Closeup of car tires in winter on the road

Survival – Stranded in a Car During Winter

Wow is it ever cold lately!! We logged a couple days here at -36 celsius which is beyond cold, deathly cold with a lot less exposure. We also logged 55 cm of snow in a single day. That’s around 21.5 inches for our American friends. It’s definitely time to address survival when stranded in a car during winter.

That very snowstorm I mentioned above found people stuck on the 401 for 6 hours. The fallout of a recent storm in the US had people stranded on the I-95 for 9 hours. And we have all heard the stories of 50 car pileups or people getting stuck on the highway for days. So it begs the question: What should I carry in my vehicle to be prepared if this were to happen to me? and how exactly do I survive or stay comfortable If I was stranded in a car during winter?

I’ll keep my views out of this but if you believe in climate change then you think things will only get worse. If you don’t believe in it, I can tell you with certainty these kinds of storms have been around as far back as I can remember, it’s nothing new nor can you ignore the dangers of it. So here’s my other question: Why have you not prepared for this a long time ago? If you live anywhere in the northern US or just about any part of Canada, it’s time to start now!

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Step 1 – Fuel

You don’t need me for this and I promise it will get far more interesting but fuel up more often in winter! If you are like me and drive a lot, this may be more challenging as we are already at the pump every 2-3 days. I usually tank up when I’m at a quarter tank – so by example I can tank up in winter when I’m between a quarter and a half. My point is make a little effort to drive around with a little more gas than usual.

Tip: Keep at least a 10 litre full can around or a 20 if you drive a bigger vehicle. We all have those days when we are low on fuel but are tired and just want to go home. You wake up next day to a snowstorm and it’s not a good feeling being low on gas even though you’re headed to the pump. It’s also good practice in general to have extra gas at home just in case the power goes out (taking out the pumps with it) and you really need to get somewhere.

Step 2 – Gear

Here comes the fun part. You DON’T NEED a heater or an exhaustive list of items to survive the cold! Your first form of shelter is your clothing and assuming you dressed right for the day, you have your basics already covered. Now the most important thing you need is a sleeping bag, a really good one.

Keeping Warm

Sleeping Bag

I keep in my car a US military surplus sleeping system. Here you have 2 sleeping bags: a nylon-filled patrol sleeping bag rated for 30 to 50°F and a nylon-filled intermediate mummy bag rated 10 to 30°F. They can be used separately depending on weather and I don’t remember exactly but combined when one bag is tucked into the other, I believe it was good to -30 celsius.

This sleeping system also comes with a gore-tex bivy sac in which you can insert the sleeping bags. Now its waterproof and you can literally toss it on the snow, on the ground and sleep right there! Obviously, while you have a much better environment in your car, you can begin to understand how serious this bag is. Even in the car, the bivy is still an added layer meaning some added warmth. The whole kit comes with a compression stuff sac that neatly keeps it all together in one place.

You’ll find many a person that has slept in minus 30 in their car by choice with one of these or something of similar quality. It may not be pleasant waking up to such a cold environment but a good and more importantly warm nights’ sleep is very possible. Not my cup of tea and probably not yours either – it just needs to be there for that one day when you are stranded in a car during winter and you don’t have a choice in the matter.

Let’s Go Back to Talking About a Heater

There are several different heaters out there. You need to bear in mind though that heaters use a limited resource, meaning fuel. Unlike a sleeping bag, there is a finite amount of use you will get from these and it is not a replacement to a blanket rather than an added option. The big one out there is the Buddy from Mr. Heater.

One of these can help make things more comfortable under the right circumstances and they are commonly used for ice fishing, hunting and so on.

There are definitely some downsides, the big one being the risk of carbon monoxide. You absolutely have to have ventilation when using one of these. If it’s not carbon monoxide, it’s also water you need to deal with. Each 1 lb of propane burned generates 1.6 lbs of water! It’s chemistry that I won’t get into other than saying its from a reaction of burning propane with air that generates carbon dioxide and water. As I’m sure you already know, being cold and wet is deadly.

I’m not suggesting you should run out and buy a heater. Some cars are so tight having it in there would scare me. It’s an option especially for bigger vehicles you should be aware of that can increase comfort for the right person, at the right time, under the right circumstances.

Fire Making Tools and a Candle

Always carry three sources of ignition, that’s the rule of thumb when it comes to fire. As usual, a bic lighter, matches and a ferro rod which is pretty basic stuff. Add some candles to the mix and you are golden. You would be surprised how much heat you can get off a candle, especially in a confined space. At a minimum you can warm up cold hands, feet and so on.

