Preparing Your Vehicle for Winter's Worst
On February 6th, 1978, the northeastern United States woke up to what appeared to be another typical Monday. Meteorologists had forecasted snow for that day, but since none had arrived, people went to work as usual. When snow started falling that afternoon, thousands left work early to try to make it home, but the snow was so heavy that the snowplows could not keep up. Motorists remained stranded in their vehicles, some for days. Snow continued to fall throughout the following day, dumping over 27 inches of snow in Boston, and leaving over 100 dead in the northeast. In the aftermath of the storm, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut ordered all roads closed for travel, and the National Guard came in to help clear the roads. Cleanup crews found more than 3,500 abandoned vehicles under piles of snow.
As unexpected and devastating as the blizzard of 1978 was, it was by no means the only, or even the worst blizzard to hit the U.S. The Great Blizzard of 1888 left over 400 people dead. The Knickerbocker Storm of 1922 piled so much snow on the Knickerbocker Theater in Washington DC that the roof collapsed. The Great Appalachian Storm of 1950 dumped between 52 and 67 inches on the Central Appalachian Mountains over Thanksgiving Weekend. In 1993, The "Storm of the Century" caused $5.5 billion in damage. In more recent history, the 2010 "Snowmageddon", and the 2016 "Snowzilla" each brought our nation's capital to a standstill. Even modern weather prediction has not reduced the risk of being stranded in a blizzard. As recently as December 2020, over 1,000 vehicles were stranded for two days after a heavy snow storm struck Japan.
You may not get more than a few hours or days of warning ahead of the next "Storm of the Century", so the time to prepare is now. A blizzard could leave you and your vehicle stranded, so you need to prepare in advance with everything you will need for several days. Take some time to review your vehicle go bag, and make sure it meets your needs. Review your bag at least twice a year, and before every major road trip, to ensure that it has the appropriate gear for the season, number of passengers, and expected terrain. Every go bag is unique to your personal needs and situation. Plan ahead to make sure you have everything you will need. During winter, make sure your vehicle has the following items in addition to your all-season gear:
Blankets or sleeping bags for your expected number of passengers. Because you may be stranded for several days, you can't rely on your car heater for that long.
Hand warmers. More on how to use them correctly below.
Kitty litter, or bags of salt. These not only add weight to your trunk, but you can use them if you get stuck in the snow. Salt can melt snow under your tires, while kitty litter gives your tires something to grip to when trying to get unstuck from a ditch.
Chemlights (glowsticks) or strobes. These are important to signal your location at night. If your vehicle is covered in snow, rescuers or snowplows may not be able to see you.
Winter coat and sturdy shoes or boots. These do not have to be part of your vehicle go bag, but make sure you don't drive anywhere in the winter without a coat and sturdy footwear.
A plastic snow shovel.
If you anticipate severe winter weather, minimize how much you drive. You are much safer at home than on the road. If you can't avoid traveling, try to stay on main roads as much as possible. These will be more likely to be plowed or treated, and they will be the first to be cleared following a storm. If all else fails, and you find yourself trapped in the snow, stay in your vehicle. While providing little insulation, your vehicle can protect you from the wind, rain, or other elements. If you leave your vehicle to try to walk to shelter, you substantially increase your chances of getting lost. Visibility will be poor due to the falling snow, and roads, trails, and signs will be covered. Rescuers will be much more likely to find you if you remain in your vehicle.
Once it becomes clear that you are stuck, and will have to wait out the storm, try to minimize your fuel consumption. It will be tempting to run the engine constantly to stay warm, but you will risk running out of fuel. Instead, run your engine, and your heater for about ten minutes per hour. This will keep you warm, extend your fuel life, and reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide poisoning generally causes more fatalities during blizzards than hypothermia. Snow piles up, blocking the exhaust pipe. The fumes then have nowhere to go, so they build up in the cabin of the vehicle. Because carbon monoxide is odorless, you will not notice it. If you start to feel sleepy, dizzy, or lightheaded, get out of the car to get fresh air. Check the tail pipe to make sure it is clear every time you turn on your car.
To avoid hypothermia, focus on keeping your core warm. Because all your vital organs are in your core, keeping your core at the proper temperature is crucial in survival situations. Your body naturally does this for you. When your core temperature begins to drop, your body reduces blood circulation to your extremities to preserve the warmth in your core. That is why your hands and feet get cold first. Likewise, when your core temperature rises dangerously high, your body naturally pushes blood out to your extremities. This is why your pulse rises and your skin gets flushed when you are hot. It's your body's way to ensure a safe core temperature. In a blizzard, wrap your body in a blanket or sleeping bag. Car seat warmers are great for for survival, because they deliver heat straight to your core. Use hand warmers correctly. Hand warmers are a misnomer, because they should be called core warmers. To use them effectively, do not warm your hands with them. Place them near your core, in a vest pocket under your coat, or under your armpits. There they will more effectively warm your core, which will then release circulation to your extremities, warming your hands. Simple exercises can also keep you warm through the night. By moving large muscle groups, you can generate your own heat without leaving the car. Core exercises like crunches or twists can generate a lot of heat quickly. If others are stranded in vehicles nearby, work together to keep each other warm. Share a vehicle, blankets, and supplies to leverage each vehicle's resources.
In extremely rare cases, you may have to abandon your vehicle. As mentioned above, you will almost always be better off to remain in your vehicle until rescue comes, or until you can make it out with your vehicle. If your vehicle becomes flooded, or the risk of remaining in place outweighs the risk of heading out on foot, you may have to abandon your vehicle. Plan your move as much as possible beforehand. Follow a known road, or head toward a landmark visible in the distance. Rescuers will likely find your vehicle before they find you. If possible, leave them a note with who you are, when you left, what direction you traveled, and any other pertinent information that may help them locate you. If nothing else, use fallen branches or any available materials to signal your direction of travel.
If you live in the north, at some point in your life you may find yourself stranded due to winter weather. Or you may not. You may experience some other unexpected challenge. You can never plan for every contingency, but to be optimistic in the long term, you must be pessimistic in the short term. Resilience is not about anticipating every challenge, but being prepared to overcome whatever challenges we may face. We can't spend our lives in fear of what may come, or dependent on others to succeed. By preparing for unexpected challenges, we can expect to thrive through them. By thriving through our challenges we can improve the world for ourselves and those around us.