Every winter, thousands of people find themselves stranded while driving in the snow. In December 2000, a man survived 16 days on M&Ms, orange juice, and a quart of water when his car was buried in snow on a back road in Oregon. More recently, a man crashed into a snowy ravine in West Virginia. Battling frostbite and hypothermia, he stayed alive for nearly one week drinking melted snow, and eating peanut butter and packets of taco sauce. He ripped out the interior lining of his car to help stay warm and to have something to burn to create a heat source. These are just two stories of survival that beg the question, “What can you do to survive a night or more in a car?”
What to Do?
This starts with the very basic question of whether to stay in the car or go to find help. Experts says it is better to stay in the car, unless it is a short, safe walk to get assistance. The car blocks the wind, helps keep your body warm and dry, and it is easier for rescuers to spot a vehicle than a person stranded in the snow. Here are some tips for staying safe in your stranded vehicle.
- Step out of the car and quickly check to make sure that your vehicle’s tailpipe is not blocked by a chunk of ice or a mound of snow. If it is, deadly carbon monoxide fumes will get into your vehicle.
- Wipe off the taillights and the headlights to make your vehicle more visible from a distance.
- Buckle up, because your parked vehicle may be hit from behind. The risk of this is greater when visibility is compromised by severe weather conditions.
- Run the car’s heater for only about 15 minutes every hour to conserve fuel in the car. When the heater is running, crack open a window that is away from the wind to prevent poisonous fumes from lingering in the car.
Prepare Ahead of Time
Having proper tools and supplies in your car can make all the difference when you find yourself stranded. The following items are essential to driving in and surviving severe winter weather conditions.
- Antifreeze and windshield washer fluid that can withstand the lowest predicted temperatures.
- A snow scraper for clearing your windshield, a broom for brushing snow off your car, a compact shovel for digging your vehicle out of a snow bank, and sand or kitty litter to provide traction if tires get stuck in a snow bank.
- Tire chains that fit your tires, and make sure you know how to install them. Some states outlaw tire chains, so you should check before purchasing them.
- A flashlight to flag down cars, warn people of an accident, and provide light when installing tire chains or repairing a flat tire in the dark.
- Ready-to-eat foods like beef jerky, trail mix, granola and protein bars, chocolate, and nuts. Store these in a hard wall cooler, which provides insulation and will keep food from getting too hot or too cold.
- Small bottles of water can also be stored in the hard-walled cooler, but this will not provide adequate hydration for an entire family or last more than a day or so.
- If you run out of water, walk safely to an area that looks like it is untouched and collect snow inside an empty water bottle. The heater in the car or the warmth of the sun will melt the snow. Dirty snow contains a lot of environmental toxins, so care has to be taken collecting and drinking melted snow.
- Clothing including a warm hat, mittens or gloves, and a winter jacket/coat that has a waterproof, but breathable outer shell.
- Winter boots that are capable of trekking through the snow, which could happen if you decide it is safe to walk a short distance to seek assistance.
- A wool blanket since this fabric provides the most warmth.
- Hand warmers inside your jacket can provide warmth for several hours. For a 24-hour period, you would need at least five hand warmers per person.