Updated on 12.24.07

Eight Frugal Ways to Prepare for Winter Driving

Trent Hamm

Yesterday, I spent seven hours on the road in Iowa. When we left, the weather forecast looked rather clear and we figured the trip would be relatively easy (well, as easy as a four hour car trip with a toddler and an infant will ever be). About an hour into it, we ran into a blizzard – whiteouts and such. At one point, we came upon a semi on its side blocking the road, turned around in the middle of a period of about twenty feed of visibility, and backtracked for a dozen miles or so. Even better, about halfway through the trip, my son got carsick, causing us to stop and clean things out at the nearest gas station.

Several little frugal preparations (no, I’m not going to suggest you go buy a shovel and rock salt, though both can be useful – esp. the rock salt) made this trip much easier, and they are things that anyone driving in potential winter conditions can do to make sure their trip goes as smoothly and safely as possible. If you’re about to go driving through bad conditions, make sure you do the following before you leave.

Charge up all available cell phones before you leave. Even the one you keep in the glove box just so you can dial 911 in a pinch. Get them all charged up, so that you reduce the potential variables that would keep you from being able to call ahead about emergencies and call family and friends to let them know what’s happened with you. The technology is available – use it.

Keep an extra set of clothes or two available to you inside the interior of the vehicle. If you’re in a situation where you have to get out of the automobile for some reason, more layers of clothes are better. Make it as easy as you can for yourself to access these extra clothes.

Take along some extra blankets. If you’re stranded for a while, blankets will allow you to stay warm for much longer than would otherwise be allowed. We spotted several vehicles off the side of the road with windows shattered – in that situation, blankets would be your lifeline.

Pack some high-carb snacks. Granola bars, beef jerky, and the like are brimming with energy that your body can easily process and turn into heat. Keep some along with you for the trip, just in case.

Put something heavy in the trunk of your car if you have rear wheel or all wheel drive. Extra weight adds a bit to the traction that your tires can get with the road. You’ll slightly reduce your gas mileage in exchange for less slipping – a trade that I’d make any day of the week.

Grab your home first aid kit – just in case. Although it can be useful to have a first aid kit for your car, let’s be realistic – most people don’t have one. Instead, grab the one you have at your home and stick it under a seat. If you slide off the road and bust out a window, you’ll likely be very glad you had that first aid kit.

Check two basic things on your car. If you do nothing else, check your hazard lights and check your tires. Turn on your hazard lights and make sure they’re all clearly visible (you can check your headlights and tail lights at the same time). Also, check the tire pressure in each tire and make sure you’re filled to the amount recommended in your car’s manual (not the amount listed on the tire). A properly inflated tire can help with getting through slick spots, plus it improves your gas mileage.

If you’re ferrying children, have at least a day’s worth of their basic supplies along. Formula, diapers, a change of clothes or two – the last thing you want is to be trapped in a stuck car with a howling child in a makeshift diaper and a lack of formula.

All of these tips will save you valuable time and/or money during winter driving. Some will help you avoid an accident and the rest will be invaluable should you find yourself in a bad place. If you’re going on a winter trip later today, good luck and be prepared.

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  1. Wow, I am so glad I live in NYC and don’t drive anywhere most of the time.

    Don’t forget a couple of bottles of water.

  2. dan says:

    Three very important things not specifically mentioned: hat, gloves, and water.

    The hat and gloves are extremely useful if stranded or if you have to make a repair/dig out your car. And the water is just as important as the food even if you have to thaw it before you drink it. I might suggest a book too as it could make the wait seem much shorter.

  3. Anna says:

    A shovel (un-suggested above, but there’s no reason not to have one).


    A flashlight with good batteries.

  4. Megan says:

    In addition to a fully charged cell phone, bring along the 1-800 number for road conditions in all the states you may be driving through. A quick call to this number can let you know if the road you’re driving on is closed ahead or if there are any major accidents blocking the way (like an overturned semi), and you can decide to pull off the highway before you don’t have that choice anymore.

