There is likely to be a lot more erratic weather in our climate-changed future—more storms, more droughts, and more drivers stuck in their cars in horrendous blizzards, like hundreds of motorists in Virginia were this week. It’s probably too late to do much about climate change, but you can at least be prepared for being stuck in your vehicle in a blizzard.
Prepare for the worst ahead of time
If you’re reading this after frantically Googling while trapped in your Hyundai by a winter storm, you might be annoyed by this advice, but you should have prepared before you left. Here’s how:
- Prepare your car: Make sure your car is well-maintained, has the right kind of tires for winter road conditions, and has a full tank of gas. Charge your cell phone, too.
- Change your plans if bad weather is likely: Look up the weather reports and give approaching snowstorms the respect they deserve.
- Prepare an emergency kit: If you were a first-rate preparer, you’d have: parkas, blankets, sleeping bags, boots, mittens, hats, flares, medications, wipes, a first-aid kit, a cellphone charger, an ice scraper, food (energy bars or other calorically rich choices) water, a shovel (for digging your car out), kitty litter (for melting snow on the ground for traction), and jumper cables. That’s basically like packing for camping, but if you have any trunk space, you can keep most of this in your car all the time, and be prepare for any disaster that traps you.
- Tell someone where you are going and the route you are taking before you leave.
What to do once you’re actually stuck
- Don’t panic: As long as you don’t do anything extra dumb, you can get through this. As far as survival scenarios go, being trapped in a car in a snowstorm is not that bad. It certainly beats being trapped in a snowstorm without a car.
- Make sure your tailpipe is not clogged: When you first realize you are trapped, check the exhaust pipe to make sure it’s clear. You don’t want to die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Indicate you are in distress to the outside world: Call 911. Tie a brightly colored cloth or ribbon to your antenna or door. If the snow stops, raise your hood.
- Stay in your vehicle: A car is an excellent survival shelter—a guy in Sweden survived in his car for two months, and he didn’t even seem to have had food or water. It is a bad idea to go walking around in a blizzard. You will get lost, cold, wet, and maybe even hit by another driver.
- Bundle up: Wear as many layers as you can with the extra clothing you packed. Make sure you wear a hat. Your head is where most heat is lost (at least, that’s what my mom used to say).
- Create as small a space as possible: If you have blankets or jackets, create a little “fort” for yourself. A smaller space is easier to heat. You could try lining the windows with newspaper or those discarded fast food bags you never cleaned up. Some experts even recommend packing a tea light or candle and burning it to keep things a little warmer.
- Run your car for 10 minutes an hour: Experts recommend starting your car and running the heater, hazard lights, and dome light for about 10 minutes per hour. Just make sure you shut everything off to avoid battery drain. Some suggest rolling down the window a crack while the engine is running to avoid the possibility of inhaling carbon monoxide. Other than cold, carbon monoxide is the biggest danger.
- Don’t play on your phone: I know it’s boring to sit in the car for so long, but only use your cell to call emergency numbers. Don’t be surprised if the authorities tell you to “sit tight,” though. That’s what happened in Virginia. (Despite the advice of Facebook experts, you should not change your voicemail to indicate where you are.)
- If you run out of water, drink melted snow: Car survival experts quoted by both the New York Times and the Washington Post point out that you can get a little moisture into your body by drinking melted snow, but I like to think it won’t get to that point. I’m an optimist.
From here, it’s a waiting game. Sit with your hands in your armpits, hugging yourself to keep heat in, keep yourself occupied by doing little exercises to keep warm, and plan out how you’re going to tell the story of your harrowing adventure. With any luck, you’ll be rescued soon, ideally by a St. Bernard with a barrel of brandy around its neck.