Be prepared for winter driving in national forests – your life could depend on it

Keith Riggs
Office of Communication, U.S. Forest Service
November 29th, 2013 at 6:15PM

The Thanksgiving holiday weekend tradition has long included the unofficial kick-off to ski season and a time when families head out to find their Christmas tree, and many times those events involve a trip to U.S. Forest Service lands.

Recreationists find some of the best downhill, cross-country and snowshoeing opportunities with 122 ski areas in 13 states using a total of 182,095 acres of Forest Service-managed land. Add to those opportunities snowmobiling and winter camping, which makes public lands a great family destination. With a permit, you can even find your perfect Christmas tree.

But getting to those lands in winter can sometimes mean less than ideal road conditions. Although GPS systems are valuable tools for navigating forest roads, they cannot always be relied on to provide the safest routes based on local current conditions. A GPS system can easily lead you to a route that is impassable due to snow.

Make sure you check with the local U.S. Forest Service office about weather and road conditions BEFORE you set out on your trip. And before you leave, notify a responsible person of your planned route of travel, your planned departure time and your planned time of return.

Traveling on forest roads during the winter months is serious business. You should always carry a survival kit in case you’re stranded. 

Make sure your equipment includes:

  • PMA! (Positive Mental Attitude!) The most important survival tool, along with common sense.
  • One sleeping bag or two or more blankets for every person in the vehicle. You may also use a “space” blanket, plastic tarp, or two large green or black plastic leaf bags to help retain body heat.
  • Matches and small candles stored in aluminum foil. A blanket over your head, your body heat and the heat from a single candle can prevent freezing. The candles can also be used to melt snow.
  • An empty 1-, 2- or 3-pound coffee can be used to melt snow, heat water and as a tool to dig.
  • Dental floss – it’s strong and may be used for lashing branches for improvised shelters.
  • Bottled water. Because of the cold, the water will likely freeze so leave room for ice expansion.
  • High-energy foods such as candy, nuts, dried fruits and raisins and several packets of instant soup, hot chocolate, tea, bouillon cubes, etc. 
  • A spoon.
  • An LED flashlight with extra batteries and a whistle – good for signaling for help.
  • Extra winter clothing – hat, mittens, heavy socks, gloves, coveralls, etc. Cotton is not recommended because it provides no insulation when wet.
  • A first aid kit that includes any special medications needed by you or your passengers.
  • A basic tool kit with a jackknife.
  • Paper towels or toilet tissue, which can also be used as fire starters.
  • Pieces of bright cloth 2 inches by 26 inches to tie to the car’s antenna or door handle.
  • Money (two nickels, two dimes, two quarters, $20 bill --helpful for making phone calls or paying for gas if broken down along highway.)

Many of these items can be stored in the coffee can; place a stocking cap over the kit and carry in the passenger compartment for easy retrieval.


Emergency gear for the vehicle:

  • Jumper cables
  • Sand for traction (note, kitty litter dissolves in water and isn’t as good.)
  • Ice scraper, snow brush, and a small shovel with a flat blade
  • Warning devices such as flares and reflectors
  • A tow chain or strap and braided nylon rope at least 25 feet long
  • Bailing wire.


Using parts from your vehicle can save your life:

  • A hubcap or sun visor can be used as a shovel.
  • Seat covers can be used like a blanket.
  • Floor mats can be used to shut out the wind.
  • Engine oil burned in a hubcap creates a black smoke that can be seen for miles. Prime the fire with a little gasoline taken from the gas tank with a wire and tissue or rag.
  • The horn can be heard as far as a mile downwind. Three long blasts at 10 seconds apart every 30 minutes is a standard distress signal.
  • A rearview or side mirror can be used as a signaling device.


Remember that if a storm traps you inside your vehicle or if you become lost and stranded DON’T PANIC. Think the problem through and decide on a course of action and implement it slowly and carefully. Above all, stay with your vehicle.

More winter driving safety tips can be found at Winter Driving & Travel Safety. And watch how one family finds their perfect Christmas tree.