winter car survival kit

Winter: Your Car Survival Kit

You don’t need to have a 6-month supply of emergency food and water to be prepared for disasters (though that certainly isn’t a bad idea!).  

Often, it is the small things we do which can make a huge difference.  

With winter around the corner, it is imperative that you take the time to make a winter car survival kit in case you have a breakdown during bad weather.  

What to Do If Your Car Breaks Down in Winter

Many of the deaths that occur during winter breakdowns are because people simply didn’t follow smart practices.  Like the lady who froze to death during the 1997 Colorado blizzard because she decided to try to walk home.  Or the many people who die from carbon monoxide poisoning in their vehicles.

So, make sure you know these steps to take if you get stuck in your car during winter!

1. Call for help.

Don’t let your ego cost your life. If your car breaks down, immediately call for help instead of hoping you’ll get out of it on your own.

blizzard vehicle rescue

PennDot came to the rescue for these people, but it took 18 hours for them to get there!

2. Stay in your car.

 Unless you can get to a populated area very quickly, you should stay in your car and wait to be rescued.  You generally have a better chance of being rescued if you wait in your car.  The car will also provide you with shelter while you wait to be rescued. (3)

3. Run your engine sparingly to heat the car.

You can turn on your vehicle to run the heater. It will help keep your battery from dying and prevent fuel lines from freezing.

However, you have to be very careful about doing this so you don’t drain the battery or die of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Make sure your tail pipe is clear of snow before turning on your car!

  • If you have more than a half tank of gas, you can run your engine about once per hour for 10-15 minutes. 
  • If your gas tank is less than half full, only run the engine about 1-2 times per day for 10 minutes.
  • Always roll down the window a crack when heating the vehicle. This will prevent carbon monoxide buildup. 

An 8-cylinder engine will use up about 1 gallon of gas per hour at idle, whereas 4 and 6-cylinder engines will use less.  Keep this in mind before running your engine.

winter plugged tailpipe

A plugged tailpipe like this one can kill you!

4. Keep your car clear of snow.

 This will make it easier for rescuers to find your vehicle.  However, if your vehicle is completely covered by a snow bank, do NOT get out to clear the snow.  The amount of energy it would take to clear the snow isn’t worth it.  Plus, you’ll start sweating from exertion, and that will make you wet and colder.

5. Avoid using the dome light.

 This will drain your battery.  Use a flashlight if you want to read to kill the boredom.

6. Don’t eat snow.

Snow is very fluffy and doesn’t contain that much water per volume.  If you eat snow, you’ll just cause your core body temperature to drop without actually getting much hydration in the process.  Always melt snow before consuming it.

Also remember that even clean snow can contain parasites, bacteria, and other pathogens.  It might not be your top priority when trapped in your car during a blizzard, but you’ll want to purify the snow water first. The last thing you need is hypothermia and diarrhea! (4)

7. Signal for help.

Use signaling flags and reflectors to alert rescuers to your location.   You can also honk your horn using the SOS Morse code (three short, three long, three short).  However, only honk when your car is running so you don’t drain your battery.

8. Exercise to stay warm.

Move your arms and legs to improve circulation and help you stay warm.  It makes a huge difference.

9. Insulate your car.

Cars are very poorly insulated.  You’ll lose a lot of body heat through the windows and doors.  Even a small amount of insulation around those spaces can make a big difference to your level of warmth.

Use anything you have available to block cracks in the windows and doors.  Duct taping trash bags, for example, is a great solution.  You can also stuff newspapers into cracks.

You should also try to block up unused space in the car.  For example, if you have a large SUV, hang a blanket behind the front seats to block off the back area.  More of your body heat will stay in the front section.(5)

10. Beware of condensation.

car window condensation

Winter backpackers know about this problem!

Your breath and body heat can create a lot of condensation, which in turn creates a wet environment in the shelter.  

Don’t be surprised if you see drops of water forming on the ceiling of your car. It might seem counterintuitive, but you should open the windows of the car a crack if you notice condensation.


Winter Car Survival Kit Checklist


1. Shovel, windshield scraper, and small broom 

These items are used to keep your car clear of snow so you can be found easier.  

