6 Steps to Survive a Winter Road Trip



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Use these 6 Useful Tips for the Best Winter Road Trip

Road trips are glorious! They’re often brimmed with the feelings of freedom and adventure. Stop and go as you please, take in the ever changing landscape, and make unforgettable memories. A road trip is often best served with a friend or significant other, someone to bounce energy off of as you explore new and old areas alike.

The urge to hit the road can come at any time and for some this urge may not always be satisfied due to circumstances. In this case we’re talking about a harsh season like winter.

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While not all places experience snow and ice, many do. Shelby and I love to visit places with snow and we place great emphasis on visiting, because living in it is whole different animal!

If you have the itch to hit the road but don’t know how to make it through the coldest season, look no further.

Step #1: Prepare Your Adventure Mobile!

The Basics

Get your vehicle serviced so it’s in tip top shape for your adventure! Check tires, tire pressure, wipers, battery, hoses, coolant, oil, transmission fluid, and anything else that may be crucial when planning a road trip.

Also, look into roadside assistance. No matter how many precautions you make before hand roadside assistance can come in handy. Example to follow.

Also, bring the following:

  • Fully Inflated Spare Tire w/Lug Wrench & Car Jack
  • Jumper Cables
  • Car Jump Starter
  • Tire Pressure Gauge
  • Blankets
  • Flashlight w/Spare Batteries


Snow Tire Chains

This is the most affordable option and first line of security should you want to venture out into snow without snow tires or 4wd. For regular 2-wheel drive vehicles and for all tires aside from snow tires, chains can quickly become invaluable.

Too much ice or snow and you’ll quickly find yourself stuck in one spot with tires spinning or your vehicle physically sliding up and down a road.

Chains give your tires the traction they need. If you have 4-Wheel drive or Snow Tires then chains are generally overkill, but can still come in handy in the worst case scenarios.

Snow Tires

If you want more security over the course of your winter road trip invest in snow tires. Normal and all weather tires have shallower tread, stiffer (slicker) rubber, and overall less grip in wet/icy conditions.

There are a handful of characteristics that make up a snow tire including softer, gripper tread rubber, deeper tread and tread patterns (channels snow and expels water), and biting edges that provide the best traction on ice.


4-Wheel Drive

The moment you’re off road or in a place where snow plows don’t regularly operate then you should strongly consider using an SUV or Truck, and with 4-wheel drive. If your road trip consists of popular highways and continually plowed roads then 4-wheel drive isn’t necessary.

But if you’re like us and seek national parks, state parks, BLM, and other back country roads then you’ll want 4-wheel drive to handle whatever untamed nature may throw at you.


Shelby and I learned the hard way in a Toyota Sienna minivan we rented for our 3 months of van life. Picture this: you’re 70 miles away from the closest town in the middle of nowhere, stuck in snow on a dirt road as the sun is setting and a snow storm ensues.

Yeah. The feeling of panic rose instantaneously as I had no reception. This was of course before Shelby could check her phone to see she had but a couple bars of service.

In short, a tow truck couldn’t even make it out to where we were. Side note: We had AAA Roadside Assistance, but no AAA to be found where we got stuck.

The tow company used a personal 4×4 truck to quickly and efficiently pull us off the snow and ice we were stuck on. The. Next. Morning. Don’t be us! Even though AAA wasn’t available, we did end up getting a partial reimbursement from them.

A anxiety ridden night spent in the middle of nowhere stuck in a van during a snow storm was no picnic. Definitely learned our lesson the hard way!

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This pic was taken after we were pulled off the snow.

Full Size Shovel

Are we planting something? Nope. Quite the opposite, actually! Snow, ice, and mud builds up under a vehicles tires and if deep enough, even the whole chassis. A full size shovel can get you out of a pinch real quick.

If you get stuck sometimes all you need to do is shovel out snow/ice/mud from under your tires and chassis to regain the traction you need to keep the adventure going. (wish we had this advice before our minivan experience)

Keep the Tank 1/2 Full

Growing up my grandma instilled in me to treat a 1/4 tank as empty and a time to fill up. While this is seemingly already a very generous rule, it’s recommended you bump it to a 1/2 tank when driving in winter.

Why? To prevent gas lines from freezing and allowing an extra reserve should you get stuck somewhere and need heat.

We’re making winter trips sound real safe, huh? You’ll be okay.

Spare Gas Can

Despite technology, GPS, and your favorite gas app, there might be a time you run out of gas or come close to it. When we’re focusing on a road trip it’s amazing to learn which trivial things we can lose track of.

