How to Prepare to Be Stuck in a Car in a Winter Snowstorm

·6 min read
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images

Last week, as the first major snowfall covered half the continental United States, we thought fondly about the segments of the American public who enjoy winter storms: skiers or other sporting types, schoolchildren, men with snowblowers, and snowbirds far away from their snowy homes. A fifth category, which includes Jeep people and automotive journalists, is statistically insignificant.

But for everybody else, especially those who have somewhere important to drive, being stuck in the snow is not fun—as people found out in Virginia, when hundreds of people were trapped in their vehicles on I-95 for more than a day in freezing temperatures. Another major example took place back in 2014, when icy roads across the Atlanta area caused 1200 accidents and froze highway travelers for 18 hours. We talked to John Paul, senior manager for traffic safety at AAA Northeast, who was himself stuck in a moving truck during that 2014 storm. There are a lot of automotive how-tos on the internet, but we suggest taking this one very seriously.

Keep Supplies in Your Car

Removing unnecessary items from the back seat and cargo area helps save fuel. But these lightweight supplies should be stocked year-round: blanket, gloves, dry packaged snacks, water, and a first aid kit. In winter, Paul recommends stocking extra clothes, boots, a compact snow shovel, a long-handled snow brush and ice scraper, a portable jump pack (to jump-start a car battery and plug in your phone), a portable 12-volt air compressor, and any beverages that won't freeze as fast as water (such as sports drinks). Bring a day's worth of prescription medication in case you're not home in time to take it. And don't think only of yourself. If you tend to travel with children or other family members, or pets, pack extra clothes and food for them as well.

You'll kick yourself if you get stuck for hours with a dying cellphone, so start off charged whenever you plan to go any distance in the winter. Almost as essential: stock wet wipes you can use for personal cleanliness.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images

Keep Your Tank (or Battery) at Least Half-Full

Driving near empty in extreme cold can cause fuel lines to freeze. That's because water sits at the bottom of gas station storage tanks, mixes when a tanker truck refills them, and transfers trace amounts into your fuel tank. While modern ethanol blends (a federal requirement for all pump gas) reduce this risk, the surest prevention is keeping a half-filled tank so any water doesn't condense. But let's be real—you need heat. Idling an engine can consume up to a half-gallon per hour in a regular car, according to Paul. Hybrid and plug-in-hybrid cars will still need to run the engine. Paul recommends running a vehicle for 20 minutes per hour.

"Only run the engine long enough to maintain heat and maximize the fuel in the tank," he said. "Also, periodically check that the tailpipe is clear to prevent carbon monoxide gas from getting into the car."

Electric vehicles, you ask? Batteries do tend to lose capacity in the cold, sometimes as much as 5 percent when an EV sits unplugged outside overnight. Cabin heating is also a concern. EVs with heat pumps draw less power than resistive heaters, which are a significant draw for EVs with smaller batteries. Tesla vehicles have a "Camp mode" that runs the car on low power with the cabin heat. Tesla bloggers have reported it consumes as much as 15 percent of the battery over eight hours, or up to 15 miles of range per hour. With any car, you'll need to conserve.

Improvise and Insulate Your Cabin

It doesn't take long for the cold to come back. Use whatever you have—towels, blankets, or anything that cover a drafty gap. While camping on Lake Superior in a Nissan Xterra, Car and Driver features editor Austin Irwin had to get creative.

"Walling off windows and unused sections of the vehicle can help create an extra barrier between your sleeping bag and the frigid outdoors," he said. "As the temperature inside begins to drop, the chill air from outside leaks into the car, invading all sheetmetal, glass, weatherstripping, and sound deadening."

Irwin and his wife soaked extra heat by sharing a sleeping bag, but he knows that kind of arrangement isn't available to every traveler.

Don't Leave Your Car

This should be obvious in freezing temperatures, unless you're very close to an exit and must access nearby services. Sadly, one man was found dead last week after leaving his car and apparently becoming disoriented during the Virginia snowstorm. He was believed to be trying to walk the six miles home. More than not, leaving your car is a futile exercise that will put you in unnecessary danger, could put your property at risk, and has the potential to cause further congestion when traffic eventually begins to move again.

"Emotions run high and time no longer means anything," said Bill Sherman, a Connecticut lawyer who was stuck in that moving truck during the 2014 storm. He and his two friends eventually made it off the highway to a Red Cross shelter. "It feels like you might be moving, but it is like inches every 15 minutes."

When You Move Again

Bridges freeze first. Two hands on the wheel. If you skid, gently lift off the accelerator, turn in the direction you want to go, and don't slam the brakes. Reduce your speed and keep a wide gap between you and the preceding car. It's easy to write but harder to remember when you're stressed as hell in a real emergency.

"Leave three seconds of following distance in good weather, add one second for driving at night, and an additional second or two in wet weather. Scan 20 seconds ahead," Paul said. "When you are watching the taillights of the car in front, you won’t be able to make evasive maneuvers if needed."

Before You Get Stuck

The simple answer is to stay home when there are travel advisories because of snowy conditions. But that's not an option for many people. So have a plan. Aside from gas levels, your whole car should be winter-ready. That means replacing wiper blades, filling up your windshield washer reservoir, and checking your tire tread. Ideally, you'll be driving on winter-rated tires if you regularly go out in unplowed or severe conditions. All-season tires are a compromise in all conditions and will not grip nearly as well as a dedicated winter tire. That means you won't stop as quickly, including on ice.

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