For the last 30 years, I have driven the 400 miles from Illinois to Minnesota at Christmas time to spend the holiday with my wife’s family. Most of the journey is via the Interstate, and some may assume that this would mean that my drive would be clear sailing as these roads get the highest level of attention. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. We have experienced bad road conditions that ranged from deep snow on the expressway to whiteouts. The most significant danger is when it starts to sleet around the freezing point. This places an ultraslick layer of ice on the expressway, leading to disaster. Several times, we had to alter our travel plans by spending a night in a motel or by having a Christmas dinner at a truck stop. There have been other times that we have become stuck on the expressway. So far, this has meant that the traffic was moving so slowly as almost to be standing still.
I know of at least three national stories this winter season where expressways have been shut down due to inclement weather, often stranding motorists on them for a day or longer. Beyond Interstates, other roads can also shut down. For example, in 2011, Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive was closed for 12 hours stranding motorists in their cars. Lake Shore Drive is a local road with a total length of only 16 miles. Imagine being trapped in your car, wearing lightweight clothing, and low on gas. Spending twelve hours in such conditions could be life-threatening.
My point is that winter driving carries risks. However, you can reduce those risks if you plan ahead.
For as long as I can remember, driving experts have advised winter travelers to carry emergency supplies. Yet, I wonder how many people do this. Some of my vehicles are well set-up for emergencies, while others are equipped only when traveling a distance in them. The number of emergency items recommended varies from expert to expert. However, some essential things make every list.
Food and drink
We always have an abundance of snacks and water/drinks when we travel. Usually, these items are used to fill time and to lessen the number of stops that we have to make on long journeys. However, they would serve as emergency food if we were stranded. In addition, Violet, the camper van, always has water and emergency food bars on board. This last item is the second subject of today’s post, and it will be discussed in greater detail.
A warm coat, gloves, a hat, etc., are necessary items for even the shortest winter drive. A winter trip to the grocery store could be disastrous if your car broke down and you were in flip-flops and shorts. When we travel, we also carry sleeping bags with us. In Violet, I have both sleeping bags and blankets. Any old blanket is better than no blanket, and you can buy warm Army surplus type wool blankets for less than $20. Other heat sources could be considered, including a candle in a can and chemically exothermic products like hand warmers.
A way to keep your cell phone charged
Your cell phone is a communication and information resource, but it must be charged to work. We have charging cords in all of our vehicles. On long winter drives, I also pack a battery bank. Violet has additional ways to charge phones and other devices.
Another simple but critical piece of equipment. They are an inexpensive purchase, and it is likely that you already have a spare around your house. However, you have to remember to regularly test and change the batteries.
Pen and paper
Critical but straightforward for jotting down important information. You can use your phone to store information in many cases, but sometimes paper is more convenient.
Car repair equipment
This will vary based on your needs as well as your mechanical skill. We always carry some way to “jump” the car on Interstate trips, either cables or a jump box. I also have some elementary tools.
When I travel in Violet, I can be in remote places, so I pack more. I’ll carry, a can of flat fix, motor oil, a tire inflater, duct tape, and other items. I don’t have the skill to fix an engine, but I have been in situations where something has loosened on a vehicle, and having the right tools has allowed me to safely get to a place where the problem could be adequately repaired. Other things that some may consider include alert items like reflective shields and safety vests.
It is easy to throw a shovel into the car when going on a long winter trip. I have a small shovel that always rides in Violet. In addition, there are many inexpensive compact and folding shovels used by campers, and some made explicitly for motorists. A shovel can make the difference between getting out and staying stuck.
Some experts advise carrying sand or kitty litter as a traction aid, which is undoubtedly a good idea. However, we usually don’t do this, likely out of laziness. However, I carry recovery boards in Violet as I camp off dirt roads in primitive campsites.
First Aid Kit
We do carry reasonably stocked first aid kits in our vehicles. These have served us well for countless non-emergencies. Our little kits have efficiently dealt with cut fingers, headaches, and GI issues. You can make your kit from items that you already have in your medicine cabinet. Customize it according to your needs. Essential items like bandaids, a few pain killers (Tylenol, ibuprofen, etc.), antihistamines, anti-diarrhea meds, wipes, and antibiotic cream are good starting points.
Windshield washer fluid
At the very least, make sure that your car’s washer reservoir is full. However, it never hurts to carry some additional fluid. There is nothing worse than a salt-encrusted streaky window when driving. It is exhausting to operate under such conditions, and it can also be dangerous.
Ice scraper/snow brush
We all carry these; we have to. However, if you live in a tropical climate, like Florida, and are traveling up north during the winter months, buy one at a gas station BEFORE you need it.
I start a long trip with a full tank of gas, and if warranted, I try to keep the tank reasonably full. You can periodically run your heater if you are stuck to keep yourself warm.
