During the winter season it is important to be prepared for the unforeseen, and many of those moments happen in automobiles. Here are some tips for staying prepared during holiday season travels.
Canadian Arctic rescue teams suggest drivers carry a can of dog food in their cars. Sound crazy? It seems that when people crash their cars into a snow bank on the tundra, they tend to eat their emergency food too soon. The dog food is less palatable and so stranded motorists will wait to eat that can of puppy chow until they really need it.
You don’t have to be driving the vast expanses of northern Canada to get stuck in your car. Take these stories from the past year: Rita Chretien, 56, was found in a remote part of Nevada in May 2011 after being stranded for seven weeks, her car stuck in the mud. Chretien used a plastic bag to catch rainwater to drink. Last December, 23-year-old Lauren Weinberg was stranded on a snowy forest road southeast of Winslow, Ariz., for nine days and survived on two candy bars and a bottle of water. This January, Lynn S. Keelser, 61, survived for a week on peanut butter M&Ms when she took a wrong turn in a rental car and got stuck in an Idaho dairy wastewater pond. None of these drivers had cellphones. But even more important, none had an emergency-preparedness kit.
Being prepared is not merely a good rule for travel in highly remote areas. If you take the occasional extended road trip, you should pack a survival kit of crucial emergency supplies. We’ve compiled eight categories of essential supplies to carry in your car, made up from suggestions from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Army, the American Automobile Association (AAA), the Red Cross, and regional search-and-rescue teams. None, however, include Alpo.
The first priority for any stuck situation is maintaining hydration. The biggest hurdle when carrying water: It weighs 8 pounds per gallon, and considering each person in the car will need to drink about a gallon a day, that’s a heavy load to haul around. It’s easiest to pack a case of 16 small drink boxes of water. One brand, Aqua Blox, comes in 8-ounce containers that are claimed to have a shelf life of five years.
Another option would be to carry refillable water bottles. When empty, they won’t add unnecessary weight, and you can fill them if you think you might be driving into remote areas. If you bring empty water bottles, bring water purification tablets. Chlorine-based tablets that you can find at camping stores will kill waterborne organisms if you have to fill your water bottles from a stream or lake.
For food, high-calorie energy and protein bars are great solutions. They pack a lot of calories into a small space and can be found at a good camping store. Be sure to avoid many of the ones you see at the convenience store; they contain too much salt and sugar. The better ones have less of both so they won’t make you thirsty. And at between 2400 and 3600 calories per bar, they’ll keep you nourished in an emergency. The ER Emergency Food Bar, for example, claims to provide 72 hours of nutrition and has a shelf life of five years.
It’s smart to pack a wool blanket and some chemical warm packs, too. A wool blanket works well even if it’s damp. An emergency blanket (also known as a space blanket) is a metal-coated plastic sheet that marathoners use to keep warm after a race. It, too, can keep you warm in an emergency. Chemical heat packs react with air and can add warmth inside a blanket. They can be stopped and started for up to 15 hours.
Be sure to pack a flashlight, glow sticks, matches, and emergency candles. We like rechargeable flashlights that park in your car’s 12-volt outlet. To help keep you dry, bring along a waterproof poncho with a hood. A plastic whistle with two chambers should also find space in this kit—it works much better then shouting for help.
Bring along a solar- and hand-crank-powered light/radio/cellphone charger. Be sure to buy one through a reputable source—we’ve heard many stories that some don’t work long enough.
And, yes, you will need extra clothes and a good winter hat. We’d recommend packing a small tarp too, in case you need temporary shelter.
