Friday, December 23, 2011

Road Warriors - Safety in Winter

I posted a shorter version of this last winter. After seeing in the news yesterday about a young woman who got her car stuck and survived for 9 days on two candy bars and melted snow, I thought I should repost it, and add to it. Please have your family members read this, or talk with them about it. It could save a life.

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.

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 a day hike. 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.

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 the daughter of LEO's. 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 makings and no uniform, ladies, ask the officer for their ID before you roll down that window. Look at it closely. They won't mind one bit, and would hope their wives or children of driving age do the same.

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.

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. I have taken to adding a small can of Stearno fuel to my winter kit. Its not hot enough cook over and you can't use it in a vehicle, but its enough to warm your hands over if you have change a tire or something. My wife thinks I'm goofy when I put stuff in her car to go from Portland to Eugene. I don't let the car out of the driveway after Nov 1 without boots, gloves, hat, scarf and coat at MINIMUM.

  2. I grew up in interior Alaska and now live and travel some of the bush in Australia - very good advice, modified as required for climate, for travel anywhere.

  3. Excellent Brigid. Got caught out in the cold once for only a few hours as a kid and damn near froze myself. Flat tire. No spare. No gloves or hat and a little thin jacket & ran out of gas after only 30 minutes or so. Everything a kid could do wrong in one package.

    That was a heck of a learning experience that didn't cost me bad, fortunately.

  4. I just keep all of my camping equipment in the back of my truck. Two tents and a few pots and pans, as well as all the various and assorted sundry items may be overkill, but it's easier than trying to figure out what to leave behind!

  5. B:
    All good advice, people sometimes are so distracted from what COULD happen, as they go on their normal everyday trip home to work, this is a good wake up for all.
    BTW, hope your feeling better.

  6. Merry Christmas, you sweet and lovely lady....

  7. I used to drive between central Texas and just about every city in New Mexico. I carried a similar kit. I included an HF radio, a VHF FM radio, an AM unicomm radio tuned to guard channel, and whatever long arm made sense for the terrain. Spares for the vehicle, and enough sense to stay away from unknown routes. I never got stuck for long. I made a promise to my family that I WOULD come home. Even if I had to walk back, I was coming home. And by God's mercy I did. I might have been lucky, but I define luck as when preparation meets opportunity.

  8. Great advise!

    We just crossed Wyoming to see all the kids and grandkids. Our kit:
    Tow rope
    collapsible shovel
    First aid kit
    Tuned Colt 1991A1

    If the weather hadn't been brightly sunny, I would have tossed a butane stove in. I also dress as if I might have to dig the car out.

    Not the most comprehensive kit, but enough to meet the goal of a tolerable 24 hours along a traveled highway.

    The easiest way to die is to abandon your vehicle and try to walk some place. Wyoming usually kills 1-2 folks every winter that way.

  9. Steel wool and a 9 volt battery makes a great fire starter. Works even if the wood is wet.

  10. Excellent list, Brigid!

    Just caught up with your writings and was horrified to hear of your knee injury. I know the pain and inconvenience of a knee rip so my heart truly goes out to you.

  11. Merry Christmas Brigid!

    If only we HAD snow for Christmas. Yesterday was something like 55 degrees. WTF?

  12. Excellent post, and well worth remembering (and checking the BOB)!

  13. I thought I kept better tabs on you than to have missed your knee injury. So I was going backwards in your posts to see what I have missed. Couldn't agree with you more about the survival kit. For those who carry, there is the Utah Non-Resident permit you can get, with little effort. It is good in something like 36 or so states. I'm just hoping Congress soon passes that reciprocity act, but I've been told by those who follow these things not to hold my breath.

  14. Like bluesun, I tend to keep our Scout outing supplies in the trunk, but not so much on purpose, mostly because I'm too lazy to unpack it all. It has been usefull more than once.
    One lesson I have learned in life, is that the one thing you don't bring with you, is the one thing you will need. So pack everything you can think of!! Others may think you're paranoid, but will soon look to you when things go wrong.

