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Dec 06

Road Test Special: Do You Have A Winter Emergency Kit In Your Vehicle?

Snow Crash, Road-Test.org, Iain Shankland
By Iain Shankland

Imagine this…

You’re driving home from a relative or a friend’s house one winter evening. When you left home it was a clear, bright sunny day – but an unexpected snow storm has quickly moved through the area and you’re trying to get home quickly and safely. The road you’re driving on could be a major highway or a country back road, but either way, it’s deserted and you see very few vehicles.

Rounding a bend you start to slide off the road, and before you can do anything about it you’re well and truly stuck in the snow. You may be right beside the road, so someone passing by will see you (and hopefully won’t slide right into your car), or you may be off the road just far enough that a passing motorist wouldn’t see your vehicle as they passed by. (I came up on one motorist a couple of years ago that went into the centre median and the only visible signs of his car were the tail lights.)

You know you have to get out and see if you can at least move the car or dig it out. Unfortunately you didn’t put any winter boots on – you’re wearing dress shoes – oops! And you didn’t bother to bring gloves or a hat with you because the car was nice and warm after idling it for awhile before you left home.

How long do you think you can stumble around out in the freezing snow while you assess your situation, and or dig your way out? With the biting cold wind and the driving snow your fingers and toes will freeze very quickly – not to mention your ears and head.

Winter DrivingIf you were properly prepared you wouldn’t be concerned because you would have your winter Emergency Kit with you. Some people have a blanket in their car and maybe some jumper cables, but that’s not going to help you now, is it?

Putting together a winter kit is very easy and doesn’t require a lot of money – just remember to take it with you everywhere you go – just in case. So what should you put in the kit?

For me it’s quite easy as I’ve only got myself and my wife to worry about, but those with kids will have to add a few little extras.Winter Idiot,  Road-Test.org, Iain Shankland

Snow Brush/Ice Scraper
This is one thing you should NEVER leave home without! And please clean off all of your windows, not just that little square immediately in front of you! And don’t forget to clear the snow off the roof, trunk, hood and bumpers as well.

Gloves/Mittens
Everyone has gloves or mittens they no longer use. Mittens are preferable because they keep your fingers together and they keep each other warm. I’ve seen some half-decent ones at our local dollar store. Set aside a pair of old mittens for each person that travels with you.

winter safety kit - hat, Road-Test.org, Iain ShanklandHat
Again, we’ve all got old hats lying around the house somewhere. I use old wool ski hats. You want to stay warm, you’re not walking down the runway in Milan, so it doesn’t have to be fashionable it just has to do the job. Again, our local dollar store has good ski hats for – a dollar! My wife likes ear muffs when it’s really cold, so there’s a pair of those in there too.

Scarf
Some people already use a scarf in the winter so you might not have to pack one of these. Why do you need one? Well just in case you don’t have a winter jacket on at the time, a scarf can be used to protect your face against the cold, double as a hat in a pinch, and or to keep the back of your neck warm. It also helps to stop the snow going down the front of your coat and getting you cold and wet. Guess where you can get one…for a dollar.

Boots & Socks
We all have old winter boots we just never get around to throwing away. Pack a pair for everyone. I use old hiking boots. The main thing is to keep your feet dry and in turn warm. I carry extra socks as well to help me keep warm, just put them on top of your designer socks you’re wearing. Get those unattractive thick wool socks out and put them in your kit.

Blanket
It’s always good to have a blanket or two for the time you’re waiting for help. You may not be able to run the engine to keep you warm (it’s often not safe to do so – especially if you’re stuck in the snow – you could risk carbon monoxide asphyxiation if the fumes back up in the car), so that’s where they’ll come in handy. Sleeping bags work even better but are a lot bulkier.

All but the blanket(s) will fit in an old compact sports bag that you no doubt have lying around the house. It doesn’t take up much room in the trunk, just remember to take it into the passenger compartment before you set off in a storm. If you leave it in the trunk you might not be able to get to it if you’ve stuffed your car backwards into a snow bank or roll the car.

Food & Drink
It’s always a good idea to keep something in the car to keep your energy up if you’re digging the car out, or just in case you get hungry or thirsty. Unfortunately water freezes so water bottles will be frozen if you’ve left them in the car during the winter. We carry water pouches in the car. They freeze, but it’s easier to thaw them with your hands in an emergency. You can find them in the grocery store where the kid’s lunch food/drinks are. As for food – non-perishable food like peanuts are good, as are granola bars or some type of power bar. Just remember to take them out in the spring and put new ones in next winter.

Mobile/Cell Phone
This is a no-brainer in today’s society. Everyone already has one, so there’s no point telling you to pack one for an emergency! HOWEVER, if you don’t have one – get one! It doesn’t have to be anything too fancy … just a simply pay-as-you-go phone that will cost you very little to operate, but could be invaluable! If you’re really cheap, just ask someone that no longer needs their old phone – all phones can call 911 without a phone plan for emergencies.

Now that you and the family are taken care of, what else should you take with you?

CAA/AAA Membership
Most new cars give you from 3-5 years of road side assistance. If you don’t have that coverage, then you have to get CAA/AAA! One tow and the entire year’s membership has paid for itself. I know people that drive new cars and they have CAA/AAA as a back-up to the factory road side assistance program. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind motoring.

