Winter in the U.S. can be pretty darn cold, and you can bet we’ll be experiencing some serious winter storms over much of the country at one point or another before spring. In the backcountry, unprepared folks might experience hypothermia (the effects on the body from exposure to cold), but it can also happen right in the family car. During the winter, it’s important to have a plan of action to prevent problems that might leave you stranded, or worse, injured in cold weather. How important? There are 500,000 winter motor vehicle accidents every year, with about 2000 deaths.
YOUR CAR IN WINTER
Winter conditions don’t just affect people, they affect cars as well. Cold degrades rubber and metal; it even decreases the efficiency of car batteries. Tires become stiff and flat, especially when you start driving, and oil and other lubricants become thicker the colder it gets. All this makes the engine work harder, so vehicles doing duty in extreme cold should be “winterized”.
WINTERIZING YOUR VEHICLE
If you live in an area that experiences extreme cold, you need to complete a vehicle checklist before the first winter storm. Each car has its own set of requirements for cold weather, but here are some basics:
Battery: Get your battery tested before the temperatures drop; replace old batteries before severe weather hits. Check the battery cables for cracks and breaks. The terminals should fit snugly with no loose connections. You can check your battery fluid by uncovering the refill hole (or sometimes holes). If the level is below the bottom of the cap, refill with distilled water. While you’re inspecting your battery, look around for the manufacture date. Knowing how old your battery is can give you an idea when it’s likely to lose charge.
With electric vehicles, the driving range drops with the temperature (sometimes, a lot). It’s important to realize a electric vehicle’s range limitations; A new one with a range of 250 miles at 75 degrees Fahrenheit may have only 150 miles of range when it’s 20 degrees. Used models have even less range, as batteries lose capacity with time and use.
Fluids: Regularly check and fill antifreeze, oil, brake fluid, coolant, windshield fluid, and transmission fluid to appropriate levels. Antifreeze should have the right ratio of coolant to water (about 50/50). Switching to a less viscous engine oil can make cold starts easier and maximize protection against wear. Wiper fluid is often overlooked, but you’ll need it to be freeze-resistant to keep your windshield clean and your vision clear.
Brakes: Your brakes have to respond quickly in cold weather, so make sure brake pads are sound and brake fluids levels are full.
Heating and cooling systems: A working heating and defrosting system is essential for comfort and visibility during winter driving.
Fuel: Keep your gas tank at least half full or keep your electric vehicle fully charged. For gas vehicles, maintaining tank levels helps prevent the fuel lines from freezing. Keeping your vehicle indoors when not in use will also help stabilize the vehicle temperature at reasonable levels.
Tires: Low air pressure and worn tires are especially dangerous on wet or slick roads, as both can reduce traction. Check your owner’s manual and keep them inflated at the recommended pressures. How can you tell a tire’s too worn? Take a Lincoln penny and insert it between the treads. Can you see the top of Abe’s head? If so, your tires are worn out. Some brands have a color band that becomes visible with wear.
If course, if you live in an area with a lot of snowfall, consider snow tires to improve traction.
More information can be found here:
STAYING SAFE IN COLD WEATHER
You’re not a bear, so you can’t hibernate through the cold weather; you’ll have to take measures to avoid becoming a victim of it. Many deaths from exposure are avoidable if simple precautions are taken.
Keep an eye on weather forecasts before you head out; conditions can change rapidly if a cold snap is on the way. The first question you should ask before you get in the car in cold weather is: “Is this trip necessary?” If the answer is “no”, you should stay cozy and warm at home. For most people that commute to work, however, the answer is “yes”.
If you have to hit the road during a winter storm, drive as if your life depends on it (because it does). Brush ice and snow off of windshields, side mirrors, or anywhere that your view might be blocked. Don’t speed, tailgate, or weave in and out of traffic. Make turns slowly and deliberately, and avoid quick stops and starts.
If you must hit the road, notify someone of your travel plans before you head out. Always take your cell phone with you. Many smartphone apps now allow your location to be tracked (with your permission).
