Winter Car Survival Tips When Stranded in the Cold

From distress signals to running the heater, here's how to stay comfortable and safe when stranded on a snowy road.

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When a winter storm rolls in, some motorists will inevitably be trapped in their cars, whether on an isolated country road or an interstate highway with dozens of other vehicles.

“Being stranded in a snow event can be scary,” says Andrew Hogle, a public information officer with Winter Wise. “While no one expects it to happen to them, every year it happens to someone. Being prepared is key to riding out this stressful situation with minimal worry and discomfort.”

We asked Hogle and the experts at the National Safety Council, the Automobile Association of America (AAA), the American Red Cross and the Colorado State Patrol what to do if you get stranded. Here’s how to safely weather the weather until help arrives.

Plan Like it Will Happen to You

“Many people will completely disregard all of the below items because their plan is to just call roadside assistance,” says Sgt. Troy Kessler, public affairs officer with the Colorado State Patrol.

“Especially in adverse weather conditions, those roadside assistance companies and contracted tow trucks are extremely busy. No joke, I’ve seen people wait over six to eight hours for a tow truck to arrive. Do not use this as your plan.”

Also, keep your gas tank full in case you need to leave the house in an emergency. “It’s not uncommon for troopers to see motorists stranded because a vehicle ran out of gas,” he says. “There is also a chance you get stuck in traffic for hours for a road closure. You want to allow leeway if this happens.”

Stay in Your Vehicle

Don’t get out until help arrives, or unless you can see help less than 100 yards away. You can quickly lose your way in blowing snow. Plus, in poor visibility, you risk being hit by a vehicle when the driver can’t see you.

“You are always safer in your car than outside of it,” says Hogle. “Getting out and walking around a highway, especially in the dark or during a storm, is not a good idea.”

Run Your Engine to Stay Warm

Some of our safety experts recommend conserving fuel by running your vehicle for five or 10 minutes with the heater on to warm up the interior, then shutting off your engine for 30 to 45 minutes. However, it’s not a 100 percent rule.

“Typically, I would not recommend turning on and off the vehicle, assuming you have enough gas,” says Kessler. “I have seen people do this not knowing their battery is on its way out, and it goes dead just by turning on the hazard lights. If this option is pursued, you want to make sure the car is on long enough to recharge the battery used while it was off.”

When your car is running, crack a window and be sure the exhaust pipe is clear of snow to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Display a Trouble Sign

Make your vehicle as noticeable as possible to rescuers and other motorists. If visibility is poor, wait with your vehicle hazards and dome light on. (This assumes your vehicle is running, or the battery is in good shape.) Or use flares to signify your location to other vehicles on the road.

Other universal distress signs include tying a bright-colored cloth to your antenna or door. Or, after the snow stops falling, raise your hood.

Stay Healthy

Drink plenty of fluids and eat snacks to keep your energy up. If others are with you, card games and interesting conversation will help pass the time and keep everyone’s spirits up.

If You Have to Abandon Your Vehicle

As a last resort, if you’re forced to abandon your vehicle, make sure it’s off on the shoulder and out of the traffic lane. “This will not guarantee it will not be towed away for snow removal, but it at least lessens the likelihood and is safer for your vehicle and other motorists,” says Kessler.

Once outside, “Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from severely cold air,” says Stephanie Fox, media relations lead at American Red Cross. “Avoid overexertion. The strain from the cold and hard labor may cause a heart attack, and sweating could lead to a chill and hypothermia.”

Pack an Emergency Kit for Your Car

Plan for worst-case scenarios by creating an emergency kit to keep in your vehicle. Besides year-round items like a flashlight, extra batteries, a first-aid kit and emergency reflectors, here are some winter-specific additions:

  • Blankets or sleeping bags;
  • Warm clothing, a waterproof jacket, hat, mittens and boots for all passengers;
  • Windshield scraper and small broom;
  • Extra windshield washer fluid (rated to sub-zero F, not the 32 F version);
  • Collapsible shovel to help dig out;
  • Tow strap;
  • Bag of sand or non-clumping cat litter for traction;
  • Tire chains or traction mats;
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank NOAA Weather Radio;
  • Chemical hand warmers;
  • Deck of cards or a board game;
  • Paper maps and a compass;
  • A cell phone with a car charger. “I think it goes without saying, please make sure phones are charged, in case your vehicle battery goes dead,” says Kessler. “And by the way, know where you are. Don’t rely on cell phone maps, in case you don’t have service.”

Keep Emergency Food and Water in Your Car

The Red Cross recommends a three-day supply of water for humans and pets, figuring on one gallon per person per day. For food, non-perishable, high-energy and easy-to-prepare snacks are best, like granola bars, nuts, peanut butter and crackers.

If you live in a cold climate, bring your water and canned food inside when temperatures drop below freezing. Replace items every six months, or if they’ve been through hot or cold temperatures that may decrease their longevity.

Of course, if you’re heading out into a storm, you can pack more delicious perishable items in a cooler — like maybe a nice hoagie or that leftover eggplant parmesan — just in case.

Precautions to Take Before You Hit the Road

All our experts emphasized keeping your car in good working condition in case the weather suddenly turns. Winter essentials to maintain on your car include:

Before leaving home, clean your headlights, external camera lenses, assistive-driving sensors and side-view mirrors. Also, when traveling in winter, check the weather before you leave and pre-plan your route.

“Determine the best route to take based on experience level and vehicle capability,” says Kessler. “Check travel routes and weather days in advance and the day of travel.” Many states have route-planning weather apps, such as Colorado’s COtrip. Any of these best severe weather warning apps may also be helpful.

One last thing: When in doubt, stay home.

“The best, and simplest, way to not get stranded in the winter is to avoid going out in a storm,” says Jennifer Schallmoser, media relations coordinator at the National Safety Council. “If the forecast looks iffy, wait it out, and if you must travel, share your travel plans and route with someone before leaving.”

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.