Perhaps a bit controversial and gross, but we all have to go to the bathroom. Violet has a toilet. However, a simple coffee can or another wide-mouth container with a lid can serve the basic needs of both men and women in a pinch. You may never need it, but you will be delighted that you have it if you are stuck in your car for hours with no place to “go.” By the way, I’m talking about #1. However, I’m sure that creative and flexible individuals could use a coffee can for other needs if gymnastically inclined.
This list is endless and depends on your circumstance and your expertise. Snow chains, towing ropes, a compass, portable radio, snowshoes, the list goes on.
Emergency Ration Bars
Nothing is more disheartening than being in a high-stress situation while being hungry. In addition, both cold temperatures and emotional stress make your burn more calories. If you are hungry, you will be more irritable, impulsive, and mentally cloudy.
If you are planning a trip, it is easy to throw together a bag of treats for the road. Our road food is usually of the garbage variety and may include chips, candy, protein bars, and other snack items. However, all of these things have a relatively short freshness life. Once the trip is over, the food returns to our pantry and is quickly consumed by the five adults who live here. Many experts suggest packing set-and-forget food. Stuff that you deliberately pack in your car for emergencies. When I was growing up, chocolate bars were recommended by experts. However, bars melt, and they don’t age particularly well. Several newer foods have a longer and more stable shelf life. Clif bars come to mind as they are pretty solid, well packaged, and have a shelf life of over a year. I have eaten 2-year-old Clif bars in the past; they were pretty dry and chewy but edible.
Emergency Ration Bars are an inexpensive and viable solution for your winter car kits. In addition, having a few packs at home could provide backup if you were ever homebound due to a winter storm or other disaster.
A caution: These bars all use wheat flour and lots of sugar, so they are inappropriate for those with gluten or blood sugar conditions.
These bars were developed for lifeboats survival situations, which required food with a very long shelf-life that was calorie-dense and did not promote thirst. They are not health food; they are calorie bombs designed to keep you alive. Most come in packages that are 2,400 or 3,600 calories and are meant to sustain a single person for 2 or 3 days (1,200 calories per day). They are low fiber and low protein by design as these additions promote thirst. Fresh water is in limited supply on a lifeboat.
There are a variety of brands on the market that are sold at Amazon, Walmart, and many sporting goods and survival-type stores. In addition, they are relatively inexpensive. For example, you can get a 2,400 (2 days) emergency bar for less than $5 at Walmart, and 3,600 calories (3 days) bars can be had on Amazon for less than $10.
All of the various brands of bars have a similar ingredient list. However, they may vary slightly in texture, shape, and hardness. In addition, many of them are mildly flavored in various ways. Manufacturers use flavors such as orange, coconut, apple-spice, blueberry, lemon, and cinnamon. One company may produce a bar with only one flavor, while other manufacturers may sell bars of different flavors.
In most cases, the bars will have a somewhat oily consistency and will taste like a thick, shortbread cookie. I have eaten these bars, and in general, they are palatable, but you wouldn’t want to live on them. However, when given the option of an emergency bar vs. no food, they become delectable.
All of the brands make their bars using four essential ingredients. Wheat flour, sugar, palm oil (or other vegetable fat), and vitamins/minerals. Some may have a bit of soy flour, and most will have some mild flavoring (see above). I checked the ingredients from several manufacturers and didn’t see a lot of typical preservatives. However, many listed ascorbic acid, which is both a vitamin (Vitamin C) and a natural preservative.
These bars have a super long shelf-life for several reasons. First, they don’t contain items that can go rancid, like animal fats or nuts. There are no additions, such as dried fruits or peanut butter. Even eggs are omitted. However, the main reason for their long shelf life is how they are packed. They are vacuum-sealed using a heavy aluminum-like wrapper. This not only prevents breakage but also dramatically increases the bar’s shelf-life.
If unopened, they have a shelf-life of 5 years from the date of manufacture. In sweltering conditions, their shelf-life is reduced. In cool conditions, they can be useable for up to 10 years. If you use them in the winter emergency car kit, it is reasonable to change them out every 4-5 years as their cost is low.
Since they are all similar in composition, the brand that you choose is a personal choice. Some are certified by the US Coast Guard and tested to meet Coast Guard standards. Others say that they are Coast Guard compliant. Some of the biscuits are block-like, others are shaped like a candy bar. Textures can vary slightly, as can taste. During taste tests, people generally like one bar over another, but the actual bar brand changes from person to person. If you are stuck in your car in a snowstorm for a day or two, any bar is better than no bar.
In conclusion, it is easy and inexpensive to build an emergency car winter kit, which is especially important when traveling long distances or on rural roads. In addition, having a pack or two of inexpensive emergency food bars as part of your winter kit provides affordable insurance that you won’t be stranded and hungry during a winter emergency.