Car Winter Checklist: 27 Things You Definitely Need

Winter will be here in full force in Indiana quite soon. With daily snow, winds and blizzard conditions at times, it’s important to be prepared.

car and its wheel in snow

What would you do if you suddenly got caught in a big drift of snow at 11:30 at night during a snowy blizzard? Do you have the things you need in your vehicle during the winter?

Think something like that won’t happen to you? Yeah, so did we. Last year, with our winter lasting so long around here, we got lazy about it. And for someone who likes to be prepared, it’s almost embarrassing to admit.

We went to our friend’s house one night, despite warnings against travel. As we were even driving there, the snow was blowing and roads were getting drifty. Did that stop us? NOPE… we went the 20 miles and had dinner, played games and enjoyed ourselves.

As we were leaving, I noticed that the snow was a “bit” higher on the steps than when we came in. It wasn’t a big deal, we thought…we’d be careful on the roads. I’m originally a South Dakota girl, you’d think I would’ve known better, right?

We traveled down one country road, and there was drifting, but it wasn’t terrible. As we turned down the next one, drifting got worse on one side of the road, but our side was fine. As a matter of fact, we had a clear road. Until about 20 feet later when we drove right into a 12″ high drift.

We did the usual, back and forth of the vehicle trying to get unstuck, but it didn’t happen. The wind was blowing some 50 mph, and it was snowing with rapidly falling temperatures.

My poor hubby was out there, dressed in his jeans, t-shirt, sweatshirt and coat with his leather shoes. Fortunately, he had heavy wool socks on to help keep his feet dry and warm for about all of 30 seconds.

We called our friend to come and help us, to no avail. There was just no digging out the van fast enough.

The drifts had gone from mid-calf deep to waist deep in 30 minutes. We called a tow truck, and it finally arrived after 2 hours of waiting.

Unfortunately, the tow truck also got stuck as it was pulling another vehicle out behind us. We had to wait for a payloader to arrive to plow the way. There was no way we were going home that night.

By the time we got back to our friend’s house for the night, it had been over 4 hours since we left. It was an expensive night for us, as the tow truck / payloader cost us $200 to get us unstuck. It could’ve been worse, though. We could have been without these 27 things…

So Before you head out on the road this winter, consider adding these items to your car to stay safe.

Cell Phone and Charger

Even if you don’t want to pay for a service with a contract, there are so many options for affordable cell phones. It literally saved us, being able to call for help.

There were no houses around us, and we really didn’t know where we could’ve walked to to get help. Please, consider having at least a pay as you go phone and spend the extra bit to have a charger in your car.

Plastic Bags

My hubby was able to rip a plastic garbage bag in 1/2, and wrap it around each of his feet, and under his jeans

It helped insulate him a bit longer against the wet snow. I totally recommend you having at least 1 in your glove compartment for that reason.

Shovel

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We were able to move some of the snow with our shovel, but of course, it didn’t move fast enough. Ideally, having a shovel will help you get out from under packed snow. We have a folding shovel like this one, and it folds up neatly and stores under the seats when not in use.

Pocket Saw

If you need to cut some twigs or branches out of your way, or for building a fire away from your vehicle to keep warm, this could be a game changer for you

We keep 2-3 of them in each vehicle normally, as there are normally multiple people who could help with this chore if needed.

Toilet Paper

Toilet paper is a handy item. Actually, you should have a roll in your car no matter what the season because you just never know.

Especially when driving longer trips, sometimes those highway rest areas are not as well attended, and having your own tissue comes in handy. You can also use tissue for minor cuts and scrapes, a small pillow, or as a napkin to wipe your hands.

Tarp

While I usually don’t recommend going too far away from your vehicle in case help arrives, having a way to build a shelter so you can warm up with a fire can help. Tarps are easy to store, are cheap and are quite versatile.

You can also place this over your windshield during the winter to minimize the amount of snow and ice that builds up on it, lessening the time spent on scraping. Speaking of which, do you have extra ice scrapers in case one breaks?

External Battery

You have a way to call for help, but what if the battery is low on your phone?

You are not going to be able to always count on charging it from your vehicle. You don’t want to keep the vehicle running for long periods of time without moving, and you don’t want to drain the vehicle’s battery.

So, having an external battery or two that are charged up is very helpful. I love mine, and it can charge my phone to full charge three times before needing to be plugged back in itself.

Of course, you can also pick up external batteries at just about any drugstores, chain stores, or most gas stations these days.

small shovel tow rope and jumper cables
small shovel, tow rope, and jumper cables

Jumper Cables

Speaking of batteries, what do you do if your vehicle battery dies?

