How to Survive: Stuck in Your Car, in the Snow and Ice, with No Help in Sight

Last week, an accident in the middle of a winter storm on a major highway - I-95 - left cars with families inside stranded for up to 24 hours. Desperate calls and social media posts chronicled the motorists’ concerns and fears as they began to run out of food, water and fuel. Major news outlets showed long lines of cars and trucks with nowhere to go, blanketed in snow and ice.

This scary scene played out on a stretch of highway between Richmond, Va. and Washington, D.C. This is not an isolated stretch of highway, and yet every year someone gets trapped in a snow bank on a lonely highway and survival become paramount.

A few days ago, 22 people died while trapped for 24 hours in their cars during a snow storm near a popular Pakistani resort. Ten of those who died from the cold were children.

What would you do in a similar situation took place while driving with your family?

[caption id=“attachment_698929” align=“alignnone” width=“931”]<img class=“size-full wp-image-698929” src=“” alt=“”" width=“931” height=“523” /> Source: Virginia Department of Transportation/Handout via REUTERS[/caption]

Design a Kit of Your Individual Needs

Regardless of how careful you are to avoid hazardous driving conditions, if you live in an area that gets cold, snow and ice, or travel a lot, there is a good chance you will have to deal with them at some point.

Road conditions can deteriorate rapidly, so you need to plan and have the supplies you need to survive a car emergency.

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In this article, we cover what items to consider for your kit. At the end of the article, there is a downloadable checklist of the items discussed here. Use the list to check off what you need as you pack a winter car kit, and enjoy knowing you did not forget essential items.

Remember to design a kit for your unique needs. You might not need to haul around everything suggested in this article. For example, if you just drive around your town or a few miles, you can reduce what items you carry for emergencies.

People who travel on highways with no resources for miles should carry a more substantial car kit. During spring and summer, kits can be reduced for the weather and to make space, but don’t forget as the temperatures drop each season replenish the items when the weather turns frigid.


A good flashlight is essential. The size is up to you. If you choose a one that takes batteries, you should keep standard batteries in it and some spare batteries just in case. Rechargeable batteries lose their charge over time no matter what brand you buy. The last thing you want is to find that your flashlight batteries are dead.

Emergency Blankets

Silver mylar blankets are compact and inexpensive, and designed to maximize your natural body heat. An emergency bivvy sack is another more durable option.


There is a lot of survival food to choose from out there. What you keep in your car should be very shelf-stable and require either no or very minimal preparation. Emergency car food should be calorie-dense. Some manufacturers design food to be stored on ships for up to five years, yet are available at stores like Walmart. These will work in you car as well. Here is a shortlist of good emergency foods for your car:

  • SOS Food Lab Millennial Bars or Emergency Rations
  • Dymax Survival Ration Bars
  • Granola and Protein Bars
  • MREs (Meals Ready To Eat)
  • Ready to Eat Food Pouches (Prego to Go, Tasty Bites, etc.)
  • Trail Mix
  • Nuts
  • Dried Fruit
  • Beef Jerky

The challenge with storing water in your car is keeping it from freezing. Smaller bottles are more convenient but less dense, so they are more likely to freeze if you keep your car in a cold garage or outside at night. Keep a few gallons of bottled water in your car during the winter months.


We live in increasingly violent times. Everyone should keep some type of self-defense weapon in their vehicle at all times. Many people choose to get a concealed carry permit to carry a firearm in their car. Check your state laws. In some states, a car is considered an extension of your home and a permit is not required to keep on in a console. Even if you carry a gun, you should consider something less lethal. Only use a gun when there is no other choice. Here is a shortlist of weapons to consider for your winter car kit.

  • Pepper Gel Spray
  • Taser
  • Knife
  • Pepperball Gun
  • Short baseball bat
Tools are useful for defense as well. A tire iron, for example, makes an excellent bludgeon. A hammer is another option.

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Tire Changing and Repair Kit

Even if you have a good spare tire, you may need to repair a second tire. It’s a good idea to have a tire repair kit on hand. Here are a few items to consider.

