Winter is coming...
Ahh! A winter post! I'm so sorry. I know it's mid-September. It seems like once the State Fair hits, we can go from high-flying summer to the dredges of winter in a heartbeat here in the nearly Great White North. Fall is such a lovely season that's really too short around here, and sometimes it seems to not exist at all. But. You guys, it's Minnesota. Once September hits, all bets are off.
This happens, you know.
Last January, the Saint Paul school district came under fire because they did not anticipate the strength of a winter storm, and children were stranded in schools and worse, on buses stuck on snowy roads, until well into the night. The last students, hungry and tired, arrived home right around midnight. Some of the conditions these kids, and other stranded motorists, endured that night in January were uncomfortable at best, frightening to say the least, and in all ways, dangerous.
No surprise, Minnesota roads can be treacherous in the winter. Our extreme weather ranges from record snow falls, blizzard and whiteout conditions, drifting and blowing snow, to slippery conditions on icy roads due to rising and falling temperatures, or even the dreaded black ice. We've also got wildlife to contend with, as deer can strand motorists by suddenly jumping in front of a moving vehicle in the dark. All of this is on top of the unpredictability of even the most strictly maintained vehicle, including but not limited to dead battery, mechanical problems, or a flat tire.
Thinking ahead should be the mantra of any responsible Northerner in the winter, and we need to be particularly prepared with our vehicle maintenance. Receiving timely oil changes, keeping vehicle fluids topped off, maintaining appropriate tire pressure, having decent wiper blades, and keeping gas tanks at least a quarter full (some of the extremely cautious would say half full) are all best practices come winter. And certain items, like a tire iron and tire pressure gauge are pretty standard items that you should be keeping in your car year round. But there is more we should be doing to make sure we can handle being potentially stranded for hours at a time in a car in the cold.
Are you prepared if your car were to get stuck on an icy back road in below zero weather? Here are nine items you should keep in your car to keep you and your family safe if you become stranded.
You had to know this would be the first thing on the list, right? First Aid and Safety Blog, right?
Well, regardless of whether a motorist becomes stranded in their vehicle due to a collision with another vehicle or object, or because their car is stuck in snowy or icy conditions, there is always the risk for injury. When your car won't move, the inclination is to get out and fix the problem. That might mean pushing, pouring sand or salt, or shoveling snow around the tires. In a high traffic area, there is the very real risk of being hit by another car.
Even if you're able to stay in your vehicle, if your car is struck by another in tough conditions, you may be looking at cuts, lacerations, bruising, broken bones, or head injury. Having a first aid kit stocked and at the ready is paramount to the safety of yourself and other passengers in your car.
A standard vehicle first aid kit should come with these basics: instant ice pack, antiseptic, bandages, compresses, gauze, medical tape, gloves, forceps, and eyewash. Our version also comes with WaterJel BurnJel, WoundSeal, and an emergency first aid handbook.
Winter Clothes and Gear
If we're being honest, here in the Northland, we don't always "dress for the weather." Maybe we're just out for a quick errand, maybe we don't think we'll have to get out of our car. Or maybe, just maybe, it's about bragging rights. My calves are heartier than your calves. That sort of thing. But whatever the reason you decided to get into your car, in February, without pants on, you should keep some items at the ready to put on your body should you become stranded.
- Mittens or Gloves. No surprises here. Winter temps make even the manliest of hands delicate. Wind chills do not discriminate. They hate on all of us. Unless you want frostbite, get your digits covered appropriately. This doesn't mean those cheapy little cotton gloves from Target that are sopping wet if you even look at snow. Get yourself a good pair of lined mittens or gloves, especially because you may need to get out of your car for any length of time.
- Appropriate Footwear. Years ago, I read an excellent book in which soldiers in WWII were taken hostage mid-winter in Poland. The first thing the capturing soldiers did was fleece their new captives. One soldier who had large feet spied a captive with large feet. He took his boots. The big man, now shoeless, begged and wept, knowing it to be a death sentence. For the love of all things holy, if you're dead set on wearing ballet flats or flip flops or whatever else out in cold weather, bring wool socks and waterproof boots along in the car. If you need to walk any length of time in the cold, your feet need you to protect them.
