by Paul Williams

This time of year, the most frequent call to the Canadian Automobile Association goes something like, “Tell me, what safety items should I carry in my car during winter?”

Winter circa 1960
A motorist looking through his snow covered windscreen, circa 1960. (Photo by Hulton/Archive by Getty Images/Wieck Wieck Auto Source)

The question has special relevance for most Canadians, who live in a climate where a stranded motorist can die from exposure to the cold. A gram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure, as we say in Canada.

Doug Mayhew, the CAA’s public relations manager, has a list and some suggestions for an emergency kit. I’ve a couple of my own.

Top of the list these days is the obvious: a cell phone. Surely the most useful security device ever invented, a cell phone is a “must have” if you’re lost, stuck or broken down. You don’t need a fancy, expensive, service or phone — the basics of both will do. If it’s within your means to get one, it’s a good idea.

At the low-tech end of the scale, Mr. Mayhew is also a fan of socks. He points out that old socks can be used for a variety of purposes. In a pinch you can use them as mitts, window cleaners, draught blockers, and, of course, extra socks for your chilly feet should you need them. Throw a few heavy ones in a box and keep them in the trunk.

A blanket is another essential item. “Keeping warm is so important,” says Mr. Mayhew. “People head out wearing a suit or light jacket, business shoes, no gloves. They don’t expect to need heavy winter gear. Everything’s fine until you slide off the highway and get stuck in a snow bank.” Been there, done that.

Kitty litter is handy, too. It’s great as a traction aid. Throw a few handfuls under the driven wheels on an icy road and chances are, you’ll get moving. Pick up a small bag at the supermarket, and toss it in with the socks and blanket.

If you do find yourself stuck in a remote area, Mr. Mayhew recommends staying with the car. “Nine times out of ten you’re better off in the vehicle than traipsing around in the middle of nowhere,” he says.

If this happens to you, a candle is a great thing to have. Candles not only give you light, but they can also raise the temperature inside the car a few degrees. So a couple of candles, some waterproof matches and a tin can in which to set the candle can join the socks, blanket and kitty litter.

On a related note, there’s no problem keeping the car running if you’re stuck. Just get out and check that the exhaust is not blocked by snow. Keep your eye on the gas gauge, of course, and turn on your emergency flashers.

If you’re on any kind of medication, why not put a couple of doses in with your emergency kit, or if you’ve got young children, lock some in your glove box? Including your medication is a sensible precaution if freezing will not damage the product. Check with your physician.

There are some nifty collapsible shovels you can buy, too. Many feature graphite blades and folding or telescoping handles. Some are quite sturdy, as well as being light, and will easily fit into the corner of your trunk. You can find them at most auto parts stores for under $15.00. Shovels like these aren’t going to move icebergs, but they’ll adequately clear snow from your wheels, permitting you to get going with less fuss than you may have thought.

I like to carry a couple of safety flares in my car at all times. If there’s an accident, or you’re stuck and vulnerable to being hit, these guarantee that you’ll be seen. At $5.00 a pair, safety flares are cheap beacons. Light them with your waterproof matches, or buy the more expensive ones that self-ignite.

Finally, taking along a couple of energy bars is a good idea. There are many different kinds, and it doesn’t matter if they freeze. Keep them in the trunk so you don’t munch on them when you’re stuck in traffic.

So there you have it. A cell phone, some old socks, a blanket or two, kitty litter, candles, waterproof matches, a shovel, some flares, and a couple of energy bars. And medication if you need it.

Several retailers offer emergency kits that contain many of these items. Canadian Tire has an Extreme Winter Safety Kit for $29.99. It’s got rope and other useful items in addition to most of Mr. Mayhew’s suggestions.

Recently, some carmakers have thoughtfully included emergency kits as standard equipment. Owners of Audi cars may not know that starting in 1999, the rear seat armrest contains a comprehensive emergency kit. Take a look.

Twenty-five years ago, the winter driving kit included putting 4 or 5 cement blocks in the trunk to help with traction. Those were the days.

Well, maybe not.

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