If you’re planning a road trip during the holidays, plan ahead and make sure you’re ready to travel in winter conditions. Gather the supplies you need and know what you should do if you get stranded. Our tips come straight from the Idaho Transportation Department and the Department of Health and Welfare’s Bureau of Emergency Medical Services and Preparedness, and they will help you prep for driving in winter.
Emergency supplies for your vehicle
Carry these essentials in a box or plastic tub in the trunk or cargo area of your vehicle:
- Flashlights with extra batteries
- Stocked first aid kit (check for missing or outdated items)
- Pocketknife or multi-purpose tool
- Blanket or sleeping bag
- Mittens, socks and a wool cap
- Waterproof matches or butane lighter
- Waterproof covering such as a tarp or poncho
- A 3-pound coffee can or equivalent for heating water
- A small sack of sand or cat litter for generating traction under stuck wheels. It also adds weight for better traction and handling.
- A small shovel
- A basic tool kit, including pliers, screwdrivers, adjustable wrench, tape and wire
- Paper towels or toilet tissue, good for their designed purposes as well as a fire starter
- Spare tire
- Rope, tow chain or a strap
- Map of the area where you plan to travel
- Signaling devices such as emergency flares, brightly-colored cloth, athletic whistle or a mirror
- Bottled water (but remember it will probably freeze so allow expansion room in the container)
- Battery jumper cables
- Energy bars or other high-energy food such as raisins or nuts
- Candles (a blanket over your head, body heat and the heat from a single candle can prevent freezing)
What to do if you get stranded
Basic automobile parts can help save a stranded motorist. Put these automotive parts to good use in an extreme emergency:
- A hubcap or sun visor can be used for a shovel.
- Engine oil burned in a hubcap creates a smoke signal visible for miles.
- A car horn can be heard as far as a mile downwind. Three long blasts, 10 seconds apart every 30 minutes is a standard distress signal.
- Seat covers can be used as a blanket.
- Floor mats can be used to block the wind.
- A rear-view mirror can be removed and used as a signaling device.
Operating a vehicle safely in winter conditions
Driving in winter conditions is vastly different than driving in normal, dry conditions. Stopping distances are longer, handling is more difficult and driving requires your undivided attention. You can’t be too cautious. Here are some tips that will help when you drive in winter conditions:
- Drive at a pace you believe is safest for your vehicle and your driving abilities. Do not let other drivers dictate your speed. If traffic builds up behind you, look for a safe place to pull to the right and allow the vehicles to pass.
- Keep at least three times the normal following distance from vehicles in front of you on snow or ice so you can slow down gradually.
- Plan ahead to brake smoothly when approaching intersections.
- Drive with low-beam headlights in heavy snowfall or fog. Keep your headlights, stoplights and turn signal lenses clean. Dirty headlights can cut visibility by 50 percent or more.
- Hold the steering wheel firmly and avoid making sudden turns. Use a light touch to correct a skid.
- If you need to install tire chains, look for a safe place away from traffic. Know how to install them properly before taking a trip and practice installing them. Tire chains should be applied to the drive wheels.
- Never install studded tires only on front wheels; if using studded tires on a front-wheel-drive vehicle, put them on all four wheels.
- Do not blaze your own trail on unplowed roads or through snowdrifts.
- When you see deer or other animals ahead, slow down until you are safely past them and be prepared to stop.
- Watch out for snowplows and sanders as you round corners and curves.
- Slow down. Plows and sanders will pull over occasionally to let traffic by. It is risky to pass a snowplow because of blowing snow. You should not pass a snowplow on the side where snow is being ejected.
- If you start to skid, ease your foot off the accelerator. If you have a manual transmission, push in the clutch. Keep your foot off the brake and steer in the direction the rear of the vehicle is skidding.
- Your owner’s manual usually will recommend the braking technique most effective for your vehicle. If your vehicle is equipped with an Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) you should press on the brake and hold it down as you steer your vehicle out of a skid or to avoid an accident. If your vehicle does not have ABS, information from the National Safety Council indicates that drivers with front- and rear-wheel-drive vehicles with disc or drum brakes should press on the brake pedal with a slow, steady pressure until just before they lock. When you feel them start to lock, ease off until your wheels are rolling, then gently press the pedal again.
