How to Survive a Road Trip Breakdown in the Dead of Winter

Before the trip

A lot of the most import things you can do to make a winter road trip safer happen days before you actually get on the road.

Weather reports and road closures

Nothing like being deep in the middle of nowhere only to find out that a pass is closed and you’re going to have to backtrack five hours in the dark. Google Maps generally keeps routes updated for hazards, but you can’t rely on that, especially in more remote areas. It doesn’t take long to do this research, and information about road closures is usually pretty easy to find.

Search “[state name] road conditions” and you’ll find some good links. One site, IcyRoadSafety.com, has a lot of resources on a state by state level. Check those before you leave, and once you’re on the road dial 511 from time to time for even more up-to-date info about conditions.

Give your car a checkup

If you’re going to be putting down some serious miles in the cold, it’s a good idea to have your vehicle inspected by a professional—or at least someone who really knows what they’re doing. A full inspection is recommended, but here’s a quick checklist of things to pay extra close attention to:

  • Make sure your heater is in good working order, and that you have plenty of antifreeze in your radiator.
  • Check all your lights and replace any that appear to be dim or dying.
  • If your wiper blades are looking a bit ragged, don’t wait to replace them. You’ll thank yourself when the weather turns ugly.
  • Make sure that you have wiper fluid rated to -40 degrees F (-40 C).
  • Check the health of your battery.
  • Consider getting an oil change, and and if you do, ask for a more winter-friendly oil (motor oils are rated by their viscosity levels at different temperatures) that still works with your specific engine. You may need to refer to your owner’s manual.

Tires and chains

Tires get their own special section because for winter driving they really are that important. If your tires are showing signs of wear, losing tread, or generally looking shoddy, replace them now. This might seem like Driving 101, but your tires are the only thing that connect your vehicle to the road, so they’re kind of critical. In fact, tests have shown that a good pair of snow tires is arguably more important than having four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. If you’re going to be doing a lot of driving in tough winter conditions, dedicated snow tires may be a worthwhile investment.

Personally, I wanted to be ready for rough conditions but I knew I wouldn’t be taking my van into the snow all that much, so I opted for a nice set of all-terrain tires instead. I went with BF Goodrich All Terrain T/A KO2, and if I could buy a romantic dinner for a set of tires, I’d do that for these. They’ve gotten me out of some very sketchy situations that would have left my old tires spinning aimlessly. They’re also quieter on the highway and didn’t impact my MPG. They aren’t cheap, but, man—they have been worth it.

Also extremely important: Get a set of chains for your tires. Chains used to be a real pain to put on, but technology moves forward, and now they attach very easily. They will give you way more traction in snow and ice, and they are mandatory if you’re going to be dealing with steep roads in the mountains. Get them and keep them in your trunk all winter.

Add time to the plan

In all honesty, I’m terrible about this. I tend to opt for very long hauls on the road in a single go. Don’t do that in winter. When you’re plotting your route, shorten the distance between destinations on a given day. If you would normally cover 400 miles, limit yourself to 300 instead. Not only are you going to have to drive slower than you normally would on a balmy summer’s day, but there are other things to contend with as well.

In winter, you have much less daylight to work with, and winter driving gets exponentially more treacherous at night. This is especially true if the weather was above freezing during the day. If it’s been warm enough for snow to melt, then—once the sun goes down and the temps drop—you are likely going to be facing black ice (frozen roads with an essentially invisible layer of ice on top). That’s one of the most dangerous things you can encounter in a car, and you should avoid it at all costs. If that means your road trip takes seven days instead of six, and you have to shell out for an additional night in a hotel, do it.

Keeping a shovel in your trunk can come in handy w
Keeping a shovel in your trunk can come in handy when driving in snowy conditions. | Photo: Shutterstock

Staying Awake: Entertainment Ideas

One of the hardest parts of driving all day is staying awake and alert. Varied snacks can help, but entertainment makes a big difference in surviving a long drive. Consider the following ideas to perk your interest and help you focus.

