Sunday February 16 , 2020
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Winter Driving Prep from Blacktop Bootcamp

When you find yourself behind the wheel in the first snowstorm of the season, the last thing you need to be worrying about is your vehicle's winter preparedness.  Spending a few minutes reading your vehicle's owner's manual, a few minutes of preparation, a few dollars worth of spare change, and some simple driving tips you can ensure that no matter what old man winter throws across the road on your trip you will be prepared to handle it.

Every fall when you set your clocks back for daylight savings time, make sure that you perform your winter maintenance.  Just remember, if "Bubba" whose butt crack shows when he bends over can learn to work on your car, then YOU can learn to work on your car.




Corroded Battery TerminalsWinter is hard on car batteries.  As the temperature drops the battery is going to have a more difficult time providing enough power to start your car.  Have a quick peek at your battery to see when it was manufactured.  Most batteries will have a label on top that shows the year and month of manufacture.  A battery that is more than three years old should probably be tested by a qualified mechanic.

The corrosion on the battery terminals (like the one pictured to the right) acts as an insulator and prevents electric current from flowing through the car.  This condition combined with cold winter weather can leave you stranded. Any corrosion on the battery terminals can be cleaned off by simply pouring Coca-Cola on the terminals to them off and then rinsing off with clean water.  A solution of baking soda and water will also do the same job.

Some batteries require the addition of water to their cells.  These batteries will have a series of caps that are simply lifted off by prying gently with a flat-bladed screwdriver.  When adding water, wear eye protection and USE ONLY DISTILLED WATER!  Putting tap water into a battery should only be done as a last resort.  The minerals in the tap water can cause premature battery failure.


Common Tire Wear IssuesThe single most important safety feature of your car (and often the most overlooked and neglected) are your tires.  For most people interested in getting from point A to point B they are the least interesting part of the car; however, they are the ONLY safety feature of your vehicle that puts you in contact with the road.  Like a seatbelt and airbags your tires are a SAFETY FEATURE!  Ensure that you have sufficient tread on all your tires before any road trip.  Take your front wheels and turn the steering wheel to full lock and look for signs of wear on the inside edges of the tires.  For the rear tires, squat down and look at them from underneath the rear of the car.

Tire Pressures

On most cars the proper inflation pressure required by the manufacturer is located on a sticker affixed to the driver's side door jamb.  Some cars like Volvo and Mercedes-Benz put this information on the inside of the fuel door.  Ensure that your tires are inflated to the recommended pressure as an under-inflated tire can have catastrophic and sudden blowouts.  Over-inflated tires can suffer from reduced traction.

Tires that have slow leaks should be repaired.  You can determine the source of slow leaks by spraying a mixture of water and dish washing soap around the valve stem, sides and tread of the tire.  Locations where air is escaping will cause bubbles to form at the site of the leak.  If you have no other option you can have the tire plugged, but be forewarned that this will invalidate the tire's speed rating and warranty.  The proper way to have the tire repaired is to have a qualified tire shop remove the tire from the rim and patch the tire from the inside using a special tire patch and appropriate rubber vulcanizing cement.

Spare Tire Maintenance

An often neglected item is your car's spare tire.  Most passenger cars have a temporary compact spare tire, also called a "doughnut" spare, that is slightly smaller than a full-sized wheel and tire.  These smaller spare tires require much higher pressures in order to function properly.  Most temporary spare tires require pressures of at least 60 psi, compared to the 35 psi of their full-sized counterparts.  Remember to check the pressure in your spare every year when you do your fall vehicle preparation.  Many people find themselves stranded after putting a spare tire on only to find it too is flat.

On the sidewall of the spare tire you will see the maximum speed that tire is capable of.  Because the lightweight construction of these tires they are usually not made for long distance travel or high speeds.

Most SUVs, full-sized vans and trucks are equipped with full-sized spares that do not suffer from these limitations; however, their tires must still be checked for proper inflation.  Be sure to get under the truck with a tire gauge and check inflation pressures.

Replacing Tires

If you must replace a tire, replace tires in pairs.  Replacing tires in pairs ensures the ABS sensors and the car's Electronic Stability Control (ESC) will function properly.  If the tires on the front or rear axle are different sizes because one tire is worn and the other is new, this can cause the vehicle's electronics to detect a difference in wheel speeds which could impair vital safety systems.

Tires with the most treat should be placed on the REAR of the car, not the front.  It is much easier to control a skid where the front wheels have lost traction (understeer) than it is ton control a skid where the rear of the car has lost traction (oversteer).

Emergency Prep

A few dollars spent purchasing some basic supplies can ensure that you are prepared for just about any emergency, including being stranded on a deserted road.


