Recently, it snowed in Virginia. You may have heard about the storm that hit the east coast, especially the part where Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia (below Washington, DC) was shut down for over 20 hours. While the news mentioned that people were stuck in their cars for hours, and that many ran out of gas, they didn’t really delve into the disaster–and almost tragedy–that was occurring during those hours when the temperature dropped to 11 degrees F. 

We all know that since late February 2020 the world has been crazy. And some days it seems to be getting crazier. But that night, for those people stuck in their cars in the freezing cold, it must have seemed like a nightmare. While I live in Virginia, my family and I were lucky that we’d made with home from Charleston, SC a few days earlier. So we were tucked and warm in our home and beds. Still, I couldn’t help but think about those people–and the children–stuck outside in a wintery and icy disaster. I knew the fear and worry that was a constant companion as night settled in. Many, many years ago I was in a similar situation. I ended up stuck on Interstate 287, in the Ramapo mountains on the border of New York and New Jersey. At the time, there were no cell phones, no internet, no emergency notifications unless you had an AM radio or were watching one of three TV stations. 

Anyway, a fast moving blizzard moved in and trapped me, along with hundreds of other cars and trucks, for over 12 hours. Honestly, it could have been longer but I’ve let myself forget most of this terrible night. Because there were no cell phones or internet, and I couldn’t get radio reception in the mountains, I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t reach my family to tell them I was okay. I had no idea how long this would last. And the snow fell faster and faster until it reached about 18 inches. Lucky for me, I had a father who always thought ahead. When I told him I was going to NY state for the day (and the weather showed no signs of snow), he threw a blanket in my car along with a flash light, some water bottles, and a few snacks including some Little Debbie snack cakes. I will forever be grateful to my dad for his planning ahead. Because I had a blanket, some water, and a few snacks, I was able to get through the night mostly unscathed. And I used the flashlight when I needed to get out of the car, in the middle of the night, to head to the woods on the side of the road to go to the bathroom. I can’t truly explain the terror of trying to find my way through snowdrifts in the dark woods because I couldn’t wait until we were rescued. While I saw others do the same thing, it was so windy that no one stopped to talk to each other. We were all worried about making it back to our cars while we could see them. Yes, the blizzard winds were blinding. 

The next morning, State Troopers (who’d parked miles away), hiked in with backpacks and were handing out water and small snacks to people in their cars. The snow had stopped and, finally, we were able to get out and assess the situation in the daylight. And we were able to talk to other people in other cars. We were told that the there were snowplows, and people with shovels, who were slowly clearing the roads and extricating the trucks who’d jackknifed and were blocking both the north and south lanes. A few hours later, I was able to turn on the car and follow the other slow-moving cars. While I was only an hour from home at this point, it took me another four hours to arrive at my parents’ house (mine was still another two hours south). Most of that extra time was caused by having to dodge cars left on the road because they’d run out of gas.

It was a major disaster and led to all sorts of new rules about closing roads in the mountains ahead of storms. As well as requirements for snow tires or snow chains for tires. While things are different now because we have so much up-to-date information, I still worry. Which is why, ever since that incident, I have prepped my car (and my kids’ cars) for winter. While I may end up in another storm, like that one that hit this week and shut down I95, I will never be caught unprepared again. In fact, that story is one of the reasons why I became a pepper-minded person before anyone had a name for it. It was a huge blessing that no one died during my ordeal years ago, or the one a few weeks ago. Still, because we live in a crazy world where anything can happen, being prepared improves my family’s chances of survival. And the more prepared I am in an emergency, the more I can help others by sharing what I have. 

Here’s my plan for when I travel by car in the winter throughout the U.S. (the rules are different for international travel, so this list is just for the U.S.)

First, before winter hits, my husband winterizes the cars by checking all the fluids (including wiper fluid), changing the oil and spark plugs, checking the all-weather tires, etc. I try to keep the gas tanks close to full during these months, as well.

While he’s doing that, I’m reloading the car’s Winter EDC aka the Winter Every Day Carry Emergency Bag. This is the list I use for my long distance travels (over 2 hours). While I don’t need all these things for shorter trips, I just keep them in the same duffel. I’d rather have a heavier bag than be caught without what I need.  For some of these items, you’ll need one (or more, like food) for every person in the car.

