December is right around the corner, and the cold north winds have begun to slowly slide south. In an unusually cold fall storm, the Northeast was socked in by a massive heavy wet snowfall, leaving millions without power. This is just a taste of the winter weather that is coming.
I know, I know: every year it’s the same thing. But the summer warmth always seems to leave us a little complacent. It won’t be long before we hear the evening news reporting on some poor unfortunate soul who succumbed to the cold while stranded on the side of the road.
It doesn’t have to be that way. With only a minimal amount of planning and a compact, but well stocked, cold weather travel kit, it’s easy to make sure that you’re not one of those chilling statistics found by the snow plows the next morning after a heavy snowstorm.
My work keeps me on the road for the most part, though this winter it appears that I will be lucky enough to be down south where snow and ice are a rarity. Still, I’ve assembled a cold weather kit that I can easily toss in the back of the truck should I need to head up north. It fits neatly into a waterproof Rubbermaid tote that can ride in the bed of my pickup, but if you’re in a car, a duffle bag works equally as well.
The kit is divided into two parts: the first keeps me from getting stranded, or helps me to self-rescue, and the second part keeps me alive if I’m well and truly stuck and left waiting for assistance.
Jumper Cables Cold weather is very hard on batteries. A car that won’t start is probably the most common cold weather problem. Buy a set of jumper cables and learn to use them: positive to positive first (that’s the red terminal) and negative (that’s the black one) from the good vehicle to ground (the frame or alternator body) on the dead one last in order to avoid catastrophes such as this.
Shovel If you’re stuck in a snow bank or just skidded off the road on a patch of ice, a shovel is an indispensable tool for freeing yourself from snow and mud. Also, should you become stranded, you’ll need the shovel to keep your exhaust clear of snow so that you can run the engine and heater for brief periods without running the risk of asphyxiation from carbon monoxide. At a minimum, I carry a small folding shovel. If I’m heading somewhere like the mountains where I know the snow might fall in feet instead of inches, I’ll toss in a larger purpose-built snow shovel.
Kitty Litter, Sand Bag, or Granite Chips Many people swear by kitty litter as a traction device. I’m not too keen on using it, as it tends to clump and then dissolve away if there is moisture on the ground. Instead, I like to carry a couple of full sandbags, or ideally some sandbags full of granite chips. You can find granite chips, often for free, from your local funeral home or monument carver.
Tow Strap or Chain There’s no need to wait for a tow truck if you’ve got a tow strap or chain. A helpful passing motorist can render assistance if you’ve got your own tow strap. Remember to attach it to a tow point on both your car and the rescuing vehicle: most trucks and many cars have dedicated tow hooks beneath the bumper. Don’t use the bumper itself, as it will rip clean off, and never attach a tow strap to an axle or portion of the suspension.
Tire Chains with Bungees or Chain Tensioners Even if you’re not traveling in the mountains or where the snow can get truly deep, carry a set of tire chains sized for your tires. You may never need them, but if you do get stuck, they are a fantastic traction device for getting you unstuck. Learn to use them in the safety of your driveway at home before heading out, so that if you need to chain-up on the side of the road you will already be familiar with them.
Ice Scraper and Brush I’m still amazed by the number of people who don’t keep an ice scraper in their vehicle. Even down south, a light frost can leave your windshield obscured. Go out and buy an ice scraper now, put it in your trunk and forget about it until you need it.
Extra Sub-Zero Windsield Fluid While not quite as important as an ice scraper, sub-zero windshield wiper fluid is an absolute necessity anywhere flurries may fly. Without it, your windshield will quickly become an icy mess that is impossible to see through. If you don’t have sub-zero fluid in your reservoir now, flush out that summer-time stuff and replace it with sub-zero, and carry an extra gallon with you in your cold weather kit.
Aftermath of the Chicago blizzard of 2011. *image used without permission
The remainder of my kit consists of things that help me stay safe and warm while waiting out the storm. These items also go with me in my backpack whenever I’m out hunting or hiking in potentially cold environments, even in the summer such as when exploring the mountains or anywhere the weather can turn suddenly.
Warm Clothes A parka, extra socks and base layer of wool or waterproof moisture-wicking clothing, will go a long way towards keeping you warm. Often times, people go about with just enough warm layers to keep them comfortable while they hustle from vehicle to building and back. If you’re one of these, make sure you keep some heavy winter clothes in your vehicle. And even if you’re not, having a backup set is a godsend should you find yourself wet or muddy from trying to free a stuck vehicle.
Cold Weather Sleeping Bag (ECWS) If I’m going to be stuck in an unheated vehicle, or really anywhere overnight, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I’m snug as a bug. New and lightly-used military surplus Extreme Cold Weather Sleeping systems (ECWS) are fantastic at keeping you warm, even at temperatures as low as -40 degrees. Most come in a handy compression sack, so they don’t take up much room. New ones are a bit pricey, but bargains can be found, so hunt around until you find a deal you can afford.
Flashlight and Spare Batteries I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: the cold is hell on batteries and electronics. You should have a flashlight in your kit, but also make sure to stock extra batteries.
Spare Phone and/or Batteries Nearly everyone has a smart phone these days, and when it comes to getting the word out to your friends and loved ones, they are great. If you can’t get a signal, try sending text messages. SMS messaging systems use a relay and hold system that will hold onto your message until it can be delivered, and SMS messages take up very little bandwidth, so getting one through on with only tenuous signal strength is much easier than actually connecting a voice call. As with your flashlight, carry an extra battery and charger if you can. Alternatively, keep an older phone that you no longer use on a daily basis in your kit, along with a 12v charger. Even deactivated and/or without a SIM card, most mobile phones are capable of making an emergency 911 call.
Water, MREs and heaters Water is important for two reasons: the first and most obvious is that it keeps you from becoming dehydrated in dry cold air. The second reason water is important is that it keeps you warm. Mixed with a tasty drink mix and heated with an MRE heater, it warms you from the inside out. The calories from MREs and drink mixes are also critical in helping your body stay warm. Even just sitting still, your body can burn as much as 5,000 calories just keeping warm. Help it out by keeping some high-calorie snacks and non-perishable food in your kit.
Hand Warmers Behind warm food and liquids, hand warmers are the ultimate morale booster in cold environments. Keep a few in your kit. They don’t take up much room, and as long as they are unopened they will last for years until you need them.
Flares and/or Warning Triangles Visibility is universally poor during snow storms, and accumulations can camouflage your stranded car on the side on the road. Use road flares, electronic flares, or even reflective warning triangles to warn approaching vehicles to keep a wary eye out.
Blaze Orange Fabric Flagging tape, blaze orange fabric, or any brightly colored cloth tied to your radio antenna or the top of your vehicle is a great way to alert passing motorists or rescuers to your location.
First Aid Kit This is not so much a necessity for a cold weather kit, as it is something that should be with you at all times. I keep a large first aid kit in my vehicle, and carry a small one with me everywhere else.