Thursday, November 20, 2014

Winter Survival - Road Trips and Recaps

I posted a shorter version of this a couple of winters ago. These tips are designed for normal winter travel not  - "hey honey, we're going to get 9 feet of snow, let's take the Triumph to the grocery!"

Think about your drive home today. The sun might be shining, but what will the weather be like when you come home from work? What if your car slides or is forced off the road due to another driver that leaves the scene. There you are, stuck in a ditch or broke down in an isolated area as the temperature slides quickly to zero or below?

More times than you know, after a strong and unexpected storm, people have died on their way home, having left offices in light coats to covered parking garages, expecting a quick drive home to their snug garage. They are just going from covered parking to covered parking. Who needs gloves or a thick coat or other things? And they died.  People in this horrible storm out east have died, caught unawares on the road. 

If you're going any further than you can walk, check the weather.  I have driven home on Saturday morning instead of after work Friday many times, because the weather was too treacherous to be out alone in it. 

Being outdoors in the winter, how you gear yourself is crucial. You have to dress for it, layering the clothes, making sure you keep dry at all costs. My Mom would tell us to keep our hats on as we'd lose 90% of our heat through our head. I'd be a smart alec and say "so Mom, I can go naked and wear a hat and I'll only be 10% colder".

It's not 90% but she was close. Even though my Arctic weight Carhart has a great hood that snaps in front of the neck, I still have a scarf for additional protection around the exposed areas. You can lose over 50 percent of your body heat from an unprotected head and even more if your neck, wrists and ankles aren't insulated well, for those areas of the body have very little insulating fat and thus are good radiators of heat. If you don't cover your head well, because of the blood circulation in it, much of it close to the surface, can cause you to loose heat quickly. The brain is quite susceptible to cold.
You want to avoid overheating as well. If you sweat into your clothes, that damp will decrease the insulation quality of the fabric and as the sweat evaporates, your body cools. If you start getting sweaty, open your jacket up a bit, or remove an inner layer of clothing or take off your gloves for just a minute. Hands, like the head can really dissipate the heat.

Do take gear for outdoor activities, even if it's just a day hike on a clear sunny winter day. If you have room and are going to be in the woods, pack up tightly a heavy, down-lined sleeping bag. Ensure the down remains dry. At least take an extra jacket, hat, gloves, and a blanket. If outdoors and you don't have a sleeping bag you can make one out of some parachute cloth, which is easy to pack and nature's own dry filler, pine needles, moss, leaves (make sure it's dry), placing the dry filler between two layers of the cloth.

But what about those less obvious treks, that trip to the store, that drive home from the lab or a night out on the town. That small trendy coat is going to seem pretty meager if you end up stuck, and unable to run your car's engine to heat the vehicle.

Rule No. 1- Never drive in winter with less than half a tank. If you get stuck, you do not want to be stuck further because you used your gas to keep warm.

Rule No. 2 - In your vehicle, always have plenty of gear to keep warm, because running your vehicle for warmth with snow piled around you is a good way to die from Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.

How much stuff should I carry?

I always tried to carry a small survival bag in the car or in the truck when I know I am going to be out in isolated areas, or after dark anywhere. You don't need enough to stock or arm an entire platoon, just enough for basic protection from the elements and nutrition for a night or two. Pack it in a small bag, or a box.

That of course, is in addition to a personal carry piece in those places I can legally have one in the vehicle. Remember, if your trip is going across State lines, please carefully review the laws for having a weapon in your vehicle for each State you will travel through. Many states do NOT recognize other State's permits. Make sure the weapon is secure on your person or in proper storage, loaded only if you intend it to be, and never for a moment pointed at anything you don't wish to shoot. But have it handy, where you can get to it quickly and easily if the situation warrants its use to defend your life. 

Why a weapon?

I am going to come across to some as alarmist but I speak from someone with experience in the field and second generation LEO. Not everyone that may offer aid if you are stranded, especially women, is a good Samaritan. Women are often victims of those they trust. If the person offers help, have them call the Highway Patrol, Sheriff or local police. and stay near you until they arrive. But if your life is not in immediate danger, stay in your vehicle, with the window rolled up, until that help arrives. If a lone car pulls up with flashing lights, but no markings, or some sort of markings and no uniform, ladies, ask the officer for their ID before you roll down that window. Look at it closely and if it looks the slightest bit hinky, call their station to verify it.  They won't mind one bit, and would hope their wives or children of driving age do the same.

If you aren't comfortable or proficient with a firearm, take a knife, a can of mace, a big tire iron.  SOMETHING you can grab easily if someone tries to pull you from your car.

Now for assembling a basic, compact, easy to store winter kit:

What NOT to put in the kit is easy.

