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Winter Car Kit and Winter Vehicle Maintenance Checklist

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In recent years, many areas of the country have been hit with some heavy snow and ice storms – sometimes unexpectedly. We'll share a winter vehicle maintenance checklist and winter car kit checklist to help you prepare for cold weather travel.

snow covered cars

For help with winter weather starts, check out “Car Won’t Start in the Cold? Check Out these Troubleshooting Tips“.

Winter Vehicle Maintenance Checklist

  1. Take care of any necessary repairs before you find yourself stranded in the middle of a snowstorm. Don't be the guy driving around ignoring the warning lights lit up on their dash.
  2. Make sure your tires are in good condition. Check inflation and rotate your best tires to the front (for front wheel drive). If you use winter chains, make sure they are ready as well. Consider well rated snow tires from Nokian or Michelin. Don't forget to check your spare tire, too.
  3. Keep your gas tank full! Grandpa Neverman was a stickler about always keeping the gas tank above half full, and we do the same. If you get stranded, you want heat. Also, traveling may take much longer than anticipated because of road conditions or detours.
  4. Check out weather conditions in the area where you intend to travel. Between the news, the internet and cell phones, there's little reason to not know if you're getting snow, ice, wind or anything else that will be trouble.
  5. Get a cellphone, even if it's only an emergency use smartphone. Consider keeping a USB car charger or emergency radio/cell phone charger for your phone in your winter car kit. If your battery is dead, you can't call a tow truck.
winter car emergency kit

What should be in a Winter Emergency Car Kit?

Your winter car emergency kit should contain cold weather gear, basic survival supplies and tools for roadside repairs.

Use this list as a starting point, and select the items that best fit your winter travel needs. Store the supplies and kit in your back seat instead of the trunk in case you cant get to your trunk. For more info on our complete all season kit see our Roadside Emergency Kit post.

First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit options include the Surviveware Small First Aid Kit or Surviveware Large First Aid Kit.

See our Best First Aid Kit article for more information and things you should add to ANY first aid kit.

Sleeping Gear

In case you are stuck in the car off the road or snowed in somewhere overnight, you'll want sleeping gear.

  • Small Pillow in case you have to sleep in the car
  • Wool Blanket – 100% wool is best, but they are really pricey. This one is 80%. Wool still warms even when wet and can be used to put out a fire (it won't burn easily)
  • Warm Sleeping Bag – a below zero sleeping bag
  • Throw in a couple tiny emergency blankets – they can be used in a lot of creative ways, even just as a moisture barrier or cover. Cover the windows to reflect the cold out and warm in.

Clothing for your Winter Car Kit

  • Hats – If you are stuck in the snow you NEED a hat. Stash an extra hat or two in the trunk and inside the car, preferably more than one lighter hat and heavier warmer hat.
  • Layers – Long johns in your size and a full change of layered working clothes including underwear. If you get wet a set of dry clothes can make a huge difference.
  • Outer jacket that stops the wind, and layers reduce heat loss.
  • Gloves – Large Winter gloves or mittens can go over your existing gloves for extra warmth
  • A regular pair of Heavy duty Work gloves and a pair of insulated work gloves in your size.
  • Wool Socks – large sized (they should not be too tight) – wool socks will stay warm even if they get wet. If you really want to stay warm a good first layer is polypropylene socks. The large wool socks can be used as mittens also.
  • Scarf – You'll be glad to have it if you end up walking. A Merino Lambswool scarf is even better
  • Boots – Have an extra pair in your car or truck (maybe even one in the back seat and one set in the trunk) so you could give a pair to a passenger. You could be “dressed up” or under-dressed going to the store for a quick trip, and end up needing to walk long distance in the snow. Also, consider getting them a bit larger so you can wear wool socks. Even waiting in a car is better with heavy boots to keep your feet warm.

Food

  • Snacks. Weather durable snacks such as granola bars, jerkydried fruit, or the SOS Food Bar (coast guard 5yr food bar). Buy the pack and put one in each car. Hard candy will last a long time.
  • Water. Make sure you empty a little water out of a water bottle. The plastic wont burst as easy when they they freeze. Or use flexible water pouches or if you have a long way to go add a LifeStraw. If you are really cold areas have a way to start a fire and a metal cup – for melting snow & drinking.
  • Dry drink mix for the water, freeze dried coffee tea, or juice mix are a great addition. Just make sure it is shelf and temperature stable.

