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Nobody expects to be stranded in a car, especially during the cold winter months, but expecting the unexpected can be the difference between mere inconvenience and a life-threatening situation. The items you carry in your car will be the only ones you have at your disposal in an emergency, so it always pays to be prepared if you plan to head out on a long road trip.
Even if your long drives don't take you through rural areas, keep in mind that even walking short distances in the snow can be dangerous, especially in low temperatures or severe wind chills. A blast of wet, heavy snow like that experienced on the East Coast in early January — like the situation faced by hundreds of motorists stranded on I-95 in Virginia overnight — is exactly the sort of "Commutageddon" fiasco that can put you at risk. And a young couple in Oregon recently discovered the risks of being stranded in the wilderness. What might normally be a short, easy walk for help might be made life-threatening by deteriorating weather conditions. Rather than venturing out, it's safer to contact emergency services and hunker down in your vehicle.
Also, make it a habit to keep your gas tank filled in winter. If you get stuck and run out of gas, a bad situation just got worse.
Having these items in your car could be the difference between life and death in a winter weather emergency, and they're all inexpensive and easy to find:
Water and food
This one seems like a no-brainer, but hydration is critical. You don't want to be eating snow (or melting it to drink) because you didn't pack bottled water. Ingesting near-freezing fluids can lower your body temperature, letting hypothermia set in faster. Keep bottled water in the car, preferably someplace warm. And drink when you're thirsty. Rationing water leads to dehydration, which hampers mental acuity and can lead to dangerous situations. Drink what you have so you can remain coherent enough to tackle the problem at hand. Consider packing small, energy-dense survival food like protein bars and other items designed for outdoorsy types who need to pack light.
Blankets and jackets
This one also seems obvious, but the warmup you wore because it was comfortable to drive in won't do diddly for you in subzero temperatures. Emergency blankets are cheap and easy to find and you should always have a weather-appropriate outer garment to wear just in case you're stranded outside when you didn't plan to be. A knit cap is an excellent way to help you retain heat, and a spare set of dry socks is a good idea just in case you have to get out and push. Cold, wet feet are a hypothermia risk.
Poncho, umbrella or raincoat
Snow is just frozen water. If it starts to melt, you'll get wet, and the only thing worse than being cold is being cold and wet. Hypothermia is no fun, so it's smart to have some sort of simple protection. A cheap poncho is compact and easy to store. An umbrella is more practical and re-usable. A real raincoat could be a lifesaver in an emergency.
Chemical hand/foot warmers
Following on the above, these are critical for cold climates. Packs of them can be found at any convenience store, gas station, hardware store, outdoor supply store or really anything that sells consumer products. They can last for hours, and some are even re-usable.
Just because it's cold doesn't mean you might not end up in the water, and under particularly extreme conditions, it's possible your doors and windows could even freeze shut. Regardless of the season, a good glass hammer is a worthwhile vehicle safety item.
Basic first-aid kit
This one doesn't really need to be explained. If you bust your knuckles trying to dig out, you'll want to clean and bandage your wounds. No sense surviving hours buried in a snowbank only to die from an infection later, right? Be smart.
Flashlight or two
While modern phones almost universally come equipped with LED flashlights, a simple dedicated flashlight won't compete with your communications device for precious electricity. Plus, you won't be completely screwed if you drop it in a puddle. A couple of bucks at a gas station counter will get you a passable LED flashlight.
Jumper and charging cables
If you get stranded for a while and run your battery down, you'll need a way to juice it back up. Jumper cables are your bare minimum here. A battery-powered starter is an even better option, but we'll circle back to that.
Jump starter/power brick
A USB-based jump starter and power brick is a huge boon in an emergency situation. A brick with the capacity to jump start your vehicle multiple times and still charge at least one cell phone can be had for less than $100. Modern batteries are very stable and retain a charge for a long time when stored and can be topped off easily before a road trip.
Flares or other emergency signal
This is another item that's useful year-round, but especially so in limited visibility environments. You'll want this to alert people to both your vehicle's presence and your own so first responders can easily locate you (and other traffic on the road can avoid you, if applicable). And if you get stuck on a shoulder, a reflector triangle will alert other drivers to your presence.
Phone charging cable
A phone charger is one of the most important things you can carry with you, provided you have a phone, of course. If you don't, well, you're crazy. But keep in mind that a charger is only useful so long as you have a power source. If you run out of gas and deplete your car's battery, you're going to be in trouble. Consider upgrading from a simple charger to a battery-based power brick. Some of them even have solar cells. Remember, if you're in an emergency and your cellphone has power, your first call should always be to 911.
A folding shovel is a great utility item for digging yourself out of a nasty spot, and they can fold up to no more than the size of a paper plate.
Tow straps aren't just for helping other people. It's a good idea to have one in case you get stuck too. We'd recommend at least 25 feet and sewn (not riveted) end loops. A chain works too in a pinch if you've got one (and the means to secure it at both ends, of course).
A game-changer in case you run out of water. They're relatively inexpensive to find and can filter thousands of gallons of natural water into something drinkable before being used up. Essential for when your bottled supply runs out.
Traction boards/sand/tire wraps or chains
Ask anybody in the 4x4 community: Traction boards can be the difference between a very good and a very bad day. They're expensive and large, and only really practical for trucks and SUVs with room to store them, but they're unmatched at getting you out of a low-traction situation without somebody to help tow. Tire chains (where legal) and fabric tire wraps have their place, but they're more useful when they're already on the car than they are once you're stuck. Sand, cat litter or a floor mat can be used in place of a traction board in a pinch, but it's hard to beat the real deal.
A compressor won't do anything for a blown tire, but it'll save your bacon if your spare is low or you just need to let air into/out of a tire to get unstuck. It'll also help you top off if a slow leak becomes a problem, and you never know when compressed air might come in handy in other emergency situations.