- If you hit an unexpected patch of ice, ease up on your accelerator and let your vehicle roll through the slippery area.
Stay safe when driving near snowplows
When driving near snowplows, keep a few other safety tips in mind:
- Watch for wing plow blades that extend beyond the travel lane being plowed.
- Do not cut back immediately in front of a snowplow truck. The plow blades often are covered with snow and can be difficult to see.
- Do not brake suddenly if you are traveling in front of a snowplow. The heavy vehicle cannot stop as quickly as an automobile.
- Do not abandon your vehicle on the shoulder of a highway unless it is absolutely necessary. If you must, leave it as far off the road as possible and tie a bright cloth to the driver’s side mirror or antenna to warn snowplow drivers. Abandoned cars can interfere with the road-clearing process and can be extremely hazardous to snow removal equipment and operators if they are hidden or buried by snow.
ITD’s Top 10 recommendations for safe winter travel
As Idaho motorists take to the roads this winter, the Idaho Department of Transportation reminds that a few extra precautions can make winter journeys safer.
- Be prepared. Winter conditions make a well-maintained vehicle even more important than normal. Keep car windows, mirrors and lights clear of snow and ice. Make sure tires and brakes are ready for the extra demands of winter. Check car battery and fluid levels, make sure heating units are working properly and that tires have sufficient traction.
- Plan ahead. Before heading out on the state’s roadways, dial 5-1-1 or visit 511.idaho.gov for updates on road and weather conditions, emergency closures and highway condition reports. Images from cameras throughout the state are available on the website and on the mobile application.
- Buckle up. Wearing a seat belt is the most effective safety precaution you can take. Children also must be secured in an approved safety seat that is right for their age and weight and installed according to specifications. If you need help ensuring proper installation, watch for local clinics or visit a fire station in your area.
- Check the signs. ITD uses variable message signs and Highway Advisory Radios on high-traffic routes to advise motorists of winter hazards. Those messages change as conditions change. Also pay attention to roadside signs, such as speed limits, high wind and low visibility advisories, sharp curves and potentially icy bridges.
- Slow down. Leave a few minutes early, allow windshields enough time to defrost and allow extra time to get to your destination. It is better to be a few minutes late than to not arrive at all. Don’t put yourself and others at risk by driving too fast for the conditions. Posted speed limits represent maximum speeds for ideal conditions. The basic rule suggests lower speeds as dictated by weather and highway conditions.
- Use extra caution. Be aware of potentially icy areas such as shady spots and bridges. Take caution against black ice. Allow extra distance between your car and the one you’re following. Check your mirrors to see how other motorists are driving; anticipate their actions.
- Drive safely around snowplows. Drive at least two car lengths behind snowplows for every 10 mph of car speed. Do not pass a snowplow unless absolutely necessary and only when you have a clear view of the highway ahead. Never drive through the snow being ejected from plows because the force of the spray can throw a car out of control.
- Keep emergency supplies in the car. Flashlights, extra batteries, first aid kit, pocket knife/multi-purpose tool, blanket or sleeping bag, extra clothing, small sack of sand or cat litter for generating traction under vehicle wheels, a small shovel, bottled water, booster cables, rope, energy bars or other food, brightly-colored scarf to attract attention in case of an emergency, waterproof matches or cigarette lighter and a map of the area.
- Keep in touch. Make sure your cell phone battery is charged. Share travel plans with family or friends, including estimated departure and arrival times, intended route and destination.
- Never drink and drive. Idaho law enforcement officers have increased patrols, especially during holidays, to catch and arrest drunk drivers. Be safe and keep others safe by designating a sober driver before traveling to any party or event involving alcohol consumption.
One final thought: Location, location, location! Always know where you are in case of an emergency. Knowing the highway, milemarker, direction of travel, nearby towns, and geographic location will help emergency responders find you.