Running out of fuel while navigating a snow storm or other emergency can be life threatening if your vehicle is stuck in freezing temperatures.  Whether fuel stations have closed down for power outages, weather, or fuel delivery disruptions you can mitigate this by having a special non-flammable alternative fuel source stored in your trunk.  Spare Fuel (, is a product that can be stored for long periods of time safely in your trunk.  Unlike gasoline which is dangerous, has toxic fumes and can only be stored untreated for about six-months, Spare Fuel can be kept in your trunk indefinitely.


Every car manufactured and sold will have the equipment necessary to remove and replace a blown tire.  Unfortunately if your car was purchased from a used car dealer or private third party this equipment may be missing.  Ensure that all tools needed to replace a tire are located within your car.  This will include the following items:

  • Jack12-Volt Air Pump
  • Jack handle / spare tire winch handle (usually found on mini-vans, pickups, SUVs, and full-sized vans)
  • Lug nut removal tool
  • Wheel lock (optional on some vehicles)

If you find any of these things are missing you can find replacements online.  Here are some good replacements and additions to your toolkit:

Your vehicle owner's manual will show you the location of the car's normal tire changing tools.  Some vehicles have a spare tire located under the trunk floor.  These vehicles usually require that the tire be lowered from its storage position using a special handle.  Practice lowering the tire and removing it from this storage location once or twice so you can familiarize yourself with how the system works.  This will pay off when you find yourself stranded on the side of the road in a rain storm, and you'll already know how the system works.

Disaster Preparedness

Most people will never get caught in a debilitating snow storm that leaves them stranded; however, a lake-effect snow storm in November 2014 dumped 48-inches of snow and left thousands of motorists stranded and stuck in their vehicles.  People were trapped in their cars for days as they waited for assistance.  Dangerous situations like these are exactly why a few dollars worth of essential disaster preparedness items can be the difference between life and death.


Keeping a small amount of cash on hand is a good idea to have in your disaster preparedness tool bag as well.  In cases of natural disasters most stores won't be able to take credit cards and you'll need some other form of currency in order to get necessities.  Keep a good mix of small bills and larger bills so it is easier to make change.


A good flashlight can not only provide much needed light for working on a disabled vehicle, but it can also serve as a signaling device in cases of emergencies.  We highly recommend this Fenix UC40 flashlight.  At $85.00 it is not exactly cheap, but it is waterproof, super bright, and rechargeable using a standard USB cable.  This means you can charge this light using your cell phone's charger, your laptop, or any number of other ways to provide life-saving illumination.

For a more affordable option that also provides cell phone charging you can get a multi-function radio/flashlight that provides a hand-crank option to allow the possibility of charging other low-power devices like cell phones and tablets.


The ability to start a fire may mean the difference between life and death if you find yourself stranded in the wilderness.  You will want some way of creating a fire for light, heat, or long-distance signaling.  Keep a plastic sandwich bag of dryer lint for tinder to help start a fire.  You can soak this lint in hot wax to make it last even longer.

In a pinch you can use Doritos, potato chips, corn chips, or other dry deep fried foods as additional tinder.

Fire Extinguishing

The ability to put out a fire is as important as the ability to start one.  Ensure you have a good quality fire extinguisher.  Understand that this will only work for small vehicle fires.  It is virtually impossible to put out a large vehicle fire with a fire extinguisher.  The heat absorbed by the metal of the vehicle will continue to reignite the combustible materials that are prolific throughout any vehicle and only water or foam will put this kind of fire out.  When used properly though, a fire extinguisher should be able to handle most small fires, and can help keep flames at bay until help arrives.

To use a traditional chemical fire extinguisher to help keep flames at bay, perhaps you're assisting an individual trapped in a burning car, you can make a fire extinguisher last longer by creating a cloud of extinguishing agent around between the victim and the fire.  Squeeze the handle and shake the nozzle vigorously while pointing in the area of the fire.  Once you've created a cloud, release the handle.  Once flames begin to build back up release another cloud.  You can greatly expand the amount of time needed to help rescue someone by using this method.

If a vehicle is fully engulfed you have no chance of putting the flames out with an extinguisher.  Get away from the burning vehicle as exploding tires, fuel tanks, and other pressurized combustibles inside the vehicle can spray molten metal, plastic and glass great distances when these areas explode.  Get upwind of the smoke as fumes from a burning vehicle contain carcinogens and other potentially toxic chemicals that are not good to breathe.


Water is not only the lifeblood of people, but it can be the difference between a seized engine and limping to your car to your destination.  Having a collapsible water container can help you bring water from a source to a dry radiator, or store water for an emergency.  A few 1-liter bottles of water can be purchased at any grocery store and stored in the trunk of your car.  When you buy them, write the purchase date on the bottle with a permanent marker, then change these out once a year to prevent algae growth.

For those who venture out on long road trips you may want to consider a water purification straw. This will enable you to drink from virtually any water source without fear of illness.  We will include some links to these items at the end of this article.