 2. Headlamp and spare batteries

I prefer headlamps to standard flashlights.  They free up your hands so you can clear snow from your vehicle with more ease.  Imagine trying to shovel while holding a flashlight!

It would take 3x longer and cause you to be exposed to the cold longer.

3. Crank-powered emergency radio.

You’ll need your emergency radio to keep up on road conditions.

Crank-power means you don’t have to worry about batteries dying on you.  

A radio also comes in handy to help kill boredom while waiting to be rescued.  A lot of people make poor decisions when they become bored. Here are some of the best emergency radios.

4. Hygiene kit

Your driving survival kit should include toilet paper, baby wipes, trash bags, feminine items, and diapers (if you have an infant).  You can urinate into an empty water bottle to avoid going into the cold.

5. Hats, socks, mittens, jacket, and boots

You should have these items for every member of your family.  Yes, I know you will probably already be wearing these items in winter.  However, they could easily get wet so you’ll want spares.

Also, you’ll be grateful to be able to double up on the clothes when it gets cold! 

stranded cars during blizzard

Imagine if you had to walk home in your work shoes! Keep boots in your driving survival kit!

6. Blankets and/or sleeping bags

If you can afford them, get sub-zero sleeping bags for each member of your family.  The shape of sleeping bags make them better at trapping body heat than blankets.

If you have to go with blankets, opt for wool ones.  Wool blankets dry faster and do a great job of trapping heat.

 7. Bivvy Bag

A bivvy bag is essentially a waterproof sack that you can get into.  A lot of people think it is okay to only have a bivvy bag in their winter car survival kit.

Yes, a bivvy bag will trap your body heat and get you warm – but it will also make you sweat like crazy. After a few hours in a bivvy bag, don’t be surprised if you are completely drenched in sweat.  This in turn makes you colder and defeats the entire purpose of using the bivvy bag.

A bivvy bag must be used OVER a sleeping bag or blanket.

First you get in your sleeping bag or wrap yourself in blankets.  Then you crawl into the bivvy bag.  The sleeping bag/blanket will provide enough insulation to keep condensation from building up in the bivvy bag.  The combo is very effective at keeping you warm. (6) 

There are plenty of cheap emergency bivvy bags for $5 that you can buy.  These are generally not any better than crawling into a trash bag.  I suggest getting something a little better.  

The best bivvy bags are breathable but quite pricey, like this one:

 For a more affordable bivvy bag, this Tact Bivvy is good:

winter tact bivvy

 8. Emergency car tools and supplies

You can avoid getting trapped in your car in winter by having tools to fix the problem that has you stranded.

  • Spare tire, jack, and lug wrench
  • Can of tire inflator and sealant 
  • Tow chain - this one is highly rated
  • Spare fuses
  • Road salt, sand, or cat litter
  • Booster cables
  • Motor oil
  • Antifreeze, coolant, and windshield washer fluid
  • Pocket knife and multi-tool

Of these emergency tools, the jumper cables are arguably the most important.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of issues with standard jumper cables – particularly that you need to lug around a spare battery or wait for someone else to come and offer a jumpstart.

These pocket jumper cables are really cool.  They act as a portable power bank for your devices, but can also be used for jumpstarting your car.  It weighs just 8oz and can jumpstart your car 20 times on a single charge.  No need to connect to another car’s battery!

pocket emergency jumper cables

9. First aid kit

 You should have a first aid kit in your driving survival kit regardless of the season.  Be sure to include any medications that you need to take.

Also, pay attention to where you keep the car first aid kit.  If you have an accident (like sliding off the road on black ice), you might not be able to get to the trunk of your car. It’s better to keep the first aid kit under the passenger seat.

10. Emergency signaling items

In case of an accident of getting stuck in your car during winter, you need to have a way to signal for help.   No – reflectors will NOT be enough! They are important to have in your emergency kit, but won’t help rescuers spot your vehicle from a distance.

Include in your winter car kit:

  • Phone plus charger
  • Roadside flares 
  • Reflectors (put next to your vehicle to increase visibility) 
  • Whistle (for calling for help without having to use your horn and drain the battery)
  • Fluorescent distress/HELP flag
  • Notepad and pencil (in case you evacuate- leave a note saying where you are headed) 

11. Emergency heat sources

Cars are very poorly insulated.  Even in a sleeping bag/bivvy bag combo, you might still find it very hard to stay warm.  Yes, it is possible to heat your car during a breakdown without turning it on (which you should only do for 10-15 minutes at a time every hour, assuming you’ve got enough gas).

