Winter is an interesting month in Michigan. Parts of the state get consistent winter weather through the season and other parts don’t. Here in the Southeast portion of Michigan, we fall into the inconsistent weather pattern. Unlike our friends on the west side of the state, we may or may not get predicted snow. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare your vehicle for winter, whether it’s driving around the city or running trails in the snow.
During the warmer months of the year, we prep our vehicles for rain or mud. The same things that we carry when it’s warm out may not work out well when it’s freezing out. For example, keeping foods that require heating up for emergencies may need to be swapped for foods that are high in calories and don’t need to be cooked. A different style of shovel designed for snow removal may be swapped out for a shovel designed for mud.
From a high level, the equipment is much the same, but once you drill down into the details, it becomes apparent about the differences. Not switching out specific gear or adding in needed equipment once winter hits can leave you at a disadvantage if problems arise. You should also take into account anyone you might have traveling with you. My family count is five people and two dogs. Most of the time, we drive my 4Runner on trips, so I need to make sure to accommodate for my three kids, my wife, and my dogs.
Inventory Your Gear and Emergency Box
Once the warmer weather has decided to leave, and the colder weather moves in, it’s a good idea to do a layout and inventory of everything you have in your rig. You can then identify what isn’t needed, what won’t work, and what could be a liability once freezing temperatures arrive. Checking things like expiration dates, cold weather tolerances, and looking for items that would freeze becomes essential. You want to have the necessary gear in place or have a plan for emergencies.
Below are some essential items to consider when putting together a winter-specific gear box:
- Blanket(s) or electric blanket(s) or cold weather sleeping bag(s)
- Battery pack with charging cords for phone
- Winter clothing: hat(s), gloves, scarf, boots, socks, thermal underwear, etc.
- Dry food
- Flashlight(s), headlamp(s), and extra batteries
- Tow straps
- Jumper cables
- Fire extinguisher
- Emergency flares
- Rescue tool, knife, and/or multi-tool
- First aid kit
- Traction boards
- Snow shovel
- Fuel container
- Full-size spare tire
Most of these items are probably already packed in whatever storage method you use for your gear. However, they might not be for winter use. For example, I have a blanket and a sleeping bag in my 4Runner, but they are not suitable for winter. Ultimately I need to spend some money on good wool blankets and a cold-weather rated sleeping bag.
Supplementing camping gear you already have packed into your rig with the listed items above can ensure you have what you need if it means staying with your vehicle while waiting for recovery. And never underestimate the value of having something to do while waiting. Have some books, magazines, or small games to keep you entertained.
Perform Winter Maintenance
If you follow a regular vehicle maintenance schedule, this should be an easy thing to accomplish. Whether you are doing the work yourself or you turn it over to your trusted mechanic, there are some things you should pay particular attention too. I don’t take into account the usage of winter tires. Most people who daily drive their overlanding rigs will have tires that are sufficient for winter usage.
Don’t Drive Around Blowing Cold Air
Check that your heater and defroster are in working order. There’s nothing worse than driving around on a freezing day and having cold air blow into your cabin. Trust me, I’ve had it happen. Luckily it was a simple fix and only required my rig’s coolant to be refilled. Had I not checked it, I would have driven around all winter with cold air rather than hot air.
Clear Frontal Vision
Another simple check and replacement you can do yourself is to put new wiper blades on and ensure you have the proper washer fluid. It may not seem like a big deal, but there are washer fluids specifically designed not to freeze. I’ve never had this happen, but I have had windshield wiper blades in poor condition going into winter. There are also winter wiper blades available that are of sturdier construction than “summer” blades.
Testing the electrical system and ensuring your battery is in excellent condition, your vehicle lights work, and even making sure all of the heating fans come on is another easy check you should be able to perform. Pay attention to slow cranking and whether your vehicle headlights dim while idling; this could be an indication of the battery starting to die.
If you have an automatic starter, ensure your battery is up to par. Having a battery designed for cold weather is ideal, but unless you’re in an environment where temperatures are reaching well below freezing, most batteries are sufficient. With that said, though, you don’t know disappointment until you think you’ve started your car on a frigid morning only to find out it wouldn’t turn over due to a drained battery. Test the battery and replace it if necessary.
Let A Professional Fix It
Lastly, do a quick walk around and note any damage on or under the vehicle. If something looks suspicious or something feels odd when you are driving, the best thing to do is take it a mechanic. Have them do a check on the vehicle and get things corrected before severe weather hits. You don’t want to end up off the road because something broke and could have been easily fixed.
What To Do If You Get Stuck
There are plenty of times I’ve seen cars stuck and no one in them. I often wonder what happened to the drivers, where they went, and hope they are okay. The number one thing to remember if you get stuck and cannot self-recover is not to leave the vehicle. Most times, the elements are what end up killing people who leave their car and try to seek help.
If you’re uninjured, exit your vehicle and check to see if you can self-recovery or will need help. If you can safely self-recovery, then do so, but if not, it’s best to call for help. If you’re going to have to wait for a tow truck or someone to help you get unstuck, ensure your exhaust pipe is clear of any snow. If it’s snowing heavily, you may have to exit your vehicle frequently to ensure the exhaust is clear of snow.
If you have injuries, the best thing to do is call for help, make it clear you have injuries, and wait it out for emergency services to arrive. There’s no point in putting yourself in more danger by attempting to self-recover if you are injured.
What I’ve laid out is simple enough to follow, and most of us probably already carry the items mentioned and have the skill set necessary to survive getting stuck. Let me know in the comments what other skill sets would be beneficial, or gear might be a plus to have.