FOR THE VAN TRAPPED FAMILY
Ice and slush can make roads slippery and snow can make them impassable, and either might leave you and your car stranded for hours or even days at a time. And that threat is not just limited to states known for harsh winters, if you remember how 2 inches of snow in Atlanta, Georgia, trapped drivers for upward of a day in 2014. If it happens to you, do not head out on foot for help. The car provides shelter, and rescuers are far more likely to find your car than they are to find you. But do turn off the gas, since it won't take long for even a full tank of gas to run dry and because snow can pile up quickly and block the exhaust pipe, sending toxic fumes inside. To prepare for the unexpected and avoid getting stuck in the cold this winter, take stock of our recommendations for items to keep in a car for winter driving — in addition to the emergency supplies that are good to have all year round.
WINDSHIELD ICE SCRAPER
Even on days there is no snow or other precipitation, frost can turn car windows opaque. Given how inexpensive ice scrapers are ($7 at AutoZone), it wouldn't hurt to keep more than one in a car in case one breaks while you're using it.
SHOVEL AND/OR SPADE
You'll need at least one of these to dig a car out of a snowbank, or at least to dig snow away from its tires. If you can afford it and have sufficient space in a car or trunk, the ideal is to have both a sturdy, collapsible snow shovel $33 on Amazon for snowbanks and a small, handheld spade ($8 at Home Depot) for removing snow from the front of tires and other awkward-to-reach spaces.
FLASHLIGHT OR LANTERN
If you have need for a shovel or spade, you may well need a flashlight or lantern to see what you’re doing. Your phone’s flashlight isn’t going to cut it — it’ll be hard to get working in snow, especially wearing gloves, and can cut out in extreme cold. You’re also going to want to save the battery to make calls. Get sturdy, strong, flexible, and long-lasting LED lights ($27 at Dick’s Sporting Goods), or a lantern that can also be a flashlight, ($20 at Dick’s) and keep them charged.
LONG-HANDLED SNOW BRUSH
The easiest way to remove snow from a car’s hood, trunk, and roof. An extendable, long-handled brush with a foam head $28 on Amazon won't scratch the paint and can remove far more snow with far less effort than a relatively tiny scraper.
BAG OF KITTY LITTER
Kitty litter can provide traction at the base of your tires if you're stuck in a slippery spot. Sand can also be used, but kitty litter is generally cheaper and easier to find. Keep a bag ($14.50 for 20 pounds at Walmart) in the trunk. Another way to get traction for your car in snow or ice, mud or sand: an emergency traction mat ($19 at Walmart) that won't take up much trunk space, since they fold flat for storage.
FIRST AID KIT
Your car is the perfect place to stash a small first-aid kit. This one ($35 from Surviveware) comes in a water-resistant polyester bag that's small enough for the glove compartment, but contains 100 items from alcohol wipes and bandages to a CPR mask and an emergency whistle.
EXTRA WINDSHIELD WIPER FLUID
Windshields get dirty faster in winter, with other cars on the road kicking up salt, de-icing chemicals, or just dirty slush and snow. You don't want to run out of wiper fluid, especially not on a dirty-driving day, so keep a bottle in the trunk ($4 for a gallon at Target) just in case.
EMERGENCY DRINKING WATER
Your body also needs fuel to keep warm, so keep some pre-wrapped granola or energy bars, packages of crackers, and other “open and eat” items in your car for winter. (Boxes of the bars start at just $3 on Jet.com.) Skip fruit cups, pudding snacks, and similar items — basically, nothing with enough liquid that freezing is a possibility.
EMERGENCY HEATING KIT
A multiwick candle can give off a surprising amount of heat and light if you're stranded in cold weather (just don't forget the matches — wooden are better than cardboard because fingers get stiff and clumsy with the cold). A soy-wax candle $7 from Amazon can burn for 36 hours and comes in a reusable aluminum tin. If you’re headed out in a storm before buying, make an emergency heater kit by bringing a metal coffee can with the flammable label removed, or an old cooking pot or saucepan and a sealable freezer bag holding several metal-cup tea light candles.
HOT HANDS HAND WARMERS
Since keeping your extremities warm can be a matter of life and death, here’s another way to ensure it. These disposable air-activated hand warmers $27 at Amazon easily do the trick: Just shake them to activate, and they'll warm up for up to 10 hours.
PORTABLE CAR JUMP STARTER
A dead battery may be compounding your cold-weather problems. You won't need to wait for AAA or other roadside crews if you have a portable jump starter, good for up to 20 starts on a single charge$70 at Amazon. It even includes an LED light with strobe and SOS modes, a compass, and a USB port to charge your phone.
PRESA HEAVY DUTY TOW STRAP
Keeping a tow strap on hand can allow generous Good Samaritans to help pull you out of a snowdrift or wherever you’ve slid off the road. A heavy-duty 20-foot polyester strap$15 at Amazoncan tow up to 10,000 pounds in a pinch.
FULL TANK OF GAS
CLEAN OLD TOWEL OR WASHCLOTH
As soon as winter starts, put some warm, machine-washable blankets in the car and keep them there until reliably warm weather returns — at least one blanket for every person likely to be in the car with you, whether that's measured by “number of people in the household” or “number in the carpool.” Sturdy Ektos blankets are fire-retardant and made of non-scratchy wool $24 at Amazon.
In cold weather, worry about your extremities even if the rest of the body is perfectly warm. Keep a thick and warm knit hat (starting at around $10 at Dick’s Sporting Goods) large enough to pull down over the ears — and, as with the blankets, have one for each person likely to be in the car.
WATERPROOF, INSULATED GLOVES OR MITTENS
Hands will also need protection from the cold if a winter storm leaves you stranded. Mittens will keep hands warmer than gloves which start at just a few dollars a pair on Amazon, but make it far harder to light a match, pick up and manipulate a car key, or other tasks likely to befall you if inclement weather forces you to sleep in the car for a night.
THICK, WARM SOCKS AND BEDROOM SLIPPERS
There's a good chance the socks you wear to work or running errands aren't nearly as warm as the socks you'll need if a storm leaves you sitting in an unheated car for many hours. Keep a pair of thick, warm socks or slipper socks for everyone (also starting at just a few dollars a pair on Amazon). If possible, include a pair of plush, foot-encompassing bedroom slippers ($15 at Target) too: those are more comfortable, and often warmer, than spending several cold hours wearing regular shoes.