Winter road trips can be incredibly rewarding. Taking the car instead of a flight can save tons of money during holiday travel pricing. You can see places that are normally busy during the off-season and have it almost to yourself. The long, slow hours in the car can help you relax after busy holidays. Winter travel does come with inherent risks. Snow storms and winter driving are largely unpredictable and can cause unsafe conditions. Kenon and I travel a ton in the winter and have come up with some safe guards to make sure we get to our destinations safely. Tips for staying safe while traveling in the snow go far beyond just keeping a safety kit in your car, but that is where we start.
Keep a safety kit in your car
Just like with any outdoor activity, a good safety kit is well-packed for the worst possible scenario. You put it together hoping that you never, ever have to use it but making the best choices just in case you do. Extra blankets, snacks, and water are just the beginning. We also keep snow chains in our car. Here is a link to a great safety kit list. Yes, it takes up extra space in a packed car but you will be so thankful for it if you need it.
Make a Plan and a Plan B
When Kenon and I road trip in the summer months, we plan out our gas station and rest stops along the way. We have had enough close class, with the gas tank dropping waaaaaay below empty, to know that this is a good idea. We also do this to make sure neither of us are getting too drowsy, risking our safety. In the winter, we not only plan out gas stations and rest stops but we also plan for the “danger zones”. Danger zones are the areas of interstates and highway where we know inclement weather will cause the most problems for one or more of the following reasons:
- there is no cell service
- there are long stretches without exits or towns with services like gas, restaurants and motels
- these areas are through mountain passes or otherwise more exposed to winter weather
- these areas are known for road closures or more prone to accidents during winter weather
When we are coming close to a danger zone, we check road conditions and readjust our plan as needed. If road conditions are questionable, we ask questions like, “This is our last reliable exit for the next 20 miles. Do we need to pull off for the night?” or, “There is not cell service for the next stretch. Is there enough vehicle traffic today that we will be found quickly if an accident happens?”
I learned this lesson when I checked Google Maps just in time to see that I-80 was closing for the night. We had one exit left to pull off and head back to the nearest town before we would have been stuck on the side of the road for hours. Now we plan to make sure we know when to stop if we have to.
Use Department of Transportation Websites
These are SUCH a life saver! Each state has an individual Department of Transportation website that lists road conditions, road closures, and even gives you access to interstate and highway cameras so you can view road conditions for yourself. Check out this example from Wyoming. These stay updated throughout the day and give you the most recent information on your travel route. Department of Transportation websites are what I use to check for new road closures. I also use them when we come up on slow traffic because they usually give some kind of reason or I can look at the traffic cameras to see for myself what is happening. We also use the traffic cameras to see how snowy, icy, or windy the roads are before deciding to leave one destination for the next. Most states have put the road information into an easy-to-use app. These apps can be found on the websites or just by searching them in the App Store.
Go slow to go fast
If conditions are gnarly but still good enough to drive, go slow to go fast. Channel your inner tortoise and don’t end up in the ditch with the hares. Slow and steady wins the winter travel race. North Carolina weatherman Chad Sullivan gives this advice:
“If you rarely drive on snow, just pretend you’re taking your grandma to church. There’s a platter of biscuits and two gallons of sweet tea in glass jars in the back seat. She’s wearing a new dress and holding a crock pot full of gravy.”
Turning an eight-hour drive into a twelve-hour drive can be extremely frustrating. However, it is not as frustrating as having to wait for a tow-truck to come get your car out of the ditch while an ambulance takes your passenger to the hospital.
These are tips and tales of caution. Winter travel can be the most amazing experience, though. Traveling in the winter has allowed us to see Zion National Park without any crowds. It has taken us to cozy living rooms of friends and family. We have camped in calm, snowy meadows. We have seen Bryce Canyon layered in snow. We have stayed in dumpy hotels during road closures, making ever-lasting memories with friends. It is every bit worth it.
To wrap this up, here’s a photo of our group in that dumpy motel, waiting impatiently for the roads to clear up.