Add a container for your candle and you have seriously levelled up its usefulness. The UCO Candle Lantern has a flip up hanger that comes in really handy and increases safety. Of course your candle now doubles as a source of light.

Light Source

I use the Petzl Swift RL. You don’t need anything this fancy, just a source of light so as to not worry about draining or relying on your car battery. You may also need light to do certain tasks outside the vehicle.

If you ever have to narrow down to a single choice for a light source, I always like to make it a headlamp as it leaves your hands free. The Petzl Swift RL can run for a 100 hours on low and hung off a rear view mirror makes a great lantern for general lighting. You can crank it up to 900 lumens when you really need to see something and that makes it brighter than most flashlights. I love its dual purpose and different light levels in between.

Signalling Device

Assuming you are not stuck on a congested highway, maybe you’re just broken down on a country road with no cell service, you will want a signalling device. A white flag means distress but with a lot of snow people may not see it. An orange flag will catch attention, it’s now up to someone to wonder why you have an orange flag. Even your 4 way flasher might simply tell people you just pulled over. An old trick is to pop your hood, many people will recognize it as a sign of trouble. The good old orange triangle or flares will definitely tell people you need help. And if all else fails, even writing a big “help” or “sos” with your finger on a dirty window or body panel beats standing outside of the vehicle in the elements.


A first aid kit is a must in any vehicle, I shouldn’t even have to write about it. In fact some cars come with one, especially popular amongst the German automakers. A knife or multi-tool, even a small one, is of tremendous value. And last but not least a charging cable for your phone. It’s not a phone anymore for checking the bank or playing games, it just became what is probably your only communication device. The ham radio is an excellent old school backup to a phone for anyone that’s interested. This is particularly true in rural areas where cell signals are hit or miss. Unlike the satellite phones or messengers, there are no monthly fees with ham radio.

I carry a pack with all my survival gear when heading into the woods. Worthy of mention here is that I’ll make a point of generally keeping it in my car during winter months. That automatically ticks off a lot of the items mentioned in this post.

Road Conditions

We all have our own sources for weather. Here is a neat tool for Ontario. It’s the 511 Road Conditions website that tells you the road conditions for all the highways. If you are outside Ontario, I would assume there is something similar for your area. Weather can change fast and the state of a highway’s conditions is one thing one minute and completely different the next. With something like this, you can at least get an idea of what you are heading into.

Survival - Stranded in a Car During Winter - Car accident on winter road
Two car crash on a snowy winter road

Step 3 – Food & Water


A human can survive for 1-3 months without food! A lack of food when stranded in a car during winter is no cause for panic. You would however find yourself a lot more comfortable if you had something to eat. I highly recommend carrying energy bars, beef jerky, dried fruits and nuts and so on. Without getting into details, these foods are chosen for a reason as they are suitable to energize and sustain someone in this type of situation. Eating also helps warm you up and maintain body temperatures, especially with foods that are slower to digest.

Meals: Yes, it is Easily Done!

The food I listed above is ample. If you are the type that absolutely “has” to eat in order to be happy, you can carry some MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Mountain House products taste really good and Mac and Cheese is perfect for a situation like this.

All you have to do is boil some water, add it to the bag and wait for whatever time frame is in the instructions. Usually about 10 minutes. I have had a number of MRE’s in the bush, hunt camp and so on. Most of them actually taste great!

Tip: Don’t forget to keep a spoon with your MREs. Get a longer one if you can, it makes scooping from the bag much easier and keeps your hands clean.

Stove and Pot

You will also need a stove & pot in order to boil water for your MRE. Again, just make sure you have a little ventilation when in use. The water will probably boil within a few minutes. And yes I know, I said meals are easy. They are, you just need to pack a few more items if you go that route.

Tip: If you are carrying a stove for an MRE, you might as well carry a couple tea bags or coffee. There’s nothing like a warm drink to warm you up when you are stranded in a car during winter. It takes so little space and quite often you can tuck it into the pot or some nook and cranny of your gear bags.


Similar but different to food, you can survive for 3 days without water so again don’t panic! You don’t need much, even throwing a few water bottles into your car will go a long way when you need it. Remember that it too is a resource and we are in an emergency situation so sip on it here and there and conserve just in case you are stuck longer than you expect. If you carry a pot and stove as above and if you can find some clean snow, you can boil it for safe consumption.

Tip: Remove a couple inches of snow from the top and get what’s underneath which is usually cleaner. It does take a fair amount of snow to make a little volume of water but something is always better than nothing!