Winter Tires
These are probably the best investment you could ever make for your car. It could be the difference between getting home or getting out the emergency kit at the side of the road in a snow storm. Remember – you’re not buying a new set every year, they’ll last several years and you’ll also be saving the tread on your summer/all season tires, so they’ll last longer too. Many insurance companies now give you a discount for using them.Braking on ICY roads - winter vs all-season tire

Shovel
A small shovel is always a good idea to have – otherwise how will you dig yourself out? I’ve got one of those folding camper shovels that save a lot of space. Other alternatives are ex-army shovels that you can find in an army surplus store. There are also dedicated mini snow shovels just for the occasion, but I found them to be a little expensive and I’m not sure how durable they’d be – most are plastic.

Traction Aid
Some people recommend salt or kitty litter to put under the tires to give you grip. Salt isn’t a good idea because the spinning tire will simply melt it. Kitty litter is much lighter and works better. How much should you take with you? I wouldn’t recommend the 50 lb bag, but a small bag should do it – just remember – the more weight in the car, the worse off your fuel mileage. I don’t use either. I have used my winter mats to help be out of trouble in the past, so that’s one option. They’re already in the car and therefore don’t take up any additional room. There are specially designed traction mats available at your local auto parts store too.

Windshield Washer Fluid
Some people recommend you carry windshield washer fluid. Your reservoir should be filled before you leave on your trip, and I recommend that you check the level daily during the winter season – you’ll be surprised by how much you use on those ugly slushy days. If you tend to forget to check it, then absolutely take a spare jug with you at all times. Keep plenty of extra jugs in the garage too so that you don’t have to drive to the store on a slushy day with an empty washer fluid reservoir!

Antifreeze
Some people recommend you carry antifreeze with you. If you need this stuff while you’re on the road then you have a leaking radiator or a faulty thermostat – take it to the shop NOW! You shouldn’t need to carry this stuff unless you’re towing a trailer in the summer – maybe. Most new cars – especially GM’s – have a 5 year antifreeze/coolant in the radiator so this a maintenance item, not an emergency item.

winter safety kit, Road-Test.org, Iain ShanklandFirst Aid Kit
A first aid kit isn’t a bad idea to have in the vehicle year-round – you never know when you might need it, maybe not for yourself, but if you come upon an accident before an ambulance has arrived you’ll be better prepared to lend a hand until help arrives. You can purchase a kit at any automotive store or store with an automotive department, a dealership, dollar store, or you can make up one of your own. It doesn’t have to contain much more than band aids, bandages for bigger cuts, a pair of scissor, peroxide for cleaning wounds, elastic bandages for sprains or broken bones, old cloths or towels to stop bleeding (a tip I learned years ago was to carry a small supply of cheap sanitary napkins – they are compact and are far superior to cloths or towels for treating bloody wounds, etc.) Also, be sure to put a box cutter type tool in there for cutting seatbelts.

Candles
For light and to help stave off the cold if you’re stuck for any length of time. Get yourself a Mason jar or any wide mouthed jar (such as a pickle jar), buy some inexpensive tea light candles (they burn for 4 hours each) and fill your jar with tea lights and a box of matches. Screw on the lid and you’ve got a waterproof container that doubles as a lamp for safety and/or a container to melt snow for drinking. In an emergency, the jar contains the fire so there’s less danger of setting the vehicle ablaze to add to your problems!winter safety kit - candles in jar with lid, Road-Test.org, Iain Shankland

Fire Extinguisher
I’ve heard conflicting stories about the usefulness of carrying a fire extinguisher in your car. Most fire departments just recommend getting everyone out of the vehicle and away from it, in case the gas tank explodes – leave the vehicle to burn – that’s what insurance is for.

Flashlight
Again, always carry one with you in the glove box. However, inevitably you’ll reach for it and the batteries are dead, so you’ve got two other options. One is to carry a light that plugs into the cigarette lighter/power outlet in the vehicle (the downside is if your car battery is dead or the car is completely out of commission, it’s useless), the other option is a cranking light – these are very much the latest must-have in an emergency situation – at home or on the road. I’ve got two – one at home and one for the car. I got them on sale for $6 each. They can be plugged into a regular wall outlet or the car’s cigarette lighter/power outlet to get them juiced up, and then you just flip out a lever to crank it if the battery has been drained. I’ve seen some without the plug in feature, but they had a radio and an alarm incorporated. I’ve also got a 100,000 candle-watt light that is powered by the cigarette lighter/power outlet as an additional back-up.

Tow Rope and Jumper Cables
These are two items I used to carry all the time, but after 30+ years I think I used the jumper cables once. If you have the room and think you would use them, by all means pack them in the vehicle. With newer cars being smaller than the land yachts of the ‘70’s, there’s less room in the trunk for these items. Some vehicles manufacturers insist you DON’T jump start another vehicle with yours because it may damage the electronics. Have a look at your owner’s manual before you even think about jump starting another vehicle.

And last, but not least – if you’re travelling with a dog/cat, don’t forget to bring a bit of food, water and bowls for them to drink out of. Should you get stuck for any length of time they’re taken care of too.

There you have it – a winter kit that’s (relatively) compact and very cheap to put together.

It’s important that it’s compact because if its bulky then that increases the chances that you’ll not have enough room for it and you’ll leave it at home – just when you need it the most. I’ve never used mine, but I always carry it with me. Like fire insurance on your home, you hope you’ll never have to use it, but IF something happens – you’re prepared.


Copyright © 2016 by Iain Shankland

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