We intrepid Northerners are accustomed to zooming around on snow and ice without a second thought, but not everyone is. That was apparent last week in the riveting video footage from Atlanta, where an ice storm stopped traffic on area freeways and many commuters spent a miserable eight or 12 hours trapped in their vehicles amid the gridlock.
Did the news clips about diaperless, thirsty babies and bathroom-less, bored and hungry drivers make you rethink the contents of your car? It did me, and I found my preparedness to be lacking.
Which is not unusual: A just-out survey from the State Farm insurance company found that only 5 percent carried all the “recommended” emergency items, while 67 percent had an accumulation of non-helpful items in their cargo areas; the survey’s press release cites oddball finds like a gorilla suit, an inflatable sheep and a wedding dress.
Parents and younger drivers are more likely than non-parents and mature motorists to have a junky trunk, and men are more likely than women to carry gear like jumper cables, a flashlight and a first-aid kid, State Farm said.
Experts and consumer websites ranging from AAA to Bankrate.com advise keeping an array of onboard supplies, ranging from reflective triangles and flashers to kitty litter, tarps and shovels — and that’s just for starters outside the vehicle. For interior comfort, blankets, food, water and a charged cell phone are advised, and advisory lists go on to suggest items ranging from ponchos and duct tape to tow ropes.
If you don’t feel like assembling all of this yourself, auto emergency kits appear to be big business, with online sellers devoted entirely to safety kits and go-bags for the car. Many tool kits offer 70 or more items in a single bag, from “gloves with dimples” to emergency whistles; they go by names like “Explorer” and “Executive” and range from about $35 to well over $100.
One Atlanta good Samaritan said he made the rounds of stuck cars offering food, hot tea and swigs from a bottle of whiskey — and that grateful ice-storm victims pounced on the whiskey. Keeping a sealed pint in the trunk might be a bit extreme, but many online survivalist sites offer a plethora of offbeat tips in case you get stranded away from civilization.
Bear in mind, they say, that snow insulates — if you really are in a dire situation, bury your car in snow to keep wind from stealing the heat. Be sure to leave an airway and block off any area of the car you aren’t using to conserve warmth — use blankets, tarps, leaves, anything. And one rather chilling emergency supply recommended is a “paper and pencil to write a note in case you have to leave the car.”
One tip that seems counterintuitive: Keep a few tea-light candles and books of matches on board. A tea light or votive candle on the dashboard can generate enough heat, survival sites say, to keep you from freezing to death and avoid wasting precious fuel by running the engine to keep warm.
Hopefully it won’t come to that for any of us, but I may tuck a candle or two into my emergency pack. And while I hope there won’t be any use for duct tape, a tow rope or a tent on my usual commute — frankly I’d hoof it home before I tried to wrangle my car out of the ditch or fix a flat in below-zero temps — it can’t hurt to pack a few items and toss them into the hatchback. Blanket, extra socks, scarves, extra boots or shoes and a spare pair of jeans, for starters. It’s difficult to keep stowed water bottles from freezing in this weather but I’ll make it a point to keep one or two in my purse till spring arrives. A 12-volt phone charger and a spare pair of eyeglasses.
A jar of dry-roasted nuts, a canister of raisins, a bar of dark chocolate and some other non-perishables would keep energy up and starvation at bay. Those little disposable toothbrushes would probably come in handy, too. If I had kids I’d leave a bale of diapers in the trunk and even more food. After hearing tales of woe from the Atlanta strandees, a box of tissue is a must.
And one thing the safety experts forget to plan for is the sheer tedium of sitting idle, phone turned off to conserve the juice. Once the adrenaline of the emergency begins to wane, cabin fever would set in. So my emergency kit is going to include a stack of magazines, a couple of paperback books and maybe even a crossword puzzle or two — along with batteries and a flashlight to read them by.
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via firstname.lastname@example.org.