- Hat with Ear Protection. It is a myth that we lose most of our body head through our heads. Our heads account for about 7% of the body's surface area, and that's basically proportional to how much heat we lose there. That said, having a hat on hand with ear flaps or some other ear protection can save ears from frostbite, and generally make for a better experience.
- Coat. I feel like I shouldn't even have to mention this, but the list wouldn't be complete without it, so here it is. I will say this, though. Children shouldn't wear coats in their carseats, unless they are deemed carseat safe. Remember to bring their coats in case of emergency. Children and babies are much more sensitive to temperature change than adults. For their sake, plan accordingly.
There are any number of blankets on the market for car emergencies. An army surplus wool blanket is a good choice. An authentic one will be waterproof and fire retardant. There are also a number of decent foil or reflective blankets, which can retain up to 90% body heat when used correctly. They take up little space, fitting into an emergency bag or glove box, making them an excellent choice for smaller vehicles. Foil blankets come in a number of materials and with different features, including grommets for shelter making, and crinkle-free options, so do your research and find the one that best fits your needs.
You don't know how long you're going to be stranded, and if you haven't eaten anything in a while, a long time could feel even longer. This is particularly true if you're traveling with children. Having a stash of protein-dense and calorie-rich non-perishable foods like nuts, dried fruits, granola bars can be helpful and somehow also, provide hope in situations that feel hopeless.
Water may be more of a challenge, as storing water in a vehicle in the winter will likely freeze it. Bring a water bottle with you in the car when you're able. If the situation is dire and you have no water, eating clean snow is an acceptable alternative.
You're not going to want a big, suburban driveway shovel in your car all winter, but there are plenty of great options for travel shovels that can get you out of a jam and will take up minimal space. Look for one with an extendable handle for better leverage. A wide, flat blade with a curved base for scooping is your best bet for snow. This is one item you're not going to want to skimp on, because when you really need to scoop away heavy, wet snow, you really need your shovel to be durable. There are a lot of options, but this one seems to be a good choice.
Any Northerner knows not to be without this item from September through June. This is simply basic car preparedness in the winter months. There are many options; brush or no brush, long handle or handheld, perpendicular or parallel. My husband is tall and drives a Denali, and he likes the little handheld scrapers. I guess he just sort of scoots the snow off the windshield with his arm, hands clad in his Carhartt winter gloves, and scrapes anything left over with his scaper. Personally, I think that's ridiculous, but I love him, so I get to say that. I'm pretty short with a midsize SUV, and I hate it when snow touches me. So, I like one with a long handle, scraper on the end and a brush along the handle. Like this.
You know that feeling where you look at your phone and think, Why do I only have 4% battery life left? It's not a particularly good feeling when you're sitting on your couch with your feet up, but it's especially not a feeling you want to have when you're stranded in your vehicle in freezing temperatures. Most new vehicles have a USB port in the dash, making it easy to keep a charger in the center console. In case of emergency, you can slap that puppy in and make any necessary calls. Sure, making sure you have a decent charge when you leave the house is preferable. But life happens. No judging.
This is just basic good sense any time of year, but winter makes it particularly necessary. Maybe you're stranded because your engine is too cold, or your car sat too long in the cold to start. Yes, that happens here. Maybe you're completely engine literate, like my husband, or you're a total car dummy, like me. (It's okay, we're smart about other things, right?) Maybe, if you're like me, you need something to explain to you how jumper cables work. I found this article helpful. It's geared toward keeping teen drivers safe, but it's simple and explains enough without going overboard.
Flashlight and Batteries
As with any emergency situation, having a flashlight handy with extra batteries is important. It will allow you to see where you're stuck if you're shoveling out your car but it's still not moving. If you're dressing a wound, you'll need adequate light to assess what you're dealing with. Maybe you're looking for something in your car, or you have children who are afraid. Maybe you need to go inspect another driver or passenger if there's been an accident. There are so many maybes, and simply being able to see when it's dark out can help make a tough or dangerous situation at least a little smoother.