I have lost count of the amount of friends and family who have jumped in their car in the middle of winter when there is ice and snow to drive 5 – 10 miles while dressed in a t-shirt and trousers! Clearly a stupid idea and one that will have serious consequences should they end up stranded without car emergency kits to help you out.
Prepare to survive the worst case scenario
One of the keys to most survival situations is putting in some kind of preparation beforehand, hopefully this post will do some of that for you or at least give you some food for thought. I want to save you some hardship should your vehicle breakdown and you are stranded.
You are driving 100 miles to visit friends and your journey takes you via a long bleak isolated road. As it is friends you haven’t seen in a while the whole family are along for the ride so you have your 2 kids and both Mom and Dad.
The journey is going as expected so far, you are happily singing away to Kenny Rodgers and Dolly Parton and the kids are fighting over everything and nothing; situation normal. As you get to the half way point the car grinds to a halt with a bang; it looks like the engine has ceased to be an engine any more. So you pull to the side of the road to investigate; bad news the engine bay is covered in oil and is smoking. You are officially stranded.
Looking around there is nothing to see for miles but empty space. Now what? What should you do? You only really have 2 choices, sit inside the car out of the elements or sit outside and be exposed to the elements more. Whilst pondering your options you will just call for help and everything will be okay in no time at all… Oh dear, no phone signal!
After about half an hour your kids ask for something to drink, unfortunately as you didn’t plan correctly and you have no water. After an hour you are all feeling the stress of situation. You now start to weigh up your options, you can stay put or you could try to walk to the next habitation which is only around 6 or 7 miles.
What are your options if your vehicle breaks down?
Staying means you are not actively doing anything but hiding from the elements. Your kids are getting upset and cranky, your spouse is voicing concerns about being stranded and dying in the middle of nowhere. If you stay you wont have to worry about a random lunatic stopping and harming your family as you will be there to protect them.
Going means separating yourself from your family and exposing yourself to the weather for around 2 hours. Doing this would also mean you are split and should someone help your family, they now need to find you. The plus side is that you will be able to raise the alarm and effect a rescue and minimize the time for our local lunatic to find your family.
What is the safest option if stranded after a breakdown?
The best option in most cases is to stay with your vehicle as one, that way there is only a single rescue required as you have not wandered off. The car at the side of the road is also a huge target and is easier to see at a distance than 4 people sitting at the side of the road. the car can provide you with shelter and options should your situation get worse.
The danger of a cold vehicle in winter
When thinking about whether to stay inside or outside of the vehicle in the winter the considerations are similar. There is an additional potentially deadly and surprising phenomenon that is largely unknown to most people during the colder months. It is not always better to stay inside the vehicle as it can be significantly colder than the surrounding air temperature.
This is due to a phenomenon known as cold soaking whereby the air cools down large objects slowly over time; it can be as little as hours if the 2 ends of the daily temperature variation are large enough.
This then means when the air temperature increases, normally during the day time, the large object (car) doesnt heat up anywhere near as fast and is colder than the surrounding air. This can be fatal if you are in a survival situation and always worth remembering.
Always weigh up cold soaking with the weather you are experiencing as snow, rain, wind etc will probably be more or an issue than cold soaking, especially if you are prepared beforehand.
So back to our scenario, when you are sitting there with nothing to do until you are stumbled upon, you turn your mind to thinking about what you should have done before leaving the house; you come up with the following thoughts
Essentials to pack in your car emergency kits in the summer
- Water – enough for a full car load of people to last 24 hrs.
- Shelter – This can be a tent or a large tarpaulin/shelter sheet with some way of securing it to the ground and/or your vehicle.
- A communication device – One that requires no phone signal i.e. A Locator Beacon, mirror, flares, smoke etc.
- Basic toolkit- to try and repair faults.
- Tire weld & foot pump- Tire is basically a can of expanding foam that seals punctures. It means the tyre will need replaced but it will hopefully get you out of trouble.
- Spare tyre – It sounds silly but people dont always carry them. My mother drove around for 3 years without a spare tyre because she wanted to save fuel by not carrying “unnecessary” weight!? Also know how to change the tyre and have the tools to do so, including the adaptor if you have locking wheel nuts!
- Map – Unlike a GPS they never run out of power and can be used to work out where you and where help might be.
- A couple of flash lights – I have a small obsession with Petzl head torches and have about 7 or 8 of them. Invest in a couple of decent headtorches or flashlights. As a little bit of overkill I also have a small strobe that I can leave on that can be seen for miles.
- Batteries – For your torches or communication device.
- Sleeping bag – It may be warm during the day but its not always the case at night. The Nevada desert is oppressively hot during the day but really cold at night; during my Desert Survival Instructor course I had to spoon another man (it never happened Jack…) at night to stay warm, honestly it was that cold.
- Fuel – Having a spare gallon of fuel if you run out or help if you need to make a signal fire quickly.
- Tow rope – Make sure this is up to the job and of sufficient length that it will still reach your vehicle should you be in a ditch. Around 50 feet in length should cover most scenarios.
