Winter is Coming: Here’s Your Vehicle Emergency Kit Checklist

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Author of Be Ready for Anything and Build a Better Pantry on a Budget online course

“Still … in this world only winter is certain.” ― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire)

If you happen to be a Game of Thrones fan, you know the Stark Family motto: “Winter is coming.” It’s inevitable and sometimes dangerous. Many parts of the US will experience an active winter season, with everything from snow, rain, and wintery mixes in store. While winter isn’t technically here yet, the first storm of the year can sneak up on you. Now is the time to double-check your preparations and be certain that you are ready for anything, well before the first snowflake falls.

Many of us spend far more of our waking hours away from home, busy with work, school, or chauffeuring our kids to their various activities. Because of this, a vehicle emergency kit is vital. In recent winters, there were two notable situations during which a well-stocked kit would have been beneficial. During one scenario, a freak snowstorm struck the Atlanta, Georgia area. Because weather like this is such a rarity, the area was completely unprepared, officials didn’t have the experience or equipment needed to deal with it, and traffic gridlocked almost immediately. Hundreds of people were stranded as the freeway turned into a scene reminiscent of The Walking Dead, with bumper-to-bumper vehicles at a standstill. Those without food and water in their vehicles went hungry, and many people ran out of gas as they tried to keep warm. No matter how comfortable you are with winter driving, in a situation like this, you are at the mercy of others who may not be so experienced.

The take-home preparedness point here is that it doesn’t matter how great of a driver you are in the snow, whether or not you have moved to the tropics from your winter chalet in Antarctica, or whether you have huge knobby tires and 4WD. Over-confidence in your own ability can cause people to forget about the lack of skills that other folks have. Many times, people end up in a crisis situation through no fault of their own and are at the mercy of other people who have no idea what they are doing. (source)

The next situation had a lot more potential for a tragic ending, had it not been for the survival skills of a father of 4 small children. A family of six had taken off for a day of snowy adventure when their Jeep flipped over in a remote part of the Seven Troughs mountain range in Northwestern Nevada. James Glanton, a miner and experienced hunter, kept his family alive and unscathed for two days in the frigid wilderness using only the items from his vehicle and the environment. Due to his survival skills and the things he had on hand, none of the family members so much as suffered frostbite while awaiting rescue. You can learn more about the hero dad’s resourcefulness HERE.

Before adding any preps to your vehicle, make sure that it is well maintained because not having a breakdown in the first place is a better plan than surviving the breakdown. Change your oil as recommended, keep your fluids topped up, and keep your tires in good condition, replacing them when needed. As well, particularly when poor weather is imminent, be sure to keep your fuel level above the halfway point. If you happen to get stranded, being able to run your vehicle for increments of time will help keep you warm. Build a relationship with a mechanic you can trust, and pre-empt issues before they become vehicle failures at the worst possible time.

Also, be sure to review these winter driving tips to hopefully avoid the need for your emergency kit.

What’s in my vehicle emergency kit?

Disaster can strike when you least expect it, so now is the time to put together a kit that can see you through a variety of situations. I drive an SUV, and I keep the following gear in the back at all times. You can modify this list for your amount of space, your environment, the seasons, and your particular skill set. Some people who are adept at living off the land may scale this down, while other people may feel it isn’t enough. I make small modifications between my cold weather kit and my warm-weather kit, but the basics remain the same. While you should have the supplies available to set off on foot, in many cases, the safer course of action is to stay with your vehicle and wait for assistance.

Some people feel that having a cell phone means they can just call for assistance. While this is a great plan, and you should have a communications device, it should never be your only plan. What if there is no signal in your area or if cell service has been interrupted? What if you simply forgot to charge your phone? In any scenario, calling for help should never be your only plan. You should always be prepared to save yourself.