Music

Compile a CD of your favorite songs to keep you interested. Slow songs are definitely not recommended (but music taste is subjective, so choose songs that make you enjoy!). Choose music that makes you happy, helps you stay awake in the dark, you can sing along to, and most people in the car will enjoy. Here are a few songs you might add to your list:

  • "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" by Jet
  • "It's My Life" by Bon Jovi
  • "Road Trippin'" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys
  • "Highway to Hell" by AC/DC

Making playlists in advance is a great idea, or you subscribe to Spotify or Pandora (premium subscriptions are often required for music services if you want to access them when there's no internet connection—keep this in mind!).

Audiobooks

Borrow books on CD from your library or take some favorites you already own. Books in a series can be excellent for long drives since they maintain interest over a long period of time. On the other hand, vastly different books might help prevent you from getting bored with the same narrating voice and style. Great books don't always make great audiobooks—the quality of the reader's voice makes a huge difference—so here are some audiobook suggestions for your next road trip:

  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea
  • A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (any of the Harry Potter books would work—they are great for kids and adults!)

You can find free audiobooks online, or you can purchase them from bookstores such as Barnes & Noble.

Conversations and Stories

Plan some conversations to have with your traveling buddies. Road trips can be a great time to talk about looming future decisions, discuss deep topics, or brainstorm ideas. The open road is the perfect opportunity to learn more about yourself and your fellow 'trippers.

If conversations lull and audiobooks are tiring, have a couple of backup stories in mind to tell. You could even choose a debate topic to spark some truly interesting dialogue. Here are some great suggestions for thought-provoking conversation-starters:

  • What was the worst (or greatest) day of your life?
  • Do you believe in true love?
  • Do you think the development of artificial intelligence will harm or benefit humankind?

Road trips with friends are so much fun, and games can make them even more exciting!

Makhmutova Dina

Video

2. Wear your baby

When you aren’t driving, wear your baby in whatever carrier is most comfortable to you. In many situations, wearing your baby allows you to move around easier than using a stroller and babies at this age still love being snuggled close to you which might induce a bonus nap along the way.

Solly Baby

Step #6: Finding Where To Sleep During a Winter Road Trip

If you asked us where we slept during our winter road trip across the United States, then we would tell you in our minivan! But for many it will be a motel, hotel, Airbnb or other accommodation.

After a long winter day of driving and exploring, it’s a treat to stay the night somewhere warm and comfortable. Airbnb is our favorite as it gives us a chance to better dive into local culture and the chance to cook with a kitchen.

We specifically seek out places with a kitchen, no

We specifically seek out places with a kitchen, not only because we enjoy cooking, but it’s always great to save money.

Should you want to jump on board with Airbnb you can use our credit, good for $40!

In general we like to sleep for cheap. We use booking.com since they’ve consistently given us the best deals on motels and hotels. We often earn rewards and credits to future accommodations too.

Podcasts

Podcasts have become quite the rage in recent years due to the smashing success of Serial. Entertaining podcasts include This American Life and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.

8. Keep a bedtime routine

We are strong believers in the bedtime routine; it has always helped our son transition to sleepy time and sleep well. Most bedtime routines can happen on the road—a bath, a story, and a swaddle or sleep sack. We also packed his crib sheet for use in the travel crib for extra consistency.

Target

Kido

Dress the Part

If you’re planning an out-of-the-way winter adventure, dress as though you’re heading out for a cold-weather hike. Even if you’re not expecting to step out of the car, bring a cozy hat, gloves, and plenty of insulating layers (Merino wool is best). For safety’s sake, “more is more.” Pack more than you think you’ll need. It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. It’s easy to assume you’ll be warm enough at high noon, but once the sun drops on the first unexpected night in your vehicle, you’ll be thankful for that extra insulation.