  15. Full size, sharp axe under front seat at all times, and small, folding-frame camp saw.

    Fire starter cubes and 2 disposable lighters.

    In winter, especially, never go below 1/2 tank of gas.

    And remember, DON'T sit in a stuck car with the engine running for heat. The carbon monoxide will seep into the car and overcome you.

    Have another heat source.

  16. I grew up learning to drive in South Dakota and Wyoming. My first time ever soloing in a car was in a blizzard.

    Good lists. Good advice from you and many readers.

    I would add one small thing. If you keep your emergency supplies in the trunk and you don't have access to your trunk from inside the car - keep a length of heavy cord (paracord is good) and a flashlight in your glovebox. If the visibility is bad outside, before you get out of your car to walk around to your trunk, you tie one end of the cord to your wrist, the other end to your steering wheel. Then you take a short length of cord and tether your keys to your other wrist.

    Decades ago, I slid off the road in a blizzard, at night, in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. After rocking the car a bit and not able to get back onto the shoulder of the road, I decided to get my flashlight out of the emergency box in the trunk and see how badly I was stuck. I got out of the car and walked around the back of the car. I slipped as I reached for the trunk lock. I dropped my keys and slid and rolled about 10-15 feet or so down into the ditch.

    I got back onto my feet brushing the snow off me and climbed back up the ditch when I ran into a barbed wire fence. I was climbing out of the ditch AWAY from my car. When I turned around to look for the car I could not see it, and I had left the emergency flashers on. After a moment of panic, I kept my back to the fence and looked side to side - then I saw a faint red flashing in the snow off about 45 degrees to my right. My car was only about 40 feet away from me and hard to see. I got back to the car, and then had to find my keys. After a couple minutes digging in the snow at the back of the car I figured out that I would not feel them with my gloves on, so I took them off, and pure dumb luck, the first time I plunged my bare hand into the snow, I found my keys.

    Getting the flashlight I checked out how badly the car was stuck and decided to spend the night. I had everything I needed in the trunk to comfortably last the night (and longer if needed) and in the morning when the snow let up and I could see, I was able to dig myself out.

    All in all it ended up being an amusing story to get a few laughs and some teasing from my friends. But I was a couple feet from getting lost, and that I found my keys is almost a miracle. I was dressed warmly but still would have struggled to survive overnight in that storm.

    All the emergency supplies in the world will do you no good if you can't get to them, or get lost getting there or back.

  17. Used to get no end of kicks when out running in extremely cold weather...stop to check a shoelace, or adjust a wrinkle in a sock (blood-blisters are no fun. Trust me.), and all of a sudden everything would start steaming...hands, feet, head...after that, I picked up a pair of glove liners and a watchcap from an army-navy store.

    Got stuck with a friend in a snowbank bunch of years ago, while out on a "photo road-trip" up to Baker Lake in Northwest Washington State...apparently that "road not fit for anything less than 4x4" sign meant that my 4-cylinder Ford Escort wasn't really welcome. We were stuck for about 20 minutes, high-centered somewhere in a snowbank. She got nervous. I got out, grabbed my folding Army-Navy surplus shovel out of the trunk, and started scooping snow out. Cleared out under the car, but still had no traction. No problem. Pulled out two rolls of mesh-wire first-aid-kit splints (you'd be surprised the stuff the Navy throws out, and can be salvaged/re-purposed), threw em under the front tires, and pulled out of there like it was try pavement. We then turned around and went back to safer roads. Got some good photos out of it, too.

    Now, we live in Texas. There is a picture of snow in the local library, which is about as close as we get here. Still have some necessities stashed in my truck, but really need to get some sort of panic-kit built up again.

  18. A word of caution on the use of the hand sanitizer as a "fire strting aid". Many brands out there don't contain enough alcohol to burn. I've tried lighting Germ-X with a magnesium bar and a disposable lighter, failed on both counts.

    YMMV, maybe I got a bad batch or something but I don't depend on it for that use.


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