Preparing Yourself to Drive Long Distances in Winter

By Mi Ae Lipe, Guest Blogger

This is the first of a three-part Winter Survival Guide series.

When one thinks of road trips, idyllic summer scenes usually come to mind—windblown hair, cooling drinks, kids in the backseat, and endless bug splatter on the windshield. But what if you plan to travel long distances in the winter in potentially dangerous weather conditions? It’s a whole different snowball, so to speak, and it requires good planning, packing, and preparation to stay safe and comfortable.

First, plan your route and know the type of terrain you’ll be traveling through (flat land, mountains, etc.). If possible, check the long-range weather forecast to see if storms, rain, ice, snow, fog, wind, or sun are predicted and what the temperatures might be (below, at, or above freezing all involve different driving demands).

Traveling long distances also requires being ready for possibly getting stranded. This is especially crucial in winter, when temperatures can drop dangerously low, roads can be closed for hours at a time, and inclement weather makes seeking help outside a disabled vehicle too dangerous.

Here are items you should pack:

  • Clothing, socks, gloves, boots, hats, sleeping bags, or blankets to keep you and passengers warm in sub-zero temperatures for one to three days at a time.
  • Nonperishable, high-calorie food for up to three days (beef jerky, tinned meat, trail mix, granola or protein bars, and dried fruit).
  • Sufficient water for up to three days. Dehydration is as much a problem in the winter as in the summer.
  • A fully charged portable battery charger for your phone. This is so you can still call for help if your phone dies and you can’t run your car’s engine to recharge it.
  • A snow shovel for removing snow under stuck wheels or packed ice inside wheel wells.
  • An extra jug of cold-temperature–rated washer fluid for removing road salt spray from your windshield.
  • The usual travel emergency stuff—flashlight (make sure the batteries are working!), flares, jumper cables, batteries, first-aid kit, matches, duct tape, etc. 
  • Tools for changing a spare tire and other minor needs.
  • A tarp can be very useful, in case you need to unload the trunk to get to the spare tire—then you have a waterproof way to set your stuff on the ground and cover it.
  • A tow hook (if your car has one) and a tow rope, in case you need to be pulled out of a ditch.
  • Good sunglasses. Bright sun on white snow is brutal on the eyes.
  • Current membership to AAA or an emergency roadside service program never hurts—and it can be literally a lifesaver.

Preparing your car is one thing, but also readying yourself mentally and physically for traveling long distances is just as essential and often overlooked. Concentration for safe driving takes much more energy than people realize, and drivers should treat every long-distance trip as the endurance event it is. In bad winter conditions, stress can skyrocket and lead to crashes. Learn more about fatigue and the dangers of drowsy driving on I Drive Safely's sister site, eDriving.com.

What can you do? Get plenty of rest before you start your trip; don’t start out when you’re already tired—it’s just asking for trouble. Eat as healthfully as possible—you wouldn’t expect your car to run well on subpar gasoline, so why should your body? Raw fruit and vegetables provide needed nutrients and hydration. Take regular breaks every two hours to move around and stretch your muscles. It’s tempting to skip this when the weather is bad, but increasing your circulation helps your alertness.

If the weather deteriorates, remember to mindfully breathe and relax. When we tense up, we often hold our breath or breathe shallowly. This in turn prevents sufficient oxygen getting to our brains, which then impairs our ability to think, see, plan, and execute behind the wheel. Listening to soothing music can take the edge off our fear just enough to keep it from overwhelming us. Singing along also forces us to inhale and exhale and thus breathe.

Attitude and judgement are the most important factors in safe driving. In slippery conditions, physics don’t care about deadlines. Slow down. Be very aware of how the road feels under your tires and through your steering wheel. Take every bit of time you need to keep yourself and others safe. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Treat others like they have the plague by giving them plenty of room at all times. 

Try not to freak out, even if you do slide or slip. No sudden moves on the brake, gas, or steering. And always look at the safe empty space where you want to go, not at the thing you’re trying to avoid—you’ll steer just where your eyes are looking.