How To Survive In Harsh Winter Weather Until Help Arrives

The van is packed. The kids are sipping on hot cocoa. Your favorite holiday jams are blasting on the stereo and you’re anticipating a smooth road ahead. Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan… The weather can turn for the worse in a matter of minutes deeming the roads unnavigable. If this happens, you may find yourself stranded in your car for hours or possibly days until help arrives. IASTL wants to make sure you’re as prepared as possible before your holiday excursions by providing you a few winter survival tips if you’re stranded in your car.

Before You Leave

The first thing you should do after you’ve decided to travel this winter is to check your local weather forecast. You’ll want to do your best to anticipate for any treacherous weather conditions along your route. If there’s a winter storm warning predicting large amounts of snow or ice, you’ll want to consider changing the date of your departure.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) recommends becoming familiar with winter weather terms:

  • Winter Storm Advisory means cold, ice and snow are expected.
  • Winter Storm Watch means severe weather such as heavy snow or ice is possible in the next day or two, so finalize preparations and listen to weather radio or forecasts.
  • Storm Warnings means severe winter conditions have begun or will begin soon, so stay inside.

If you’ve made the same drive in a warmer season, it’s important to know that it can take you significantly longer in the winter. You’ll want to make sure to alert someone as to where you’re going and what your estimated arrival time is before you leave.

What To Do If You Become Stranded

  • Stay in your vehicle. Leaving to search for help may seem like a good idea, but it’s easy to become disoriented in heavy snowfall. You’ll put yourself at more risk by exiting the vehicle.
  • Display a distress sign. You can do this by tying a flag or bright article of clothing to your antenna. You can also light a flare from your winter car emergency kit if you’re close to a road.
  • Run the engine for about 10 minutes each hour. Run the heater and turn on the dome light only when the vehicle is running. DO NOT run the engine and headlights indefinitely because it will waste your gas and kill your car battery.
  • Keep the exhaust pipe clear of snow and open a window slightly for ventilation. This will ensure that your car doesn’t fill with carbon monoxide which can cause severe illness or death.
  • Don’t stay in one position for too long. Clap your hands and move your body every few minutes to maintain good blood circulation.
  • If more than one person is in the car, take turns sleeping.
  • Huddle together for warmth and put on any extra clothing.
  • Use newspapers, magazines, road maps or even car mats for added insulation.

(List provided by the Missouri Department of Transportation)

Other Important Survival Tips


Make sure to check for signs of frostbite in yourself and your passengers. The early signs of frostbite are redness in your fingers, toes, and face. You’ll then start to notice numbness along with a “pins and needles” sensation. The most severe symptom of frostbite is when your skin turns a waxy white or black color.


You’ll also want to conserve your phone battery, but don’t shut it off. Most Android phones have a special power saving mode called “battery saver” built in which can give you days worth of battery life. If you don’t have a power saving mode, you can conserve power by turning the brightness down to the lowest setting, closing all applications, and disabling both Bluetooth and Wifi. Make sure your phone ringer is on, not vibrate.

You should attempt a 911 call even if you don’t have service. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), all service providers are required to transmit a 911 call. Make sure to alert them of your location. If you’re not close to a highway, let them know where you exited and a landmark you can be found by.

Food and Drink

Most times emergency responders will reach you within 24 hours. Although in the unlikely occurrence that you’re stranded for days on end, you’ll need a nourishment plan. Your body can survive for up to 3 weeks without food. Water, however, is a different story. The average human body can only last for about 3-4 days without water. If you didn’t pack any bottled water, your best bet will be to use a metal cup and lighter from your winter car emergency kit to melt snow into drinking water.

It’s important to take into consideration the temperature of your water once it melts. If you consume ice cold water after exposing yourself to the cold for too long, it can cause your body temperature to drop dangerously. This is especially important to consider for small children. They’re at a higher risk of hypothermia since they have a smaller body mass.

Becoming stranded is a rare occurrence, but it’s always best to have winter survival tips if you’re stranded in your car

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