How to Survive Being Snowbound in Your Car

The New Year brings with it a time for renewals and resolutions. But also, for many parts of the country, the New Year means we are entering the worst of the winter storm season.

Snowstorms can be dangerous if you are caught unprepared for them, particularly on the road. Nearly 800 people die every year in the US, in winter storm related accidents, and many of those, by being snowbound on an impassible road. And do not think such a thing can only happen out in rural mountain country. In 2016 a mother and her young son died in Passaic, NJ, a large city, when they were stuck snowbound in a car in the aftermath of blizzard. The mother foolishly kept the car running to keep the heater going, not realizing that the tailpipe was clogged by snow, and the two quietly died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The first thing you need to know about safe winter travel, is to never ever venture out during the winter months, even when the sky is clear, without your Go Bag in your vehicle. Remember in addition to the Basic Go Bag items we have discussed in previous columns, your Winter Emergency Road Hazard Kit should also contain:

  • A warm blanket or two
  • Extra antifreeze and windshield wiper fluid
  • Jumper cables
  • A snow scraper
  • A tow chain
  • An extra hat, scarf and set of gloves
  • Road salt or sand

If you intend to, or need to do any kind of driving on mountain roads or back roads during snowstorm season, you should also consider taking a long a hand winch to pull your vehicle back onto the roadway, should it skid off. If you normally keep your go bag in the trunk – bring it, and any other emergency supplies you may need into the passenger compartment. If you get snowed in, you may not be able to reach the trunk for days or more.

If You Must Drive During a Snow Storm:

  • Wear sunglasses. You might want to keep a pair in the car just in case the sun is reflecting off the snow.
  • Be aware of blind spots created by snow banks.
  • Be extra cautious of pedestrians and other vehicles in intersections.
  • Allow extra time for braking and increase the distance between you and the car ahead of you.
  • Reduce your speed and don’t exceed the posted limit.
  • If you start to lose traction, don’t panic. Take your foot off the gas and gradually reduce your speed. Accelerate again slowly once you feel traction is regained.
  • If you start to skid, steer in the direction of the skid. Remember, steering can be more important than braking on slippery roads.

If you are traveling by road during the winter, or need to take roads or mountain passes that are known to become impassable during winter – always tell someone your ultimate destination and when you are expected to arrive.

NOTE: Four-wheel drive DOES NOT improve braking! It is easy in a good powerful 4WD vehicle to start driving faster than is safe.  4WD is great for forward traction and controlling steering, but when it comes to braking, you are no better off than in a regular car.  When driving a 4WD on a snowy road, you may not even be aware of how slippery it really is because of your improved traction, until you try the brakes! 

If You Become Trapped in Your Car During a Blizzard

Should you become snowbound in your car or truck, the first thing to do is STOP and assess the situation. Calm down, use your head and try the simplest solutions first. If you have a cell phone or CB radio in your vehicle, call for help. The sooner you can make contact with the outside world, the faster you’ll be rescued.  Your next priority has to be to take steps to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. Do everything you can to prevent losing heat from your body. If you have extra clothes along, put them on. Then:

  • Turn on hazard lights and hang a distress flag from the radio antenna or window.
  • Remain in your vehicle where rescuers are most likely to find you. Do not set out on foot unless you can see a building close by where you know you can take shelter. Be careful; distances are distorted by blowing snow. A building may seem close, but be too far to walk to in deep snow.
  • You may be tempted to keep the engine ruining to run the heater for warmth. DO NOT DO THIS. You will consume too much fuel. Instead, run the engine and heater about 10 minutes each hour to keep warm. When the engine is running, open a downwind window slightly for ventilation and periodically clear snow from the exhaust pipe. This will protect you from possible carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Exercise to maintain body heat, but avoid overexertion. In extreme cold, if you do not have enough blankets for everyone in the vehicle, use road maps, seat covers, and floor mats for insulation. Huddle with passengers and use your coat for a blanket.
  • Take turns sleeping. One person should be awake at all times to look for rescue crews.
  • Eat regularly and drink ample fluids to avoid dehydration, but avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Be careful not to waste battery power. Balance electrical energy needs – the use of lights, heat, and radio – with supply.
  • Turn on the inside light at night periodically so work crews or rescuers can see you.
  • If stranded in a remote area, stomp large block letters in an open area spelling out HELP or SOS and line with rocks or tree limbs to attract the attention of rescue personnel who may be surveying the area by airplane.
  • Leave the car and proceed on foot, only if necessary – once the blizzard passes. If you are forced to move, make sure you clearly mark a trail from the vehicle.  Leave a note in your vehicle stating your intention, the time you left, the direction you set out in and where you were headed. Be realistic about your ability to hike out of a heavy snow — what sounds like a good idea may become deadly if you don’t make your destination by nightfall.

NOTE:  You can use snow as a source of water – but always remember do not eat snow to prevent dehydration. Eating snow will lower you body temperature, and it uses your body’s energy to melt it, which can speed hypothermia. Melt snow in a cup, water bottle, or other container, and then drink it.

Be prepared to leave the vehicle for short periods to accomplish certain tasks. For example, you should clear off some snow to reveal paint or reflective surfaces so your vehicle can be seen from a search aircraft. You might need to leave to collect some snow to melt for drinking water or to take a bathroom break.

Otherwise, just be patient—in most cases you’re not going to be able to shovel your way back to civilization or hike out safely – but you are likely being looked for. It is always best to stay with the vehicle. Think you can’t last too long stuck in the snow in your car? In February of 2012 a Swedish man was discovered and rescued. He had been trapped in his car for TWO MONTHS since December 19th, when the vehicle became snowbound on a remote forest road.

Final Thoughts

As with a lot of the disasters discussed on these pages – the best way to survive being snowbound in your vehicle is to avoid the situation, by staying off of the roads during, and when a blizzard or severe winter storm is predicted.

Most people who wind up stranded, do so because they have miscalculated the severity of a storm, or their ability to drive through it or get ahead of it.