How-to-Create-a-Vehicle-Emergency-Kit1-300x236

My SUV is small, but I manage to fit a substantial amount of gear in it, still leaving plenty of room for occupants. The tub on the right hand side just has a couple of things in the bottom and serves two purposes. It keeps the other tubs from sliding around, and it contains shopping bags after a trip to the grocery store. You can also place purchases on top of the other containers if necessary. I have two 18 gallon totes and a smaller 10-gallon tote, with individual components in small containers within them.

Tools

tools

knife

First Aid

first aid

I use old Altoids containers for small items like band-aids and alcohol wipes. They stand up far better than the flimsy cardboard boxes those items come in. (Also, that means we get to have Altoids.)

altoids tin

Light

The police flashlight is also a taser.

Individual Kits

individual kit

It’s sort of hard to see but in the photo above, the container is a stocking hat for warmth and a waterproof hat that will also provide some sun protection. Inside the container are two pairs of socks, a rain poncho, a Berkey sport bottle (it can purify up to 100 gallons of water), and a space blanket. Each of these is topped off with a hoodie in warmer weather. In the winter, gloves and scarves replace the hoodie.

Shelter

shelter

Obviously, THIS is not the Taj Mahal of tents. But it fits easily into a backpack and would be sufficient for day-to-day emergencies in warmer weather.  In the winter, and anytime we are going further from home, we have a bigger sturdier tent that we put in the vehicle. This would be used in the event that we were stranded but for some reason, unable to use the vehicle for shelter. Generally speaking, your vehicle will provide better shelter and safety than a tent.

Emergency Kit

All of the above mini-kits go into one big 18-gallon tote.

Emergency kit

Also included are a few different types of rope, a compass, a road atlas (I like the kind that are spiral-bound), WD-40, duct tape, and a 4 pack of toilet paper. There is room for 2 warm blankets folded on top.

Food

I use a separate smaller container for food and hygiene items.

food

Our food kit contains graham crackers with peanut butter, pop-top cans of soup, pop-top cans of fruit, antiseptic wipes, hand sanitizer, baby wipes, garbage bags, spoons, forks, a survival guide, and plastic dishes. Not shown: ziplock bags of dog food in single servings.

portable dog bowls

These collapsible pet dishes are lightweight additions for a backpack. In a pinch, they could be used for human food also.

Shoes

The second large tote in the back is a lot fuller in the winter. I leave it back there year-round because it keeps the other container from sliding around and it makes a good container for shopping bags and small items that I am transporting. In the winter, I have a pair of heavy, snow and moisture resistant winter boots for each passenger, snow pants, and winter coats. Since the coats and snow pants are squishy, we can still put grocery bags and parcels on top of them.

shoes

Notes

  • Not shown: My vehicle has space beneath the back seats, where we store tightly rolled sleeping bags. If I didn’t have this space, I’d be able to put them in the tote that holds the shoes.
  • Because of extreme temperature fluctuations throughout the year, the food should be rotated out of the vehicle every couple of months so that you always have fresh food available.
  • In cold weather, your water bottles should have about 2 inches of the water removed to allow room for expansion when the contents freeze.
  • Always have a backpack for each family member. If you are forced by circumstances to leave your vehicle on foot, you want to be able to carry as much of your gear as possible.
  • Depending on the laws in your state (and your interest in complying with them) weapons and ammunition can be very useful additions to your vehicle kit.
  • Your kit should change with the seasons. Snow pants won’t do you much good in the heat of summer, but extra water will be invaluable.
  • When taking a longer trip, add more food and water to your kit than you might normally keep in it.
  • Don’t forget about communications: you can summon help with a cell phone or a two-way radio.

Vehicle Emergency Kit Checklist

Not every person needs every item on this list.  Pick and choose the items that are important given your family situation, your environment, and your most-likely disaster scenarios. No list can be comprehensive for every person, but this one has served us well.

Do you have any other supplies to add to the list? Have you ever needed to use your vehicle emergency kit?