I think you can get along without a Margherita (alcohol is not the beverage of choice if you are conserving body heat), a snow globe (just look out the window), a DVD, or your lip gloss.

Hearing protection? Well gentlemen, that depends who you are stuck in the ditch with (I told you to stop and ask for directions ).

Here's what I would carry for trips about town - just the basics, not heavy, and it doesn't take up much space. For starters, already in the vehicle is a small shovel, flares in the glove box, that firearm and ammo (legally carried and stored, check your State laws), a map, cell phone charger that will run off the vehicle's power supply, a trash bag and a small first aid kit (throw some surgical tubing in the first aid kit, it can be used for a tourneqet, transferring water from a catch and is generally more useful than straps). Those things stay year round.

Now time for the winter kit or the kit that goes on any trip away from developed areas. Swiss Army knife, food high in in fat/protein and carbs, water for at least 3 days, a metal container to melt snow, waterproof matches (in a waterproof container), a backup lighter, a compass, waterproof ground cloth and cover, flashlight, 60 hour emergency candle, water purification tablets, something to signal for help (a mirror to augment the flares), an extra warm shirt or jacket and an extra warm blanket. (I throw in a sleeping bag alongside as well). Also, a bright colored warm hat to wear and something else bright colored to wear or hang from an antenna. Warm, waterproof boots, gloves, tape, string and hand sanitizer. Why? Cleanliness will keep you from risking dehydration with an upset tummy, sanitizer can also disinfect a wound and be used in starting a fire. This is in addition to the box of Kleenex and wet naps I usually have in the car. I also sometimes carry a little can of Sterno, NOT for using in side the car but for warming my hands if I have to do a tire change

If you have your pet with you - bring a very warm blanket for them, extra good and water, and keep a good bit of rope or paracord handy to allow them out of the vehicle if they have to go potty, while attached securely to your steering wheel. Also bring extra wipes and waste bags in case getting out of the car for bathroom duty isn't possible.

I tore the paracord in the boot with a knife and the boot stays in the cab.  If your supplies are in the trunk and you have to get out of your vehicle to get to it in snow or darkness cut a car length of it, tying one end to your steering wheel, the other to your wrist.  With another short piece tie your car keys firmly to your other wrist before leaving the vehicle.

click to enlarge
It sounds like a ton of stuff but you can put it all in a medium sized box or small duffel bag in the trunk. Better yet, if you are traveling solo, space permitting, have it in the vehicle with you so you don't have to get out into the elements to set up for warmth until help arrives. Stay with your vehicle, attaching a bright piece of cloth to an antenna for visibility. Don't try and walk out if can you help it. People have done that and been found frozen stiff only a 1/4 mile away from their vehicle after getting disoriented in the snow.
Simple advice. Small, useful things you likely already have around the house. Gather them up. Know how to use them. They may one day save your life, so you can get home safely and in need of proper refreshment.

And save the frosty things for when you get home.


  1. Outstanding!

    I love the ice cubes.

  2. Towing chain / cable; small camp saw and axe; fire starter cubes.

    I assume jumper cables and a basic tool box are already in the vehicle.

  3. JoeMama - 223 Ice Cubes - makes the perfect cocktail.

    John Peddie - great call. and yes, being a scientist married to an engineer, we can pretty much create life from the tools and stuff in the vehicles.

  4. Don't forget something to fight boredom. Once spent 36 hours on top of Berthoud Pass (US 40 - CO) due to avalanches on both sides. We were well prepared with sleeping bags, etc., but boredom became a problem.

  5. Brigid,

    I've been a reader of your blog for years but had never left a comment before - just a silent fan. Because of some personal trials and loss I had been out of touch with much for a while and only tonight "re-found" (with great enjoyment!) Brigid's Home on the Range.

    In reading your many posts that I have missed I was surprised and saddened to learn of Barkley's and your brother's passing. I also was unable to read my eulogy for my oldest brother when he died. My father had to stand by my side and read it for me because I just could not get the words out, but the tears flowed freely.

    Now my father, too, is gone. I miss him every day. My Cocker Spaniel, Charlie, is fourteen and has many of the ailments that dogs get with advanced age. Time with Charlie is growing shorter and although I am able to make him comfortable (I think) with medication, each day I wonder if he's truly okay or if I'm being selfish.

    Anyway, I don't mean to bring up sad or painful memories for you, but rather I wanted to let you know I was moved by your experiences to offer my belated condolences; by your life to tell you that it is an inspiration to others; and by your words because they offer humor, insight, wisdom, and comfort.

    Now that I've gotten "back in the game", so to speak, Home on the Range will once again, and always, be a daily visit for me. Thanks, Brigid, for your willingness to share your life with so many others!

