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On the road in severe wintry weather

Winter weather in the United Kingdom is somewhat less demanding than, for example, that in North America, but even when temperatures are only a few degrees below zero (°C), and given strong winds and/or sufficient snow, some of our upland areas can be hazardous for travellers; and, of course, more people travel further afield now throughout Europe and North America during winter/early spring, e.g. on business or on skiing holidays.

The notes below may be of some use.


Keep a survival kit in your car... this should include:....
(*=items that might usefully be on the vehicle at all times.)

  • Blankets, sleeping bags, etc. (These double to provide extra grip in emergencies underneath tyres.)
  • Torches (heavy duty) with extra batteries for same. *
  • First-aid kit. *
  • Pocket-knife (Swiss army style ideal).
  • Non-perishable food/high calorie - chocolate bars etc.
  • Large bucket, plastic cover, tissues/moist-wipes etc., as stand-by toilet.
  • Metal container & waterproofed matches etc., to melt snow.
  • Candles, or similar to act as back-up for heat and light.
  • Bag/bucket sand, cat litter and/or old coats etc., to act as traction under tyres. (small buckets of sand are quite good...they also add weight to the vehicle, which, correctly positioned over the driving wheels may help to get out of an icy situation. Sand etc., must be dry, or it will freeze!)
  • A shovel/spade, windscreen scraper *, de-icing fluid * etc.
  • Basic tool-kit. *
  • Fire extinguisher. * (more than one really, especially in a large vehicle). A fire in a vehicle when you are stranded miles from anywhere in thick snow will mean almost certain death, as it will remove what protection you have from the harsh elements.
  • Petrol can/petrol (or diesel). This is not advisable for normal use, but if planning a lengthy journey in potentially extreme conditions, this is a prudent measure. However, the quantity should not be great: half-a-gallon may be all that is required. Obviously this amount will depend on the vehicle you drive and the terrain the wilds of Scotland, upland Wales or the West Country moors, perhaps larger amounts might be prudent (Owners/drivers of diesel vehicles need to investigate whether they need an anti-gelling agent added to the fuel in very cold weather).
  • A container of fresh water...carried in the body of the car (not the boot) to prevent freezing.
  • Consider snow-chains.
  • Old newspapers are useful - they provide supplementary insulation if opened out and can be arranged as a cocoon around the occupants of the vehicle. Also, newspapers placed on the floor will mop up some of the inevitable moisture that will be brought in (plus condensation). Damp and cold are a bad combination - you should try to eliminate damp and minimise cold. (Also, you can read the newspapers to stop falling asleep!)


  • Mobile phone...almost essential kit nowadays, but only useful of course if the signal strength is adequate.
  • Battery operated radio...don’t rely on the vehicle battery powered in-vehicle stereo!
  • Maps, road atlas. *


  • Wear warm clothing, plenty of layers. The head, hands and feet in particular (the ‘extremities of the body) must be well insulated from the elements. Don’t assume that you won’t have to get out of your nice warm vehicle - you can always take layers off if getting too warm; its a bit difficult to put them on if you haven’t got them with you!
  • Wear a hat, hood etc. A considerable amount of heat (around 30%) is lost through the head (particularly if like me you’re losing your hair!)
  • Wear gloves or mittens that fit snugly to the wrist.
  • You should make sure you have on the vehicle some extra clothing (dry/packed in plastic bags) - if possible brightly coloured. This should be kept in the main body of the vehicle, not the boot. In the latter position, it will become damp and extremely chilled.

(Notes re: hypothermia:...Death from cold (aka as hypothermia), will occur when the overall body temperature fall below 28 °C. The ‘inner core’ of the body must remain at around 37.5°C in order to function properly; A couple of degrees colder, and mild hypothermia occurs, and this can be detected as shivering, which is the way the human body will have of trying to create heat; Below about 33°C, the situation becomes serious, and is likely to lead to unconsciousness and unless the body temperature is brought back to near-normal levels quickly, the lack of activity will soon lead to death.)


  • Stay with the vehicle unless you are absolutely sure you can reach other (better) shelter (i.e. a barn, outhouse, deserted building, etc.). Emergency services will be looking for stranded vehicles, and will focus rescue attempts on those...if you wander away, you may look back to see a helicopter hovering over your vehicle a couple of miles away! If you do leave your vehicle, try to leave some indication of which direction/what location you are heading for.
  • You must shelter from the wind. Even a gentle breeze will remove a considerable amount of heat from your body/clothing ... it is obviously much worse in a raging blizzard.
  •  Do NOT eat snow. It will lower your body temperature dangerously. You must melt it first. Don’t wait until you are thirsty, use your spare can (above), and bring some snow inside your vehicle to melt gradually.
  • Open a window JUST A LITTLE to ensure some fresh air. If conditions are extreme outside, open for a few minutes then close. You must do this to prevent build up of CO2 and carbon monoxide. The action of opening and closing the window will also keep the window driving mechanism from freezing.
  • Keep active! You must keep blood circulating vigorously to maintain oxygen supply to the brain, and reduce risk of frost-bite etc.
  • The engine should be run at frequent intervals. Make sure it rotates sufficiently fast to charge the battery, alternately holding/pumping the accelerator pedal between right and left feet (this also exercises the feet). Do not be tempted to relax and use the choke control partially pulled out to maintain revs. Run the engine for at least 5 minutes every half-an-hour.
  • Activate the vehicle hazard lamps (provided they are clear of snow -- a useless exercise otherwise), and better, have a lamp that has a flashing head which can be put outside the vehicle to alert rescuers. Also, try tying something brightly coloured to the vehicle aerial or similar.
  • If and when using the vehicle heaters, make sure the fresh-air intakes are free of snow. Also, best to tie such usage to the periods when the vehicle battery is being charged.
  • Some texts advise that when a vehicle is stranded, the bonnet of the car is raised - I assume to attract attention. In extreme weather, and certainly when wind-driven snow is around, this is most certainly not the correct advice. Indeed, some form of blanking mechanism (e.g. stout card) could be put to good use deflecting icy air from passing the engine radiator.


In the United Kingdom, the Met.Office is responsible for the National Severe Weather Warning Service, and by this mechanism, relayed via the normal tv and radio weather forecasts, will attempt to give at least 2 days warning of potential severe weather. Notwithstanding this service, all forecasts should be monitored closely if you intend to travel in areas that might be subject to severe winter weather. Remember though that because of time constraints imposed by broadcasters, details of extreme weather in remote areas cannot be given the due time it deserves. This is particularly true of Scotland, where forecasts provided on a (UK) national basis often concentrate on the central belt, and the populated east and north-eastern regions of the country. Forecasts provided by regional weather centres, via recorded telephone or local/regional television and radio presentations are better.