Everyday safety: Your car survival kit

I’ve been thinking about how to prepare for winter survival.

While I was snow-blowing my extra-long driveway recently, I remembered the old expression “there is no bad weather, just bad clothing.”

I have a 33-metre driveway and it was cold, so I wore my heaviest snowmobile suit and an hour later I was back inside, not wet or cold. I have a lot of winter gear choices at home, but what about when driving? What’s the best gear to keep in a car?

For most of the year, having a cheap two-piece rain suit is a good strategy. It will keep you dry and it blocks the wind and takes up little space. In winter, I keep an old parka in my car. It’s better than a blanket, since you can’t really wear a blanket while you’re changing a tire or digging out of a snowdrift.

There are many books and articles on survival kits and for some reason they all include fishing gear. In my many years of driving, I’ve broken down on the side of the road several times and I’ve never had a need to fish.

I’ve travelled on roads in northern Canada that were hundreds of kilometres from the nearest service station, with few other travellers around, so I’ve often thought about what would happen if I broke down.

These are some things that I’ve carried and actually put to good use.

First you need to consider some likely self-rescue situations: a flat tire at night, a dead battery, a car that won’t start, or getting stuck in the snow.

I like multipurpose things, so let’s start with the container. A metal biscuit tin, the kind that come full of shortbread at Christmas, is good. It’s big enough to hold everything and it has another use that I’ll explain below. And to fill that container:

  • A large contractor-type garbage bag: cut three holes in it and it becomes a rain poncho.
  • A small first aid kit. They’re cheap and the scissors are handy.
  • A disposable lighter and several tea candles. You can put the candle in your biscuit tin and it will be safe to use on the centre console of your car. I tried this for an hour, with one tea candle in a tuna can. It gives off a little heat but burning two candles in the biscuit tin would be more effective. A paraffin plumbers candle is a good alternative.
  • Leather gloves. You’ll need them to change a tire or dig out of a ditch. They’ll get wet; pack two pairs.
  • A toque. They’re cheap and warm, and we are Canadian after all.
  • Candy. Hard ones will last all winter (chocolates melt). Hard candy also burns nicely.
  • A small metal mug and some tea, instant coffee, or hot chocolate to heat over your candles. You’ll appreciate it while you wait for help.
  • Packets of sugar. They are pure energy and when sprinkled over dry wood outdoors, the best fire starter you can have.
  • A roll of electrical tape. It’s better than duct tape and more compact, and good as a bandage.
  • A cheap LED flashlight with extra batteries.
  • Aspirin. You’ll be exerting yourself; they’ll come in handy.

Some other things which you probably already have in your car are a cellphone, a bottle of water and floor mats.  It’s rare for front wheel drive cars to get stuck, but just in case, you can put the mats under your front tires, and they can get you unstuck.  You can also kneel on them to stay dry if you’re changing a tire.

Other nice options to have include:

  • A one-foot-square piece of thick wood. If you’ve ever tried to jack up a car on the side of a road, you’ll appreciate how that will come in handy
  • A small fire extinguisher. You can get a car-sized one for about $20. But don’t open the hood of a car that is smoking. Only spray the extinguisher from underneath.
  • A reflective vest. You can get cheap ones for around $10 and it will help protect you on the road, when changing a tire, or hang it out a window to signal for help.
  • A four-litre jug of windshield washer fluid. Once I was stuck in the middle of nowhere with a leaky radiator hose. I used electrical tape to fix the hose. I used my windshield washer fluid jug to fill the radiator with water from a nearby stream (after letting the radiator cool so it didn’t crack). If I hadn’t been able to find water, I could have used the windshield washer fluid in the radiator. And when cut in half (remember your scissors?) the jug works as a makeshift snow shovel.
  • A cheap red flasher light to signal passersby. I used to carry road flares for the same purpose, but a flasher light is much safer to have in your car.
  • A small booster-battery. They’re cheaper than they used to be and better than booster cables, because you don’t need another car around to give you a jump. A new car battery could die without warning after about 3 years, so for the cost of a tow truck, this is a worthwhile purchase.

Reliable low-tech tools are best.

I discovered that when my GPS stopped working at night on a highway in a strange city. I was midway between the airport and the hotel, about a 30-minute drive remaining (if all went well). I had an old-fashioned cellphone, not a smart phone—no GPS app. I took the nearest exit found a gas station that surprisingly still sold maps.

The map and my pocket flashlight served me well as I navigated through the unfamiliar roads to my destination. It reinforced for me that the “old school” method is most useful tool you can have.

You can never anticipate every situation and if you built a survival kit for all of them, it would fill your trunk. My suggested kit can help you to do a self-rescue or just be more comfortable while you await the tow truck.

You never know what the day will bring.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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