Winter Emergency Car Kit Tools

Other Supplies

  • Heavy Tow Strap if you have ever towed someone, a strap is a LOT safer than just rope or chain.
  • Duct Tape has an insane number of uses. It can seal a crack in a window, hold on a broken mirror, tape a trunk shut or in first aid situations: immobilize a limb, create temporary splints and even bandages. We keep a couple of rolls and have been happy to have them in the car or van numerous times. There are small “individual” packs or Mini Duct Tape available too.
  • Fuse kit various types.
  • Paracord to make makeshift tent, tie a door closed, or hood. This version is very versatile.
  • De-Icer Windshield Washer Fluid
  • Sharpie pens can be used to write on pretty much anything, which is useful in an emergency.
  • Emergency Phone Numbers – keep a paper list in your car. Your cellphone might be dead but the police or a good Samaritan may have a phone. See also below.
  • Get an extra cell phone charger cable.
  • Empty Gas Can – In case you run out, normally you would only need this if you travel more than 1 hour per day in the vehicle. An extra gas can lets you keep the engine running more to keep you warm. Just make sure the exhaust is kept clear.

Personal Items

  • Keep an extra pair of prescription glasses, sunglasses and/or contacts in your car. Remember, the sunglasses are as important in the winter snow as in the summer glare.
  • Medications, and other items also, like aspirin, and Advil. These should be in your first aid kit.
  • Kleenex, some wipes
  • Toothbrush, floss and toothpaste
  • Lip balm
  • Feminine hygiene items as needed
  • Baby/toddler items if needed
  • Deck of cards and/or other travel games. These are great if you are stuck in the snow or a hotel.
  • A notepad to leave notes or doodle.
  • A towel wrapped around a few cloth diapers, wash cloth or wash cloths is a great add on. You can use the wipes to clean up and towel to dry off. Moist wipes are a good option also, a small package can help clean up a mess.
  • Couple rolls of toilet paper (in zip lock bags) and a couple of garbage bags just in case. The garbage bags are multi-function. If you had a window blown out you can use the bag with duct tape to “seal” the hole to keep you warm

Warmth

  • Hand Warmers – These can be used to warm more than hands
  • BIC Lighters or waterproof matches
  • Candle in a metal container or Sterno – You can use this for heat or melting snow for water.
  • If there are multiple people in the area and you trust them consider getting into the same vehicle. Body heat works.

** Note: Be careful with open flame inside a vehicle. Nearly everything inside a car is flammable. ALSO flame can use up your oxygen if the car is too tight. Keep your exhaust pipe clear and crack a window if you feel light headed.

A good backpack

If at all possible try wearing the backpack before you purchase it

We recommend the ARMYCAMOUSA Day Tactical Backpack which holds 40L and expands to 64L. We have this one and like it. Just big enough for two people or for bulky winter items for one. It has multiple compartments and a belt strap in case you need to hike home in an emergency. If you are really serious the 5.11 Rush72 is a great car kit and get home bag.

Traction

Store kitty litter, ashes or even better sand (gritty boring sand). Put some under your tires for traction when stuck. Note – clay litter will make the road more slippery, not less. Use a different type, such as ground walnut hull kitty litter.

Tire chains – especially if you don't have snow tires. You will need to research the right chain type for your vehicle. Thule and Security Chain both have decent reviews for their tire snow chains. If you don't have any chains or snow tires and are stuck, worst case you can try putting the floor mats under the tires for extra traction on ice.

Snow tiresNokian or Michelin are good snow tires. You will need to research the specific tires you will need. We agree with Edmunds – snow tires for winter, summer tires for the rest of the year.

telescoping car shovels

Get a Car Shovel That Won't Break

Our old car shovel was made of lightweight plastic, and broke the first time I tried to use it with heavy snow (see pic)

We got an all metal snow shovel one that is holding up much better. The shovel was just fine and did the job. The boys like them for digging snow tunnels because of the short handles and their toughness.

How to Store Your Emergency Car Kit

We keep our main winter kit in an old military backpack. Inexpensive and durable, but any backpack will work to store your winter items. The all year emergency car kit went into a better backpack (tools, change of clothes, first aid kit etc). Some people use totes.

winter car kit bag

I keep the shovel and scraper separate from the rest of the pack, and food items separate from combustibles. If you pack nothing else, you should have hats and blankets enough for all regular passengers and a good ice scraper. The snow shovel and jumper cables are the next most important.

Buy a Winter Emergency Car Kit

You can buy a pre-packed winter car survival kit, but most of them are pretty skimpy, or just have car related items.

The “Always Prepared 125-Piece Roadside Assistance Auto Emergency Kit with Jumper Cables” on Amazon looks to be better than most. But even this fairly good one needs extras (listed at the end).