If you’re venturing away from civilization—or if you just have kids—it’s smart to keep a first-aid kit in the car. We’d get the most thorough one we could find, but even some fairly basic ones include:
-Several gauze bandages 4-inches square, and smaller adhesive bandages
-Absorbent pads for bleeding
-Antiseptic wipes and nitrile gloves (latex sometimes provokes allergies)
-Elastic sprain bandage, SAM splint
-Scissors, tweezers, safety pins
-Aspirin and nonaspirin pain relievers
-Moleskin for blisters (adventure racers tell us duct tape works in a pinch too)
Now we’re getting to some Popular Mechanics bread and butter: the toolkit. The best one we’ve seen is the RoadTech kit from Aerostich. It’s actually a tool kit for motorcycle trekking but has all the required bits: locking pliers, an adjustable wrench, a 6-in-1 screwdriver, pliers with a wire cutter, a ratchet and sockets, hex keys, and more stuff. And the parts roll up into one handy pouch.
A good-quality plastic gas can is handy too. We’d also pack a multitool such as a Leatherman and a tire gauge. Make sure to bring along some work gloves, wire ties, WD-40, and zip-lock bags for tools, parts, and oily towels. Aerosol foam tire sealant or a portable compressor and a tire plug kit can be very helpful, as can spare fuses and bulbs.
Finally, bring 6-gauge jumper cables. If nobody’s around to jump your car, there is such as thing as an Alaskan jump-start: If your battery is cold and won’t start the car, some backwoods folks have mentioned that they take a pair of jumper cables with one set of clamps attached to the battery and then they short the other set of clamps together for 20 seconds. This heats up the battery and allows it to supply more of its charge (although it also shortens its life). But be exceeding careful if you ever need to try this one—it’s a dangerous operation.
If you find yourself off the road somewhere where a tow truck’s not an option, you need a backup plan. If you own a 4WD truck, we’d spend the money and invest in an electric winch rated for the weight of your vehicle. Then purchase a full winch recovery kit so you’ll have a tree-saver strap, a good-quality tow strap, a clevis, and other great equipment. Even if you don’t have a winch, a Hi-Lift Jack can be used as a heavy-duty come-along winch or as a sturdy jack to lift your car so you can change a flat tire.
If you plan to drive in snowy climes, get some proper snow chains. But if the car gets really stuck, you’ll likely need a good shovel too. Glock, the famed pistol-maker, also makes the coolest folding shovel we’ve seen. It uses a lightweight composite handle and a steel pointed blade. It’s about a pound less than similar army-surplus-style detrenching tools.
The old-school solution to gaining traction in snow was to carry sand or kitty litter. But that’s heavy stuff, and many times you can use the shovel to dig down to dirt for traction. In deep snow (or sand), you can often dig down far enough to slip your floormats underneath both of the tires that are receiving power. Sometimes these mats provide enough traction to ease the car onto a surface with better grip.
A small backpack is probably the best carryall to keep in your kit in the event you need to leave the car and set out on foot. Even better is a larger camping backpack that has separate compartments and pockets to keep the more fragile first-aid items from your dirty tools. Some packs have hook-and-loop patches on them, which can keep them from sliding around inside the trunk area of the car. Backpacks often have loops so that you can clip rock-climbing-style carabiners on them and then attach the whole shebang securely to your car—the object is to keep your fully loaded emergency kit from becoming a heavy projectile in a crash. Bungee cords are another great tool to hold the kit and other luggage in place.
In his famous comedy bit “200 MPH,” Bill Cosby imagined using the standard floor-mounted fire extinguisher in his custom-made 462-hp Cobra Super Snake to heroically save the occupants of a burning house. And while you might just get the chance to be a hero someday, you could keep a fire extinguisher in our car emergency kit to deal with any emergencies that spark up in your own vehicle. They come in a variety of specs, but look for at least a 1A10BC or 2A10BC classification.
If your car battery drains, you’ll want to have an emergency warning light along, with spare batteries. A hazard triangle and road flares will keep you safer at night if you’re stuck.
We suggest you bring dust masks with a N95 or a N100 rating, which not only keep dirt and debris away, but can also filter airborne pathogens. And as an added bonus, these masks will help warm the air you breathe in the cold.