  • Several cans of Fix-a-Flat
  • Car Jack
  • Tire Iron
  • Patch Kit
  • Pump ( A 12V tire pump is nice to have, but manual is better than nothing.)
Battery Bank

A small battery bank allows you to charge your phone or other small devices. While there are plenty in the 10,000 mAh range, buying a battery bank with at least 28,000 mAh of stored power is worth it. The amount of space the larger battery bank takes up is negligible and well worth it if you find yourself stranded or delayed in travel.

Small Emergency Radio with NOAA Weather Band

A small radio keeps you informed (and entertained) without using your car radio. The weather band is nice because you can stay current on incoming weather so you can plan your next steps.

Disposable or USB Rechargeable Hand Warmers

Disposable hand warmers have been used by hikers for a long time. They are convenient and very affordable. Rechargeable warmers are fairly new products, and only a few companies choose produce them. Rechargeable hand warmers are more expensive initially too but pay for themselves fairly quickly if you use hand warmers often. Zippo makes an excellent USB chargeable hand warmer. Consider a carrying a battery bank in your car to keep your warmers going for longer.

First Aid Kit

A small first aid kit is all most people need for their car kit. If you travel in more remote locations, a more extensive kit would be required. I recommend the First Aid Only 299 as a base kit. Like many kits, you should add the following items to complete it.

  • Blood stop powder (also called blood clot granules)
  • Benydryl Liqui-gels
  • Ibuprofen
  • Tourniquet
3 days of prescription medications

When it comes to prescription medications, it is best to plan for a longer emergency and hope it ends sooner, especially if you take medications for a chronic condition or have severe side effects if you stop taking them suddenly.


Many Peak Prosperity readers carry a good multi-tool daily, however it is still a good idea to stash one in your vehicle if you find yourself without your old reliable. Leatherman makes top-quality multi-tools, but Gerber and Schrade make decent tools for less money. You do not need to purchase the multi-tool with the most tools on it either. The Leatherman Wingman is a good choice as is the Gerber Suspension. You might consider adding a keychain multi-tool as well. The Gerber Dime or Leatherman Micra are good options to check out.


When credit card systems are down, cash or checks are the only options to pay for goods or services. Many retailers will not take checks, especially if the check is from out of town. In these situations, cash is your only option. I recommend $100-$300 depending on how expensive things are where you live or if you tend to travel a lot for business.

There are plenty of places in a car where you can hide some cash if you do not want to carry it on your person.

Water Filter

Even if you carry several gallons of water in your car, you should always have a water filter. I recommend a Sawyer Mini with squeeze bag. A water filter allows you to melt snow and filter it to stay hydrated if you find yourself stranded for a long time.

Extra Key

It is always a good idea to have an extra car key hidden. Magnetic key holders that attach to the undercarriage of your car are popular. This allows you to access your car if you lock your main keys inside or lose your set.


Sleep is necessary if stranded for a long time. Sitting in a car for a long time is typically not that comfortable. A pillow will make your situation more bearable. Consider an inflatable pillow, it takes up less space and can be stored in your car.


Many people just use their phone for entertainment, but during an emergency, you may need to conserve your battery life. Cell phone towers may not be up and running for you to access the internet. A few paperback books, an e-reader that you keep charged, or puzzle books and pencils are all reasonable choices.

Emergency flares

During a whiteout, it is nearly impossible to see in front of you. Emergency flares will help keep you safe by allowing rescue workers to find you even during tough conditions.

Battery Jump Starter

A battery jump starter is basically a lithium-ion battery pack with jumper cables attached that you keep charged and in your car. These packs come in different amperages for various-sized vehicles. Your jump starter pack means you don’t have to find someone to give you a jump start. Just be sure to get a jump starter that is powerful enough for your vehicle. The more amps, the higher the cost.


A few disposable Bic lighters is all you need to stash in your car. Do not waste your time with off-brand disposables. Cheap disposables have a very high failure rate and thus do not save you any money. Also, consider storm-proof matches.