Get yourself a gas can with a minimum capacity of 2 gallons. This will generally get you an extra 30-50 miles depending on your vehicle. But wait? It’s winter, so can’t it freeze? Yes, yes it can. But not unless you’re experiencing -40° to -50° Celsius. That’s -104° to -122° F and if you’re planning a “winter” road trip with these kinds of temperatures than you probably know everything on this list and more!

Accomplish all of the above and you’re vehicle is now winter road trip ready!

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Step #2: You Need Warm Clothes

Sure, your car blows heat and it’s wonderful, but the point of a road trip is to move from place to place and experience new things. This generally involves you getting in and out of the car.

Only one problem. Winter is cold, cold, cold!

You’ll want the following articles of clothing:

1. Beanie
2. Neck Warmer – Multifunctional Headwear
3. Base Layer Top – Wicks Sweat Away from Skin
4. Mid Layer Fleece – Keeps Body Warm
5. Mid Layer Down Jacket – Keeps Body Warm
6. Outer Layer Shell – Shields Against Wind, Rain, and Snow
7. Base Layer Bottoms
8. Hiking (Multi Functional) Pants
9. Gloves
10. Hiking (Multi Functional) Socks
11. Liner Socks
12. Shoes (Actually Boots)

Pro Tip: Layer Your Cold Weather Clothing for the best results

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If you want a full run down of the above then check out my previous post 12 Articles of Cold Weather Clothing. You’ll learn exactly why dressing in layers is most advantageous when traveling and exploring outside.

Step #3: Consider Water, Even When There’s Snow

It’s winter and guess what? Water can and will FREEZE when left in the car. Naturally we carry a few gallons of water in the car to replenish our canteens for hikes and general day use.

Leave water in your car overnight and you’ll wake up to solid ice. And yes, we’ve woken up to gallons of solid ice during winter road trips.

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How do you get around this? Carry water inside to where you’re staying for the night. (assuming it’s above 32 degrees F) Our preferred solution is insulated containers. We use ours religiously!

We carry a variety of containers when traveling.

Here are the ones that survive freezing temperatures:

Hydroflask 24oz (Left)

HydroFlask 40oz (Middle)

Hyrdoflask 64oz (Right)

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Why the different sizes? The 24oz fits in all cup holders and is great when we’re eating in the car. The 40oz canteens lastly nearly all day and are great for hikes. The 64oz growlers insure that we’re stocked on water when we’re in remote areas. We have 2 of each and some might say I’m kind of obsessed.

Step #4: Don’t Forget Spare Food

Road trips mean hours on the road and hunger can hit when there’s few places around to accommodate. Too many times have we landed in a town just to discover all the food establishments were closed due to the slow season. Bummer!

Luckily, we have the following on deck during all of our (winter) road trips to keep us fueled. We’re not talking full blown meals, but a variety of hearty winter road trip snacks:

  • Protein Bars
  • Nuts (Almonds are my favorite)
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Peanut Butter
  • Popcorn
  • Crackers & Cheese
  • Beef Jerky
  • Tuna Snacks
  • Kipper Snacks (canned fillet fish)

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Depending on the temperature outside you may need to take similar precautions as you do with water. Protein bars and jerky aren’t exactly soft after a night in low teen weather, but give it an hour into your drive and they’re fine. Fruits and nuts hold up rather well!

Step #5: Check Your Tech

We live in age where technology has removed any guess work and paper maps are nearly obsolete. I say nearly because a paper map with your route is always a good idea should your tech fail you. But while it is servicing you, take full advantage!

Here’s our list of our common tech items:

  • Smart Phone w/Wall & Car Charger
  • Laptop w/Charger
  • External Hard Drive
  • Battery Bank
  • Power Inverter
  • Dual USB Wall Charger
  • Mini USB Cable x 2
  • USB C Cable x 2

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Fun Stuff 

While you may not have all these exact items, it’s important to bring the right items that are more vital to your road trip survival. Things such as chargers and cables to keep your most used tech alive.

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You don’t want to lose battery on your GPS or phone when you’re driving somewhere unfamiliar in such harsh conditions. Getting lost is the last thing you want.

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.

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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.

You’re (Nearly) Winter Road Trip Ready!

I’ve given you the run down on what you’ll need to survive a winter road trip. Your vehicle is ready, clothes are toasty, food and water has been secured, and possible accommodations have been considered. You’re practically good to go!

But before you venture off you’ll want to see to it that you bring at least a handful of these 30 Road Trip Essentials. Now you’re ready. The cold is calling, but so is adventure and all the unforgettable memories to follow.

Did we miss anything on this winter road trip list? If so, we want to know in a comment below!

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About the Author

Nathan Bernal is the co-founder, editor, and author of We Who Roam. As a life long adventure and gear enthusiast Nathan combines fun and expertise when out exploring the natural world. He's here to share his knowledge and inspire the adventurer in you.

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