Winter Car Survival Tips

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It’s been incredibly frigid in parts of the U.S. and Canada this year, and it’s time to discuss winter car survival. Many deaths from exposure are avoidable if some simple precautions are taken.

In other articles we’ve discussed hypothermia, frostbite, falling through the ice, and all sorts of cold weather issues, but these same problems can occur right in the driver’s seat of the family car. It’s important to have an idea of how to stay healthy if you are stranded in your vehicle during a blizzard.


The first question you should ask before you get in the car in cold weather is “Is this trip necessary?”. If you don’t have to leave the house in a snowstorm, don’t. Period. If you do, drive as if your life depended on it, because it does. Don’t speed, tailgate, weave from lane to lane, and don’t go on cruise control so you can use your cell phone. Make turns slowly and deliberately, and be careful to avoid quick stops and starts.

Keep an eye on weather forecasts before you head out; conditions can change rapidly if a cold snap is on the way.


Despite your best efforts, you’re stuck on the road in a blizzard. Help may be on the way, but what if it isn’t?  The first thing to do is to stay calm and, for Pete’s sake, don’t leave the car.  It’s warmer there than outside and, at least, you’re protected from the wind.  Having adequate shelter is one of the keys to survival in the wilderness or on a snow-covered highway.

Wet snow can block up your exhaust system and cause carbon monoxide gas to enter the passenger compartment. You’ll need fresh air, but don’t crack a window on the side where the wind is coming from.  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.

Maybe you can dig yourself out, but beware of overexertion in extreme cold. You’ll sweat, and wet clothes are a main cause of hypothermia: A condition where your body core loses heat to the point that you could succumb to exposure.  If you have flares, use them to let others know you need help.


There are a certain number of items that you should always have in your car, especially in cold weather. These are meant to keep you safe if the unthinkable happens and you’re stranded without hope of rescue anytime soon. This is what the well-dressed winter survival car kit contains:

  • Wool Blankets
  • Spare sets of dry clothes, including socks, hats, and mittens
  • Instant heat packs
  • A first aid kit
  • A light source and batteries
  • Water and energy snacks
  • Matches or a lighter in case you need to manufacture heat:
  • A small camping shovel (often foldable)
  • Flares

Of course, your cell phone will be useful to communicate with family if possible. I’m sure you can think of other items that would be useful in this situation. Put together a survival kit for your car that meets your needs and keeps you out of trouble.

Joe Alton, M.D., aka Dr. Bones

Joe Alton, M.D.

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