Traction Boards

Snow, ice, and mud are unavoidable at times. If you find yourself stuck, traction boards will help get you out. These boards do take up some space, so you will want to take them out during times of the year when it is not likely that you will need them.

Folding Shovel

A good folding shovel can help you keep snow from building up around your vehicle. You can use your folding shovel to help get your car unstuck if conditions are muddy as well. Digging and using some traction boards will help avoid towing in some situations.

Ice Scraper

Any ice scraper is better than nothing, but it sure is nice to have one that has a glove attached, so you don’t soak your gloves or get really cold hands.

Fire Extinguisher

Car-sized fire extinguishers are inexpensive and save lives. Some drivers choose to mount them in their vehicle using a special bracket, while others just stick them in the driver’s side door storage area.

Tow Strap

Hopefully, you never have to use a tow strap, but you will be glad you have one if you get stuck. A tow strap makes it easier for another vehicle to help you out a situation, and it can save you from having to wait for a tow truck. While a tow might be included in your AAA plan, it can be a long wait if a lot of other people are stranded. If you have to pay for a tow can take a big bite out of your budget. I remember living in Ketchikan, Alaska, more than a decade ago and a tow costing several hundred dollars.


A good pair of rugged gloves and liners to keep hands warm is a good idea.

Rain Gear

Rain gear needs to be larger than what you would normally buy. You need to be able to layer rain gear over other warm clothing.

Extra warm clothing

Cotton is comfortable but it does not keep you warm if you get wet. Long underwear made of wool or synthetic fibers is advised. Keep a thick hooded coat and several hats in your vehicle at all times.

Sensible Shoes

Always have a pair of shoes that are warm, waterproof, and rugged enough to walk in. Plenty of people do not own a single pair of sensible shoes.

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Physical Map or Road Atlas

Nowadays, everyone relies on GPS, but that doesn’t mean you should not have a backup. A good old-fashioned road atlas is strongly advised for those who regularly travel more than a short distance from home.

Hygiene Items

Consider what hygiene items you might want if you had to stay in your car for a few days. Some people find it easiest to just buy a small travel kit that contains basic hygiene items and a big container of wet wipes—pack at least the bare minimum items listed below.

  • Toothbrush and Toothpaste
  • Wet Wipes or Shower Wipes
  • Toilet Paper
  • A few large and a few small trash bags
Smaller bags are handy if you have to isolate some waste or use them to relieve yourself. The larger bags are useful for throwing smaller bags or larger trash into.

Urinal and Adapter for Women

Just being stuck in slow-moving traffic seems unbearable when you have to go. Sure, you can squat or stand outside and do your business, but you may not want to if the weather is awful or there are a lot of other people around that are stranded too. This is a good solution for parents that travel with kids that really cannot hold it for long too.

Infants and Children

  • Formula (Even if you breastfeed, it is a good idea to have a small can of formula on hand just in case)
  • Age-appropriate foods
  • Disposable diapers
  • Wipes
  • Extra warm clothing
  • Bibs
  • Several very warm blankets. Wearable blankets are nice to have for young babies and toddlers.
  • Several toys
  • Coloring books and crayons
  • Any necessary medications
Children lose body heat much faster than adults. It is essential to keep plenty of warm layers and blankets in your car if you travel with children often. Emergency mylar blankets are great but do not breathe, so you must be very careful when using them on children.

Remember to rotate clothing and diapers out as children grow. I have a six-month-old child and know that it can be hard to remember to rotate items for his car kit because he is growing so quickly.

Cans or pouches of baby food are a good idea. I like the pouches because they are easier to store and not made of glass which can break. Depending on your child’s age, they may be able to just suck the food right out of the pouch.

Kids can make a lot of messes. Pack plenty of wipes and bibs to minimize them getting their clothes wet.


  • Food
  • Travel food and water dishes
  • Any required medications
If you travel with your pet, you should always have a few days' worths of food on hand for them and a dish for food and water. Collapsible water and food dishes store flat in your car, so you get the most out of your cargo space.