Contents: a Heavy-Duty 3-Ton Tow Rope, Window Breaker / Seatbelt Cutter, an Adjustable Wrench, Accident Report Form.

Emergency Items: Battery Booster Cables, Reflective Safety Vest, Self-Powered Flashlight, 2 Light Sticks, Emergency Rain Poncho, Emergency Mylar Blanker, High Quality Reflective Warning Triangle, Whistle.

Car Assistance Items: Tire Pressure Gauge, Multi-Function Tool (Strong Pliers, Emergency Screwdriver, 2 Bottle Openers, Mini Knife Blade, Regular Knife Blade, Saw Blade), Gloves with Extreme Grippers, 3 Bungee Cords (18″, 24″ & 32″), 15 Cable Ties, 1 PVC Tape.

First Aid Kit with First-Aid Tape, 25 Adhesive Bandages, 6 Antiseptic, 10 Alcohol, and 3 Iodine pads, 2 Gauze Pads, 1 Bandage Roll, 10 Q-Tips,
1 Pair Disposable Gloves.

We suggest you at least add: flashlights, duct tape, Quik Clot, Sharpie pens, wool blanket, fire extinguisher, ice scraper and a shovel.

Don't Forget Contact Information

A friend of mine reminded me about another consideration – emergency phone numbers.

“As an EMT, I was trained to look at victims cell phones (if they were unconscious) and I would look in their contacts list for a number listed as “ICE”. Ice stands for “In Case of Emergency”. Everyone should have a number for US to contact in case of an accident or medical emergency.”

Since you SHOULD lock your phone, consider leaving a ICE note or emergency contact list in your glove compartment, with names numbers and relations. Alternately leave it in your wallet or purse.

In the ditch or in an accident?

Call 911 give and give your location, share the condition of everyone in the vehicle and describe your problem. Follow the 911 operators instructions.

If you can safely exit the vehicle, use the electronic road flare to mark the side of the road where your vehicle is located for rescue personnel. If you can avoid it, don't move on foot during a storm – you are likely to get hit in heavy snow.

If you must leave your car or truck, carry a flashlight, wear reflective clothing if possible and avoid roads – also leave a note with your name(s), address phone, and where you plan to go and place it on the inside of the windshield.

Stay Safe this Winter!

Let us know if you pack anything we missed, and please pass this post along to friends if you find it useful.

You may also find useful:

Don't forget to check out our other Cold Weather Preparedness posts.

snow covered street

Originally posted in 2011, last updated Jan 2020.

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61 Comments

  1. I pack our kits in those plastic totes. Also, add a roll of TP (for starting a fire if need be and for "normal use") You also might want to add a small bottle of hand sanitizer, it works for clean ups and as a fire starter as well. I was thinking about adding one of those power packs this year, just in case the battery in my truck goes dead, I can still charge up my phone as I wait for help.

  2. You also might want to carry an empty gas can. Gas stations nowadays don't have a can to loan out if you run out of gas and have to walk. If you drive a pick-up, carry a can in the bed during storms.
    In addition to a blanket, I carry a sleeping bag…

  3. If you have little ones, packing some powd formula and diapers and wipes for emergencies are a good idea. We also keep a spare set of clothes including socks and underwear for everyone in the car. Nothing nice, but good to have if you get soaked trying to get said car started or unstuck. Or if one of you kids is a random vomiter. Yep, those clothes have come in handy more than a few times.

    1. Don’t pack kiddies clothes that are the exact size. Pack small adult size stuff or even larger. Big can be shortened, pinned, belted etc where as clothes that are too small are useless.
      I used a vacuum packer to condense down clothes for the “kid pack” helps with saving space.

  4. I always add “kitty litter” to the list, helps if some one needs traction in a slippery situation. & Car Games or Books to pass the time till help arrives.

    1. I second that! I’ve seen plenty of little sports cars getting stuck going into their uphill driveways and sliding into embankments. Especially with the snowplow humps. It’s hard for them to get traction already but even harder when they’re on top of something and you can’t dig out under the car.

  5. You have forgotten to say that EVERYthing should be WOOL, not any kind of acrylic, Wool is thermodynamic so cools you down and warms you up so if you have to walk you wont sweat then chill … this is essential.

    1. You will have a hard time finding pure wool these days. They are almost always a wool ‘blend’ using some form of polyester…yuk!!!
      Also, I wish I could carry this in my vehicle, however I am a rural mail carrier, and have to use all the space for mail. I worry I might someday get caught and need this stuff, but won’t have it. I do manage to make room for a medium sized tool tote with a great first aid kit I put together myself. The clothing and blankets and most of the other tools, no room.

