How To Survive A Night In Your Car

Photo by Alex E. Proimos

It’s a harrowing statistic, but according to the National Weather Service, about 70 percent of winter weather-related fatalities occur in an automobile. You can bet many of those vehicle-related deaths began with someone simply leaving the house to run an errand, make a short trip to visit family or friends or take care of routine business. The weather turns unexpectedly bad, road conditions rapidly deteriorate and, suddenly, what was an ordinary drive becomes an overnight ordeal.

Don’t think just because you don’t live in New England, the upper Midwest or the western mountains that something like this can’t happen to you. Even in areas where snow is a rare event, cars can slide off icy roads and become stranded in freezing weather, leaving passengers stuck right there with them. Here’s how to make it through a freezing night in your car and ride out events until help can arrive.

Be Prepared

The first thing to do as winter approaches is be sure you have stored a few key items in your car. If you wait until you need them to try to round them up, it will be too late. Essential items to include in a winter survival kit, according to a combination of recommendations by Wisconsin Emergency Management’s Ready Wisconsin initiative and survival expert Peter Kummerfeldt’s OutdoorSafe website, include:

  • Bottled water (at least four quarts)
  • Snack foods, particularly nutritious energy bars
  • Raisins, dried fruit, nuts, candy bars
  • Strike-anywhere, waterproof matches and small candles
  • A flashlight with extra batteries
  • First-aid kit
  • Folding knife and multi-tool
  • Emergency flares
  • An extra winter coat, mittens and a wool cap
  • Winter boots
  • Toilet paper
  • Cellphone and charger
  • A space blanket
  • A spare blanket or sleeping bag
  • A portable radio with spare batteries
  • Tow rope
  • Nylon cord
  • Flagging tape
  • Chemical hand and body warmer packets

Other essential winter tools in severe weather country include jumper cables, the best small shovel, tire chains and rock salt, sand or kitty litter to provide added traction when stuck on a slick surface.

Before You Go

If you’re leaving for an extended trip, always check weather and road conditions before departing. If poor conditions are forecast, you may consider postponing your trip. Also, let others know when you are leaving, which way you will be traveling and when you should arrive at your destination so they can alert authorities and provide them with solid information to help in finding you should the need arise. Fill your car with fuel and make frequent stops to stretch, relax and refill your tank, never allowing it to get much below a half tank. Should you become stuck and need to spend the night in your car, the ample gas will allow you to start your car throughout the night and run the heat for short intervals.

If You Are Stranded

First call for help if you can’t get your car unstuck. Don’t overexert yourself and don’t leave your car and begin walking for help. You stand a much better chance of being found if you remain with your car, which can also provide the best shelter from the elements. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety warns against running your car constantly. Instead, be sure the exhaust pipe is free from snow and roll down a window enough to vent the car and prevent carbon monoxide buildup. Run the car for short 15-20 minute intervals to warm up and then turn it back off, using blankets, a sleeping bag, hand warmers and the body heat of others in your car to stay warm. Eat snacks to keep nourished and read a book (another item Kummerfeldt recommends) until help arrives.

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Winter Survival Heater

So what do you do if you’re stranded on the highway in the dead of winter or a severe winter storm knocks out your power for an extended period of time?

You can construct a simple homemade heater that can be used in your vehicle, which
could save your life, and is very easy to make. Items needed are as follows:

• An empty one pound coffee can or a 30 oz. fruit can
• A regular roll of white plain toilet paper not scented,(because of fumes)
• Four 8-ounce bottles of 70 percent isopropyl alcohol – again, plain unscented
and do not use a higher percent alcohol
• Also an empty large popcorn can, I believe it is a 3 gallon size like the ones
that you buy at Christmas
• Two aluminum square cake pans or pie pans ( without holes in the bottom)
• Matches or a lighter
Start your project by removing the cardboard core from the toilet paper, (not the
cheap loose rolled type) and push the roll into the coffee or fruit can so the roll is below
the rim. The coffee can will have some space above the roll; if you use a fruit can, the
roll will be just a little below flush. Either can, the roll should fit firmly without space
around the roll. A larger can will allow the paper to burn around the sides, which you
don’t want; also I found that a plastic lid from a peanut can will fit loosely on the fruit
can. This lid is used for storage purposes.
To use the heater, pour about 2 or 3 ounces of alcohol onto the paper, the saturated
paper will act as a wick which can be ignited with a match or lighter, I suggest keeping
both on hand, each stored in separate sealed containers or sandwich bags to prevent
fumes from soaking into the matches and lighter which render them useless (this was
learned from giving demonstrations).

Operation: Use the heater to warm the vehicle up, then put the cake or pie pan over
the can to extinguish the flame, as you don’t need to run the heater after the vehicle is
warm. You can also use the cake or pie pan to melt snow for drinking. Do Not eat
snow, as it will bring down your body temperature. Four pints of isopropyl alcohol will
keep a car at 60 to 70 degees for 24 hours, so you can carry more if want.

 

Safety: Isopropyl alcohol does not produce carbon monoxide, but a window should be
cracked open for fresh air while burning. The burner can will become hot at the top,
and maybe warm at the bottom so perhaps you might want to put one pan under the
burner. This extra pan could be used to water pets.

 

Warning: These heaters are safe, but make sure flame has been snuffed out before
adding more alcohol.

 

The empty popcorn can be used to store items for a winter survival kit such as the
burner, alcohol, pie tins, lighters and matches. Other items to include in your vehicle
winter survival kit include: flashlight and extra batteries, winter type clothing (hats,
gloves, extra pair of long johns, scarf), first aide kit including any medications needed,
extra diapers for little ones, bottled water (allow room for expansion, as it will likely
freeze), high energy types of food (candy, nuts, granola bars), small bag of sand or
kitty litter for traction, bendable shovel, basic tool kit (leatherman, swiss army knife),
paper towels or toilet paper, spare tire, signaling devices (flares), blankets and/or
sleeping bags, windshield scraper, booster cables, tow rope or chain, compass and
road maps, cell phones or ham radios, and finally a hand held Weather Radio.
Carry the popcorn can in the back seat rather than the trunk. If you slide in the ditch
and end up with the trunk buried in a snowbank, have a frozen trunk lock, or have
damage to the trunk; the trunk might not be able to be opened.

1-popcorn-tin-survival-heater
Dress appropriately when traveling across the high plains in the winter. How many
times have you seen women driving alone in freezing temperatures dressed in heels,
nylons and blouse and hear them say “ my car has a good heater, and I have a cell
phone”…teenagers with sneakers, blue jeans, and T-shirts… men with dress shoes,
slacks, shirt and tie – when the fan belt breaks, or the gas line freezes, and it’s usually
many miles from anywhere? So be firm everyone, and demand that your family members dress for the unexpected, you might save their life.

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