Spending a Night in Your Vehicle

By Peter Kummerfeldt

It happened so suddenly. One moment we were driving along the snow-packed North Park, Colorado road and the next we were in the ditch with the passenger’s side door buried in the snow bank and the opposite door oriented to the sky. 

    After taking stock of our predicament and making sure that neither of us was injured my wife and I climbed out of our Toyota Land Cruiser onto the road. We were miles from anywhere without another car in sight. No farmhouse to walk to for help. No cell phone to call for assistance. Just the two of us standing on the side of the road wondering how we were going to get the vehicle out. 

Fast forward to the end of the story. About an hour later, after I had tried to dig the Toyota out, a road grader came along and pulled us out. If we had had to spend the night it would have been alright. Uncomfortable, but alright. We were well equipped with sleeping bags, extra clothing, the means to heat the interior of the vehicle, and food and water.

Anyone who drives faces the possibility of spending an unplanned night in a vehicle. Bad weather, breakdowns, running out of fuel, and getting stuck are some of the more common reasons why a driver might have to bed down for the night (or perhaps for several nights) until rescued. A night out does not have to be a life threatening experience. Drivers who accept the possibility that an accident might happen are drivers who prepare, in advance, for the experience. On the other hand, those drivers who deny the possibility may find themselves fighting for their lives until rescue arrives – hopefully in time!


Assembling a car survival kit is the first step and, as with any survival kit, the contents should be selected based on personal needs, the season and geographic location, and the experience of those involved. (See the sidebar for a list of recommended equipment.) If you become stranded you’ll be glad you took the time to put together an emergency kit. 

In addition to the kit you should also evaluate the effectiveness of the clothing you are wearing to keep you warm in a cold vehicle when the engine isn’t running. Most people dress to arrive at a destination and not to survive a night out. — Dress to survive not just to arrive! When traveling with others don’t forget to provide sufficient supplies for the additional people as well, and don’t forget any pets you may have with you. 

Preparation also involves ensuring that your vehicle is ready for winter travel. Never set out in stormy conditions without a full gas tank, a good battery, proper tires, a functioning heater, an exhaust system in good working condition, fresh anti-freeze, and a good dose of common sense.


When a 4WD truck gets stuck in a 5-ft. snowdrift – it’s really stuck! © David Staat

If you do get trapped by a blizzard or severe snow storm – don’t panic! Stay with your car and use your survival kit. Your vehicle makes a good shelter and an effective signal – don’t leave it. In your car you are warm (warmer than being outside), dry, and protected from the weather. Trying to dig yourself out or attempting to walk to help can be fatal. Sit tight – let the rescuers come to you! Move all of your emergency equipment and any other useful gear into the passenger compartment.


While sitting out a storm you must use your resources sparingly – you don’t know how long you’ll be there. While the car will shelter you from the wind and keep you dry you will need to warm the interior. The heat your body produces is insufficient for this task. 

Sitting in a car you will become cold quickly—especially your feet. Put on your warmest clothes (socks, hat, gloves, long underwear and additional insulation layers), wrap yourself in blankets or get into a sleeping bag before you become cold. The foot wells will be the coldest part of the vehicle. Sit sideways so that you can place your feet on a seat where the foam cushioning will offer some insulation. Alternatively, place foam padding under your feet to insulate them. Place insulation behind your head so that it does not come in contact with the cold window when you lean back. 

If you are the sole occupant use a space blanket (or other similar material) and duct tape to partition off the back of the vehicle from the front so you only have to warm the part of the vehicle you are occupying. Ways to warm the interior of your vehicle include running the engine for short periods of time, long-burning candles, small stoves and Isopropyl alcohol/toilet paper improvised heaters. Run the engine about ten minutes each hour or for shorter periods each half hour but only after ensuring that the exhaust is not damaged and the tail pipe is clear of snow and other debris. Run the engine on the hour or half-hour – times that coincide with news and weather broadcasts. 

Ventilate the vehicle by opening a downwind window approximately one inch. Carbon monoxide is a very real threat to your safety. Do not go to sleep with the engine running. Carbon monoxide poisoning can sneak up on you without warning. Almost 60% of the unintentional deaths in the United States each year are caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from motor vehicle exhausts. It is far less risky to use your clothing and other sources of heat to stay warm.

If you have to get out of the vehicle in a blizzard put on additional windproof clothing, and snow goggles if you have them, then tie a lifeline between yourself and the door handle before moving away from the proximity of the vehicle. In a white-out condition visibility can be as low as 12 inches.

Eat for heat. Without enough energy stored in your body you will not have the ability to generate the heat you need to keep your body warm. Your emergency kit should include quantities of high-calorie, non-perishable food (carbohydrate food bars). 

Keep yourself hydrated. Dehydrated people have great difficulty maintaining their body temperature. Don’t eat snow! It takes body heat to convert snow to liquid. Use your heat sources (engine heat, a candle etc.) to melt snow for your drinking water. Don’t smoke – the nicotine in cigarettes reduces warm blood flow to the skin and extremities and increases the possibilities of frostbite. Don’t drink alcohol – alcohol affects judgment. Bad judgment decreases the chances of survival. 


The ability to communicate your distress is critical. Carry a fully charged cell phone and a charger that plugs into a cigarette lighter. Dial 911 or the emergency number selected by your state to contact law enforcement officials. It may also be possible for the cell phone companies to establish your location based on the strength of the cell phone signals. Most cell phones also carry a global positioning chip that makes locating your car easy. You still have to survive until the rescuers can get to you, but at least they know where you are. 

A strong case can also be made for buying an emergency beacon, a SPOT beacon for example, if you travel to remote areas or frequently have to travel during inclement weather. Citizen Band radios are another option and could be used to make contact with other road users. 

Lacking electronic communication equipment you will have to improvise – tie a flag to your vehicle’s antennae, have a road flare prepared in the event that an aircraft flies over your area. If weather conditions permit, stamp out SOS in the snow and after it stops snowing, raise the car’s hood. Keep the upper surfaces of your vehicle clear of snow. Remove the rearview mirror and use it to reflect a beam of sunlight to rescuers – either on the ground on in the air. Do whatever you can to draw attention to yourself.