Winter driving can be a unpleasant. In recent years, many areas of the country have been hit with some heavy snow and ice storms, sometimes unexpectedly. Snow and ice increase the odds of ending up in the ditch. Stay a little safer when you hit the road by preparing yourself, your vehicle and packing an winter emergency car kit. Don't leave home unprepared – stay safe! Learn how to put together a winter car kit and make sure your vehicle is ready for cold weather and winter driving with these easy to use checklists.
Note: Check out “Car Won’t Start in the Cold? Check Out these Troubleshooting Tips” for help with cold weather starts.
Winter Vehicle Maintenance Checklist
- Take care of any necessary repairs before you find yourself stranded in the middle of a snowstorm. This may sound obvious, but I've known people who have driven around with emergency lights lit up on their dash who ignored them until the car stopped running completely.
- Make sure your tires are in good condition, properly inflated and appropriately rotated so you have traction when you need it. If you use winter chains, make sure they are ready as well. Also consider snow tires from Nokian or Michelin, they both rated well on Edmund's winter driving tests. Don't forget to check your spare tire, too.
- Keep your gas tank full! Grandpa Neverman (my husband's grandfather) was a stickler about always keeping the gas tank above half full. We've had some pretty serious snow storms in recent years where folks were trapped on the road in their cars for hours. It's a lot safer to be stranded in a car with heat than without. 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, there's little reason to not know if you're getting snow, ice, wind or anything else that will be trouble.
- Get a cellphone, even if it's only an emergency use smartphone and get a USB car charger or emergency radio/cell phone charger for your cellphone. If your battery is dead, it's pretty hard to call for help.
What should be in a Winter Emergency Car Kit?
Your winter car survival kit should contain cold weather gear, basic survival supplies and tools for roadside repairs.
- First Aid Kit – Either a larger one for the car such as the Survival Solutions Traveler First Aid Kit. See the Best First Aid Kit for more information and things you should add to ANY first aid kit.
- Sleeping – just in case you are stuck in the car off the road or snowed in somewhere overnight
- Hats – If you are stuck in the snow you NEED a hat. Stash an extra hat or two in the trunk, preferably a 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.
- Gloves – Winter gloves or mittens can go over your existing gloves for extra warmth
- A regular pair of 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.
- Scarves – You'll be glad to have them if you end up walking. A Merino Lambswool scarf is even better
- Boots – Have an extra pair in your car or truck. You could be dressed up or under-dressed going to the store for a quick trip, and end up needing to slug around in the snow. Consider getting them a bit larger so you can wear wool socks.
- Car shovel – These are small collapsible shovels that make decent emergency shovels. Alternately, consider a fixed handle shovel.
- Sharp Knife. Consider a rescue knife (it can break a car window and cut a seatbelt) within reach of the driver.
- Flashlights. Having a couple in the car is a good idea. A few cheap AA Q5 flashlights, the AAA Lumintop EDC 01 and/or the 18650 Thrunite TN12, preferably including at least one waterproof flashlight. For more info see the “Best Cheap Flashlight” or “Brightest Flashlights“.
- 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.
- 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
- Electronic Road Flares these avoid the risk of fire but require 6 AAA batteries (we recommend lithium or low self discharge rechargeable AAA batteries Eneloop or Tenergy) and you might also want Road warning flags because they don't require batteries.
- Bright colored safety vest or poncho, to make yourself more visible.
- Tire Iron or Lug Wrench and a heavy duty scissor car jack or bottle jack with stand
- Heavy Tow Strap if you have ever towed someone, a strap is a LOT safer than just rope or chain.
- At least two rolls of 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.
- Fuse kit various types.
- Paracord to make makeshift tent, tie a door closed, or hood
- De-Icer Windshield Washer Fluid
- A couple of Sharpie pens. They can be used to write on pretty much anything, which is useful in an emergency.
- 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.
- Kleenex, some wipes
- Toothbrush, floss and toothpaste
- Lip balm
- Feminine hygiene items as needed
- Baby/toddler items if needed
- 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
- 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.
- Kitty litter or sand for tire traction. Note – clay litter will make the road more slippery, not less. Use a different type, such as ground walnut hulls.
- 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. We agree with Edmunds – snow tires for winter, summer tires for the rest of the year.
- 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.
- 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.
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. Last winter I used one of these to help dig out someone in a parking lot who thought it was a good idea to park in a snowbank. (Christmas crazy shopping time and the lot was packed.) Heavy, hard packed snow, and 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
I keep our main kit in an old military backpack I purchased at FleetFarm – inexpensive and durable. Another kit went into a backpack. Some folks use totes, too.
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 Kit
You can just buy a pre-packed roadside emergency 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 Items: First-Aid Tape, 25 Adhesive Bandage, 6 Antiseptic Towelettes, 2 Gauze Pads 5 Butterfly Skin Closure Bandages, 4 Knuckle Bandages, 4 Fingertip bandages, 1 Extra Large Bandages, 15 Small Bandages, 3 Iodine Pads, 10 Alcohol Prep Pads, 1 Bandage Roll, 10 Q-Tips, 1 Pair Disposable Gloves.
We suggest you at least add: flashlights, duct tape, Quik Clot, Sharpie pens, 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. 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.
Winter Travel Emergency
Use this post to be more prepared for winter roadtrips for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year celebrations or road trips later in the winter. You might not want or need every item in these lists, but they will get you thinking. Use the lists to better prepared for a road side emergency, breakdown on a day trip, unexpected overnight hotel stay or other winter vehicle emergency. Having a few more supplies for the snow months could pay off if your vehicle ends up in the ditch or worse. It can even pay off if you are totally safe and just stuck in a hotel when you thought you could make it home. Having a toothbrush and toothpaste and a fresh change of clothes can make those winter storms less unpleasant.
Is anything missing from this post?
Let us know in the comments below and please pass this post along to friends if you find it useful.
Stay warm and safe this winter.
You may also find 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
- Snowstorms & Extreme Cold Checklist
Don't forget to check out our other Cold Weather Preparedness posts.
Originally posted in 2011, updated in Dec 2018.