Here’s what you need in your vehicle to stay warm:

1. Hand warmers: 

Put these in your gloves and shoes to prevent frostbite.

2. Duct tape + trash bags:

Tape trash bags (or newspapers, blankets, bubble wrap…) around the windows and doors to seal off cracks.

3. Candles

This is a trick I learned while winter camping. You’d be surprised how much heat a few candles can put out. A single multi-wick candle can keep your car comfortable for up to 24 hours. 

More candles equals more heat. Of course, you need to be careful that the candles don’t tip over, so make sure you get candles with sturdy bases. (7) 

4. Indoor-Safe Heater

Most heaters are absolutely NOT safe to be used inside a car.

However, this heater is safe for indoor use as it will automatically shut off if turned over or if low oxygen levels are detected.  It’s pretty small so you can easily keep it in your trunk.  

Do note that it generally isn’t advised to keep propane in your car because of fire risk during accidents. Weigh whether that risk is worth the security of having an emergency heater with you at all times.

IMPORTANT: Emergency heaters – including propane and candles – produce carbon monoxide.  CO poisoning is a leading cause of death during emergencies.  

If you are going to put a propane heater or candles in your car winter emergency kit, you must also include a CO detector.  These are small and can easily be kept in your trunk.

There are mini CO detector strips (usually used by aviators) like this one which are really cheap.  It is only activated once you open it.

 Alternatively, pay a bit more for a battery-operated CO detector.  Just put the batteries in it once you are ready to use it in your car. 

12. Emergency Food

In most survival situations, you can go for 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. However, your body uses significantly more energy when trying to stay warm.  Since you’ll probably also be shoveling snow off your car, you will need a lot more calories.

According to this source, the typical person consumes about 2,300 calories per day.  About half of those would be used to regulate body temperature.  To make sure your body can stay warm enough, you’ll need 3,500 calories per day while trapped in your vehicle during winter.

 When choosing food for your winter car survival kit, you’ll want sugary foods that provide quick energy. Candy bars are especially great for fighting off hypothermia.

Include in Your Kit:

If you want to take your winter car survival kit to the next level, consider getting some self-heating  meals. These meals are fairly cheap and they come with a “heater” which works through a chemical reaction.  

A hot meal can go a long way towards warming you up when trapped in your car!

*Remember to also pack a mess kit if you want to include some of these self-heating meals! 

 13. Water

During a winter breakdown, you will have water all around you in the form of snow. But you should NEVER EAT SNOW.  It will cause your core temperature to drop.  

Since there isn’t that much water in the snow anyway (it’s fluffy), it isn’t worth freezing your body for the amount of water you’d get.

Make sure you have plenty of bottled water in your car emergency kit.  You’ll also need a way to melt the water in case it freezes.

Include in Your Kit:

  • Bottled water – the bottles shouldn’t be completely full to prevent cracking in case they freeze
  • Tin can or pot (for heating frozen water or melting snow)
  • Matches - I like these waterproof and stromproof matches and they are available for free at the moment (just cover S+H)
  • Stove or candles (use outdoors or follow the same safety protocols for using emergency heaters in your car!) I use this clever bio-lite camp stove which also doubles as a phone charger.
  • Water filter or purification tablets (even clean-looking snow should be purified before consuming). Check out this guide to the best water filters for more. 

I came across this really cool product which is perfect for winter survival kits.  It is a self-heating mug.  Even though it is meant for coffee, you could put snow in it.

The mug would melt the snow and give you water for drinking.  It plugs into your car lighter. 

Winter Car Bonus Survival Kit Tips:

  • Store important items under the passenger seat in case the trunk is jammed shut.
  • Check your kit items before the start of each season.
  • Water bottles should be rotated every 6-12 months to prevent leaking.

About the Author Jacob Hunter

I'm Jacob Hunter, founder and chief editor of Primal Survivor. I believe in empowering people with the knowledge to prepare and survive in the modern world.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime

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