Pre-Made Kits

There are plenty of pre-made car kits to choose from, but they tend to be very basic. Even if you buy a kit, there are many items you will need to make it suitable to the unique needs of you and your family. A simple search at any large online retailer will yield a number of kits. I advise looking at some reviews and not buying the least expensive.

Practice good winter car maintenance

Keeping up on maintenance helps prevent trouble out in the open road. It is easy to overlook basic maintenance. Having a checklist helps.

  • Make sure you are up to date on oil changes
  • Have brakes inspected and serviced
  • Change out your warm-weather tires to winter or all-season tires
  • Replace windshield wipers if necessary
  • Top off antifreeze
  • Check service manuals for any routine maintenance.
If you run your car to use the heater, make sure that snow, mud, etc., is not blocking your tailpipe.

Many people have died using their car heaters because they did not check and ensure their tailpipe was free of blockages. A blocked tailpipe will result in carbon monoxide poisoning and death. Remember that snow can pile up fast, so a clear pipe may not be five minutes later if you are in a real snowstorm.

Stay at home during bad weather or at least minimize travel

Keep enough necessities and vice items at home, so you are not tempted to go out during bad weather.

Some people have a hard time staying at home regardless of how hazardous conditions may be. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of accidents each year. Keep in mind, the more people there are on the road during bad weather, the harder it is for emergency personnel and snowplows to do their jobs.

If you are easily bored, find a hobby or something entertaining that you can do at home during bad weather.


Practicing good vehicle maintenance and keeping an emergency kit appropriate for your unique needs and the weather where you tend to travel is smart. Building a kit is inexpensive and easy to do a little at a time. Purchasing a basic kit and adding items is a good solution for those that want to simplify the process.

Do you have any suggestions for a winter car kit?

For a complete printable list of car kit items discussed in this article, click here: Winter Car Travel Kit Checklist

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

This article has got me thinking. I live in a part of the world that hasn’t had snow for several decades, although it might, owing to heat-driven atmospheric instability and increased water vapour content.
However, it can get very dry and very HOT. I need to think about what I might carry in the chariot should I somehow get stuck in an oven. The usual advice is to carry lots of water and stay with the vehicle which provides shade. Is that enough?

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I live in AZ where the outside temps reach 118 regularly… I would much rather be in the snow in that situation. I would recommend lots and lots of water and some way to make shade. Staying inside of the car is not an option. You may also want to carry some of the bandanas that have an evaporative cooling effect when they get wet.


I drive north and south from IA to TX. At this time of year, I used to worry about snow and Ice. This year, I’ve had to rethink. I did get caught in a bit of snow the last trip, but of much more concern were the torrential rains and tornados that came through between KS and AK. Getting caught out in that in a car in flat land would not be pleasant. Also, torrential flooding has become more common, even in the winter.
We need to add to the list for:
I carry space blankets for shade, I have some of the hot weather hiking coolants - microfiber towels and hiking fans, and lots of water.
For flooding I follow the weather much more carefully and also the topography.


If driving in winter you need to protect your car from the salt they throw on the roads. I use Fluid Film sprayed under the entire underside, applied yearly. It is an oil made from sheep so it smells like sheep. There are also other products. Do not use ziebart which creates a stiff plastic shield which just traps moisture and salt. At the end of the cold season be sure to drive down the highway in a rainstorm to wash off the crap, and spray underneath with your hose.


Fluid film is the best rust preventative ever, fantastic for the saltchuck; just don’t use it on electrical stuff; everything will stop working!, and a thorough solvent cleaning will be necessary to get the electrical back (use WD-40 on electrics). Disclaimer, I have no financial interest, just seaside.

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Switching your water to a former soda 2 liter or smaller soda bottle and leaving some head space will last longer during the freeze thaw cycles due to the plastic being designed to a higher pressure and to resist the acidity of soda.
If you have a flexible water sack you can use your body heat to melt snow to get almost free water or your heater in the car. Just gotta manage your resources to not get too cold.
I was also thinking of the batteries being cold and losing their amperage. An option would be to add a battery bag to your car key storage area and just grab them when you grab your keys so they don’t get cold soaked constantly. Though if you bring them up to temp they “should” get their amps back or volts or whatever makes batteries perform worse in the cold.


