Winter travel preparation could save your life

Think ahead and have an emergency kit

In early January, hundreds of travelers taking Interstate 95 through Fredericksburg, Virginia, ran into a winter storm and spent overnight in below-freezing temperatures.

And in mid-November 2021, four people died when a landslide covered Highway 99 in southern British Columbia when torrential rainfall and catastrophic flooding hit the region that included parts of northwestern Washington state.

Global warming is wreaking havoc on our weather and increasing storm strength.

As someone who's traveled throughout Alaska, the Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories in Canada, I learned that being prepared not only saved me some discomfort, but also others. A courtesy of the road in those places means you ask someone pulled over to the side if they're alright, and if they're not, offer assistance.

I remember one time in October when I lived in Skagway and got a wild hair to go find the migrating Porcupine caribou herd. So I drove to the Northwest Territories, arriving in the evening. A little over 143 miles up the Dempster Highway, I realized that not only had I not seen any caribou but also not a single hunter.

I was at the Tombstone National Park, so named for its creepy spires of coffin-like peaks, and found myself in the middle of a ground blizzard. So I parked and curled up across the front seats in my sleeping bag, good to minus 20F, and spent the night while the winds raged. By morning it ended and I returned home with a tale to tell.

Also, when I take long trips on roads with so-called animal corridors, I drive in the middle of the road if no one's around, just in case a moose or an elk decides to cross the road. If I'm in the middle, I figure I have a fifty-fifty chance of avoiding a hit.

More than the basics

First of all, a reliable vehicle in Alaska is a four-wheel drive with studded tires. Nothing is more frightening than your tires spinning on a deserted road in the middle of winter.

These are what you should always have in your vehicle no matter if it's winter or not:

Jerry can of gasoline, because gas stations are sometimes few and far between

Jumper cables, you may need them or someone else might

A jerry can of water in case your radiator boils over (remember to let it cool down before pouring water because the radiator will crack)

A couple of pints of oil, again, just in case

Windshield washer fluid for the bugs on the windshield

A can of Fix-A-Flat aerosol tire inflator

A shovel, the big kind, not a trowel, just in case the snow is heavy

Some say kitty litter, but it's hard to find the kind that doesn't clump. I've used my floor mats turned upside down with the ridges giving traction, and I've also used door mats made out of hand-knotted coir

Food for long trips in bad weather

Food that won't freeze, like crackers and peanut butter, energy bars, something sweet in case of hypothermia like chocolate M&Ms

Something to drink that won't freeze, like herbal tea in a thermos and plastic Ziploc bags to melt snow in if you leave the heater on for some time

Bags of pretzels, chips, popcorn


A hunting knife (I traveled with a Buck knife) or gun to eat critters or scare them away

Staying warm

Lots of matches in a waterproof container, lighters

I like fire starter logs because they're an easy way to get warm and last two to three hours, and you can start a real fire with them without fumbling around with kindling

I had a truck and piled wood pallets in the bed for a fire and also to help with traction and to make a fire on the side of the road

A bow saw and an axe to cut wood

Tarp for shelter

Rope to hang tarp

A mattress pad and a sleeping bag good to minus 20F degrees or more

Change of clothes (think layers), including wool or polar fleece socks

Pack boots also good down to minus 20 or even minus 40F degrees

Wool hat, gloves or mittens, long underwear

Hand warmers like packs that activate when exposed to air or the rechargeable kind

A flashlight with extra batteries; a wind-up radio that also has a flashlight and a siren; a headlamp (don't we all have one?) and a battery powered lantern that can signal distress but also provide light

It may seem like a lot, but really, once you gather all the equipment and put it in a tote in your car or garage, you'll be all set for your next adventure. And you'll come home safe and sound. Happy trails to you.

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