How to Survive in Your Vehicle Stuck in Snow

Photo by Snoopy

Winter has arrived in many parts of the country, and that means a hazardous situation awaits you nearly every time you get behind the wheel. You may know how to drive in snow, but do you know what to do if you were stuck in snow?

Recently, drivers on I-90 near Buffalo, N.Y., were trapped for up to 12 hours when a massive blizzard hit the area. Some cars were literally buried in snow. If you were caught in a situation like that, would you know how to handle yourself?

You don’t have to be out in the country to encounter a hazardous situation. You can get socked in while driving home from work one day. If you’re stuck, you can bet that hundreds of other motorists are, as well. Help could be hours away.

Every situation is unique, but the following guidelines apply in all situations, and could save your life. I highly recommend you copy this article to your laptop or other device. You’re likely to have that with you, but you may not have access to the Internet. A PDF copy is available here.

Prepare for winter driving

Safety is no accident, as the old saying goes. We discussed that before in 10 Safety Rules For Off-Road Driving and in a related column, Your Gear Is Not Complete Without An Emergency Packet! Winter presents its own set of hazards, which require additional preparation. It starts with a survival kit. Make sure yours includes at least some of these items.

More of a collection of items, a winter survival kit includes extra food and clothing, items to help you prepare food or water, signaling/communications gear, and some means to free yourself.

Food should be dry, packaged goods that have a long shelf life. These include granola bars, snack mix/trail mix, canned nuts, graham crackers, and hard candy. Thick canned food, like ravioli, may be added. Avoid soups as the can may freeze and burst. For a few extra dollars you can add military style MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) available on line and at military surplus stores.

Make sure the packages and cans are easy to open. It’s unlikely you’ll have a can opener or scissors with you.

Extra clothing can include boots, gloves, a blanket or sleeping bag, and a hat. This stuff can be bulky, so choose wisely. I pack a Thinsulateâ„¢ sleeping bag. It’s warm but thin, and compresses into a nice, small size (more likely to still be in the vehicle when I need it).

It’s easy to get dehydrated in the winter, so you should carry some liquids. Even if you normally carry a water bottle, be prepared to produce water by melting snow. (Avoid eating snow, as that will lower your body temperature.) Pack an empty soup or coffee can along with a small stove or burner. Jetboil® offers a line of nifty mini cookers. They work great with food, as well.

If you become stuck, you’re likely to reach for your cell phone. Keep an extra battery pack or the cord for tapping into the car’s cigarette lighter. You should also keep some fresh flashlight batteries.

Pack a red or orange flag that you can attach to your antenna. That will help rescuers spot your vehicle. (If you don’t have a flag, a large piece of fabric will work.) A small shovel can come in handy, also. Buy the kind with a curved blade and collapsible handle.

Ham and CB radio equipment can be very useful, especially when you’re outside of cell range. If possible, take along some radio gear (but remember that ham radio requires a license). Flares are useful, too, especially at night. Have one or two in your vehicle.

Consider packing small pieces of carpet or a set of Sand Ladders. Also, being stuck can be boring. Have some reading material or puzzle books with you to pass the time. Speaking of reading material, newspapers and magazines can be used for body insulation.

Get in the habit of keeping your gas tank at least half full. You’ll need the fuel to run your engine on occasion. More on that later.

Another item you can pack is awareness. It’s easy to get distracted or start daydreaming while behind the wheel. Memorize mile markers or street/highway signs as you pass by. You’ll help rescuers immensely if you can tell dispatch where you are. A GPS is useful to pin point your location.

What to do if you’re stuck

If you’re ever stuck in a blizzard, follow these suggestions.

  1. Try not to panic. You’ll need a clear head to work yourself through this situation. Maintain your composure, and calm down your passengers as needed.
  2. Stay with your vehicle. It’s a lot easier to spot from a distance. Leaving your vehicle, and the comfort and protection it offers, can be dangerous. You may think you’ll be able to get help. Odds are you’ll become disoriented and freeze to death.
  3. Attach a flag or colored piece of clothing to the antenna. This helps rescuers and lessens the possibility of being hit by another driver.
  4. Run the engine only 10 “ 15 minutes each hour. Sure, you want to stay warm, but you need to conserve your gas. Also, the less often you run your engine, the less chance for lethal levels of carbon monoxide to build up.
  5. Crack a window on the downwind side (leeward side) of the car. That air will be chilly, but it’ll also be clean.
  6. Clear the exhaust pipe periodically.
  7. If you decide to dig yourself out, start on the leeward side of the car. Don’t exert yourself, because you need to minimize sweating. Getting damp and cold can be deadly. Brush off the snow before reentering your vehicle.
  8. As a last resort, burn your spare tire. The smoke (or fire) will be visible for miles.

Being stuck in a snowstorm can be a terrifying experience. With the proper preparation and response, you can enhance your chances of surviving and being rescued.

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