Preparation is key to winter driving wherever the destination is, especially if things don’t go as planned. Here are the winter car essentials to carry in your winter driving safety kit.
Winter means white-knuckle driving through dizzying snowstorms on the way to those absolutely epic powder days — or just a trip to a friend’s place out of town. What could be just a minor problem in warm conditions could be downright disastrous in winter without the proper gear.
This winter-ready gear list prepares you for breakdowns, spinouts, highway mishaps, or getting stuck in the snow.
Winter Emergency Car Kit: Essential Gear
Portable Jump Starter
Long gone are the days when your only hope of starting a car with a dead battery is to find another running vehicle. Today, you can grab your portable jumper, clip it to your battery terminals, and fire up your car. I’ve used the apparently out-of-business Cyntur jumper since 2015, and it still works like a champ.
But since you can’t get one of those anymore, grab the super-popular GOOLOO 2000A Peak 19,8000 mAh SuperSafe Car Jump Starter with USB Quick Charge 3.0 off Amazon for $99. One of our other editors loves the Athena Power Bank and Jump Starter from Uncharted Supply.
Either one will jump start your car or truck’s dead battery, charge cellphones from one of its USB-C or USB-A ports, and has a built-in flashlight! These are so much easier, safer, and more reliable than jumper cables that there is no excuse not to switch over.
Remember to charge the jump starter before the deep cold weather sets in.
Vehicle breakdowns in cold weather mean no heater. We recommend at least one blanket for each person in the vehicle. Old-fashioned (and inexpensive) wool or wool-blend blankets are great.
Heat-reflecting “space blankets” are inexpensive and take up almost no room, but they’re not as warm as wool. The SOL Emergency Blanket ($5) is small and affordable. Buy a few and keep them in your winter emergency car kit, just in case.
A compact snow shovel is essential in snowy climates and a must-have for any winter emergency car kit. Storms in the mountains or northern parts of the U.S. can drop feet of snow in a day, making that parked car immobile until you shovel it out.
Not to mention a trip to the ditch can sometimes be fixed with a shovel. Plows can stick you behind massive snow berms, so stow a shovel that can handle hardpack. We like the Gerber Gorge Shovel ($24).
Extra Jackets, Hats, Gloves, Boots
Winter wear is your survival suit in a storm. A complete winter kit will take up a lot of room in the car, but ensure that each person is outfitted with enough layers and outerwear to spend at least an hour (longer in remote areas) outdoors when venturing out in cold weather. Don’t skimp on the basics.
In addition, having a pack of hand and foot warmers to pull out in a pinch is a great option. Offerings from Ignik activate by air and can stay warm for hours.
Flashlight or Headlamp
If you’ve ever needed to change a flat tire at night, you know just how critical a flashlight can be. I keep the Fenix UC35 flashlight in the center console of my truck at all times.
At $90, it’s a higher-end flashlight, but its performance is top-notch (if you’ve never used a super-nice flashlight, it will blow your mind). And, because it’s rechargeable, I can keep it juiced up by occasionally plugging it into my truck while winter driving.
Another worthy option is a headlamp to keep your hands free while you work.
Tip: Don’t rely on lights that require a live 12V power source to function. They don’t work if you have a dead car battery.
If you want to cover all your bases, get a flashlight that can power up from multiple power sources. If the battery gets used up, you can recharge it using the hand crank or built-in solar panel.
Don’t forget the flashlight built into the portable jump starter if it has one. The LED light is pretty bright and will last for hours if fully charged.
Traction Devices or Sand/Grit
A traction device called Maxtrax has taken off in the overlanding community over the last few years because it works incredibly well. If you’re stuck, stick these under the tires to create a runway out of a slippery situation.
Icy roads and gravity can work against a vehicle trying to make its way uphill on a remote stretch. Or, you might need added traction if stuck in a ditch. A sealed container of sand or grit rock can offer traction if thrown under the tires.
It gives grip on slick snow or ice where no tread can grab hold. A better — albeit pricer — option is a traction device such as Maxtrax or tire chains.
You probably won’t need an elaborate first-aid kit, but bandages, antiseptic cream, antacids, and pain relievers will solve many minor issues. If someone in your family has allergies, consider adding the appropriate meds for them as well. The StatGear Auto Survival pack has the basics for a winter emergency car kit.
If you’re stranded, you’ll want some way to flag down passing motorists to get help. Tie a brightly colored bandana to a disabled vehicle to make a well-known signal for help.
