Car Survival

No excuse to be caught unprepared

Surviving with your vehicle, which for the sake of this discussion will be a car, is a bit of a misleading situation. It is not only a matter of getting stuck or breaking down far away from your home, but it’s even something that could happen within the boundaries of civilization. On Dec. 13, 2010, 360 motorists were stranded inside their vehicles for more than 24 hours on Highway 402 in southern Ontario, due to a massive blizzard. From the armchair, I shake my head and wonder, “How is that even possible? Why didn’t they just get out and walk away?” However, I am the first one to always point out that in any survival situation, you can’t criticize; you have to be there to understand. I am familiar with that stretch of highway and it would be intimidating to stand on the side of it, on a nice day in the summer, let alone during an intense winter storm. It’s big, it’s wide, it’s windy and the trucks have no mercy as they drive by at breakneck speeds to deliver their loads many miles away. So, there you have it. Even within walking distance of a town or city, 360 motorists, including the truckers, were unable to even open their doors and walk away.

Stuck In A Car. Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo.
Stuck In A Car. Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo.

In January of 1993, James and Jennifer Stolpa nearly perished after spending days inside their vehicle, stuck in the snow in Nevada. Though the media played them off as heroes and sited James’ former military training, I beg to differ. They made, in my opinion, extremely poor decisions, multiple times over. But whether stuck inside your vehicle in the middle of nowhere or just a walking distance from a truck stop, the answer to vehicle survival is deceptively simple.

With the advent of today’s technology, it is nothing short of irresponsible to travel anywhere remote with your car and not be in touch with the outside world. You don’t have to invest in such technology (which can be expensive) as GPS devices if you’re only driving your usual routes within civilization. But the moment you think of going for a fun Sunday ride over the dirt roads of a mountain pass, then you need to be thinking about communication. Simply put, you should ensure access to someone who can come to your rescue if you get stuck in the mud, or snow, or if you drive off the edge of the road. This kind of pre-trip protection requires a stop at the store and some briefing on the available GPS units, their abilities and their costs. However, an even simpler form of preparation is almost never taken by anyone and that fact baffles me.

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Now, I run the risk of sounding condescending when I put forward the next bit of advice. But for goodness sakes, you don’t even have to carry this stuff! So why on Earth would you not keep the following in your car, at all times, depending on your intended journeys?

In a Rubbermaid-style container, and in addition to a GPS signaling device, keep these in your car at all times, depending on your geographical location and the kinds of weather you might face.

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  • Extra warm clothing and boots
  • Blanket(s) or sleeping bags
  • Small cook set and cook stove with fuel
  • Drinking water
  • Flares/matches and/or lighter
  • Flashlight with fresh batteries
  • Food such as power bars
  • Local road maps
  • Collapsible snow shovel
  • Tire chains
  • Tarp
  • Toilet paper
  • Appropriate tools
  • Large garbage bag
  • Sharpie-style black marker and paper (to leave a note)
  • Signal mirror
  • Whistle

Now, what about the Stolpas’ bad decisions and the concept of staying with or in your car? The above list will make life immeasurably more bearable while you wait for rescue when you know it is definitely on its way. And here-in lies the difference. When you can’t be sure anyone is coming, then you need to make decisions and you need to make them fast. I am not a big fan of the default survival instruction of “always stay put.” There is no “always” in survival. Each situation must be evaluated individually, and then good decisions must be made. For example, albeit with the disclaimer that I can’t judge because I wasn’t there, were I to have gotten stuck in the snow with my family, the last thing I am going to do is just sit there for four days awaiting rescue I wasn’t sure was coming. Even if it meant fashioning protective clothing out of the car seats by cutting them up, I would’ve, at the latest waiting until daylight, or at the earliest immediately, started a walk back exactly where I came from to secure rescue. But the given variables are so many, I can’t address them all in this piece. What I’m really getting at here is that I am much more a fan of proactive survival based on good decision making, rather than sitting around waiting for rescue I am not sure is coming. I view surviving in your vehicle as an extreme and last-ditch thing to do, something I would do only if I truly could not walk out. When James Stolpa did finally attempt his walk out, he had been days in the car and was depleted of food energy. What he did, he could’ve done the very first day. When it comes to the people stranded on the highway, the story goes that many of them were covered in snow drifts so fast, they couldn’t even open their car doors! If, given that situation, they could’ve managed to get to their rubber container with the supplies I’ve listed here, then waiting for rescue, which in this case was ensured, would be fairly doable with as little discomfort as possible.

I spent four days surviving in a little car in the snow in Norway for the sake of filming my Survivorman series. It was, in a word, miserable, and that was with survival supplies.

I guess, in the end, the reason why I feel like I could come across as condescending when I speak of such situations is because there is absolutely no excuse for being caught unaware or with little survival gear when you have a car, with its trunk or hatchback area, to carry everything for you. And before I finish, I should point out, the same thing goes for your house.

This article was featured in the BC Outdoors November/December 2020 issue. Order it from our Shopify store now (while supplies last) or subscribe to our magazine to keep up-to-date with all of the latest issues!

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