I’d stay away from the Sawyer filters during the winter as the ceramic filters inside will crack and fail as soon as ice forms within them.

Better to melt snow for water - I keep a 20 lb propane tank, burner, aluminum wind shield and large pot in the vehicle during peak winter months for this purpose. I also bring a large waterproof “dry bag” which I use to gather snow in. Fresh snow seems like it’s mostly air so it takes a lot to make a decent amount of water. If you are going to melt snow, put a little bit of water in your pot first and you’ll avoid giving your water a “scorched” flavor. I always bring the water up to a boil as a matter of habit.
Bring a few large Nalgene bottles along. Boil water to drink/eat (dehydrated meals are great to keep in the vehicle) and then fill the Nalgenes up with hot water right before bed. Seal them well and then put them in your sleeping bag next to your feet.

I also keep a farm jack and wheel straps to go along with the traction boards, but that’s because I expect to bottom out in snow at least a few times each season heading to trailheads.

Would at a minimum consider adding tire chains to the list above as well.


If you have a cellphone or cell battery (or Li batteries of any kind) recommend moving those in as close as you can to your chest/abdomen, e.g. beneath your coat and outer layers of clothing. This will keep them from freezing before you do.


Having a warm jacket, gloves and boots you can hike a ways in (to a nearby house or store) is what I make sure I have in my car and same for my wife’s. I had to change a tire once at -30, kind of sucked but I was glad I had gloves!
I also have a tow strap with hooks on the end (easier to attach; even wrap around an axle back onto itself in a pinch) and rated for something like 10,000 pounds I think. I’ve seen weaker tow straps snap, it’s not pretty and you don’t want to be standing too close. A collapsible shovel is nice too.


Love the urinal idea!! And many others here. Thank you.
I would suggest strongly a good, or even not great sleeping bag. Everyone has one, why not store it in your vehicle for the winter if you have space.
Another is to keep your tank full as possible, when traveling in the winter. I survived a life-threatening night, stuck in a drift, drunk, as teenager. Slept with the car on, until awakened by too much heat, then turned car off and awakened by cold, back and forth. Fuel in your car will save you for at least a day, I think.


A cheap scanner/ham walkie talkie like the Baofeng UV5R already set up for the police/fire/weather frequencies in your area would be handy. You could even have set it up to transmit on police/fire frequencies if you are careful; if you are dying I understand the FCC will not prosecute you for transmitting on a police frequency.
Simpler than the Baofeng, a battery CB radio:;keywords=battery%2Bcb%2Bradio&amp;qid=1641816757&amp;sprefix=battery%2Bcb%2Caps%2C172&amp;sr=8-3&amp;th=1
would be much more practical for most people, it and the scanner would give you an idea of what’s going on. And allow you to call for help, talk with truckers and others.
Edited out Fluid Film! (although it is made from wool wax!)

Preventing getting into an emergency situation is the easiest way to survive, here’s my wintertime list:

