Winter Survival Kit For Cars – A Guide To Vehicle Emergency Preparation

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

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

With winter around the corner, you must take the time to look at winter car survival kits if you have a breakdown during bad weather.

What to Do If Your Car Breaks Down in Winter

Many of the deaths during winter breakdowns are because people 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, ensure you know these steps if you get stuck in your car during winter!

1. Call for help.

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

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 alone.

2. Stay in your car.

Unless you can get to a populated area 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 shelter you while you wait to be rescued.

3. Run your engine sparingly to heat the car.

winter plugged tailpipe
A plugged tailpipe like this one can kill you!

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

Important – Make sure your tailpipe 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 daily 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.

4. Keep your car clear of snow.

This will make it easier for rescuers to find your vehicle.  However, if a snowbank completely covers your car, do NOT get out to clear the snow.

The energy it would take to clear the snow isn’t worth it.  Plus, you’ll start sweating from exertion, making 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 cause your core body temperature to drop without getting much hydration.  Always melt snow before consuming it.

Also, remember that even clean snow can contain parasites, bacteria, and other pathogens.  When trapped in your car during a blizzard, it might not be your top priority, but you’ll want to purify the snow water first.

The last thing you need is hypothermia and diarrhea!

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.

10. Beware of condensation.

car window condensation

Winter backpackers know about this problem!

Your breath and body heat can create a lot of condensation, creating 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 crack the vehicle’s windows if you notice condensation.

Winter Car Emergency Survival Kit Checklist

1. Shovel, windshield scraper, and small broom

These items keep your car clear of snow so you can be found more easily.

 2. Headlamp and spare batteries

I prefer rechargeable headlamps to standard flashlights.  They free up your hands so you can easily clear snow from your vehicle.  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 quickly 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 sleeping bags

If you can afford them, get sub-zero sleeping bags for each family member.  The shape of sleeping bags makes 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.

Recommended Reading: Best Blankets For Survival

 7. Bivvy Bag

A bivy bag is essentially a waterproof sack that you can get into.  Many 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.

Note – 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 ones are breathable but quite pricey, like this one. (Amazon Link)

For a more affordable bivvy bag, this Tact Bivvy is decent:
winter tact bivvy

 8. Emergency car tools and supplies

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

  • Car fire extinguisher
  • Spare tire, jack, and lug wrench
  • Can of tire inflator and sealant (Amazon Link)
  • Tow chain – this one is highly rated (Amazon Link)
  • Recovery strap (for pulling out stuck vehicles; different than a tow chain)
  • Spare fuses
  • Road salt, sand, or cat litter
  • Booster cables
  • Motor oil
  • Antifreeze, coolant, and windshield washer fluid
  • Pocket knife and multitool

Recommended Reading:

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

These pocket jumper cables  (Survival Frog Link) are really cool.  They act as a portable power bank for your devices and can also be used to jumpstart your car.  It weighs just 2lbs 7oz and can jumpstart your car 20 times on a single charge.

No need to connect to another car’s battery! Click the image for more info.

9. First aid kit

Regardless of the season, you should have a first aid kit in your driving survival kit.  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 or 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 essential 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 (Amazon Link)
  • Reflectors – put next to your vehicle to increase visibility. (Amazon Link)
  • Whistle – for calling for help without using your horn and draining the battery. (Amazon Link)
  • 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 every hour, assuming you’ve got enough gas).

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

a. Hand warmers:

Put these in your gloves and shoes to prevent frostbite. Buy on Amazon.

b. Duct tape + trash bags:

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

c. 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 equal more heat. Of course, you must be careful that the candles don’t tip over, so make sure you get candles with sturdy bases.

d. Indoor-Safe Heater

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

However, this heater (Amazon Link) is safe for indoor use as it will automatically shut off if turned over or if low oxygen levels are detected. It’s 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 always having an emergency heater with you.

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

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

You can buy a mini CO detector on Amazon (usually used by aviators); they are cheap and last a long time. 

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.

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:

  • Energy bars
  • Candy bars
  • Raisins, other dried fruits

Consider getting self-heating meals to take your winter car survival kit to the next level. These meals are reasonably cheap and come with a “heater” that works through a chemical reaction.

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

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

Read more about what emergency food to store in your car.

 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 get.

Make sure you have plenty of bottled water in your car emergency kit. You’ll also need a way to melt the water if 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 or fire starting method – Learn more about the best survival lighter.
  • 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 consumption). Check out this guide to the best water filters for more.

Read more about storing emergency water in your car.

Winter Car Bonus Survival Kit Tips:

  • Store essential items under the passenger seat if 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.
  • Read more about cold weather survival

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Leave a comment

  1. Please remove that tow strap or at least state the difference between a tow strap versus a recovery strap. Many people have been killed using a tow strap as a recovery strap. List a recovery strap instead, please.

    • Great point. I’ve added recovery strap and noted the difference between it and a tow strap. Ideally, one would have both of those straps.

  2. Here is a link to a collection of survival stories in the Idaho area: Of special interest to me is the one about Rita and Albert Chretien lost in March 19, 2011. Rita stayed with the vehicle and was rescued in early May 6, of 2011. Her husband tried to walk out. His remains were recovered in Sept 2012…
    When I go off I take the Family BOB and 1 or 2 cases of bottled water. The vehicle kit contains a tool kit, towing equipment, strobe light, flare gun, air pump, tire patch kit, and an assortment of nuts, bolts, and clamps etc all packaged in one 5 gallon pail.

  3. At the time of this reading in SE GA, it is 75 and raining. My most essential winter weather gear are umbrellas and mosquito spray. So, calling on every one to store snow shovels and cat litter is regional at best. Granted, it does get cold and the temperature can change within hours, but the danger or snow, sleet, or subzero temperatures is remote. However, for those living in the snowbound regions of the country, this was excellent!

    • Very true Mark – and it is one of the things we repeat constantly, you have to prep for your own particular situation. Take the ideas given here and adapt for your own circumstances.

    • Of course February 2021 provided at least 8 straight days of extremely thick ice and subzero temps even during daylight hours even for those of us in the deep South! If one had become stranded somehow on that first day they might well have not survived if they didn’t have at least some of these critical items in their car, as the number of vehicles that were even ABLE to drive in that mess were greatly reduced (thus reducing chances of being rescued in a timely manner.) we’ve never seen cold like that here and I pray to God we never do again. I consider it a violation of my birthright as a Southern. 😛

  4. Never found kitty litter to help. It is clay, and if it gets wet, it doesn’t help. Go to a farm feed store and get scratch feed. It is crumbled rock for chickens. Doesn’t hold water and gives great traction. Store it in 1 lb coffee cans in your trunk. If you get the box the can comes in, it will hold 6 of them. Used to live in U.P. of Michigan. When rear wheel drive was the thing, used to carry 12 cans, weight and traction.


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