Whether in rural Montana or New York City, if you drive in an area subject to freezing winters, it’s best to be prepared. Breaking down, getting stranded and running up against a potential emergency is no time to start thinking about what you wish you had packed. Make sure you have a winter emergency kit on hand for when the going gets rough and really, really cold.
One of the best ways to guard against winter road conditions is to keep your vehicle properly maintained.
- Get a regular tune up and inspection before winter sets in.
- Follow your oil change schedule and frequently check all fluid levels.
- Keep your radiator full of no-freeze coolant.
- Regularly top off windshield fluid with a deicer mixture.
- Check tire tread and monitor inflation levels.
- Always keep your fuel tank over ½ full.
- Ensure you have a properly charging, strong battery.
- Store a full-size spare, kept in good condition.
- Arm yourself with knowledge: Know how to change a tire.
There are two goals of a standard winter emergency kit: repair and survival.
If you find yourself in car trouble situation in a populated area, your priority might be just to get yourself back on the road. In that case, your kit should include:
- Jumper cables or a jump starter — invest in good quality as they can also be used to help others in a bind.
- Snow shovel and salt to dig your way out of a snowbank or icy parking spot.
- Ice scraper and brush — if you can’t see, you can’t drive.
- Tire chains (or socks) for better traction.
- Flashlight with extra batteries — breakdowns don’t care what time it is.
- Basic tool set and utility knife for unforeseen small repairs.
- Road flares in case it’s late or traffic is sparse. Keep a few on hand to get someone’s attention.
The worst case scenario is that you become stranded with no way to get yourself out. Your best bet here is to stay in the car and call for help. If you’re in a tough spot to locate, be prepared to settle in and concentrate on staying alive. Your kit should include:
- Water — best stored in smaller bottles that are easy to defrost.
- Ways to stay warm — an old coat, gloves, a hat and a sleeping bag or blanket could very well be the difference between life and death. You cannot depend on your car’s heater for warmth because (if it even works) you run a serious risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Considering most people are found within 24 hours, food is less important than water and heat but it never hurts to have a few high-calorie snacks lying around. Choose items you might pack for a day hike.
- First aid kit in case there’s been an injury. You can find them ready-made or DIY.
- Spare phone charger — communication with the outside world is your best friend.
No one can guess with certainty if and when a winter breakdown might occur. Several of these items are likely already in your everyday emergency kit but you really should take the time to winterize your car and be prepared — you never know when you might find yourself in need.
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Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter. In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.