Well, the tow truck usually has jumper cables, but what if they don’t? Or you are able to get moving again without being towed, but the battery is dead?

You NEED jumper cables in your vehicle, and not just during the winter. They will come in handy in all sorts of weather, trust me on this.

Even if you are helping someone else out, jumper cables should come standard in every vehicle in my opinion. That, along with flares and caution signs alerting others that your vehicle is disabled on the road.

Blankets and Extra Winter Gear

Having a couple extra blankets in the van was nice. Especially when we turned the van off to save gas while we were waiting. The kids cuddled under them together to keep warm. I really recommend you have at least 1 or 2 in your vehicle.

Having an extra hat, scarf, and gloves in the van were life savers when hubby was trying to dig us out. He got to exchange the cold, wet ones for warm, dry ones. Ideally, this would also include an extra pair of snow boots, easily found at thrift stores in July…which I will be looking for more this year.

First Aid Kit

Do you have a first aid kit? Well, you should. At least band-aids and some antiseptic. And that should be during every season, not just winter.

The best kits will have gauze, cleansing wipes, and an Ace Bandage for minor snow shoveling injuries. You will want to keep some lightweight heating blankets in there as well for helping keep a body warm.

Full tank of gas

During the winter, you should never let your gas tank be below 1/2 full, for this reason. If we had run it down to less than 1/4 of a tank, there is no way we could’ve kept the vehicle running as long as we did.

We would’ve run out of gas long before the tow truck got to us, and it could’ve been a disaster.

Snacks

Granola bars, individual cheese sticks, and pretzels were awesome to have! No, the kids probably weren’t really hungry, but it DID keep their minds off being cold and worried.

Our water bottles were frozen, but putting them on the heat vents thawed them out enough to get a drink every now and then.

Matches and Candles

An old steel veggie can and candles, with waterproof matches

Yup, having those were a big help for when the van was turned off to save on gas. All you do is have a tealight candle, place it in the center of the can and light it.

The heat from the flame will warm up the can and it’ll give off a bit of heat. Not a lot, but enough to help keep you from freezing.

Ice Scraper

I already mentioned that you need a shovel in your car for winter travel, and while this next one might sound obvious, it’s another important piece of equipment you should have with you at all times when you’re out on the road in the winter – an ice scraper.

If you park outside in the cold, you’re going to come back to a car that’s covered with snow and ice. Don’t try to do what so many people do and drive down the road with all that snow and ice still crusted over on top of your car.

Not only can the snow start to slide and obstruct your view, causing an accident, as you drive, but it can also go flying off your car and hit someone else’s vehicle, too.

Instead, take the time to scrape away the built-up snow with your ice scraper (preferably one with a long handle).

bag of sand in car trunk

Sand or Kitty Litter

Both sand and kitty litter can also be helpful when they’re in your car in the winter, for several reasons.

These heavy bags can be used to add weight to the trunk, allowing you to gain traction on a slippery road. Also, the kitty litter or sand can be poured around your tires if and when you get stuck in the snow or on the ice, helping to give you the grit you need to get your tires out and your car moving.

Fun fact – you can also use your car’s floor mats to help you get out of slippery situations.

LED Flashers

Both LED flashers and hazard triangles can be used to help you out when you get stuck in the snow. These will alert other drivers to your location so that they don’t hit you while also making your location so that emergency services can find you more easily.

Flashlight

A flashlight can also be used to signal to passing vehicles. It can also provide you with the light you need while working on your car in the dark or digging around in the trunk.

Of course, if you end up needing to walk to find help (though it’s rarely a good idea to leave your vehicle!) The flashlight will give you the light you need.

Hand Warmers

Freezing cold hands can make it tough to work on your car and dig yourself out if you get stuck. A disposable hand warmer will warm up in just seconds, with the heat lasting for hours. These can help keep your hands warm while you’re changing a tire or waiting for help to arrive.

A Gas Can

Remember how I mentioned earlier that you should always keep a full tank of gas in the car? Sometimes, that just doesn’t happen – we all make mistakes! – or you find yourself many miles from a gas station in an emergency.

Running out of gas is a pain at any time of the year but it’s far worse in the winter. Keep a small gas container in your car to save you from needing a tow. You shouldn’t keep it filled – this is a hazard – but if you find yourself in a pinch, you can get a lift to the nearest gas station and fill up the can.

An Extra Battery

Keep an extra battery or battery pack so that you can swap it out if needed!

A Spare Tire

Replace your tires before winter comes, particularly if they don’t have good tread. I always recommend switching to all-weather or snow tires if you live in an area that gets a lot of heavy snow.

