Winter driving, especially when venturing beyond the norm, requires some planning.
The whole experience lasted three, four, maybe five seconds. But what a few seconds they were.
Exciting, but not necessarily in a good way.
It was early winter and my son, then in his early teens, and I were deer hunting. We were on a relatively large piece of public land where we’ve had success over the years.
Accessing some of our better spots means driving over a road that’s rutted, rocky dirt in the best of times. It’s three miles long, with signs warning “no winter maintenance” at each end.
That’s admittedly part of the attraction.
It’s for just such roads, and the remote adventure they offer, that we drive 4X4 trucks all year, right? To go where some can’t.
On this day, though, things were dicey. Or more accurately, icy. The substantial snow that had fallen in recent days had largely iced over.
That gave us some pause. At one point, about halfway along this road, it’s bisected by another that slopes down to creek valleys in both directions.
There’s some good hunting in those valleys. So we sat for a moment, idling in the heated cab, talking about what to do.
We decided to turn down one of those side roads for a parking lot at the dead end.
Creeping in first gear, we made it with no problem. But sitting on stand over the next few hours, my mind wandering as it’s prone to do when the action is slow, I kept thinking about getting back up that hill.
I didn’t have tire chains with me, nor a winch on my truck. So a few hours before dark, I collected my son and said we were pulling out. We’d find a spot off the main road to hunt until dark, but I wanted to get out of there.
We made it, eventually, but not on our first try, and not before those exciting few seconds.
Starting up the hilly road, easing along, we progressed until at one point we started spinning. We were stuck, moving neither forward nor back, until we started sliding. The truck picked up steam of its own volition until we ended up stopped maybe 100 yards later, sitting sideways, the back tires off the road.
My son looked at me wide eyed.
“Are we stuck?” he asked.
“We’ll find out,” I answered.
We got out of the truck and looked. We didn’t appear to be in a ditch, or hung up on any big rocks or logs.
“Let’s try again,” I said. “Buckle up.”
A three-point turn later, we were facing up the hill again. We backed back down a bit, closer to the parking lot, then made another run.
That time we made it, to our mutual relief. The alternative promised to be long, cold and uncomfortable.
Help, if we’d needed it, would probably have been a long time coming. That spot is maybe two hours from home, but only if you know where you’re going. Even if we’d been able to reach my wife – no sure thing, as in that valley you can sometimes get out a text, but rarely a call – she didn’t know how to get there. Not without consulting a map anyway.
A few friends who’ve hunted with us know the area. But they, too, would have likely taken a while to arrive, provided they were available.
Fortunately, we were prepared had we needed to wait.
Anyone who spends time outdoors in winter, driving to parking lots and trailheads beyond the reach of the snowplow to hunt, hike, snowshoe, cross country ski or whatever, should be the same.
That means packing a winter vehicle survival kit.
What it should contain, and in what quantities, can vary a bit. At worst, we were several hours from getting help. If you’re high in the Rockies, where help might be days away, you’ll need extensive supplies of things like food and water.
But there are some basics everyone should carry, Some items are meant to help you get unstuck, some to keep you alive if you can’t get unstuck. Here’s a list:
- Sleeping bags or blankets.
- Food, from sandwiches to high-energy snacks like you’d carry in the woods.
- Water (eating snow will lower your body temperature).
- An ice scraper.
- A small snow shovel.
- Abrasive material, like cat litter, or traction mats.
- A flashlight with extra batteries.
- Signaling devices, from flares to orange triangles to a brightly-colored cloth you can tie to your antennae.
- Rain gear.
- Extra clothes.
- A first aid kit.
- Paper towels or rags.
- Basic toiletries.
- A mobile phone with charger.
- Jumper cables.
- Any medications you take daily.
- Cards, games, a book or something else to keep your mind occupied.
After that, there are some other things you can do to stray safe.
For starters, run your vehicle, but only 10 or 15 minutes every hour. That way you can stay just warm enough without running out of gas too quickly.
Be sure to keep your tailpipe clear of snow, though. If it isn’t, carbon monoxide can build up inside and kill you quickly. Sadly, a few people die that way each winter.
Stay with your vehicle, too. It’s the first thing rescuers will spot, and you’re easier to find if you’re with it.
And be somewhat active inside your vehicle. Clap your hands, wiggle your toes, stomp your feet. That will promote blood flow and help keep you warm.
Winter is no reason not to go off-road driving. But it can be sort of like unexpectedly swimming with sharks.
One of two things can happen.
First, the sharks might eat you and, well, that stinks. The second is you survive the experience – even if you have to change into a clean swimming suit — with all your limbs intact.
It’s a fascinating story either way. But you only get to be the one telling it if you survive.
So head off road, but be smart about it.
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