Stranded Car Survival: These Skills Will Save Your Life in a Winter Storm

You never know when a winter storm will hit, snowing you in and trapping you inside your car.

This winter we’ve already seen a few bad ones, like the storm in Virginia that caused collisions and brought traffic to a total standstill for over 24 hours. Fuel rationing, hunger, and sleep deprivation in the cold made for a nightmare experience no one expected.

But it doesn’t take the storm of the century to put you in a very bad position. Winter roads are far more dangerous than most of us realize.

In fact, about 70% of winter weather-related injuries occur in an automobile. And once you’re stranded, frostbite or hypothermia can set in within hours.


As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Before you ever take to the road in winter, make sure you’ve got the following covered:

Radiator – Have the radiator system serviced and check the antifreeze level.

Wiper Fluid – Replace wiper fluid with a formula specifically made for winter weather and ice breakup.

Tires – Ensure tires have the appropriate tread and air pressure. If needed, invest in snow tires or chains.

Gas – Always keep your gas tank near full not only to avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines, but because you never know when you might get stuck or stranded.

Maintenance – Keep on top of regular maintenance like checking your heater, brakes, hazard flashers, battery, etc.

Related Article: 10 Winterization Steps You’re Overlooking


 man talking on cell phone in snow

It seems simple, but when you slide off the road outside of town, this could save your life.

Especially if the roads are bad, tell another person where you’re going, the route you’re taking, and a ballpark idea of when you plan to arrive. If time passes and you go off the radar, your “buddy” can contact authorities and direct them to your location.

Of course, this precaution should be your backup plan. The best-case scenario is that you’re able to contact authorities yourself. Make sure your phone has plenty of power and always keep a portable charger in your car.


If you do find yourself stuck in the snow, don’t leave the heater running non-stop. Instead, run it periodically for about 20 minutes at a time—the shorter the better.

When the engine is on, run the heat as hot and high as it can go. This will help the elevated temperature in the car last longer between the stretches of time your engine isn’t on. (Ensure your exhaust isn’t covered while you’re idling to avoid engine failure.)

When it comes to keeping your car fueled up, it never hurts to have an extra gas can on hand. However, do not store these INSIDE your car or trunk. The fumes can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, and even carbon monoxide poisoning (even if the can is empty).

A full gas can will also “add fuel to the fire” (literally) if you’re in an accident.

To safely keep extra fuel on your vehicle, transport only the amount you need, never overfill a can, and transport it on a roof rack or inside a truck bed.

Related Article: Store More Emergency Fuel for Less Money and Time. Here’s How.


No matter the weather, you’ll always need to stay hydrated. Though it may not feel like it, in the bitter cold your body needs water to keep going.

Always have water in your car to last you 48 hours. Replace it periodically to keep it clean and drinkable.


 headlights at night

Flag – If you’re stuck on the side of the road, tie a brightly colored flag on your antenna, roll it up into your window, or hang it somewhere else on your car.

Use Your Headlights and Horn – If it’s dark or super snowy, flash your car’s headlights, hazard lights, or a flashlight, and honk your car’s horn to bring attention to your location.

Signal Strategically – Of course, it goes without saying to be strategic and preserve the battery life of your car. The good news is that while the car is on and idling, you can use the horn and lights without killing the battery as it uses the engine’s power. When the car is off, you’ll be using your car’s battery.

Take Turns “Standing” Watch – During the night, if others are with you in the car, take shifts to watch for other drivers and signal for help while the others sleep. 


Being in a car is better than no shelter at all. We all know how cold a car can get when it’s been sitting outside for a few hours! Especially if you’re running your heater periodically, you need to keep your space insulated.

Use blankets, floor mats, bags, pillows, and whatever else you can find to trap heat inside. If there are other people in the car, huddle together to keep warm.

You can also stay warm by doing light exercises in the car, like moving your arms and legs.


 walking in the snow

This is a big one—and where lots of people get themselves into trouble. Unless you are absolutely certain where you are and where the nearest town is, do not leave your car.

Even if you do know where you are, stay in your car if it’s storming and visibility is low. Your car provides excellent shelter in a storm and you don’t want to get lost in a blizzard.

Look for multi-use and space-saving items when preparing.

In any survival situation, you want to get items that have multiple uses to reduce how many items you need to have on hand. Look for versatile and multi-use supplies when preparing your winter car kit.

If you drive an SUV, space may be less of a concern. But for those driving smaller vehicles, that trunk space is precious!

Here's a checklist of items you might find helpful for your winter car kit:

  • First aid and survival kits
  • Water supply for 48 hours
  • Water treatment
  • Flashlight (with extra batteries) and whistle
  • Cell phone and portable charger
  • AM/FM radio for weather and emergency broadcasts
  • Jumper cables
  • Snow scraper, brush, and shovel
  • Sleeping bag
  • Blankets
  • Hand warmers, small candles, or matches
  • Winter clothing like gloves, hats, thick socks, an extra coat, and boots
  • Tire chains or tow straps
  • Non-clumping kitty litter or sand to provide traction when stuck
  • Non-perishable food and snacks
  • Personal hygiene items like wipes, a toothbrush, and toilet paper
  • Garbage bags
  • Essential supplies for pets, babies, and children
Car preparednessEmergency heatEmergency lightPrepare for winter


William E Lawson

William E Lawson

If you have a PLB personal emergency locater beacon, keep it in the car it does no good to go into the mountains or woods without one. especially if you are alone. If stuck on a back country road it can be invaluable. there are several good ones but the one I have is an ACR ResQLink View – Buoyant Personal Locator Beacon you can ignore them and they will work for many years

Emergency Essentials

Emergency Essentials

Thank you for sharing your preparedness ideas, Henry!

Emergency Essentials

Emergency Essentials

That’s a great tip, Eatie! Thank you for sharing.



Road flares, Emergency Road Puck or Disc, and a Reflector Vest for everyone in the car in case they need to exit the vehicle. A spare flashlight or two, and extra batteries in a small box in the trunk of the car would be a good idea to have at hand. Cliff Bars, protein bars, and granola bars are all good to have stored in your car in case you are stuck for any length of time at the side of the road. A large bottle of clean water, and a quality water filter should be in the car, as well. I carry a deck of cards in the glove compartment, so you can pass the time with your wife, or friend, and if you are alone, there is always Solitare. A good Road Map like a Hagstrom, or a Rand McNally Atlas that show the details of all major Highways, and Secondary roads, along with train tracks, so you can get an idea of where you are. I keep a small Camp Stove and a box of tea in the car, so I can have something warm to drink, while I am on the side of the road. I like hand warmers, but a Hot Water bottle can be filled with melted snow and provide some extra warmth for you in the car.

Eatie Gourmet

Eatie Gourmet

Someone just suggested this to me a couple days ago: If your car is stranded, change the voice mail msg on your phone from “hi, leave a message, I’ll call you back” to, e.g. “its 5 pm Sunday, My car is [describe car problem] on Rt. X, at Y place, on the northbound side, I’m staying with the car/I’m walking to a place I see with lights on up the road, [etc, other details]”.
Even if the phone dies, it will go to voicemail for anyone calling, and someone may hear it and get help to you.

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