How to Survive a Road Trip Breakdown in the Dead of Winter

These days, most of us rarely venture beyond the range of cell service. It’s enough to lull us into a false sense of security, naively assuming help is always just a phone call away. Even a casual rural or off-road drive in winter can go sideways quickly, however. An unexpected patch of ice, sudden lake-effect snow squall, or tire blowout all have the potential to put us in a life-threatening situation. For anyone forced to spend the night or nights in their car after a breakdown, winter presents a unique set of challenges. As with any emergency situation, preparation is key to survival.

If you breakdown in a well-trafficked area or have access to a working cell phone, you can stop reading right now. Help shouldn’t be far away. But, if your cold-weather travels take you farther afield, here’s how to survive a road trip breakdown in the dead of winter.

Tell a Friend

Hikers know the simplest way to stay safe in the backcountry is to tell a friend or family member where they’re going and for how long. Let them know you’ll text them when you’re safe. If they don’t hear from you by a specific time, it’s safe to assume something went wrong. This is the single best tip on this list. Best of all, it’s free.

Know Your Route

It might seem obvious, but thoroughly knowing your route and the terrain you’re heading into is critical. Standard GPS devices and smartphone map apps offer little help when traveling in rural areas. Be sure to have a redundant map setup. That means bringing a purpose-built GPS device like Garmin’s new Overlander and packing a topographical map as well. Electronics can fail; paper doesn’t. 

road trip winter road
Jason Blackeye

Dress the Part

If you’re planning an out-of-the-way adventure in winter, dress as though you’re heading out for a day hike. Even if you’re not expecting to step out of the car, bring a cozy hat, gloves, and plenty of insulating layers. For safety’s sake, “more is more.” Pack more than you think you’ll need. It’s easy to assume you’ll be warm enough at high noon, but once the sun drops on the first unexpected night in your vehicle, you’ll be thankful for that extra insulation.

Find Help from Anywhere

If things do go sideways, attempting a call for help is your priority. Prepare for the worst-case scenario by assuming your cell phone isn’t an option. Maybe you won’t have cell service, or you’ll forget your phone at home, or perhaps it won’t survive a possible car crash. If you’re taking a leisurely off-road drive, the first scenario is the most likely. Don’t count on your cell phone to be your only lifeline. Always pack a backup communication plan.

A device like the Fusion2Go Max from SureCall is a hardwired signal booster designed to maximize the range of your phone’s cell reception. It’s great for overlanding enthusiasts and anyone who lives in or routinely travels through rural areas. A better option is a dedicated personal locator beacon or satellite messenger. For between $200-$300 plus a nominal monthly fee, devices like Garmin’s inReach Mini or the Spot X Bluetooth allow for texting from literally anywhere on the planet. They feature a built-in SOS button that provides on-demand rescue if things go very, very sideways, and you’ve exhausted all other alternatives.

road trip winter road suv
Emmanuel Maceda

If all attempts for outside help fail, the only other option is to find help on foot. If you’re traveling alone, there’s only yourself to worry about. If you’re traveling with a significant other and possibly children, however, you may need to leave them behind while you go for help. A pair of walkie-talkies is a great way to keep in touch along the way. The Talkabout T800 Two-Way Radios from Motorola are compact, affordable, and boast a range of up to 35 miles.

Hunker Down for a Long, Cold Night

Assuming you can find help, it may be hours or days away. Preparing for an extended stay in your vehicle is critical. It’s also surprisingly inexpensive. At the very least, pack the essentials like a gallon or two of water, a space blanket, chemical or electric hand warmers, and a camp quilt or four-season sleeping bag. These things can literally mean the difference between life and death. A pack of Nuun electrolyte tablets also helps keep your essential nutrients up while you wait out the situation. It also goes without saying that a proper first aid kit is a must-have in your trunk at all times.

For an all-in-one, portable survival solution, learn how to pack an apocalypse-worthy bug-out bag.

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