Driving in wet, snowy weather with bald tires is dangerous – and it’s the best way to cause an accident. Get some quality tires and add a spare to your trunk while you’re at it.

Portable Air Compressor

A portable air compressor can be used to check and inflate your tires when the cold weather causes a loss of tire pressure.

While it doesn’t make sense to lug around a full-sized air compressor, a portable one connects right to your car’s 12 volt power outlet and has a gauge to let you know when you’re at the right PSI.

tow strap shovel duct tape and other tools in car trunk

A Basic Tool Kit

A simple tool kit will help you make a few simple fixes when you’re in need. You don’t have to be a mechanic in order to benefit from this kind of kit. All you need are simple tools like zip ties, screwdrivers, Allan keys, wrenches, sockets, and pliers.

A Notepad and Pen

This one might seem odd, but it’s actually important to keep this item in your car when you are traveling during the winter – and it’s not for playing hangman while you’re stranded!

You should keep a pen and notepad on hand because, when you have to call for a tow, you will be given additional phone numbers for direct contact and incident numbers.

You’ll need to write these down. If you are in an accident with another vehicle, you may need to note the other driver’s license and plate numbers.

Fix a Flat

Often, you might find yourself stranded on the side of the road not just because it’s winter, but because your tire has gone flat.

A can of fix-a-flat is sometimes all you need to get back on the road without having to put on a spare. It won’t fix the tire but it might buy you enough time to get to a tire shop.

Rope or Chain

A rope and/or a chain can help you pull your car out of the snow, especially if there’s another car around to give you a tow.

Extra Windshield Washer Fluid

Make sure the windshield washer fluid you are using has antifreeze components in it to prevent it from freezing. This can improve your visibility in a storm.

How to Prepare Your Car for Winter Travel

In addition to packing a kit with all the essentials described above, it’s also a good idea to give your car a full servicing before each winter season arrives.

There are a few things that you should add to your checklist of chores to make sure you can stay safe (and not sorry!).

Check Tire Tread

If you aren’t replacing your tires this winter (or switching over to snow tires), you may want to take the time to check their tread. Inspect them for wear and rotate them during every oil change.

An easy way to check tire tread is by doing the penny test. Stick a penny in the tread groover of your tire, with Lincoln’s head facing you.

If you can see his whole head in the groove, it’s time to replace your tires. Ideally, as little of his head should be visible as possible.

You should also take the time to fill your tires before you head out on the roads. Low air pressure can be dangerous, so check the pressure before each trip.

Change Your Oil

Again, regular oil changes are important. Check the oil and antifreeze before you leave on a long trip, since regular maintenance can prevent any car troubles during winter driving.

Fix the Heater

If you’re only making small trips here and there across town, it might not bother you to not have any heat in the car. However, if you find yourself stuck in the car for a long period of time, not having heat can be dangerous.

Inspect the Battery

You may have been able to limp along last winter with a less-than-brand-new battery, but if you’re trying to do it in cold weather, you’re going to run into problems. Make sure you inspect the battery cables and fluid before you leave.

You may also want to take the time to clean your battery terminals. Corrosion buildup on the terminals and battery posts can cause your battery to start hard in cold weather and also make it difficult for your charging system to recharge your battery.

Lubricate Window Tracks

Just before Old Man Winter arrives is also a great time to lubricate your window tracks.

When freezing water gets into the tracks, something that’s inevitable this time of year, it will make it difficult for you to open the window. It can also damage the regulator cables, a problem that can cost lots of money.

You should also take some time to lubricate the weather stripping, door locks, latches, and hinges so that everything functions as it should.

Switch to Winter Wiper Blades

If you aren’t already, it’s time to consider making the switch to winter wiper blades. These can prevent the blades from streaking or missing large swaths of your windshield. You’ll be able to see better – meaning safer driving in the winter!

The Best Tip? Stay Home!

You can do everything in your power to pack your car with all the gear you need for winter travel and to prepare the vehicle itself for traversing in the winter. However, there’s one tip that will keep you safe above all.

It is this – the forecast calls for travel advisories AGAINST you traveling, stay home! It’s not worth putting yourself and your family at risk! Or, spending an exorbitant amount of money to get you rescued.

What other things would you recommend keeping in your vehicle during the winter? Be sure to pin this for later!

updated 12/22/2021 by Rebekah Pierce

car winter checklist pin

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29 thoughts on “Car Winter Checklist: 27 Things You Definitely Need”

  1. Considering how unusually brutal this winter has been all across the country, this list is vital! I will be making sure Eddie follows through and gets this things in both our vehicles. Thanks for the tips!

