, winter travelers hop in their vehicle with little thought to what their journey holds. To an especially novice driver, the idea that they could be stranded somewhere, just never occurs to them. How many snowbound drivers, snowmobilers, cross country skiers, or occupants of small planes have had proper winter survival training? Probably too few.

Despite a person's lack of training or experience, taking a few precautions and heeding some tips can make the difference between surviving an ordeal safely — complete with all fingers and toes in tact, or not.

Life has taught me to expect the unexpected. While we don't always have control over the events in our lives, we can have a hand in the outcome. Taking a few precautionary measures in preparation of the harsh winter weather, can help you make it through an emergency in relatively good shape.

Living in areas prone to bad weather and winter storms has also taught me a tremendous respect for the elements. Snow can be enormous fun to play in but can create special hazards when we must drive in it or worse, be forced to walk off into the distance for assistance. With a little forethought and preparation, we can brave the winter snow with confidence.

Consider This...

On your way home, your car slides on an icy patch and you find yourself in a ditch, unable to maneuver out. You are stuck in the snow and find yourself stranded waiting for help to arrive. The wind is blowing at 25 mph and the temperature is 10°. The wind chill is -24° Fahrenheit. Frostbite and hypothermia can begin to occur in a very short time. Are you prepared?

Give a Winter Safety Gift for Christmas!
(What better gift can you give to a loved one this Christmas?)

If you live in an area that is prone to heavy snow fall, you probably winterize your vehicle. You change the oil, check the anti-freeze level, check your tire pressure, etc., the car is ready for just about anything — but are you prepared? Each year we hear reports of hikers, vacationers and fun seekers getting lost in the snow, many don't survive their ordeal.

With just a little time and effort on your part, you can tip the odds of survival significantly in your favor, should the elements turn on you and threaten the lives of you and your family members.

At the beginning of each winter, I like to prepare an emergency road kit, which always travels with me. It takes up a little room but finding a container to fit your vehicle dimensions can make carrying around the added cargo as painless as possible.

The first step is to evaluate the list. Take a good look at the needs of the individuals who regularly use this vehicle for transportation. During the winter months our family members are trained to grab their own bag that has been packed with a change of clothing and any other personal items that might be needed at the time.

If you have a new driver in the family, a cell phone would be the first item on my list. Each family is different and will have their own list. Some items are necessary for your vehicle (like jumper cables), others such as matches, can have many uses and should always be carried.

As an experienced traveler both by vehicle and on foot, one item I never forget to carry is salt. During one excursion many years ago, I found myself beside a river with no provisions. I was able to scrounge up a hook, a stick and a length of fishing line. I managed to start a fire, clean and cook the fish but salt would have made the experience pleasurable. Instead it was a bittersweet experience. (Little packets of salt from a fast food restaurant are perfect.)

Your Winter Emergency Survival Kit

Note: You may find you have special needs requiring additional items, depending on your individual needs. This list is to be considered an aid in preparing for winter travel. Those with medical conditions will want to be sure to include any necessary medication or other health aid devices.

If you have small children remember to add extra high carb snacks in your road kit, include some books or comics and possibly some small travel games to entertain them. I always keep several blankets in the trunk "just in case." They come in handy whenever a short trip turns into an unexpectedly long one.

If you are a family who spends a lot more time in the car than you do gathered around the kitchen table, consider getting a copy of Diane Flynn Keith's Carschooling book. It's jam packed with neat ideas for you and the kids. The book is not only educational, it's entertaining.

Road Smart

The highway has great advantages and provides us with the means to travel at great speeds but can be fraught with danger, especially during winter storms. Being alert to the many road hazards can help keep you from making a fatal error while traveling this winter.

Most highways today have a posted minimum speed of 45 mph, which is a safe traveling speed unless you are driving during a blinding blizzard. The minimum speed posted applies during normal road conditions. You will not be ticketed for driving slower during a winter storm. However, in slowing down, the life you save may be your own.

If you begin to see cars in the ditches around you, consider getting off and traveling an alternate route, whenever possible to avoid being stranded in the snow on a busy highway.

If you do attempt an alternate route, be aware that getting off the highway during a winter storm can be a delicate maneuver, as entrance and exit ramps become snow filled and not as well travelled as the expressway and can present a challenge to the casual motorist.

To exit the highway safely, give the cars behind you plenty of warning, turn your signal on far ahead of your intended exit. Begin to slow gradually, keeping in mind that any sudden turns can put your car into a skid.

Applying the brakes gently, pumping them slightly, instead of spiking them, will allow you to maintain control of your vehicle. Once you've managed to get off the highway, it's a good time to stop and consult your map for the best alternate route to your destination.

The surface streets will, in all likelihood, have considerable snow coverage, because the highways are generally cleared first. However, the slower driving speeds will generally more than compensate for the road conditions.

What makes the difference between an ordinary driver and a good one?

It pays to stay alert and aware of other drivers on the road. Allow extra braking room between you and the car ahead, to allow for sliding. Check your rearview mirror often for cars following too closely, which could "accidentally" hit you from behind.

It is often possible to avoid being rear-ended if you stay alert and are aware of the possible danger.

If you must call for directions or assistance, remember to pull off the road first. Don't allow yourself to become distracted when driving in hazardous road conditions. The break will do your frazzled nerves some good.

It is always best to allow yourself extra driving time during the winter months to avoid being rushed to the point that you are tempted to drive faster than road conditions permit.

If you have young drivers in your home, make certain they know how to handle their vehicle in a skid and that they are properly prepared for a road emergency.

Prepare your car for an emergency

Make sure your car is winterized and running properly so you will not be stranded in bad weather. Keep your gas tank near full to avoid fuel line freeze-up. A full tank also provides extra weight and will allow you to keep warm longer, should you become a stranded motorist.

If you are stranded in your car:

If you are stranded outside during a storm:

If there is no shelter available:

Understanding Weather Conditions

Keep posted on local weather conditions. Your local radio, television stations, internet and weather service radio will keep you informed on the forecasts. A clear understanding of terms used by the National Weather Service will enable you to enjoy the winter weather safely.


Describes winds over 35 mph with blowing snow and reduced visibility to near zero.

Blowing snow

Is wind-driven snow that significantly reduces visibility and causes drifting. Blowing snow may be a combination of snow that is falling and loose snow on the ground picked up by wind.

Snow advisory

Is issued when three to six inches are expected in any 12 hour period.

Snow flurries

Describes lightly falling snow over a short duration. Little or no accumulation is expected.

Snow showers

Indicates snow falling at varying intensities for brief periods of time. Some accumulation is possible.

Snow squalls

Brief, intense snow showers accompanied by strong, gusty winds. Accumulation may be significant. Snow squalls are best known around the Great Lakes region.


Describes rain drops that freeze into ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet usually bounces when hitting a surface and does not stick to objects. However, it can accumulate like snow and cause hazardous conditions for motorists.

Freezing rain

Rain that falls onto a surface with a temperature below freezing. This causes it to freeze to surfaces, such as trees, cars and roads, forming a sheet or glaze of ice. Even a small accumulation of ice can cause a significant driving hazard.

Wind chill advisory

May be issued when strong winds increase the danger of exposure to cold air.

Winter storm watch

Indicates that severe winter weather conditions may affect your area.

Winter storm warning

Indicates that severe winter conditions are imminent and you should take immediate precautions.

Winter weather advisory

Means that winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous. If caution is exercised, these situations should not become life threatening. The greatest hazard is often to motorists.

With a little preparation and some clear thinking you can enjoy the winter wonderland and avoid tragedy this winter. Don't leave safety to chance... Be Prepared.

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Updated November 27, 2010