      1. A blanket might be something you could stuff under the seat, just in case. I did find real wool blankets at Fleet Farm. They were old European army surplus – complete with straw sticking to them. (Maybe former horse blankets?) Some of the new blends aren’t so bad, especially for under layers, but wool is still a reliable choice.

        1. What about the emergency blankets that are reflective? They are supposed to hold your heat in and are very small. If you don’t have room for a real blanket, perhaps those would work??? I also read that you could pack things inside a plastic barrel like what 5 gallon paint comes in so that it could double as a water carrier. Including a metal coffee can gives you the option of having something you could heat water with. Include some matches in a water proof container. If you were stuck somewhere remote, this might be good.

          1. They work, the reflective material helps BUT… but no where near as good as a real wool blanket. The ones I have used tear easily (some of the more expensive ones are tougher). We suggest both the emergency blanket AND the wool blanket. The combo can be very good in a bad situation. The emergency blanket can be used as a ground liner to keep moisture from getting into the wool and reflect heat back up. They also can be used as a rain or snow shield (as long as it doesnt tear). It can be used to reflect heat from a fire or heated rocks again as long as it doesnt tear a lot. Get a couple different brands and try them outside at a football game or other winter sports event. Most are flimsy and tear far too easily. A couple of alternates are the “All Weather Blanket” or the “woobie

  6. Toilet paper. I know the city slickers might find this one strange, but out in the country, in an emergency, I like to have options! LOL Wipes might be better – could serve multi-purposes – depending on local average temperatures of course!

  7. All vehicles should have an ABC type fire extinguisher in the passenger compartment, where the driver can get to it easily. If (heaven forbid) there is a fire, you need to be able to fight through the flames, to get to safety.

    The single most important piece of vehicle emergency equipment anyone can carry is a cel phone.

  8. It’s also a good idea to have clothes and blankets in bright colors. If you have to leave the vehicle, you want to be highly visible. Construction or hunting attire is not fashionable, but it can be a lifesaver on a dark road at night.

  9. Thank you all for these smart tips!. I’d been in a ditch in a 1982 Ford Mustang II due to wintery black ice in Nebraska years ago. I had… jumper cables and a sun shield.. It was COLD and getting colder.I was looking at spending the night in my car. Fortunately, a fellow church member spotted my car and drove me to a nearby church of ours. Never want to be in that tight spot AGAIN. EVER.

    1. Black ice is nasty! My sister and I ran into miles and miles of it on our way back from Chicago to northwest WI one winter. Traffic had slowed to a crawl, and then pretty much stopped. We ended up taking shelter with a benevolent trucker at a truck stop. He let us use his sleeper while he slept behind the wheel. Awful nice gentleman to run into on a cold and dangerous night.

  10. I found those shovels, or ones just like them at least at Staples last year on clearance…$3 each, so bought one for each vehicle. Glad to hear they work well as we never used them…winter was ending. This is a great reminder post. Thank you!

  11. I always have a bag of kitty litter or old rugs in the trunk in winter. They help give you the traction you may need to get off a patch of ice

  12. Plastic grocery sacks or small drawstring bags to cover exterior mirrors. Anytime I think it might ice over I bag my mirrors so I don’t need to risk damaging them.

  13. Industrial Trash Bags (3 or 4) (bought at Lowe’s or Home Depot) can be used to keep you dry and warm if used over clothes or can be used to make a temporary shelter if need be.

  14. I saw on a TV talk show that a bag of kitty little is good to have in truck in winter months. It will help get out of slick road condition if you get stuck and need some traction.

  15. Don’t forget medications, pain pills, asthma inhalers, etc. A small backpacker stove and some ground coffee or tea can do wonders to lift the spirits.

  16. What the hell do u need an empty gas can for if ur stuck and run out of gas, your not going to walk anywhere in snow like ur having throughout the country today. Its a little unsafe but so is gas in the car tank… I would want a little emergency gas available for those few extra hours of warmth before u run out of gas to put in the tank. just wondering

    1. If you’re carrying around a gas can with just a little gas, the motion of the vehicle will cause it to aerosolize, effectively creating a bomb, since the fumes burn much more readily than liquid gas. I really wouldn’t recommend this. No, you’re not likely to be hiking with 3-5 feet of snow on the ground, but if you have any sense or warning, you’re not likely to be out driving in it, either. The gas can would honestly be pretty low on my list – BUT – say you are stuck for a while and drain your tank, then can get out, but you have no gas to do so. Catch a lift to the service station, get your gas, get a ride back, put it in your tank and get out instead of calling a tow truck.

  17. I bought several of those one way valve type plastic bags. I keep a change of clothing for each person which rides in the car. They are reusable and since they are one-way they work for keeping those old/wet clothes in and can be rolled up to get the air out. Much better than using food saver bags. I will be using many of these ideas this year with the new used car. Thanks. 🙂

  18. O I forgot to add, for those who have allergies to wool, there are fabrics which wick moisture away from the body. Sometimes manmade can be a good thing. I’ve used these for other uses so I know they work.

  19. Thanks for a very comprehensive list and great ideas from all. Did I miss a flashlight? I also have a NOAA emergency radio (crank up style). And a tarp might be useful if you have to change a tire in the snow (or for shelter). I would add for 2nd or 3rd tier of emergency readiness for car … I have a tool that has a covered razor for cutting off a seat belt if it gets stuck in an accident situation and another tool on it is that piece you can use if you spin into water and the windows short circuit to break them and escape plus it has a flashlight with it. Granted you may never need it but doesn’t hurt to have it on hand.
    I never thought to carry a fire extinguisher in the car I may add that. And I also like the idea of using a tote container to keep all the e-items in the trunk. I would keep the wool or fleece blankets in the car ( if rolled up good pillows). And I have 2 seat back organizers for hand warmers, small first aid items, tissues, wipes, cheap rain ponchos, extra gloves, maps etc. and sm. food snacks. Extra sm. umbrella in glove compartment (can help with snow). Thanks again. Time to make sure everything is there for 4 riders.

  20. This is a very good list of item to store in your car. I would like to add that just in case things get wet, put your TP in a ziplock bag to keep it dry. I’ve had things break and get stuff soaked in the bin I car in my car, but the TP has always remained dry.

  21. Good post. A few more things that weren’t said in the article.

    – Keep as much of the food and meds in a wide-mouth thermos. It’s not just high temperatures that affect shelf life and potency, temperature variations as well. When it’ll be freezing outside and inside the trunk, the thermos should keep the temperature inside more or less constant.

    – A shovel that’s not telescopic is less likely to break. Mine is from Fiskars, a reputable Swedish company, and it’s pretty solid. It wasn’t expensive either.

    – Get one of those flashlights that are hand-crank. That way, you won’t have any surprises. Keep in mind batteries discharge quicker in cold temperatures.

    Dan “Survival” Sullivan

  22. There’s more than one reason to keep your fuel tank topped up in the winter. In the cooler months condensation occurs in fuel tanks that are less than full. If you get enough water in your fuel tank from condensation, it will foul your carburetor or fuel injector system causing your vehicle to stop running. Many people blame that on the gas stations where they buy fuel but it’s more often just condensation. I use a large plastic tub with a lid for my vehicle emergency kit. I keep a light weight & a heavy weight blanket along with a couple of fleece throws. Some spare seasonal clothing, a full change including a hat. A spare pair of walking shoes. Some umbrellas & cheap plastic ponchos in colors not found in nature. (in other words, highly visible) Flashlights, (with emergency flashers built in) essential tools, a homemade BSA Buddy Burner, a 1 quart enameled coffee cup, some coffee & tea bags, individual sugar & honey packets, bottled water, a six pack of ramen noodles, (cooks in 3 minutes) a first aid kit, a small USB solar battery charger & some reading materials. And my cell phone goes with me wherever I go. In the days before the prevalence of cell phones I have been stuck on the roadside for several hours on more than one occasion, in all types of weather. So I eventually learned what I needed to keep with me at all times. Experience is the best teacher… =/

    1. You are right! Tell your friends, family and neighbors. Everyone should take your example and make it fit their area. Laurie and I lived near Duluth Minnesota and the freezing weather was VERY HARD on cars (and people). When we switch from summer to winter we swap walking shoes for snow boots and leave the work gloves but ADD gloves, mittens and hats (stuffing the gloves/mittens inside the hat). We also throw in wool socks which can double as gloves. We suggest you keep a wool blanket in the car also, it wont burn easily so it can be used to put out a fire or just wrap up in the back seat to keep warm on a long trip. Wool will also keep you warm even if its wet. A kneeler pad can be a godsend when its -20F and your are kneeling to change a tire or clear the car. The quick way to make sure the gas doesn’t get water/moisture is to add HEET to the car gas tank every other time you add fuel. Chocolate bars and other hard candy are good for a quick pick me up and last nearly forever. All the best!

  23. Love to read this article. I am totally inspired by your work and got some great ideas. Thanks and keep sharing 🙂

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