  2. Krystyna @ Spring Mountain Living

    This is no joke! Around here, we don’t even run 4 miles to town w/o those things, along with other gear we wear. Could save your life!

  3. Such a needed post! Considering all the poor people in Atlanta…I think they could have really used this advice, most of us southerners aren’t used to this nasty weather.

    1. Handheld. Games…
      Coloring. & Puzzle. Books….. Emergency. Blankets (the kind that looks like tin foil) Will. Help. U. Retain. Warmth. Also…..
      Each. Family. Has. Their. Own. Ideas…
      Act. Like. U. R. Packing. Ur. Car. For. Camping.
      Food. Water. Drinks. Games. And. Comfort.
      There. Is. No. Right. Or. Wrong. Way. To. Do. It….

  4. The husband and grown son laugh at me when I tell them to put blankets and kitty litter in the car…but those are things I’d rather not need and have than not have when they’re needed. Ohio is BRUTAL in the winter…and the older I get, the more I hate winter 🙁

  5. Growing up in Utah, we always had a shovel in every car and we frequently used it to dig ourselves or others out of the snow! Always had blankets too just in case and never less than a quarter tank of gas. Great list.

  6. My best friend’s son-in-law was stuck in that Atl traffic for about 22 hours when he was trying to get home from work. “Home” is about 45 minutes to an hour outside of Atl. He’s safe at home now, but his vehicle is apparently still stuck. I was thinking of him the whole time I was reading this post – will be forwarding this to them promptly.

  7. I can only echo what the other comments have said. This is a life saving preparation. Every time we have a freak storm like what just happened in Atlanta, we hear stories about people who did not take basic care to prepare. I like this list. thanks

  8. This is a great post with some Awesome Tips! Our weather here has been outrageous some of these I have but I am surly going to add the rest!

  9. Great list of items, all of which we have in our car. We live in northern New England so we’re accustomed to being prepared for big snow storms. We also keep ice melt and kitty litter in our car.. you never know!

  10. I also keep a #10 can to heat snow for a warm drink or to rehydrate a dehydrated MRE type meal. If you are going to be there a while, I use a Crisco candle or home made candle heater to keep warm even just a little. I keep all the winter gear listed, but also keep a sleeping bag under my beck seat. I would take off my shoes, put on heavy socks and crawl into the sleeping bag and sit upright in the seat. Reserve as much body best as possible.

    Navy sea bag(duffle bag) from military surplus store to store all equipment in.

  11. We spent over an hour in a snowbank about a month ago–without much gas so we left the car off and it was getting very chilly inside the car! There’s a shovel in the back of my husband’s car right now, and we also have a handcranked flashlight/phone charger. About a year ago we were in car trouble and 4 of us in the car had cellphones…all of which only had low batteries, which wasn’t great for calling insurance, calling tow trucks, etc, so we learned to have a charger in the car!

  12. Add chains to this list! This winter, our car skidded on an icy, snowy street. We put chains on and drove home, past all the other stalled cars.

  13. Another item that I always have available in the car is toilet paper. It’s come in handy more than once. I’d also suggest for food items crackers & a jar or peanut butter. Maybe a deck of cards in the glove box for while you are waiting. Always have a swiss army knife in our cars and back packs. And lastly, make sure that before you leave the house everyone is dressed for the weather you are having. How many times have you seen people go without a coat or proper shoes because they weren’t going to be gone long. Great Article …Thank you !!

  14. Great article. Besides all of the gear you listed, I would add either a pair of insulated coveralls or ski bibs for each occupant along with an extra pair of boots per person. Never thought about the duffle bag/great idea cause it is more compact and organized.

  15. Thanks for posting! After the disaster here in Atlanta 2 weeks ago, I started working on car emergency bags for hubby & me.

  16. Even if you’re not where it snows often, you need these things! We got stuck in Winter Storm Leon in Atlanta last winter. It was awful – we had friends who were on the road for fourteen hours!

  17. Great reminder! I keep a 3 day survival pack in my car, along with several other items based on the situation. One thing often forgotten is to make sure if you have a medical condition, you have extra meds with you.

  18. I also keep a metal pancake turner in my car. They are great for removing ice and snow right down to the pavement if it isn’t too deep. Then you can get traction on pavemen if you get stuck. I found it actually worked better than a shovel for small jobs.

  19. Great post! In addition to your list, I carry the old-fashioned sulphur flares, a tow chain, and a case of those air-activated hand warmers (for hands, feet, inside a hat and the breast pocket near the heart).
    Each one lasts 8-10 hours and can certainly lives in the cold.

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