  1. Toolkit. Sockets, wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, mechanic's wire, etc. If you break down and can fix it yourself, you're not stranded.
  2. Dedicated snow tires. If snow & ice are common where you drive, all seasons don't really cut it. You may be able to get where you're going, but it's the reduced stopping distance and steering traction in an emergency situation that are the things that will keep you out of trouble.
  3. Tire Chains. Will get you moving again, when the only other option is a tow truck.
  4. Heavy gauge jumper cables, long enough to reach a car parked behind you. Thin ones, and the compact booster packs, don't allow enough amperage through the wires to allow the starter to crank as fast. Plus, your battery is much more likely to fail the colder the temperatures are, and everything turns over harder when it's colder. They also can be used to help someone else, or leave attached to another running car for a while to get a charge into the dead battery, when a booster pack won't cut it.
  5. Headlamp. Putting on tire chains, or doing anything that needs hands with a handheld flashlight, is a huge pain. Not having one could keep you stranded until morning. Modern Lithium Ion rechargeable ones are "the cat's ass". I recommend Fenix.
  6. Car Charger, for your phone and headlamp. Being able to call for help is a great plan B.
  7. Shovel. One sturdy enough to actually dig with, meaning metal. Plastic is more likely to break in the cold, and you can't chunk through ice with it.
  8. Sand. A bucket or bag of sand can get you unstuck and keep you from having to put on the tire chains.
  9. A decent Ice Scraper. If you need to de-frost your windows from the inside, or it's freezing rain, one that is just OK will make you wish you got the nice one. I find cost isn't the determining factor, but how sturdy, and how smooth/sharp of an edge they have. The ones with serrated ice chiseling nubs on the back are awesome.
  10. Low temperature washer fluid. Don't be a cheapskate with the blue stuff. (I prefer the orange RainX stuff)
  11. DeLorme Road Atlas. Not getting lost is good, and can keep you from ending up somewhere where you'll get stuck. Paper doesn't go dead or break.
  12. Spare Tire, full sized with decent snow tread. Make sure you air it up periodically. Get a flat in the front in a storm when it's 10F out, you'll have to change 2 tires to get that donut on the rear. Not fun. Avoid car models that don't have full sized spares. Buy old, or just live with having a big wheel floating around in the trunk.
  13. Fuel. Keep a decent amount in the tank. The more the better if you can sense an emergency coming.
If preventative measures all fail, and you're well and truly stuck, you'll want these:
  1. Winter Boots. If you need to hike out, cold/wet feet are bad.
  2. Gloves/Mittens/Hat. Mittens are warmer when it's colder. If you're not already wearing a winter hat, you probably aren't somewhere you have to worry about getting stranded in the snow and ice.
  3. Blanket. If you need to spend the night, being warm is good.
  4. Water. Being winter, you can't store water in the car or it'll be ice. Bring a 2L bottle when you leave home. (fill it with hot if it's really cold and you're going to be outside all day.)
  5. Food. I don't recommend leaving food in your vehicle unless you love the smell of mouse nests, and the damage they do from chewing and peeing on everything. Maybe things like MREs have packaging they can't smell the food through?
  6. A Small Pack, to carry your supplies/valuables in, if you need to hike out. If it's your normal everyday pack, some basic survival supplies, clothes, headlamp, knife, food & water will be in there anyway!
Les Stroud the Survivorman, has a great two part series on being stranded in a car on a mountain in the winter in Norway. He makes Mukluks out of a BMW interior!  
You may want to think about finding a different lotion. This is from the Fluid Film MSDS. Awesome stuff for keeping the car cancer at bay though!
Refined petroleum oil, hydrotreated heavy naphthenic
Benzenesulfonic Acid, Di-C10-18-alkyl derivs., calcium salts
Refined petroleum oil, hydrotreated heavy paraffinic
The exact percentage (concentration) of composition has been withheld as a trade secret.
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The perfect blog post to use a joke meme doesn’t exis…

I’ve been waiting to use this one for a while. :slight_smile:


I always have a tire chain ready when it snows, it helps me get out of heavy snow areas. And sure enough, warm clothes, gloves, flashlights, shovels, and food and water are indispensable if I am stuck in the snow for a long time. Even if you have to sit in the car, you should also exercise your legs and drink water regularly. If you sit in a cramped place for a long time without changing your position, it can affect blood circulation and easily cause thrombosis in your blood vessels.

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stay home


Stay home is what Gov Northam said about being caught in the snow:


Stop using flares years ago I use glow sticks instead you can drop right in gas leak without the fire like that better!!!

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Haven’t priced one lately but “female urinals” are available in medical supply stores. Used to be cheap and they have a one way valve, because …
Read this morning that a young father was found dead after trying to walk the 6 miles home from where his car was stuck in that jam on I95. So sad. Reminded me that our cars aren’t adequately prepared. One thing I do have in each vehicle is those mylar blankets that are folded up to a tiny little packet. But will be getting bottled water, some power bars, a folding shovel, bag of sand, and the above mentioned item.

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