Snow and ice can challenge drivers, regardless of their level of experience. Here are some things to consider:
Pay attention to the temperature. Many vehicles show the outside temperature on the dashboard or systems screen. When it’s near or below freezing, be sure to drive with extreme caution.
Recognize “black ice.” If an area of pavement looks wet, even though the rest of the area looks dry, it may be an icy patch. Reduce your speed accordingly.
Properly use headlights and fog lights. In winter storms, visibility is of utmost importance. Using your lights appropriately will help you see more clearly.
Maintain control. Understand your vehicle’s traction modes (4WD, AWD) and learn how to regain control when you skid.
Note: (This may be putting it too simply, but an AWD system is usually used for giving a vehicle all-weather traction all the time, while 4WD is meant to be a little more able off-road.)
Be sure to keep focused on the road. (not on the latest texts from your friends).
Make space. Increase the distance between and you and the car in front of you; It takes longer to slow down and stop on icy roads
If you live in an area that routinely has very cold winters, you may become stranded in your car one day. Your level of preparedness will improve your chances of staying healthy and getting back home. So what should your plan of action be?
- Stay calm and don’t leave the car. It’s warmer there than outside and you have protection from the wind. Having adequate shelter is one of the keys to success, whether it’s in the wilderness or on a snow-covered highway.
- Crack a window on the side away from the wind for some fresh air. People talk about water and food being necessary for survival but, first, you’ll need a source of fresh air. Wet snow can block up your exhaust system, which causes carbon monoxide to enter the passenger compartment. Colorless and odorless, this is a deadly gas that kills in enclosed spaces without ventilation. Clearing the exhaust pipe of snow and running the engine only ten minutes or so an hour will help prevent monoxide poisoning.
- Charge your phone while you can, so you have a way to communicate.
- If you’re in a group, huddle together as best you can to create a warm pocket in the car.
- Rub your hands, put them in your armpits, or otherwise keep moving to make your muscles produce heat.
- Don’t overexert yourself. If your car is stuck in the snow, you’ll want to dig yourself out, but sweating will cause clothing to become wet. Wet clothing loses its value as insulation and leads to hypothermia.
- Let others know you’re there. If you have flares (and you should), use them. Flashing emergency lights on your vehicle will drain battery power, so use them only if you think someone might see them.
WINTER CAR ITEMS
If you’re going to travel in very cold conditions, there are a certain number of items that you should keep in your vehicle. This is what an effective winter survival car kit contains:
- Wool Blankets (for warmth; wool can stay warm even if wet).
- Spare sets of dry clothes, including socks, hats, and mittens.
- Hand warmers or other instant heat packs (they’ll last for hours).
- Matches, lighters and/or firestarters in case you need to manufacture heat.
- Candles in a metal can or bucket. These can produce a surprisingly decent amount of heat in a small space like the interior of a car.
- Flashlights (keep batteries in backwards until you need them to extend their life).
- Ice scraper/snow brush.
- Multi-tool with blade, screwdrivers, pliers, etc.
- Larger combination tool like a foldable multi-use shovel (acts as a shovel but also an axe, saw, etc.).
- Sand or rock salt in plastic container (to give traction where needed). Believe it or not, some have used cat litter successfully!
- Tow chain or rope.
- Starter cables (for jump starts)
- Fix-A-Flat or a portable air compressor in case of a flat tire.
- Water, Food (energy bars, MREs, dehydrated soups, trail mix, candy).
- Baby wipes (for hygiene purposes).
- A first aid kit (every car should have one).
- Medications (routine meds you take daily, ibuprofen, acetaminophen.
- Tarp and duct tape (brightly colored ones will be more visible and aid rescue).
- Metal cup, thermos, heat source (to melt snow, make soup, etc.).
- Noisemaker (such as a whistle).
- Cell phone and charger (and, in normal times, the number of a towing service).
It may seem like a lot, but the items above will give you a head start in keeping safe and sound even if stranded. With a plan of action, a few supplies, and a little luck, you’ll survive even in the worst blizzard.
Joe Alton MD
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