No matter the destination, every winter driver needs to be prepared if something goes wrong. These 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.
Be prepared for breakdowns, spin-outs, highway mishaps, or simply getting stuck in the snow with this winter-ready gear list.
Winter Emergency Car Kit: Essential Gear
Long gone are the days where your only hope of starting a car with a dead battery is to find another running vehicle. Today, you can simply grab your portable jumper, clip it to your battery terminals, and fire up your car. I’ve been using 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, just grab the super-popular GOOLOO 800A Peak 18000mAh SuperSafe Car Jump Starter with USB Quick Charge 3.0 off Amazon for $70. One of our other editors loves the Athena Power Bank and Jump Starter from Uncharted Supply.
Not only will it jumpstart your car’s dead battery, but it also charges cellphones with two USB ports and has a built-in flashlight! These are so much easier, safer, and more reliable than jumper cables that there is really no excuse to not switch over.
Vehicle breakdowns in cold weather mean no heater. One blanket for each person in the vehicle is recommended. 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 the car just in case.
A compact snow shovel is key in snowy climates. 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.
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 full winter kit will take up a lot of room in the car, but be sure 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 like these from Ignik are activated 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 really nice flashlight, your mind will be blown). And, because it’s rechargeable, I can keep it juiced up by plugging it into my truck occasionally while winter driving.
Another good option is a crank-powered model or a headlamp to keep you hands-free while you work. (Tip: Don’t rely on lights that require a live 12V to function; they don’t work if you have a dead car battery.)
If you want to go the crank route, the Goal Zero Torch 250 Crank Light ($80) is a reliable light that works off a rechargeable battery but can also be powered with a crank by hand.
Traction Devices or Sand/Grit
A traction device called Maxtrax has really taken off in the overlanding community over the last few years for the simple reason that it works incredibly well. If you’re stuck, just 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 first-aid issues. If someone in your family has allergies, consider adding the appropriate meds for them as well. The StatGear Auto Survival Kit has the basics.
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 greatly increase your visibility on a stormy night.
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.
You should also have spare fuses and a jug of coolant for longer trips in your emergency kit. The ESG Essentials Car Kit ($225) has tools as well as 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 a lot of minor repairs.
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.
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.