Road flares are a good option, too, and will significantly increase your visibility on a stormy night. A third option goes back to the portable jump starter’s integrated flashlight, which likely has flashing and SOS modes to attract attention.
It takes a little skill and can result in car damage if not done correctly, but a tow strap can get your car out of a shallow ditch and save a bundle in tow truck charges.
Especially in remote areas, be ready to rig up reliable, strength-rated tow straps if you get stuck. Just be sure the vehicle pulling on the other end is capable, use strong points on both the towing and towed vehicle (not the bumper!), and beware of traffic and other hazards.
Even if you don’t know how to perform basic car repairs, someone who stops on the road to help out just might. Carry tools that can do many jobs — pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches, a hammer, duct tape, electrical tape, and a sharp knife can do the trick for many roadside fixes.
The Ten Below Winter Road Warrior Deluxe Emergency Kit ($160) has tools and other survival equipment. There are other budget options out there too, or you can make your own.
At the minimum, carry a Leatherman or similar multitool, which can get you through numerous minor repairs. Don’t forget to have spare fuses and a jug of coolant for longer trips in your emergency kit.
Spare Tire & Jack
Does your car have a spare tire and a jack? Be sure you have both, as well as a tire iron. Check your spare regularly to ensure it stays properly inflated. Know how to change a flat.
In some cases, a can of foam sealant will get you out of a pickle if you run over a nail. At a minimum, it will let you drive to a safe place to put on your spare tire or get somewhere where help is available. And using a sealant is faster and simpler than changing a tire.
Fix-a-Flat injects a mix of sealant and air to inflate your tire. The 16-ounce size will work for most cars; a 22-ounce can is available for larger pickups and SUVs. Bear in mind that there isn’t enough product to fully inflate the tire. You’ll have to add more air from another source, such as a portable inflator.
Please don’t drive more than 100 miles without getting a permanent repair or replacing the tire. The same rule applies if your spare tire isn’t a full-size replacement. The maximum recommended speed for a donut spare tire is 50 mph and not farther than 70 miles.
Food & Water
It might take some time for help to arrive, and snacks keep you occupied and quell some of the complaints from the back seat. (Consultant Jim Cobb said he keeps a jug of water, paper cups, and snack mix in a cooler in the back of his family van.)
Be sure to leave plenty of space in the water jug to allow for expansion in freezing temperatures.
It may sound trivial, but you could end up sitting for hours while waiting for a tow truck. Have a paperback book or a deck of cards in your emergency car kit to pass the time. If children are in the mix, double up on the entertainment supplies to keep kids occupied in the idle wintertime.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What Should Be in a Winter Emergency Kit?
A winter emergency kit for the car is crucial because getting stranded in freezing temperatures is downright dangerous. Hence, keep a winter emergency kit inside your vehicle with the following articles:
- Battery booster cables or portable jump starter
- Portable shovel
- A bag of kitty litter or sand
- Ice scraper
- Portable power supply to recharge your cell phone
- Blankets (boots, gloves, and a warm hat are also helpful)
- First-aid kit
- Tow straps
- Spare tire, jack, tools, and tire sealant
- Hazard triangles and/or LED flasher to warn approaching drivers and mark your location
- Fire extinguisher
- Water and non-perishable food
What Should I Carry in My Car During the Winter?
It’s always helpful to keep vital emergency supplies in your car. Stow these items in your vehicle, and you’ll be ready for almost any winter mishaps on the road.
- Ice scraper
- Portable shovel
- Bag of sand or kitty litter for traction on slippery surfaces
- Hazard triangles and/or LED flashers to warn approaching drivers and mark your location
- Working flashlight
- Blankets and extra cold weather clothing
- Water and snacks
- First-aid kit
- Basic tools and duct tape
- Spare tire, jack, and tire sealant
- Portable jump starter or jumper cables
What Are Considered the Top 5 Survival Items?
The following survival items are ranked in order of priority. Keep these important items handy for emergencies.
- Proper clothing
- A means to light a fire
- Survival knife or Leatherman tool
- Plastic whistle
- Personal first-aid kit
What 10 Things Would You Pack in a Survival Kit?
A disaster supplies kit is a collection of basic things you may need in an emergency. The most critical items in your kit are enough food and water for several days to cover you, your family, and your pets.
That said, here are 11 more essential items that you should include in your survival kit:
- First-aid kit
- Basic tools or Leatherman tool
- Flashlight and spare batteries
- Dust mask
- Local maps
- Manual can opener
- Survival knife
- AM/FM radio powered by batteries, solar panel, or hand crank
- Supplies for your pet
- Books, games, puzzles, and other activities for children