Sure, summer is the traditional time for road travel, but that doesn’t mean winter road trips can’t be great, too. Or maybe they’re just necessary – gotta get to Grandma’s for the holidays. Whatever the motive that sets your tires in motion over snowy, icy, or just plain cold roadways, don’t hit the pavement without acquiring a few essentials that could make the difference between a smooth journey and a freezing ordeal.
1. Electronic communication devices. Few people embark on road trips without cell phones these days. Make sure you’ve got a car charger or mini-inverter to keep yours powered up. In addition, consider a CB radio. On-the-road, up-to-the-moment intel from truckers and fellow travelers can help you avoid traffic jams, weather-caused hazards, and road construction. In most areas, tuning your CB to channel 19 will let you hear conversations among professional drivers and ask for advice. Most CBs also have weather radios (NOAA) built in, allowing you to get up-to-date weather information wherever you are.
2. Paper maps. Yes, your awesome phone and cutting-edge GPS device have great maps, but nothing beats a paper one when a power or signal failure turns your electronic devices into paperweights. DeLorme (especially good in the eastern U.S.) and Benchmark (especially good in the western U.S.) both publish good, detailed road atlases. A reliable comprehensive choice (but with far less detail) is Rand McNally's Road Atlas, which covers the United States, Canada, and Mexico. You can also check to see if your auto club membership includes free maps, and stock up on those that cover the territory you'll be traversing.
3. Tire changing equipment. Of course this means a jack, lug wrench, and inflated spare in good condition. In the winter, you’ll be a lot happier doing an emergency tire change if you have a tarp and some warm outer clothing to put on (like insulated coveralls or a ski outfit). The tarp and outerwear are also great if you need to put chains or cables on your tires.
4. Emergency food and water. In addition to planning for regular meals in restaurants or from a cooler, pack emergency provisions and water. MREs (“Meals Ready to Eat”) are an option, or a selection of canned foods and a can opener. Six 16-ounce bottles of water per adult per day is a good rule of thumb. Keep the “backup” food and water with you in your vehicle. If it’s cold enough outside, they will freeze in the trunk.
5. A good flashlight. Low temperatures are hard on batteries, so take extras. Throw in a candle and matches or a lighter, too. (Or if you like cool, inexpensive gadgets, try a waterproof fire starter).
6. Blankets. Last but not least, tuck a blanket or two into your vehicle. Whether you use them in an emergency situation or just to stay cozy on a long, chilly journey, they’re the teddy bears of winter road trips. While any blanket is better than no blanket, consider choosing those made of polar fleece. Light and soft, it retains most of its insulating power even when wet.
Consider these six suggestions a starting point for assembling what you need inside your vehicle for a safe and pleasant winter road trip. Other important steps are getting your vehicle ready for the road, planning your itinerary (unless you’re off on an unscripted drive-about!), and acquiring items specific to your route, needs and interests. For tips on how to prepare your vehicle for a cold-weather trek and how to stay safe and nourished on the road, check out Safe Winter Road Trips, by professional driving instructor Robert Schaller and road food guru Dennis Weaver.