Other Resources:

Packing Survival Junk in Your Trunk

15 Items That Should Be in Your Vehicle During the Winter

Be Ready with Vehicle 72 Hour Kits

What do you need in your car survival kit?

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3) PreppersDailyNews.com, an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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  • Daisy, your vehicle kit is very similar to mine. I’ve been fretting over it lately. Which items are susceptible to below freezing temperatures, like those we get up here in Maine? Are the Berkey filters okay in those temps, for example? And the Sawyer mini? Flashlights that run on batteries? The obvious solution is to take these items in each night when the vehicle is in the yard, but to me, that’s a sure way to not have it when you really need it later.

    • Maineuh – This is the same kit I used in Canada, where the climate is very similar to yours in Maine. (Negative 45 degrees, anyone?) While the freezing temps greatly shorten the life of many different supplies, I’ve found that they DO last throughout the season. It’s important to maintain your kit by checking it over piece by piece occasionally – testing battery-operate items, switching out food, etc. I am unaware of any issues with the Berkey bottle in freezing temps, assuming that you store it empty.

      • Beautiful. That’s the kind of info I looked for on their website and couldn’t find it. Really appreciate it. There’s a few things I need to take out of the car for the cold months, but if I don’t have to worry about the filters, that’s a load off. Thanks again. Great post as always.

  • You have a great comprehensive list! While I keep some preps in the car during the winter such as food, blankets, and a full tank of gas (year round). Year round I also bring along take along bag that contains sweaters (winter for obvious reasons, summer for too cold air conditioning, thermos of cold water, and in the winter, a thermos of hot tea for all trips, a headlamp, a book, and knitting.

    After reading your list, however, I am going to improve my situation! I live between NYC and Philly. Most of the time the roads are not a problem save pot holes and inconsiderate truckers (the roads I travel are main trucking routes, especially into NYC), but it does happen! There is a stretch of road that I must travel home around 10 PM due to rehearsals that I dread. I have driven down that road way too late with a car that was not doing well more than once! Ugh!

    We also got stuck during a freezing rain. There was only about 1/4 inch of ice on the road, but the main highway (same trucking one) traversed over two very steep mountains. We never got that far and had to go back from where we came. From then on we decided that if there is even a hint of snow or bad weather, we stay home.

    Thanks!

  • This post has got me rummaging through the back of the car with gusto. It’s only September, but in Maine, that’s practically winter. Canada too, obviously,

  • I didn’t see ‘tow strap’ on your list. Last year I used mine to pull out a couple of vehicles I came across while out in the middle of nowhere. Every single one of them when I said, “Oh alright, I’ll pull you out” responded with this look on their face of, ‘It can’t be done! What are we gonna do?’ while saying, “We don’t have a tow strap”.
    They sure did look relieved when I said I had one.

    I usually let them crawl under their vehicles to attach the tow strap. That cost me once. I had tow straps with J-shaped hooks on the ends and one fella wrapped the tow strap around his bumper and hooked onto the strap. It fell off on the first try, and then after reattaching it, I didn’t think anything of it when I yanked him out on the second try. But as I was rolling up my tow strap while they drove away I noticed their bumper had cut a nice gash on the tow strap. I’ve read you shouldn’t use tow straps if they’ve been cut so I decided to replace the tow strap with one that had loops on both ends and I got two heavy duty U-shaped hooks with bolts. Next time I’ll be sure and tell them to strap onto the axle or something round, and look a little closer at how they attached it. …Maybe ask for a tow strap fee first, too?

    I’m trying to think of a way to mount a spade on my truck so I can dig myself out if I get stuck in a ditch sometime. I wonder if under the hood would be a good spot?

    After reading your blog post I’m thinking it would be a good idea to have a set of tire cables for ice covered roads.

    I bought some 800lb climbing hooks and some better rope to tie down the stuff in the back of my SUV so it doesn’t come flying forward if I get rear ended ,or go all over the place, if I roll over.

