Gear check for staying alive as a stranded highway motorist

The temperature in the Des Moines area has dipped to minus 25 with the wind chill factored in and anyone who parks their car outside knows the sound of a cold cranking engine. By the second week of December I was already tired of moving snow. (Thanks to the hospitality of Lawrence, Linda and Pierce Egerton from North Carolina I’ll make it through till at least February before wanting to head back to the beaches of Oak Island.) But let’s not go back to those sunny shores mentally because right now we aren’t even above zero outside. We have so much snow that everything edible is covered and the deer walking up almost to our front doors just to find something to eat. Last night four deer were eating my neighbor’s bushes.

Since the beginning of December we’ve had I-35 and I-80 closed on multiple occasions due to a storm. The first closing was for a really bad storm and the next day showed why it was closed. There were cars stranded all along the highway. I wasn’t exactly sure how those motorists safely walked their way off to safety but they must have because the cars were empty. Perhaps someone with a four-wheel drive vehicle gave them a ride. We’ll never know, but it got me wondering, how motorists stay alive when stranded.

Here is an example of Iowa's stormy weather. One contributor posted this cold wintry video…

I thought it couldn’t get much worse, but it is actually getting colder this week. Do you know how cold it is? It’s so cold outside that the U. S. Chamber of Commerce lobbyists won’t even put their hands in the pants pockets of the Chinese leadership. That's how cold it is. (This is where you laugh!)

A few weeks ago an elderly couple was stranded in their SUV for 3 days after “following a GPS’ directions” into the middle of nowhere. (The Air Force twittered its opposition to the GPS story saying no way Jose’ our satellites worked just fine.) That got me thinking about what we need to avoid succumbing to the cold when stranded. And I’m not talking about stranded at a mall or gas station; I’m talking about being stranded far from any place where help is sitting behind a counter waiting to serve up syrup flavored coffee. Of course mountaineering has helped me to learn how to stay alive in the cold; in a cold isolated place where help is not coming. So today let’s talk about how to stay alive when stranded in a storm.

First you have to prepare for it. In other words you need to be prepared for being stranded. The reason mountaineers survive in a storm is that they prepare to be in one before they are. So if you’re going on a long road trip or one that includes an interstate highway and the weather is wintry, plan as if you were going to be stranded. Fill up the gas tank and add Heet to it to make the gas line freezing-up less likely. A full tank will allow you to keep the heater running, but don’t make that assumption without also planning on the heater not working.

Gear Check - Before the Storm Preparation List – Have you go the right gear in the car?

Inside the car there are a few items that can help you stay alive. A very warm sleeping bag, some water, nuts or some other snacks, a candle, matches, a map, a head lamp with batteries, a warm hat, a balaclava, down mittens, a down coat and wool socks. Also plan on at least one person having to walk for help; that means at least one person needs the type of clothes that allow them to walk in a storm. If you don’t know what clothes to wear jump online and look up REI and see what they sell for mountaineering clothing. REI also has a link to expert advice, which no one should be too proud to use. The mountaineering basics page is a good place to learn how to think about surviving in the cold. The expert advice page has a clothing options checklist that is as complete as you’ll need. (Wicking base layer, fleece jacket or vest, fleece pants, insulated jacket, insulated hat, balaclava, socks, gloves or mittens, rain jacket with hood, waterproof pants all add up to survival.) One thing that they don’t show is a backpack and snowshoes that I’d think could be very helpful when trying to walk in deep snow. A waterproof jacket that also has wind blocker in the material is a good buy. Forget fashion here we are talking survival. Mittens are always better than gloves so your fingers are less likely to suffer frostbite. If you don’t know what a balaclava is look it up. It’s a sort of head wrap that covers most of your face, neck and head. They come in many different styles, colors and materials. One last thing that might prove useful is a headlamp with batteries that make the light shine bright. If you’re walking in the dark without a moon a headlamp might keep you on the road instead of getting lost.

Gear List – The short list.

1. A warm blanket or sleeping bag.

2. Bottled water.

3. A warm hat, gloves and a coat.

4. Matches and a candle along with a flash light or head lamp. (The candle is to add heat inside the car.)

Here are some of the contributions from around Iowa.

Steve Lombardi
Iowa personal injury, workers' compensation, motorcycle, quadriplegic, paraplegic, brain injury, death
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