Some people require regular medications in order to stay alive. This can also mean an urgent need for medicine in a very short period of time – to the point that if you don’t have it, you now have yet another emergency to deal with. I’m not going to ask you to carry your medicine cabinet with you but at least always have on a hand a 2-3 days worth supply. This might be better to carry on your person, point being have it with you. Check with your pharmacist for advice as different medicines may have different requirements for temperatures and storage.

Step 4 – Bathroom

We are in a pandemic right? I think many of us have found creative ways to use the washroom when they were pretty much all closed. It’s an awkward topic but it is what it is and I have peed in many an empty Tim Hortons coffee cup. That trick has repeatedly saved me from disaster. If at this point you are laughing at me, I need to laugh back at you because at least I’m not one of the multiple people I saw peeing on the side of a busy parking lot somewhere in the city…

So what about when you are stuck on the highway with hundreds of spectators? Simple, for that you carry a little bucket. And for a number 2 that absolutely won’t go away, you carry little baggies that fit over your bucket and can be tied off. Obviously don’t forget some toilet paper or wipes. Wipes double for a million other purposes, especially if you have children. The good news is while our cars don’t have a sink, we all have hand sanitizer and were not shaking hands anytime soon:)

Step 5 – Learn to Conserve

We are all spoiled in our daily lives. From seat heaters and remote start to radio from space which is all nice and dandy during good times. The problem is it makes us more than a little soft during the bad times. Sadly for most motorists out there, when they are out of gas or stuck, they are dead in the water and relying on someone else to rescue them. Only in winter, you find yourself working against the clock as the temperature drops.

When it comes to fuel, run your engine for 10 minutes, warm up a bit and then shut it off. You can do that over and over again. Not in the name of the environment because you can’t worry about that right now, but because you are trying to conserve fuel, one of your vital resources. Same goes for food, water, matches, toilet paper and so on. Once you use it up, it’s gone.

In these situations or any survival situation for that matter, you need to put your creature comforts aside and learn to conserve your resources. Guess what? The less prepared you are, the more you are going to need to conserve in order to stay alive. It’s that simple.

I would also like to add that there are other consequences to using some resources. If you take me up on Step 3 – Food and Water, you WILL NEED Step 4 – Bathroom! So if you prep your vehicle as per this post, don’t forget that some preps must go hand in hand with others. When stranded in a car during winter, it’s not fun going outside to use a bathroom and that bucket can become your best friend.

When Help Isn’t Coming

There are times in life when help just isn’t coming. Many people can’t comprehend that because it’s never happened to them but it is possible and very real. Peel Region (City of Mississauga and Brampton) recently had a code black thanks to staffing shortages from Covid. What that means is NO ambulances available – for a population of almost 1.4 million. What about those 40 car pileups with 2 feet of snowfall where emergency services can’t get to you? A major protest, civil unrest, a fire and on and on. My point is expect help, eventually, just don’t ever count on it.

For Those in the City, You Can Get Stranded in a Car During Winter as Well!!!

You may feel more secure in you travels and believe you are immune to this, think twice. There are so many off-ramps within city limits where its several kilometres along an open windy highway to get back into the city. You are also more likely to be in pretty clothes and shoes versus functional clothes. On some days, this can mean freezing to death for abandoning your vehicle versus painfully waiting for help.

Distances feel very short in cars and can be deceiving. If you don’t walk regularly, you might not realize exactly how far things really are when you are on foot. While you have more places to seek shelter, you also have far more cars, people and congestion – and congestion makes it that much harder for help to get to you – or that many more people that also need help and may receive it before you do!

Stranded in a Car During Winter

It’s time to wrap up Survival – Stranded in a Car During Winter. I need to add one of the most important topics before I let you go and that is your mind. Surviving a bad situation is heavily tied to the ability not to panic. Hunters by example have been found dead in the bush yet they had all the gear they needed to make it through. Don’t ever panic as it hinders your ability to think. Your mind also needs to re-enforce what is in your heart and that is the will to live!

If you think I’m missing something, by all means please do send your comments. If you like the post, or perhaps you want to share these tips with some loved ones, please like, share and subscribe on our social channels. And if there is at least ONE single take away from this post, get yourself a super warm sleeping bag and throw it in your car! Do it now and never look back.

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Survival - Stranded in a Car During Winter: Winter Preparedness Kit Checklist
Winter Preparedness Kit Checklist

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Stelios Lazos
Stelios Lazos

Stelios comes from the corporate world where he was a highly successful executive. Inspired by his love for the outdoors he has re-located with his family to live to the BushLife where he blogs about his adventures. Finding inspiration in the never-ending questions from aspiring outdoors people, Stelios aims to share his knowledge, one post at a time.

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