- Thermometer – This will help you identify cold soak and where is cooler.
- Spare tire – Sounds silly, my mother has removed hers because it “saves fuel…” It is also worth making sure it is fully inflated.
That covers the essentials for surviving if you are stranded in the heat, lets now look at the cold; same scenario but look at the nuances associated with winter.
What to consider having packed in your car emergency kits during the winter?
Well a lot of the same things you would want in summer are still relevant in the winter with the following notes and additions.
- Shelter of some description – I would recommend a tent or at least a Bothy Bag that will allow you to get out of the wind and snow/rain and wont suffer from cold soaking.
- Heat – A gas burner is ideal but remember that the colder it is the more issuesyou will have as the gas can freeze. If you have the option of a liquid fuel burner then these are a better option as they are less likely to freeze but a bit more complicated and expensive.
- Warm clothing – You will need more than you think you will. As you are likely to be sitting still for long periods you will not burn energy to stay as warm. Make sure you have some thick gloves and a hat and sufficient clothing for everyone, not just the main user of the vehicle!
- Sleeping bag – I have witnessed people deploy on military exercises in December with tropical sleeping bags and wondering why they are so cold and miserable?! Have a look at the climate and have a sleeping bag that is suitable. Dont try to save a little money by buying a cheaper option thinking you can just wear extra clothes inside it; that is not how sleeping bags work (see note below). Buy once and buy right, it may just save your life.
- Water – You still require fluids and you will likely be sweating under your clothes so will need to replace that lost water. Remember this could be frozen so have a plan for that.
- Coffee/Tea – There is a fallacy that tea and coffee are hardcore diuretics and are bad for a survival situation; not true! Tea and coffee are 99.9% water and as such the body will use that liquid and it has the double bonus of raising morale and heating the body from the inside without expending vital energy. You can also add in hot chocolate and fruit drinks but whatever you use check the ingredients as some drinks have a high salt content which will make you more thirsty.
- Cup – For drinking your hot drink. There are plenty of folding cups that take up no space at all.
- Shovel – Digging a snow hole or car out of deep snow.
- Space blankets – They cost next to nothing, take up no space and are life savers.
fire lighting kit – A lighter, flint and steel or matches it doesn’t matter just make sure you know how to use it.
- Food – When it is cold food is a lot more important as you require energy to produce heat so having a ready source of calories is essential. The best option is something sweet such as chocolate bars and then something more substantial with complex carbohydrates for longer term energy. There are several options available including ration packs such as MREs that are used by the military.
Its all well and good having lots of kit prepared and packed in your car survival kits should the worst happen; the better option is not to get stranded in the first place. In order to try and prevent this vehicle maintenance is essential as it will lessen the odds of your engine blowing up or wheels falling off. That is only part of the equation though as no matter how well looked after a vehicle is, sometimes things just go wrong.
This is again where a bit of preparation beforehand and a little education can go a long way. Learn about how your vehicle works, know what the warning lights are on your dashboard, understand what you actually have in your vehicle such as toolkits, water sources (screen wash reservoir, that’s why I never use chemicals in mine) fire starters (battery) etc. I have included a quick reference of the common vehicle warning lights at the end of this article that could come in handy for those random alarms and lights on your dashboard.
Much to my absolute frustration and dismay, my mother STILL can’t check the oil on her car, despite seizing 2 engines due to lack of oil! This is not just bad planning it is completely irresponsible as any passengers or other road users can suffer as a result.
As a final note – The lists I have put together should just be the minimum to survive, not to rescue yourself if you have mechanical issues. You can obviously add in other extras like jump-leads, oil, spare fuses, gun etc. as you see fit to suit your own circumstances.
How to use a sleeping bag correctly
Not many people realise how to correctly use a sleeping bag and often struggle to get warm enough based on the manufacturers . When using a sleeping bag, you ideally want to get into it naked or as close to that as possible in order for your body heat to radiate inside. This is how sleeping bags work by using your body heat initially to heat inside and then the materials prevent that heat loss.
If you get in with a couple of layers of clothing then you have insulated your body already which results in no heat escaping = no heat getting into the sleeping bag. The net result is that you are a lot colder than you would be with less clothes on. It sounds counter intuitive but it does work. Dont believe me? Give it a try, see what happens and let me know below in the comments section.
Dave’s final thought on surviving in a stranded vehicle
Always leave the house with a coat or sufficient clothing that should you end up stranded you will have something to keep you sufficiently protected. I know I sound like your Mom… However, even if you are just driving half a mile to the shop, think about how miserable you would be if you had to walk back home in your t-shirt and trousers and it was snowing/raining/windy/cold etc.
It is also worth considering having it to hand such as in the passenger seat as you never know what can happen. Imagine if you swerve to miss a deer in the road and end up in a ditch and trapped in the vehicle overnight? It would be the ultimate kick to the nuts knowing that your nice warm winter goose down North Face jacket is on the back seat and not accessible… Food for thought.