    I bought a small cheap plastic trash can, cut it in half and mounted it behind my fire extinguisher so people can’t see it through my side windows and get to thinking there’s valuable stuff in it or mistake a fire extinguisher nozzle for a gun. People would have to be pretty stupid to make that assumption,… but there’s millions of stupid people, and some of them even imagine umbrellas are rifles, so I’ll try and minimize any possible mix-ups.

    I added a couple of fire starter packets to one of my bags in my truck. And a box of matches.

    I came across one of those El-Cheap’O rain ponchos in bright orange for 25 Cents at a garage sale. It might be useful to rip up and tie to an antenna if I get stuck in a ditch during a blizzard so the snow plow can see me and not cover me or crash into me? It doubles as something to spread out on the ground if I have to kneel in the mud to change a flat tire alongside the road.

    I’ve had guns rust while in nylon bags, I wonder if there’s a trick people use to keep guns from rusting while in a B.O.B. and at the same time be waterproof? I’ve seen packets that are supposed to stop rust from forming in toolboxes, but it only lasts six months or so. I’ve seen specially coated paper, too, for that purpose. But all that seems kind of expensive, and tedious. I suppose that’s the price?

    I still haven’t come across anything from a manufacturer saying it’s OK to let a water filter freeze.
    I replaced my empty plastic water bottles with the flat plastic bag type ‘bottles’ with the cap on top that are the same as on plastic water bottles. I found some cheap, I didn’t even know they existed. I wonder how they’ll hold up? I’m not sure if it was a good idea to make that swap.

    • Yes a good set of 2 – 20′ tow straps with hooks on each end is needed along with a good “heavy duty” set of 20′ jumper cables. NOT the cheep ineffective ones you get in commercial car emergency kits. Also a gallon of 20/20 windshield washer fluid and 50/50 anti-freeze, Traction Mats and a 10 pound bag of cat litter or rock salt for when you get stuck. Basicly this is all I have in my vehicles here in Anchorage, Alaska.

  • I live in semi-snow country. In other words we get snow every winter and cold, but the snow never lasts more than a couple weeks…at a time…but we regularly travel in the PacNW
    where we get ice covered roads. All of our vehicles, including my Diesel pickup, are 4 wheel drive, and for each vehicle I have an extra set of wheels with mounted and studded snow tires. Our studded tire season is from Nov 1 to March 15. I also carry chains but in all honesty I have never had to use them as the studs and 4 wheel are more than sufficient.

    My truck also has a block heater and I carry a flat extension cord to hook up the heater if I need to plug it in.

    I am at a loss as to why anyone who lives where studs are legal wouldn’t avail themselves of these excellent traction devices. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, is as good in icy conditions as studded tires.

    I also carry a pretty complete emergency kit inside the camper shell, but the first thing I focus on come winter is where the rubber meets the road.

    • Studded tires can slide or spin easier under clear/dry conditions. I use them myself Nov-Apr but have to be careful on dry pavement during those months as it’s a significant tradeoff. Note I do use them but it’s a tradeoff for me.

  • I have lived through 55 Michigan winters, I’d like to add a few things to your list.

    You definitely need a small snow shovel and a bag of rock salt or cat litter in your trunk. The cat litter is for if you get stuck on ice, it provides traction.

    In the middle of winter a tent is a bad idea. Have you ever camped in the snow? I have. You’d be better off to stay in your car. Regular tents and sleeping bags will not cut it outside when the wind chill drops.

    All back up clothing should be wool. Not cotton. Boots must be water proof. A wool hat, warm water proof gloves, and a scarf or ski mask. I assume you have a winter coat on if you are out driving in the snow.

    If you have ever had to walk home from your car in 30 mph winds at 5 degrees below zero, you will never leave any of this stuff out of your car again.

    I have never used ice chains or studded tires in Michigan. Studded tires are illegal for one thing. But if you know how to drive in snow, a good set of all season radials work fine.