Keeping a stash of non-perishable food in your car can be a real life-saver. At worst it can be a quick pick-me-up when you're stranded for an extended period of time.  But if you're really out in the middle of nowhere and are stranded, it could be critically important.  Things like granola bars, nuts, energy bars, dried fruit, jerky and other dehydrated foods will keep fairly well inside a car.  Swap these items out each year when you change your water and check your spare tire pressures.  Military-style MREs can also be had for cheap and can store for up to two years in a vehicle trunk.


Being able to keep warm and dry is crucial to survival when you're stranded.  One of the things we keep in our emergency kit is an old bath towel and an old wool blanket.  Wool is a fantastic insulator and while it is not the softest thing in the world it dries quickly if it gets wet.  Fans of the book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will understand just how useful a towel can be.  The towel can be used for warmth, for drying off, a scarf, cut into strips for bandages, or rolled up and used as a pillow.

Plastic emergency blankets can also be a good addition as they take up very little room and can be used as a poncho in a pinch.  When combined with a traditional blanket this can help keep you warm in the coldest of weather.

Medical Emergencies

While it is possible to buy a ready-made first aid kit, you may find it cheaper to build your own.  This will enable you to customize your first aid kit specifically for your needs.  By purchasing all the items for your first aid kit you can spread out the contents of the individual components across several vehicles.  So a box of bandages can be divided equally among all of your vehicles.

Medicines should be included in your kit as well, but be sure to leave them in their blister packs when possible.  Make photocopies of the dosage instructions and store it in a plastic bag with the blister packs.  Keep each medicine in a separate plastic ziplock bag with the brand name and expiration date on the bag. Prescription drugs must be left within the containers you get from the pharmacy, to remove them and store these medicines as loose pills is not only dangerous, but illegal.

Some medicines and items to include in your first aid kit:

  • Advil
  • Aspirin
  • Immodium - Anti-diarrhea medication
  • Benadryl - Antihistamine for allergic reactions
  • Antacids
  • Anti-nausea medicine
  • Vaseline
  • Neosporin
  • Hand Sanitizer - alcohol based hand sanitizer also makes a great fire starter
  • 3" elastic ace bandage
  • Sterile bandages
  • Bandaids
  • Sterile Gauze
  • Waterproof Adhesive Tape


It is probably a good idea to include a few extra items of clothing just in case.  An old pair of pants, a long-sleeve shirt, extra underwear and an extra set of socks.  If you needed dry clothing after digging out of a snow bank dry clothes would help keep hypothermia at bay.


An old duffel bag, backpack, carry on bag, or even a pillow case could be used to store all your emergency supplies.  This could also be used to transport your gear with you in case you had to abandon your car.

Going on a trip

Before you leave on any trip it is a good idea to check weather conditions before you leave.  This is especially true if you're planning a long-distance trip that will take you across multiple states.

Be certain to tell at least three people where you are going, when you plan on leaving and when you expect to be there.  Let them know the route you plan to take.  Make sure to check in with all three people when you depart and let them know when you've arrived safely.  Checking in periodically with your three contacts with information about where you are is also a good idea.  If something were to happen this would help narrow down the search area that authorities would have to look through.

Getting Stranded

If you were to get stranded on your trip it is best to stay with your vehicle.  Even if you were to get stranded in a remote area your best bet is to stay with the car.  Your car is much larger and easier to find than you are.  The car also can serve as a heat and power source, shelter from the elements, and protection from animals.  You should only leave your vehicle as a last resort in the most dire of cases.  Statistically speaking you stand a much greater chance of being rescued if you stay with your car.

Take the towel from your emergency kit and hang it on the outside of the side windows to show that you need assistance.

If your vehicle's engine still runs and you are unable to move your car because of mechanical trouble or you have gotten stuck, conserve fuel by shutting the engine off.  If you want to leave your flashers on, make sure to start the car and let it run for about 15-minutes for every 30-minutes of flasher use.  This will help keep your vehicle's battery charged so you can start the car.  The emergency flashers on most cars will drain the battery and make it impossible for you to start the car if they are left on for too long.  Do not leave cell phones or other power-draining items on while the engine is not running, this will further deplete the battery.  Only charge these items while the car is running.

If you are in a truly remote area, you may need to start a signal fire.  Three fires placed in a row is the universal signal for distress.  These hot spots can be seen from the air by pilots using thermal imaging or at night.  Adding green leaves to these fires will help create smoke to make the fires more visible.


Putting it all together

We have given you some tips for how to prepare your car, some tools to have on hand so you can enable yourself to keep from being stranded by simple mechanical trouble, and what items you should keep with you to help mitigate getting stranded in remote or weather-emergency areas.  Here is a list of some of the things that we have in our car to stay prepared:



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