Winter Every Day Carry Emergency Bag

  • Cash. I always take a ton of cash with me. During this recent emergency, by the time people got off the highway the closest gas stations were limiting gas and only accepting cash. 
  • Caffeine pills ~ These are available in any drug store, but if you’re alone in an emergency they help you stay awake. Depending on how cold it is, and if you have to turn off your car to save gas, you could freeze to death if you fall asleep and don’t keep moving.)
  • A case of bottled water
  • A large, cozy blanket. More blankets if you have more than two people in the car.
  • Winter boots and thick socks 
  • Heavy-duty winter jackets
  • Hats and mittens and gloves (you need gloves to work outside the car, doing things like scraping ice and changing tires, but they’re not warm enough inside the car if you’re not moving)
  • An ice scraper with a long handle, preferably that has a glove-type covered handle.
  • De-icer for the windshield and mirrors. 
  • Granola bars/protein bars/other non-sugary snacks. Also cheese sticks, pudding cups, and mandarin oranges work well.
  • Ibuprofen and acetaminophen 
  • Headlamps
  • Flashlight
  • Swiss Army knife or something similar
  • Lifestraw to filter water you’ve melted from snow. 
  • UV purifying water bottle and/or water purifying pills
  • Extra cold weather clothing from your luggage. Sweatshirts, sweatpants, dry socks, long johns, etc. 
  • High quality First Aid Kit along with a pair of scissors (if not included)
  • Paper maps for your location in case you lose cell service or run out of battery power
  • Cell phone battery block with multiple USB slots and a small LED light, as well as the cords to hook up small electronics. This way you don’t need to run the car engine to charge you phone. Fully charge the block before you hit the road.
  • Make a connection bag that holds the different types of cords you need for your electronics. 
  • Emergency weather radio with AM stations. Or a CB radio, if you prefer
  • A package of tissues to use as toilet paper
  • Consider compact urinals (males and female) in case you need to use the bathroom but can’t leave the car. (I really wish I’d had one of these during my emergency. You can order them from Amazon, Walmart, or any camping supply store and they come in different sizes and models.)
  • Extra medications ~ Bring extra if there’s a med you need to take daily. Especially things like insulin, etc. 
  • Identity documents in a plastic, waterproof bag. While I also have these on a thumb drive, you won’t be able to access them in an emergency from your car. (We will discuss this in the next two weeks of this series). These documents include Driver’s licenses, car registration and insurance information, medical cards for emergencies as well as anything else you might need quickly like prescription refill forms, etc. Don’t forget any licenses for weapons you have in the car.
  • Sun protection ~ I know we’re planning for winter, but you can still get a sunburn on your face if you have to walk off the highway.
  • Solar kit ~ I travel with a 25W solar panel with two USB outlets.
  • Fire making kit ~ A small torch light and a regular lighter. Storm proof matches are nice if you know how to use them. Add a few small candles.
  • Extra glasses ~ If you can’t see without glasses (for reading or driving), bring an extra pair. Same thing if you wear contacts. 
  • Duct tape and paracord ~ My husband was in the army and we always have these two things in the car. And we’ve used both of them in emergencies. 
  • Work gloves ~ to change tires, collect wood, etc. 

A few other things to consider:

Gas. It’s dangerous to drive around with gas cans in your car. But if you end up in a traffic jam for hours, like the Virginia I95 debacle, you’ll need to turn off your car to conserve gas. One thing that helps is never letting your gas tank go below half full. But that also means you’ll need to stop more frequently to get gas, which can be a pain when you’re on a long haul trip. It’s just something to keep in mind. One of the biggest issues when a road reopens is that the lanes are littered with cars that have no gas which makes getting out a more difficult and dangerous proposition. 

Personal Protection: This can be a controversial subject. But if you carry a licensed weapon with you, make sure you know the legal requirements in each state you pass through. Some states/cities/localities ban tasers, pepper spray, knives as well as guns. So whatever you have with you, make sure you know the rules for every state you pass through. And, if you have a license for your weapon, keep it with you.

Long, long, long haul car trips: The list above is for a trip that may normally take up to 12 hours. But if you are traveling cross country, you may want to consider packing camping gear, a small fire stove, extra food/MREs, etc. Here is a great article about planning long haul driving trips across different terrain. 

Balance: When you are traveling long distances, with many people, and maybe staying someplace for many days, weight and space become a concern. So you’ll have to balance what you need at your destination versus what you need on your trip (or might need). That’s a personal decision you’ll have to figure out on your own after considering your situation such as distance, age of car, number and ages of passengers, etc. But if the goal is to get someplace safely, you may want to consider the above lists. Even just having a First Aid kit and some water will mean the difference between life and death. I am not being hyperbolic, just realistic. 

Finally, information is your friend. When you plan out your trip, check the weather as well as the routes. Depending on where you’re driving, you may want to double check the crime rates of areas you’re driving through. Also, you could make a list of high-quality hotels along the route, as well as the locations of hospitals, ERs, police stations, etc. And write down any other critical information you may need if you don’t have access to the internet, due to a national or weather emergency. 

Although this is a long list of things to consider, the goal of traveling (hopefully) is to have fun. The great thing about a Winter Every Day Carry Emergency Bag is that once you build it, you don’t have to do much to maintain it. And switching things out for different seasons (like taking out mittens and adding bug spray) is easy. 

I hope you find this list helpful and not stressful. The point it to get prepared and then forget about it because you’ll know that no matter what craziness happens, you and your family will survive. And maybe you’ll be in a position to help others as well. 

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