Step 4: Distraction

Whats that bird thinking? probably something along the lines of fish but who knows. The point is this pic is the most distracting thing I got so I hope you were distracted. There is no way you will survive a family road trip without a distraction of some sort. Why? because you stuck in one place with nothing to do, basically what I would define as extreme boredom.

-electronics- Honestly you really need something electronic to entertain you because books and views just don’t cut it when life get crazy.

*Video games- The optimal choice in my opinion. The are interactive, most often don’t require a quiet environment, and are easily portable. So if you have any device capable of hosting games, use it!

*Netflix- Netflix and chill will do the trick but it does require sound which is a bit of a bummer. Of corse you could use ear buds but often other people want to watch with you and your forced to open your entertainment to the public. However this can be a bonus if everyone in the car enjoys the movie your watching. Then the hypnotizing power of the screen goes to work and you have a perfectly calm and quiet car. But if one person doesn’t like the whats on they will usually spent the entire duration of the movie annoying those that are entertained. So to sum up good crowd pleaser but everyone has to like it.

*Music- Music acts as a fallback entertainment. Its definitely a good choice for drivers as they kinda need their eyes to drive but doesn’t really qualify as full on entertainment for the bored passenger.

-non-electronic- What you do without or to take a break from electricity.

*books- good for an ideal road trip were the car is quiet and calm. If said conditions exist then go for it! reading is a great form of entertainment and generally it gets some browny points with the parents.

*scenery- scenery works for about an hour before I usually get bored. Don’t rely on scenery to be your sole entertainment but it can act as a great break from electronics.

*Imagination- Whats more entertaining then your imagination. I remember many long road trips were I just dreamed the day away and I’m glad I did.

-games- stuff you can do with your family. Now there are allot of on the road games and if your really interested look it p but I’ll give you two of my favorites.

*Letter game- The basic Idea for this game is to find every letter from A-Z. Now I know this sounds boring but if your desperate then it’s pretty fun and it includes everyone in the car so not a bad choice. You can modify this however you want; everyones trying to find all the letters as a group, or its a competition, seeing who can find all the letters first. Either way its a good game for the whole family.

*Slug bug- This ones pretty well known and is a fun competitive game. The goal of the game is to find a certain type of car before any one else and as a reward you get to punch someone. Its the punching that really makes it fun (muhahaha!).

8 General Tips for Road Trips

  1. Take turns driving, if possible. If you’re riding with multiple licensed passengers, trading off driving responsibilities is a smart way to share the burden of the physical aches and pains associated with long drives.
  2. Take a break every few hours. Making sure to take a break at least every 2–3 hours (to use the bathroom, stretch your legs, get gas, etc.) is a good way to ensure nobody will get too bored or restless on the trip.
  3. Prep before you go. This means making sure you have all of your snacks, checking and double-checking for all the clothing and supplies you’ll need, and making sure your insurance (or AAA) is up to date in case of emergencies.
  4. Make sure your vehicle's up to the task. Check your tires (and keep a spare on hand), fill up your windshield wiper fluid, and check your oil before you leave.
  5. Keep cash on hand. You never know when and where you'll need cash—whether it's a gas station without an ATM that only accepts cash or an unforseen toll bridge, you'll be glad you kept a little extra cash just in case.
  6. Eat smart. Sure, the snacks listed above sound delicious, but are they a good idea for a long trip, especially one that has a lot of open road (and not a lot of bathrooms)? You know yourself best—maybe you should keep the Oreos you packed in the backseat with the kids.
  7. Start with a clean car. Clean your car out before you leave, and make sure you keep it clean during the trip. Providing small baggies for trash in the backseat is a great way to keep the car tidy during long trips.
  8. Consider keeping extra water and gas in the car. If you've followed all of the tips in this article, you probably have your route mapped out, so you likely won't run out of gas. However, it's always a good idea to keep an extra gallon in the trunk (if you have room) just in case. A couple of extra gallons of water can also potentially be lifesaving (if your car breaks down in the middle of the desert, for example, with no cell reception).

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