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One of the most important concepts to remember when planning winter excursions: If there are winter storm warnings and watches don’t travel unless it is absolutely necessary! If you must travel or have traveled into a winter storm, we have compiled some tips to help you survive.

The first key to traveling safely in the winter is to avoid getting stuck in the snow.

In order to prepare adequately, you need to be informed. Knowing the terms used to forecast winter weather conditions will help you know what to expect.

  • Traveler's Advisory. Snow or ice is expected. Travel and visibility may be difficult.
  • Winter Storm Watch. Severe winter weather is possible. Stay tuned to the TV or radio for more information.
  • Winter Storm Warning. Heavy snow or freezing rain is expected. Freezing rain is forecast when the expected rain is likely to freeze as soon as it strikes the ground creating a coating of ice on roads and walkways.
  • Blizzard Warning. Heavy snow, winds of 35 mph or more, and temperatures of 20 degrees or lower are expected.
  • Severe Blizzard Warning. Very heavy snow is expected with winds over 45 mph and temperatures below 10 degrees. Visibility can be so poor that you will not be able to see for more than a few yards.

If you are nervous about driving in bad weather, it is recommended to use public transportation. If you must drive, stay on major routes that will be plowed and maintained. Let someone know the route you plan to take and call them when you arrive. This way your route can be checked and you could be found sooner if you get stuck. Once you are on your way stick to your preplanned route. Drive cautiously, leaving a greater than normal following distance between you and any cars in front of you. In heavy snow slow down until you can see for at least a few feet in front of your car. If the snow is so heavy that it prevents you seeing much at all take the first opportunity to stop in a town and wait out the storm.

Another important key to traveling safely in the winter is preparation. If you know that you will be making a trip this winter, take time now to make sure your vehicle is in the proper condition for safe winter travel. Make sure you check your vehicle at least one week before your trip because some repairs (like repairs to a rear window defroster) may need to cure for a few days before you can use them. In preparing your car you will need to have a mechanic (or yourself if you are able) check the following:

  • Battery. One of the first problems that can occur during cold weather is a battery problem. If you are unsure about your battery, it may be wise to have a mechanic check it out.
  • Ignition system. It is important to be able to start your car in any weather predicament. Be sure to check for any damaged wires or cracks in your distributor cap that could cause a sudden break down.
  • Lights. Make sure both your front and back (including brake) lights function properly. Be sure your front lights are aimed correctly. A headlight that is aimed too high will only contribute to obscuring your vision because it lights up the snowflakes instead of the road, and the glare on the falling snow obscures your vision beyond it.
  • Brakes. Make sure they will brake evenly to help prevent skidding. Do you know how to use brakes on the snow and ice?
  • Tires. These are the only connection between you and the road. If they are worn or improperly inflated it will diminish your starting, stopping, and turning ability. Be sure to rotate your tires if needed.
  • Exhaust system. Have the exhaust system checked for leaks of deadly carbon monoxide gas. If you become trapped in your car this check could save your life.
  • Heating and cooling system. Make sure the radiator cap, water pump, and radiator are working properly. Check the hoses to make sure there are no cracks or leaks. Test the strength of your antifreeze to make sure it is not too weak. Make sure both the heater and defroster work well.
  • Windshield. Check the wipers and replace if necessary. Fill up on windshield washer fluid (make sure it is the kind that won't freeze in the reservoir), and make sure it can reach your windshield by checking the motor and making sure the nozzles are not clogged.
  • Oil. Check the oil level and make sure you have the right kind of oil for low temperatures. This should be specified in your owner‚Äôs manual. Check with your mechanic or an auto part store.
  • Gas. Try to keep your tank as full as possible (above 1/2 tank) so that if you are stranded you will have plenty of fuel to run the car and be able to use the heater.

Now that you have your vehicle checked out, you will want to make sure you are prepared with the necessary items in your car. It is recommended to store an emergency car kit. For more information, see the articles on Car Preparedness and Safety and How to Build an Emergency Car Kit.

In addition to the emergency car kit, we recommend having mittens, scarf and stocking cap. Also have 30 feet or more of drapery cord or strong nylon string. If you must leave the vehicle to inspect outside conditions, tie a long cord to the vehicle and yourself so you can find your way back. If you have a cell phone keep it charged.

If you do break down DO NOT leave your car. It is the best shelter you can have in a winter storm. Call for help on your cell phone if it is working. While you are stuck, start the car and run the engine for about 10 minutes every hour to use the heater. Make sure you crack a window on the side away from the wind to get fresh air. Periodically check to make sure your tail pipe is not blocked by snow or other objects. If it is, you should clear it before using the engine to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Avoid strenuous exercise or exertion. Sweating will only make you colder. When the engine is running turn on your lights so that rescuers can see you. Tie a brightly colored cloth (red, if possible) to your antenna for the same reason. If there is more than one person in the car you should take turns sleeping so that one of you can be alert to watch for rescuers. Make sure you ration battery power. Try not to use any of the car's electrical devices without having the engine running. If your battery does run done, you should be prepared with an emergency power generator. Your main goal if you become stranded is to stay warm until help arrives. After keeping warm, your priorities should be water, food, and then signaling for help.

Once the storm stops, you may be tempted to go for help. In most situations it is better for you to stay with your vehicle. Help may have been delayed by the same storm that trapped you, and your vehicle is easier to find than you are. Remember to ask yourself some important questions. Is your water and food supply portable so that leaving your vehicle won't create more problems? Do you have a way of maintaining a constant direction and not walking in circles? Could you leave a note for rescuers to tell them where you went? If you answered no to all these questions you should not leave your vehicle. You won’t increase your chances of being found and you decrease your chance for survival. If you must get out and do something then clear your car off so it is easier to see. Make a signal in the snow that passing planes could see. Spread out a brightly colored blanket on the snow to make a signal. In all these activities remember that cold weather makes exertion harder on your heart and your body, so don't sweat and stay warm. It is easier to stay warm than to get warm again.

Traveling in the winter can be a lot of fun once you have properly prepared. Hopefully this information will help you to prepare for winter traveling.