    Do not plan on tires designed for mud to be useful on snow and ice, they are not. You will be stuck in the ditch in short order.

    Driving advice for ice and snow: slow down. Just because you have 4 wheel drive you are not invincible, it does not allow you to stop any faster. I have driven by all kinds of 4×4 trucks and SUVs upside down in the ditch. All these clowns were driving too fast for conditions. 4×4 gives you traction, it does not lessen stopping distances. And on ice? All bets are off.

  • Daisy

    Have you thought of vacuum sealing the items like clothes, sleeping bags, band-aids, basically anything, to save space? I think if you did you would have substantially more room in your storage area.

  • I’m all for being prepared–and this article has prompted me to get ready for the winter season (thank you)–but it seems that your SUV is solely used for carting your prep containers around.

    I appreciate the article but I don’t intend to chock my car full of tubs. To each their own…

  • I’d look into some sturdier locking type tubs if you are going that route, and tie them down. In a vehicle rollover those things are going to open up and you’ll likely catch a hammer or staple gun to the face.

    Personally I like having one BOB packed in the back with essentially a scaled down version of everything you have listed. Toss it on my back and I’m gone.

  • Living in Michigan..out in the country…I’ve seen many people who never think about this!! I’m grateful for the reminder, Daisy. I mainly drove an all wheel drive van until about 2 months ago when it finally died. I’m now in a car. I’m going to have to rearrange my emergency packs as they will have to be in the trunk. I have a lot of fleecy throes, hats, mittens, etc. Thanks for reminding me to check the flash light!! And to rotate the foods. I’d like to add to the list. If you’re like me and have little ones, remember to pack some books, crayons and paper, a soft snuggle toy for each child. A special blanket is important, too. I also pack a small flash light for each little person over the age of 2.

  • A coffee can or tin cup to melt snow in for drinking water, clay cat-litter for traction if you are stuck and maybe some type of snow melt or rock salt? A small folding shovel to keep your exhaust pipes clear of snow build up. Maybe a deck of cards and some paper back crossword type puzzles to keep you occupied, LOL! I live in the South, where the first hint of Winter Storm sends people racing for every thing. BUT… we get ice here and I am smart enough to stay home. Can’t say the same for thousands of people last Winter that got themselves stranded, UNPREPARED, on every major highway in the Atlanta area because of snow and freezing rain. Still shaking my head over that one!

  • I was stuck in that infamous Atlanta snow & ice storm, as were my husband & kids. I was in the car coming home from the vet with our dog. The 15 minute trip took me 2 hours. Thank heaven I was driving a Subaru and I grew up in the north. I was watching people do stupid stuff in their cars left and right. My husband and oldest stepson weren’t so lucky… it took them 6 hours to get home after picking him up from school. Even so, we really were “lucky.” I had friends who left their cars on the roads and spent the night on a the floor at a grocery store. Another one walked for miles with her toddler and ended up spending the night at a total stranger’s house, along with another group of stranded stragglers who were running out of time. It reminded me of how my Dad had a very small and rudimentary emergency kit in his car back in the 1970s. I’m working on getting our cars better prepared now, too.