  5. James says:

    You might want to consider a candle and matches. A Candle sitting in an empty tuna fish can will keep the car somewhat warm. It would help with the blankets. Also if you do this, crack a window.
    The candle will also save battery life on your flashlight if it is night time.

  6. claymeadow says:

    that is a good list, there are so many stories here in upstate ny of people from south of here, nyc, who could use all of those items to prevent the tragic from occurring out here in the weather extremes, especially since there are no cell towers because they are in a wildlife preserve.

    the only thing I would add to the list is a bullet that says let people know where you are going and other itinerary details so that if you do not show up on time someone is alert to the situation.

  7. Ryan S. says:

    Living here, most of this stuff is foreign to me :) However, I would definitely agree with charging up your cell phones before you leave.

  8. claymeadow says:

    also, I would like to mention that 911 is not guaranteed everywhere you go. some 911 posts are only manned during regular hours like 9 to 5 and in a lot of places beyond the cities there is no 911 service. so don’t assume that it will just be some sort of always on service you may be painfully surprised to find out otherwise.

  9. Good points! I was just driving through some pretty bad weather, and starting to think about what to do in a worst case scenario.

    I’d also add to stop more regularly for gas so you at least have heat if you were to get stuck.

  10. Andrea says:

    We also drove back from southwest MN late afternoon yesterday with a 2 yr old in tow. The roads were good but there was lots of snow blowing across the road from the winds. Then when we got back towards the Twin Cities there was much, much more snow, plus a two foot snowbank in our driveway to greet us. I’m glad I just replaced the tires so we had decent traction.

    Good article btw, I’d also recommend those two dollar handwarmers you can break apart and have heat to put in your gloves. Those saved my butt one time when my radiator gave out at midnight in January when the temp was 20 below.

  11. plonkee says:

    And seriously consider whether you need to make the trip at all? I’m all for being prepared, but it isn’t a safety net that means that you will never come to harm if you try driving in a blizzard. Knowing when to give up is probably just as important.

  12. limeade says:

    I’m not a huge fan of driving in bad weather. If the forecast looks that bad I’d consider either leaving early or waiting it out. There’s no point in risking it if you don’t have to.

  13. Michelle Dawn says:

    Great post! I live in Canada and we get a lot of snow and ice this time of year. I really should put a few safety items in the car. Thanks for the reminder.

  14. Adam Kamerer says:

    My region (Alabama) doesn’t tend to get hit very hard by winter, but I still think many of these are excellent tips, and I do several of them myself. I keep a backpack in my trunk backed with a sort of emergency/survival kit: it includes such things as bottles of water, granola bars, a folding spade, change of clothes, a few glowsticks, a multitool, and some little chemical packet hand-warmers.

  15. Teri Pittman says:

    Cell phones don’t work in a lot of the area I drive. (I do carry a prepaid just in case.) I always set up a pack for winter driving. I have an old down vest and jacket, along with a couple of extra hats, mittens and scarves. If you carry a flashlight, you might try a crank style, which will always work. I should add food, but I could miss a meal or two without hurt and water is almost always available around here. I’d prefer that folks stay home if they do not know how to drive in snow. About the only thing that stops me is ice. Won’t drive in that unless I have to.

    And, if you are driving in locations that you don’t know, STICK TO THE MAIN HIGHWAYS!! Most of the stories about folks getting stranded have been people trying to take a shortcut on the map. Winter is not a good time to try this.

  16. As I read this post it made me very glad to live in the deep south. I can deal with the 100+ temperatures and 90% humidity during the summer, I just don’t think I could ever get used to the northern winters.

    Best Wishes,

  17. Kate says:

    I’m pretty sure beef jerky is all protein, no carbs.

  18. David says:

    Beef jerky is actually high protein and low carb.