  6. I remember those winter preparations from my youth in New Hampshire. An excellent reason to move south. And don't forget to carry a bucket of sand.

  7. Jim G - thanks for stopping to comment and share your own losses. It does help when we share and get comfort from others that have been through the same thing. Here's hoping that your future is full of happy memories.

  8. I prefer to shelter in place during these kinds of events :) Always keep a well stocked larder! Still great advice for those who aren't full time work from home types and everyone really.

    For the boredom Thing, Well mentioned a Fully charged Kindle provides weeks of fun :)

  9. Pay attention to the content of "down" sleeping bags and coats. Lately, I've noticed that the manufacturers try to skimp on quality or sell the synthetic blends on the basis of performance when wet, but the artificial down will degrade over time, even the highly touted military grade materials.

  10. Few other things to add to your list - since I got bit just this weekend, and I usually consider myself prepared.

    1. Know how to get to the spare in your vehicle. Test the travel jack so you know how to use it, and how much of a pain it is to set up.

    2. A lot of spares on trucks these days have 'locks' on them to keep people from stealing them. Unless you live in Detroit, or a bad part of Mordor consider removing that lock permanently. They freeze, they get full of crap, they stop working. *Then* what are you going to do? (In my case, it was call a tow)

    3. Verify at least four times a year you actually have air pressure in that spare tire. Doesn't matter if you have a donut or a full size spare, if it doesn't have air in it, it won't do you much good.

  11. OR... you could move to some quiet neighborhood in the Phoenix, AZ, area. Our summers may be a trifle "warm," but we don't have to shovel sunshine! Survival kits include a compass and a map with the nearest margarita bars clearly marked, "snake-bite medicine," (alcoholic beverages which nay be safely consumed without the application of ice,) and appropriate swimming attire, should a swimming pool present itself.

    If you can make your way out of the Frozen North, c'mon down for a week or two and see for yourself.

    Oh, yeah... if you find yourself REALLY missing the snow, it's only about a three hour drive north, and there's lots of places to stay for a mini-vacation during your snow vacation!

  12. I always have lip gloss because my lips will chap. Besides, it could be used to start a fire (if it must be useful). Since I live in the South, I have few chances to freeze to death but worry about hypothermia. However, there are days when a person could freeze down here, and those few days seem to become more the last few years.

  13. Indeed, the news from Buffalo and then this blog posting inspired me to toss and repack my car kit as well as my home and office earthquake go-bags.

    Glad to see I'm not the only one who carries flares. Besides their obvious uses in signaling for help and in remaining three dimensional if you are not quite out of the way of traffic, they are great hooligan firestarters.

    I like to have a few of those "space blankets" around (they're so light and -- when new and in their factory folded and packaged state -- so compact that you can tuck one or two into a coat pocket). They aren't great as blankets but are waterproof, and it's a lot easier to stay dry than to get dry.

    Speaking of staying dry, beware of "killer cotton" next to your skin or even among the middle layers.

    A tire iron or somesuch is okay as an improvised weapon, but if you don't want to have two things where one would do, get a Maglite or similar. If I could only have one car survival accessory (rather than a discarded backpack full) it would be a sturdily built and nuclear powered flashlight.

    This should be in the passenger compartment, and if you have to get out next to a busy road after dark or in bad conditions, it should be in your hand, on, and pointed upstream as you exit. Rather suspicious of the competence and alertness of my fellow motorists, I also have a reflective construction-worker vest where I can grab it before getting out of the car. As you work, throw an eye "upstream" frequently and think through how and where you would bail out if somebody's energy vector seemed locked onto your nether anatomy. (Especially important if you skidded off the road -- whatever caused you to lose traction might still be there, ready to send the next car the same way you went.)

    Speaking of lug wrenches, a cross-shaped one (available in collapsible format) is much much better than the L-shaped tinkertoy usually supplied with the car. Coupled torques do the job with less effort and risk of damage. A small can of WD-40 can be helpful too. And a can of aerosol tire inflater (the "SUV size" with the hose is easiest to use) can keep you from having to change the tire at all, at least long enough to get to town. (On behalf of tire shops and mechanics everywhere, let me urge you to shell out for the five dollar water-based one, not the dollar-store jobbie filled with flammable gas -- I'm amazed they can still sell those).

  14. Regarding those "space saver" spare tires, I can guarantee it doesn't have enough air pressure in it. They are built so lightly, they leak air through the carcass itself.

    They require 60psi. In about 5 years patrolling CA freeways, of the hundreds of spare tires I mounted, I found less than 5 that had the proper air pressure. Those were rentals, and it would appear that rental companies regularly top off those spares.

    Typically, they had less than 20 psi. That tire will not go far.


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