Carrie Aulenbacher was about 10 minutes away from work one winter afternoon when her plans changed radically.
"A tractor-trailer jackknifed in front of me," she recalls. Just like that, she and several other motorists were immobilized on I-90 in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Thankfully, conditions were in her favor. She'd recently had lunch and had a blanket in the car, so she remained relatively comfortable for what became a six-hour wait. "Basically, I sat and read while I waited for troopers and emergency personnel to clean the mess," she says.
But the experience left Aulenbacher with a new appreciation for being prepared. Among the essentials she now keeps in her car are an emergency kit with an extra set of clothes and socks, granola bars, water and a blanket. She keeps her cell phone charged. She also keeps a bag of salt in the trunk, useful for melting ice, which improves traction.
In winter, road conditions and weather can alter your route at a moment's notice. Ensure the safety of yourself and your passengers by preparing now.
Before You Go
Use weather apps and social media to stay up to date on weather conditions throughout the day, especially before you hit the road. For a longer trip, let someone know where you are going, your anticipated route and your arrival time.
A quick trip in pleasant weather can take significantly longer in winter. Keep your gas tank at least half full. This ensures you'll get where you're going, and should you become stranded, you'll be able to run the engine longer.
First, take inventory of your car's year-round safety gear. Make sure you have a set of jumper cables, a phone charger and a flashlight in your car. Consider including something like the LifeHammer, too, in case the unthinkable happens and you get trapped inside the vehicle. Also, don't forget to make sure that your spare tire is properly inflated, if your car is equipped with one.
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Come winter, you'll want to add more items. As Carrie Aulenbacher discovered, a warm blanket can make a big difference, as can packaged nuts or energy bars for emergency sustenance. When it's really cold, hand warmers provide quick relief. A shovel gives you a fighting chance of digging yourself out of a snowdrift, while a bag of sand or kitty litter can be poured in the path of your wheels to aid traction. Signal flares maximize visibility if you're stuck on the side of the road; likewise, a brightly colored scarf or bandana can be affixed to a disabled vehicle to indicate that something's amiss. If you're looking for a one-step solution, check out ready-made kits that include an emergency sign and other basics. You can spend as little as $12 or as much as $130, depending on your comfort level.
Store moisture-sensitive items, such as signal flares and matches, inside the cabin, where they're protected from the weather. "Most people opt for under the seats," says Cliff Hodges, founder of Adventure Out LLC.
Fend Off the Chill
Keeping warm in a car can be a challenge. It may be tempting to keep the heat running, but it's best not to deplete your gas tank all at once. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) recommends running a car for only about 10 minutes each hour.
Always get out first to clear the snow around your exhaust pipe, and check that it isn't clogged with snow or ice. This important step will ensure that carbon monoxide does not seep into the car, resulting in illness or death.
Watch for signs of frostbite on yourself or young children. "Frostbite starts off as redness of the skin of the fingers, toes, and face. You'll notice sensations such as numbness or pins and needles," says Joe Alton, M.D., co-author of The Survival Medicine Handbook. Next, he says, the skin will turn white and waxy, and later on, blue or even black.
At the first indications of frostbite, take steps to warm the area. Place your hands inside your armpits and blow warm air onto them, suggests Alston.
Creativity can make the difference between cold and comfortable, so see what's around you. Grocery bags, floor mats or school papers can be wrapped around the body to trap heat, or stuffed into clothing as insulation.
Don't hesitate to "re-purpose" parts of your car if they can be used for keeping warm in a prolonged emergency. "Cars are full of insulation," says Hodges. "I've run an urban survival course where we stripped out the insulation and padding from the car seats and stuffed our clothes with it: in effect, making our own wardrobe into a warm sleeping bag."
As you wait, take advantage of body heat by snuggling up with passengers or pets. Tuck blankets or extra items around yourselves.
Don't get out and walk a significant distance for help, even if you're stranded in a familiar area. "It is best to stay in one place in a survival situation, especially in the winter when exposure is a present threat," says Hodges. Staying put conserves your energy, keeps you sheltered and makes it easier for rescuers to find you, he says.
Even if your cell phone shows "no service," attempt a 911 call. According to FCC rules, all service providers are required to pick up and transmit a 911 call. Also, try sending a text, which will sometimes go through in areas of spotty coverage.
Before calling for help, identify a landmark, street or exit you recently passed. According to a USA Today investigation, the ability of 911 to identify your location varies from a low of 10 percent to a high of 95 percent.
Don't turn off your phone to conserve battery power. Instead, turn the device's lighting down to the lowest level, and turn off any apps that are running. Turn off all unnecessary notifications and be sure the phone is on ring, not vibrate. Also, disable Bluetooth and Wifi.
Know the features of the vehicle you're driving. Some are equipped to automatically transmit your vehicle's location to a call center via services such as General Motors' OnStar, Ford's Sync 911 Assist or BMW Assist. Some systems have a voice link, enabling you to converse with authorities.
Food and Water
If it looks as if you'll be stranded for a long time, nourishment becomes an issue.
Take stock of available food, and make a plan for rationing it. The body can survive several days without food, but water is the priority. You can avoid dehydration by taking advantage of snow, but use caution.
"Snow is mostly air, so you get less water than you'd think," says Alton. Also be on the lookout for contaminants: Only consume white, freshly fallen snow.
Remember, too, that the temperature of snow will have a cooling effect on your body, which is already chilled. Eat small amounts, spread over time.
"The smaller your body, the more effect the cold will have," Alton says. Children will become hypothermic faster than adults if they eat too much snow.
In today's hyper-connected age, the idea of becoming stranded may seem unthinkable. But unexpected circumstances do arise, so your best defense is preparation and knowledge.
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