  19. 144mph says:


    You may want to change the recommendations slightly. Though it is true that you will increase traction on a RWD car by adding weight to the rear, added ballast is not a net benefit for RWD cars and certainly not for AWD. The added weight just increases stopping distances which is without a doubt the biggest problem with winter driving.

    A case can be made that _if_ you have a RWD car and _if_ the ballast is in the form of a bag of salt or kitty litter (increases traction and can free a ‘stuck’ car) that it would be helpful in that situation.

    Another drawback of adding weight is that it reduces gas mileage, which is already compromised in the winter due to the less oxygenated fuel (in colder climate areas) and decreased thermal efficiency of the motor, particularly in cold-startup conditions. Many people don’t realize that in cold climate areas, their cars typically will get 10% reduced MPG in the winter due to these factors.

    Cheers and Merry Christsmas to all!

  20. Macinac says:

    Like stock market swings up and down the weather swings bad and good. Go before the storm, and return afterward. Weather predictions are pretty accurate nowadays.

    On the other hand, if you’re 21 and single, forget all that and just go for it! You’ll love the adventure.

  21. Laura says:

    Even though it’s warmer here, the idea of being prepared for emergencies is practical.

  22. Sarina says:

    I knew old cell phones that were once activated (but maybe out of style or replaced by a better one) would still work to phone 911 in case of an emergency (even with no paid service, just charged up as you said), but I FORGOT! Thanks for the reminder and the other great tips I need to implement for myself and those I love.

  23. GHH says:

    I suggest a small roll of toilet paper or paper towels. Would have come in handy when stuck (for two days in mid-Atlantic Thanksgiving, 1974 blizzard).

  24. Teresa says:

    One tip I learned in a Wilderness survival class, forget the extra blankets, and pack a sleeping bag for every passenger. Just try wrapping a blanket around yourself and keeping it in place. Either your head, your feet, or your backside won’t be covered.
    Now, imagine crawling inside a sleeping bag, zipping it up, and only having your head exposed to the cold.
    And, if all you need is a blanket, the sleeping bag can be unzipped an laid out flat.
    Otherwise, the best tip for surviving trouble in the winter, is to tell someone where you are going, how you are getting there, and when you should get there, and then stick to the plan.

  25. Shevy says:

    Having just driven back from our other home today through 2 mountain passes I would like to add that it is important to change to winter tires from all season and to carry a set of chains in your car when you travel in snowy, slushy, icy weather. Winter tires aren’t cheap, but they could easily save your life and that makes them priceless in my book. Also make sure you carry a container of windshield wiper fluid. You go through it very quickly at this time of year.

    I did this same trip 5 or 6 weeks ago *without* winter tires and (even though there was much less snow at higher elevations on that trip) it was still far less comfortable last time. I started to slide (only once and only for about 5 seconds, but that was plenty, thanks). And that’s why we waited until we bought the snow tires before making the trip again.

    Another suggestion would be space blankets in addition to regular ones. They hold body heat very well and the reflective surface might help you be discovered if your vehicle should go off the road.

    And, if you’re going to run the car for 5 minutes every hour anyway, you might consider an immersion heater that plugs into the cigarette lighter and will heat a cup of water. If you’ve been trying to shovel yourself out and come back in with your hands freezing a hot cup of water (never mind coffee, soup or whatever) will feel amazing.

  26. Doug says:

    I am from Canada, may I suggest that you have a fold up shovel and for the weight in your trunk: Buy a “rubbermaid” and fill it with sand. Makes a great weight and if you get stuck on ice and need traction you can just shovel some of the sand from the rubbermaid onto the ground around your car.

    Also, have a time and person you will call when you arrive at your destination. If they don’t hear from you then they can send out the search party.

    1 last one: Stop and help people you see on the road. Karma can be great ;)

  27. J says:

    Add “get decent windshield wipers” to the list. A new set of winter wipers costs all of $12. Or go the bargain route and just do the driver’s side for $6.

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