What If I … Am Stranded In My Car In The Winter?

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Photo credit: Ali Inay via Unsplash.

By Molly Jensen

We never hope that you end up in a “What if I…” sort of situation, but being stuck on the side of the road in the cold is just a little more dire than other travel mishaps.

During winter months (which could total six or more, depending on where you live), be sure your car is always in peak shape. Keep your tires inflated, your wiper blades clean, and your brakes and battery up to par. Always have enough anti-freeze and wiper fluid. And above all, always have enough gas – no less than a half-tank, and a quarter-tank at the absolute minimum – so you can keep the motor running and the heat on if you get stuck.

In one of our last winter-travel blog posts, we talked about preparing a winter survival kit. Take anything you might need if you become stranded, pack it in a duffel or rubber tub and stick it in your trunk. Recommended items include:

  • Food – granola-type bars are always good – and water
  • Ice scraper, brush, and small shovel
  • Tire chains
  • Bag of sand or cat litter
  • Blankets, boots, handwarmers, gloves, and extra winter clothes (as much wool as possible)
  • First-aid kit, small tool kit, pocket knife
  • Flashlights and flares
  • A spare, charged cell phone that can dial 911
  • Jumper cables, tow rope, emergency tire sealant
  • Extra batteries
  • Any important medication
  • Newspaper (can act as an insulator, a fire starter, or reading material)
  • Whistle
  • Radio

Even though you’re prepared with your extra boots and new wiper blades, you still need to take winter-storm watches and warnings seriously, and avoid traveling during storms. No one’s doubting your ability to drive in snow, but what about the other guy? And if you are the other guy, and not used to driving in winter weather, don’t drive in winter weather. You’re a hazard to yourself and others – and the time to learn how to properly brake on icy roads is not while snow is falling in sheets.

In those circumstances, much as it pains a travel writer to say, just stay home. Postpone your meetings and – yes – your vacations. Even though this is the time to be in Bora Bora, if you get in an accident on the way to the airport, you’ll miss your flight anyway. (Incidentally, this is where comprehensive travel insurance like ExactCare really comes in handy.)

If have to go out into the weather, tell someone where you’re going and the route you’re taking. And if you get stuck, here’s what you do:

  • Use your phone to GPS your exact location, then call 911 and tell them where you are, who’s with you, and how much food, water and gas you have. If a lot of people are stranded, they’re going to give priority to people who are worse off.
  • After calling 911, call a family member or a friend who can contact authorities if you don’t get home or they don’t hear from you in a specified amount of time.
  • Stay put. Unless you are 200 percent certain you can get to safety within 15 minutes, do not venture out to look for help. If you get lost, you’re a lot worse off. Stay in your car and conserve your body heat.
  • Signal to emergency vehicles you need help. If you have an emergency flag or a spare piece of fabric, attach it to your antenna or door handle. If it’s night, turn on an internal light. If it’s stopped snowing, prop up your hood. Let other vehicles know you’re in trouble.
  • Wrap up in extra clothing, blankets, and anything else you have. Use those reusable bags you never remember to take into the grocery store or the newspapers in your winter survival kit. Your body heat is precious; focus on keeping it as close to your body as possible.
  • Conserve gas. Turn on your car for about 10 minutes every hour, less if you’re staying warm, and crack a window while the car runs to prevent carbon-monoxide buildup.
  • Keep your exhaust clear of snow and ice. Carbon monoxide is serious business, and if it isn’t flowing out of the exhaust, it’s going to end up in your car. Check the tailpipe every time you start your car, and if it’s plugged, clean it out.
  • Stay hydrated. If you have to consume snow, melt it first. Eating snow can lower your core body temperature, and that’s not what you need while you’re stranded in the cold.
  • Make your food last. Eat in moderation.
  • Make any batteries last. Turn off your phone except to call for help. This is not the time to try beating that level of Candy Crush you’ve been stuck on for five weeks.
  • Exercise in your car to keep warm. Flex your fingers and toes, rotate your arms, shake your legs, roll your shoulders and neck.
  • Keep your seatbelt and hazards on. You may not be moving, but cars driving past you are, and they can easily run into you if they don’t see you.

If it’s stopped snowing and you want get yourself unstuck, take this approach:

  • When digging yourself out, go from top to bottom. Wipe snow off the roof, then the sides, then shovel out the tires, and finally shovel a path in the direction you want to go.
  • Get crafty if you don’t have what you need. No scraper? Use a credit card. No shovel? Use that Frisbee you forgot about in the trunk. No sand for traction? Use car mats or twigs.
  • Turn your wheels from side to side. Drive back and forth a few times to get traction.
  • Go slow. If your tires are spinning, giving it more gas will only dig you deeper.
  • If you get out, keep going slow until you get to your destination. You just got unstuck; you don’t need to get stuck a second time.

Traveling is a risk worth taking, but you have to be smart about it. Is it smart to risk your safety in this situation? If you can’t answer yes, stay home. Don’t mess with winter.

Molly Jensen is part of the marketing team at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection.