In recent years, many areas of the country have been hit with some heavy snow and ice storms – sometimes unexpectedly. This article includes a winter vehicle maintenance checklist and a winter car kit checklist to help you prepare for cold weather travel.
For help with winter weather starts, check out “Car Won’t Start in the Cold? Check Out these Troubleshooting Tips“.
Winter Vehicle Maintenance Checklist
- 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. Make sure the oil level is where it needs to be.
- 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 also.
- 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.
- Check out weather conditions in the area where you intend to travel. Between the news, the internet and cell phones, you can eailsy know if you're getting snow, ice, wind or anything else that will be trouble.
- Make sure your de-icing washer fluid is full. De-icing windshield washer fluid is a cheap safety measure, especially in an ice storm.
- 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. A spare could be critical if you lose your charger cable.
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 driving 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
See our Best First Aid Kit article for more information and things you should add to ANY first aid kit.
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 (beanie) 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.
- Snacks. Weather durable snacks such as granola bars, jerky, dried 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, hard candy or juice mix are a great addition. Just make sure it is shelf and temperature stable.
Winter Emergency Car Kit Tools
- Car shovel – These are small collapsible shovels that make decent emergency shovels. Alternately, consider a small fixed handle shovel.
- Sharp Rescue Knife. Consider a rescue knife. It can break a car window and cut a seatbelt. Keep it within reach of the driver.
- Flashlights. Having a couple in the car is a good idea. A few cheap AA Kootek flashlights or the AAA Lumintop EDC 01. Having one of the 18650 Thrunite TN12 is good in case you are stuck a while or have to walk in the dark. Remember to have at least one waterproof flashlight (look for IPX rating). For more info see or “Best Cheap Flashlight” and “Brightest Flashlights” articles. Swap batteries each SPRING and FALL.
- Depending on which flashlight(s) you choose you will need extra batteries (keep at least 2 extra sets – they are small and if the car battery is dead extra lights will allow you to see in the dark. Change the batteries out when the time changes each fall and spring.
- Ice Scraper/snowbrush – This one is extendable, very handy
- Jumper Cables – cold decreases battery life , and the heavier gauge gets more power to the car being jumped. The higher 800 amp cable is better than the 400 or 600 amp cables.
- A Leatherman Wave+ multi-tool for quick repair
- Car Fire extinguisher
- Quick flat recovery Fix a Flat (or similar) for flat tires
- Regular Road Flares or Electronic Road Flares. Electronic flares avoid the risk of fire, but require 6 AAA batteries. (We recommend lithium or low self discharge rechargeable AAA batteries Eneloop or Tenergy.) You might also want Road warning flags because they don't require batteries.
- Brightly colored Reflective Vest. Reflective Jacket or poncho to make yourself more visible.
- Tire Iron (the bigger the better) or Lug Wrench and a heavy duty scissor car jack or bottle jack with stand. A larger tire iron gives you more leverage.
- 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 as a bandage. We keep a couple of rolls in each vehicle. We have been happy to have duct tape in the car or van numerous times. There are small “individual” packs or Mini Duct Tape available also.
- Fuse kit various types.
- Paracord to make makeshift tent, tie a door closed, or hood. This version is very versatile. Tie something to the top of the vehicle.
- 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.
- Get an extra Android or Apple 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.
- 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
- Hand Warmers – These can be used to warm more than hands
- Clipper Lighters (we like clipper more than BIC) 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. It is 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.
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 tires. Nokian or Michelin are good snow tires. You will need to research the specific tires you will need.
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 car 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.
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. Paper and electronic.
“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 paper 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 your smartphone has a poor signal, try SMS (text). Text your location information and status to multiple people. A text might get through when a call cannot.
If you can safely exit the vehicle, use the electronic road flare, or flag, 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 these articles useful:
- 4 Layers of Cold Weather Clothing Everyone Should Know
- Emergency Heat During a Power Outage and other Winter Storm Preps
- How to Put Up a Snow Fence
- Roadside Emergency Kit Recommendations and Checklist
Don't forget to check out our other Cold Weather Preparedness posts.
Originally posted in 2011, last updated Nov 2022.