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Friday, November 28, 2008

Winter Travel Tips

Just finished a long but rewarding season of teaching and guiding. Spent most of the Fall out in the wilds teaching our 9-week Southwest Semester Program with an amazing group of folks. Now, with the colder months here, it is time to start writing more and enjoying the warmth of home.

With two days of rain and snow on the way here in northern Arizona, I have been updating my truck supplies that I carry for roadside emergencies. Each year, there are many tales of stranded motorists having to weather out a night or two on the highway when the interstate is shut down. Being prepared, as you would when hiking in the backcountry, is essential to handling a roadside emergency during the unforgiving months of winter.

Remember, even if you live in the desert Southwest like I do, it can get mighty cold and inhospitable during the winter. On a recent desert walkabout a few weeks back in early November, the nighttime temps were averaging 24 degrees! Where else, but the desert regions of the world, can you go from worrying about heat-exhaustion during the day to hypothermia at night?

In addition to having the usual gear in my truck like a small air compressor, quality jack, a can of Fix-A-Flat, LED flashlight, cellphone and charger, I also have the following items below.

Shelter System
Your clothing is your primary shelter system so dress appropriately when venturing out in the the elements or taking to the road. I once had to change a blow-out on the highway east of Flagstaff while driving home one December morning. I was glad I had plenty of layers as the temps hovered around 10 degrees. So, you may not even be in the wilderness when encountering Murphy's Law.

Here's my "shelter system" that's stowed in the truck:

Winter jacket
Wool or fleece sweater
Wool hat
Sorel (insulated) boots
Spare wool socks
Long underwear bottoms
Sleeping bag
Emergency blanket (not the cheap Mylar blankets)

Once you have spent a few bone-cold nights out in the wilds with the clothes on your back you will see how essential a sleeping bag is for winter survival. Nowadays bags compress down to the size of a loaf of bread so we're not talking about a bulky item here. Slumberjack makes inexpensive bags in this size range or you can get a quality bag from Western Mountaineering. Carry one- you won't regret it if you become stranded on the road! Short of that, carry a few wool blankets.

Minimum of 2 gallons per person in your vehicle. I have a couple of 64 oz plastic juice containers along with two 1-quart Nalgene bottles. One of my Nalgenes is wrapped with black duct tape which will turn the bottle into a snow-melting device. Water is a critical survival item, even in the winter so don't skimp on this.

Yeah, you can go without food for weeks as real-life survivors have, but why?! I've been without food under survival conditions for days on end and it isn't fun, so why suffer. Bring some quality food not far off from what you normally eat. Remembering that such items freeze in the colder months, I usually opt for M & Ms, a small jar of peanut butter, crackers, raisins, and jerky. This is all stored in a small tupperware. High-calorie, high-fat foods are a must in the winter. I also bring along some packets of instant soup and hot cocoa (see below).

In addition to the sleeping bag, I also carry a Nu-Wick candle. This is a non-toxic candle in a tin that comes with 5 wicks that burns for 120 hours. You can add or subtract wicks to boost/reduce heat output and these candles can even be used for heating a small pot of soup or cocoa.

A small cooking pot or enamel cup is essential for melting snow and heating up water. Nothing fancy here- mine is a recycled peach can. A small (32 oz) apple juice can would work too or you can buy an18 oz enamel cup at Wal-Mart.

In both our vehicles, we have small first-aid kits made by Adventure Medical Kits. These start at $20 and are quality kits.

I also have a small shovel and a canister of cat litter for digging out when stuck in the snow. This has come in handy more than a few times.

The Campmor company carries the aforementioned sleeping bags, Nu-Wick candles, and AMK First-aid kits in addition to other outdoor gear.

What to do when stranded on the road
So, let's say you become stranded on the highway during a blizzard. Use your vehicle as a survival shelter and consider walking out as a last resort.

Hopefully you topped off your fuel tank before leaving home. To conserve fuel, run your engine 15 minutes each hour to warm up the interior. IT IS ESSENTIAL TO CRACK OPEN A WINDOW! Carbon Monoxide is a silent killer so make sure your exhaust pipe (muffler pipe) outside is clear of snow and then crack the window open slightly while running your engine.

The coldest part of the vehicle will be on the floor as cold air settles so put your feet across the seat. Wrap up in your sleeping bag, put a hat on, have a snack, and settle in. It could be a while before emergency services clear the road or get to you.

If you have kids, bring along extra winter clothes, food, and water. Every winter it seems, there is a disheartening story about a family who decides to take a "shortcut" home on secondary roads and become stranded, often without any supplies. So plan ahead and BE PREPARED!

Depending on your lifestyle and travel interests, you may wish to carry more gear but at least start with the basics above.

Take a few minutes to prepare while in your driveway at home and you will be able to handle an emergency should it befall you.

Stay warm and enjoy the wild places,


About Ancient Pathways

Tony Nester is the author of numerous books and DVDs on survival. His school Ancient Pathways is the primary provider of survival training for the Military Special Operations community and he has served as a consultant for the NTSB, Travel Channel, Backpacker Magazine, and the film Into the Wild. When not on the trail, he lives in a passive-solar, strawbale home in northern Arizona. For information on Tony’s books, gear, or bushcraft courses, visit

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