  • I appreciate your list, but two categories I feel miss the mark. Car repair, and medical. I have military experience however feel that what is needed in combat is not what is needed in a “survival” situation. Treat the likely injuries, address allergies, and any personal needs (like insulin). Next, I’m not sure why you have so much peroxide. I have fallen to the same thinking but…. Tap water is better for cleaning gashes, so I would pack more water before peroxide. I would pierce the cap creating a nozel and spray the cut site with bottled water, using several bottles. I might apply Vaseline to burns or abrasions, then bandage. Broken bones, ace bandages, big ones and SAM splints will help immobilize injuries and assist with reaching help. Instant ice, is useful for heat injuries, burns, and can reduce swelling in internal injuries which are common in accidents, are dangerous to have and difficult to treat any other way. Don’t forget bandages, lots of bulky bandages and you’ll be miles ahead of any pre made medical kit. Car repair kit, I had to use mine this month, and spark plug wire came loose, and I lashed it down with insulated wire. Worked like a charm for a 300 mi trip to get home. So, bring insulated 12 gauge wire, a few feet. A complete socket kit, extensions and some pivot connections are gold. Our hands are limited in strength, and adjustable box wrench, needle nose plyers, CHANNEL LOCKS, and vise grips can be force multipliers, + hammer + big flat head and Philips screwdriver. For temporary (or long term repairs) duct tape, two part epoxy, foil or square bits of flashing, wire. This type of approach keeps your kit extremely small and effective in repairing a huge variety of issues. Three major other concerns, jumper cables, tow cables and tire care items. I bought a tire pump for $15 from Wally World that plugs into the cigarette lighter. Don’t continuously run cheap air pumps it’ll burn them out. I’ve had and been using mine for a few years. I’m not sure what you would use a tape measure or staple gun for. That’s my take, great article!

    • Great suggestions! I tend to MacGuyver, not being the handiest person and the world, and I have used my staple gun for the darnedest things. 🙂

  • For the ten millionth time: WD-40 IS NOT a lubricant. It’s just a moisture displacer. The “WD” stands for water displacer. If you want an aerosol lubricant, buy one.

  • Timely article!
    I’d start with a well thought out Get Home Bag, (GHB), and expand from there. I personally plan on hiking 35 miles, call it 7 days if bushwacking with security concerns. So that’s my base. After that I have a 30′ recovery strap with a shackle for each end, a folding shovel, tire patch kit, 12 VDC compressor, 30′ jumper cables, bungie and ratchet straps, multiple flashlights/headlamps, hand-held handy talky programmed for FRS/GMRS/ LEO/EMS/ham repeaters. Add my normal daily carry weapon plus additional mags.
    I also keep a weeks worth of USCG approved lifeboat rations on board. They keep for 5 years minimum regardless of temp variations.
    All this fits in a compartment under the bed of my truck with room to spare.

  • IDK if anyone mentioned this but I keep caffeine pills in every car. They have saved my butt too many times to count. I routinely make a 4-5 hour drive, often in the evening with my kids in the car. Sometimes I get drowsy. As opposed to coffee caffeine pills don’t make me have to pee, are always in my glove box and can be taken without stopping. I know without them I would have fallen asleep at the wheel.

  • TP and a garden trowel for a provisional loo. Some kind of provisional drapery for the job. If you are stuck on the road with strangers, people will need to kindly help one another with this most urgent task of nature.

  • Wow! That’s a lot of totes stuffed inside that little SUV. If I were driving the Trans-Alaskan Highway I could see it. But its over-kill otherwise, IMHO, of course. I don’t try to load my vehicle up for every circumstance, just the likely circumstances in consideration of the season, where I’ll be traveling, and who is with me. I do carry a tote in the covered bed of my truck. It contains two Get Home Bags that contain many of the items on you list – food, extra clothing, the means to start a fire, a small propane stove (Not interested in scrounging for biomass, especially while stranded on an interstate.), and water. In the cab I have a head lamp, Mini-Mag flashlight, multi-tool, sheath knife, IFAK with OTC meds (center console), phone charger cable – all mostly in the driver’s door compartment. Under the passenger seat is a basha (tarp) and a rain poncho. Extra butt pack beneath the driver’s seat. Underneath the rear seat are jumper cables, ratchet straps, a Halo lithium-ion car battery charger/light w/USB ports. Behind the rear seat is a poncho liner, Gore-Tex rain suit, Down jacket, and a Kel-Tec SU2000 9mm carbine folded into a lap top computer case w/extra 32-rd Glock mags (in addition to what I carry on my person). For comms there is the cell phone, a duel-band ham portable radio, and (if I am traveling some distance from home) a sat. phone. All relatively small individual items easily stored and out of the way.

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