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How to Survive a Winter Night in Your Car

Updated: November 2020

Winter storms can be unpredictable and sometimes dangerous – especially if you're driving. Here are a few tips on how to prepare for inclement weather and what to do if you need to survive a night in your car.

White car on side of snowy road at sunset.

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Know the Risk

In general, it's best to stay off the road when severe winter weather is predicted.

  • About 70% of winter weather-related injuries occur in an automobile and 25% happen to people caught in a storm, the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) reports.
  • According to Ready.gov, the cold of a winter storm can increase the risk of frostbite and hypothermia.
  • Combating the rain, snow, wind and ice could lead to car accidents due to dangerous driving conditions.
  • In addition to paying attention to TV, radio and online weather reports, Ready.gov suggests making sure your mobile phone is set up to receive wireless emergency alerts.
  • Weather alerts, which are part of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, are like text messages and notify you of serious weather conditions and recommended actions.
  • You can also tune into your local NOAA Weather Radio station for continuous weather broadcasts, official watches, warnings and more.

Be Prepared

It's a good idea to winterize your car every year before the season gets underway. A tune up, properly inflated tires, new windshield wiper blades and topped-off fluids may help prepare your car for the lower temperatures and help it better handle inclement weather. You should also keep a fully stocked winter emergency kit in your car, just in case. Some items to include are:

  • First aid kit.
  • Essential medications.
  • Flares or reflectors to signal for help and warn other drivers.
  • Flashlight and extra batteries.
  • Cellphone and portable charger.
  • Jumper cables.
  • Snow and ice scraper.
  • Snow brush.
  • Survival blanket or sleeping bag.
  • Tire chains and/or tow straps.
  • Extra set of winter clothes.
  • Snow shovel.
  • Non-clumping kitty litter or sand for traction.

If your area is under a winter storm warning, it's best to stay off the road, but if you're already in transit, be sure to seek shelter right away. Also, before you leave, the American Red Cross recommends telling a friend or family member your destination, your planned route and when you expect to arrive. That way, if your vehicle gets stuck, they'll know where to tell the authorities to send help.

If You Become Stranded in your Car

While it's not a typical situation, here's what you need to know about surviving a night in your car.

Call for Help

Even if you're not sure if it's is a true emergency, 911.gov recommends dialing 911. And for extra peace of mind no matter where you go, you can reach out to Roadside Assistance for fast, trackable and reliable service.

Stay in Your Vehicle

After you've called for help, stay in your vehicle and wait, says the Red Cross. You'll have a better chance of being found and you'll avoid any blowing snow that may cause you to become disoriented and lost.

Make Your Car as Visible as Possible

While you wait for help or for the storm to end, the American Red Cross suggests signaling that you need help. For example, raise the hood after the snow stops falling or, if you have a radio antenna, call attention to it with a bright piece of fabric. Weather.com also recommends turning on your hazard lights and setting out reflectors from your emergency kit.

Keep Warm

  • Inside the car, do light exercises – such as moving your arms and legs, and clapping your hands – to maintain circulation.
  • If another person is in the car with you, huddle for warmth.
  • Use extra layers, such as removable floor mats or even a paper map, to help trap more body heat, the American Red Cross advises.
  • You can also run the engine for about 10 minutes every hour to keep warm, says the Red Cross. Only run it for short amounts of time and ensure that the exhaust pipe is clear of snow to help reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Drink Plenty of Fluids

  • This will help you avoid dehydration, which makes you more susceptible to the potential health hazards of cold weather, according to the American Red Cross.
  • The Colorado Department of Transportation recommends keeping a gallon of water in your vehicle.

Hopefully you spend more time celebrating winter's holidays than dealing with its potentially hazardous weather. But if you do find yourself stuck, these tips can help you prepare for a winter storm and even a cold night in your car.

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Our pages are filled with helpful tips and information about the topics that most of us face in our everyday lives. We focus on safety and maintenance issues with regard to your home, auto, apartment, motorcycle, boat, small business, finances and more. Please recognize that a particular tip may not be effective in every circumstance and that taking preventive measures cannot guarantee any outcome. We encourage you to use your own good judgment about what's appropriate for you and your property and always consider safety.
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