As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, it's a dangerous business going out your door. It gets even more dangerous in the winter months. Every year thousands of commuters find themselves stranded out in the cold on long winter nights. We are creatures of habit. In the hustle and tussle of our daily lives we are so focused on making the ends meet and paying our bills on time, that we get caught up in our routines that work fine for the majority of the year. That is how unexpected winter weather always catches us by surprise, and that is often when Mr. Murphy's law comes into play. It's just one of those mornings when a perfect storm of events sends you to work running late, minus your lunch, and low on fuel. No time to stop now but no worries. The weather forecast isn't bad, the low-fuel light hasn't even come on yet, the snack machines at work take plastic, and at any rate there are a snickers bar and a pack of cheese crackers in your desk drawer at work. You'll be fine. You can just stop for gas on your way home, and eat a good supper when you get in. It's Tuesday morning and the work week isn't even half over. All that is important right now is getting to work on time.
That was exactly how it went for many in Atlanta Georgia on Tuesday Jan 28th, 2014. The weather forecast was a relatively mild one, as usual. Thousands of people commuted to work that morning, some traveling for an hour or more, as usual. Then around lunch time it was anything but business as usual. In the mass exodus on icy streets – through an unprepared city – that ensued, city traffic became grid-locked and interstates became parking lots. The weather only deteriorated even further. There were hundreds of accidents, and emergency workers were overwhelmed. Many motorists were still stranded on those icy roads 24 hours later, cold, hungry, parched, and injured. There were several who did not survive the night.
Odds are we will never be able to stop weather from catching us by surprise, yet we can keep it from catching us off guard. We can make sure to keep our phones charged so that we can communicate with the world at large, and keep up to date on weather and traffic situations. Icy winter weather can cause many traffic delays. It's a good idea to top off the fuel tank more often, just in case you need to have the heater available for long hours in immobilized traffic. High energy snacks and water are also good to have around, both for the ability to keep our body heat going, and for the morale boost. Being stranded out in the cold is demoralizing enough without the thirst and hunger pains, or even worse having to listen to your child repeatedly tell you they are thirsty and hungry. Traffic accidents and breaking tree branches cause power outages that bring the electronic money systems down. ATMs will be non-functioning, and the card and check readers in stores will be useless. Having a little cash on hand, and at least some of it in small bills and change, is another very good idea.
When we are forced to sit still for long periods of time in cold environments the lack of movement causes a decrease in the amount of heat our bodies produce. We lose body heat in three ways: radiation, conduction, and convection. Our bodies are designed to radiate heat. In the open environment of a non-working vehicle which is stranded on a windy frozen interstate, our body heat does very little for warming up the air around us. The long-sleeved shirt that was fine for the jaunts from the vehicle to the store, from one heated environment to another, is not going be a lot of help. We lose heat through conduction when our bodies touch the colder parts of the vehicle, even the interior when it has been hours without the heater going. We lose body heat through convection when cold wind blows across the surface of our skin. Over a period of hours in a long cold winter night, the core temperature of a uninsulated human body will continue to drop until hypothermia sets in. Hypothermia is not only deadly in and of itself, it is dangerous in that it causes confusion and inhibits clear thinking, and can lead to some very poor and hazardous decision making. A blanket, a space blanket, and an extra sweater will give you the ability to trap over 90% of the heat your body produces on it's on. Some hot hands and foot warmers, and a pair of gloves will allow you to actually produce more heat within your little insulated environment and keep your extremities warmer. This will greatly increase your chances of surviving a long cold night, and doing so without sustaining a bad cold weather injury.
Ice is slippery, hard, and can have edges and spikes as sharp as glass. Falls on ice can cause various injuries, in most cases abrasions and lacerations to the hands but knees, elbows, and heads suffer hard blows as well. If left untreated, even minor wounds will serve only to exacerbate and already bad situation. A small first aid kit that can treat most minor injuries, and stabilize worse ones can really come in handy. In an emergency the ability to take notes, or to leave them, can also be very helpful. If you or someone in your circle wears eyeglasses, then a small eyeglass repair kit is good to have around. An emergency is not a good time to find your vision impaired. A couple of ziplok bags can serve multiple purposes, from; keeping items together in one place that is easy to keep up with, collecting snow to melt it into water, or even body substance isolation in the event of a bleeding injury as the scent of blood can draw predators to you.
It is a good idea to have at least some minimal tooling on hand. A good quality multitool with a? serrated blade can bring a lot to the table in an urban environment. The ability to turn nuts, bolts, and screws can be very helpful, and serrated blades tend to fare better versus frozen synthetic materials such as plastic containers or nylon tarps, or even clothing in the case of an injury. In the colder months when gloves and fatigued hands can be an issue, a small fixed blade can be safer to use and is much simpler use as well. One of the features I really like about the smaller Fiddleback mid-tech knives is the corrosion resistance of the crucible CPM S35VN stainless steel in the long term storage role in a vehicle emergency kit. Another feature I really like is the crenelated handle that offers a secure purchase in less than perfect conditions and with slippery hands. You may not think a mirrored sighting compass a necessary tool in an urbanized environment, but since most men do not carry makeup compacts, it can be very helpful in removing foreign matter from eyes. In auto accidents on slippery roads, glass in eyes is a common injury, and you may well be your only help for the foreseeable future if emergency crews are overwhelmed or cannot get to you in a timely manner. Lights are another important tool to have around. Large ones with longer battery life are of course great to have around if you have the space to keep them handy, but smaller ones you can keep handy on your person or in your vehicle console will be quicker to access. The ability to see how to fix a problem in the dark can make a huge difference in the level of threat to you and/or your loved ones.
All of the contingency items that I have listed above will easily fit into a small backpack with room to spare, and with most packs there are attachment points on the outside of the pack for ease of access to some items. That provides a modular emergency kit that is easily managed and maintained, and highly portable should you need to head out on foot and make your way to a safer environment. If at all possible it will be better to keep such a kit in the interior of your vehicle rather than in your trunk. Often is the case on slippery icy roads that vehicles are rear-ended, and often this can leave items in the trunk inaccessible. In this case your emergency kit would be useless. A small pack takes up very little space, and is a small sacrifice to make for something that may very well save your life, or the life of one whom you hold dear.
Situations vary for all of us. We live in different areas and travel through different types of environments and terrain. So take some time and think about how to personalize your kit to your situation and to the space you have available. I keep a small axe along with the kit in my truck because I travel through rural environments. I also carry a tow rope that could be used to pull downed tree limbs out of my path, pull someone out of a ditch, or enable someone to pull me out if it is necessary. If your route passes through badly congested areas on normal days, or takes you through areas you would never intentionally walk through, then it would be a wise idea to study maps of the area and keep one in the vehicle in order to make any necessary adjustments in an informed manner, and know what resources or dangers are present in the areas you travel. If you car pool or you are a soccer mom or dad, then you may want to plan on provisions for more people. Considering all of the stranded people walking along the icy roads in Atlanta in Jan of 2014, having a little extra along could just be a good idea in general.
I know we are all very busy just trying to make our way through the obstacle courses that are our lives, and we all have very little time to spare. However, if taking the little bit of time it takes to put an emergency kit together and formulate a plan could well be the among the most valuable few moments you spend in your entire life, and a much lower price to pay than the price of regretting not doing it.
Here is wishing you all a very happy and very safe new year!