Winter Weather Preparedness in the West : Traveling

So being a transplant there are a lot of things I have had to learn about living out west. Because our country is so large winter weather is different for all parts of the country. The west is unique in some ways, but no matter where you are from you have to be prepared for various winter hazards.

I am from the Northern part of the mid-west and winters are brutal. They are cold and once snow comes, it stays.

I have learned since moving out west that while winters overall are MUCH milder that can be more dangerous. When people are less used to winter weather, they have a hard time adapting to it when it comes and therefore there are many drivers on the road who aren’t equipped with the skills to handle winter driving. It’s important to keep this in mind when driving in winter weather. You can be the best driver in the world, but everyone around you may not be.

The other big thing that is different here is the terrain. Not only is it quite hilly which can be a problem for icy conditions, we have mountains out here. Not just little baby mountains but ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 feet. As most people know, the weather and conditions in higher elevations tends to be much cooler and damper than lower. This is compounded by snow in the winter. We may get some flurries and get a light dusting to an inch or two here in the west, but in the mountains, they can get many feet. Where I’m from we often get 2-5 feet of snow due to “lake effect” off the Great Lakes. Well the mountains out west put that to shame, sometimes producing 10-20 feet. Obviously, this makes them impassible and some pretty cool specialized equipment must be brought in for clearing the way.

When traveling in the west in the wintertime it is important to remember that if you are going to be traveling over mountainous terrain to plan for potential delays and/or rerouting. The weather may be beautiful at low levels but climbing a mountain you may run in to totally different conditions. Often mountain passes will be entirely closed if there are bad driving conditions.

Also, if you are traveling further north be prepared for accidents on the interstate and the potential for stopped traffic, sometimes for MANY hours.

Here are some things you can do to be prepared for breakdowns, traffic crashes and other delays while winter traveling:

  • If you already know conditions are bad, and you can do so, simply don’t travel
  • Always make sure your vehicle has good tires before traveling as well as a good battery and Fuel. Don’t leave home if any of this is lacking. In bad weather it could be life or death.
  • It’s always a good idea to do a vehicle maintenance check in the late fall before weather gets bad. Make sure the above things are in good shape. It’s a good time to get new tires if needed, replace a battery and have your alternator and heater tested.
  • Dress warmly and in layers
  • Plan your route ahead of time and make sure at least two people are aware of your route and timetable or itinerary.
  • If it is a long trip, stop regularly to keep your tank above half just in case you do have to stop for an extended period you can keep your engine running.
  • If you have a break down or crash don’t spend much time outside if the weather is bad or cold. FIRST call for help, get someone coming to help. Second make sure you are visible this may mean lights or flares.
  • Items to keep in your vehicle
    • A CELLULAR TELEPHONE (Seems like a no-brainer, but this is the most important thing! It may not work in some areas, but it’s a lifeline as soon as you get a signal)
    • First Aid Kit
    • Tire Chains
    • Sturdy Ice Scraper w/ a Snow Brush
    • Extra Gloves, Hats, etc
    • Blanket(s) (enough for every passenger)
    • Shovel
    • Cat Litter or if you have a truck Sand Bags (this adds weight for traction and can be poured on the ground if you get stuck for added traction in the snow and ice)
    • Lighting (Flares, LED lighting, Flashlights, something to make sure you are seen at night)
    • Extra batteries for lighting
    • Chain or Tow Strap
    • Jumper Cables
    • Tools
    • Cell Phone Charger
    • Non-perishable high calorie food and water
      • Gatorade
      • Dried Fruit like raisins
      • Granola Bars
      • Peanut Butter
      • Hard Candy
      • Nuts (unsalted) Salt is the enemy because it pulls water from your body
      • You can also keep some canned goods but remember if it is a long term stop anything with high salt content is going to make you thirsty and you want to conserve water.
    • Jump Pack (for getting your car started if it dies)
    • Spare Tire
    • Extra Socks
    • Winter Boots
    • Hand Warmers
    • Small Fire Extinguisher
    • Tire Gauge
    • Jack & Lug Wrench
    • Instaflat
    • Duct Tape
    • Rain Poncho(s)
    • Radio (hand crank is good, also a HAM, GMRS, or even FRS or CB radio is good in case you cell phone has no coverage)
    • Compass
    • Paper Maps
    • MONEY including cash and change (this is vital, if you are out of gas or need a repair you never know if you will have access to use plastic or checks, also some vending machines only take change)
    • Candles
    • Lighter
    • Notepad & Pen or Pencil

Winter Driving Tips

  1. Beware of black ice. Roads may look clear, but they may still be slippery.
  2. Stuck without traction and lacking sand or cat litter? In a pinch, you can take the floor mats out of your car, place them next to the tires, and slowly inch the car onto and across the mats.
  3. Make sure windows are defrosted and clear. And be sure to clear snow and ice from the top of the vehicle! Gently rub a small, moistened, cloth bag of iodized salt on the outside of your windshield to prevent the ice and snow from sticking.
  4. To restore proper windshield wiper blade action, smooth the rubber blades with fine sandpaper to remove any grit and pits.
  5. Fog-proof your mirrors and the inside of your windshields with shaving cream. Spray and wipe it off with paper towels.
  6. Increase following distance to 8 to 10 seconds. 
  7. If possible, avoid using your parking brake in cold, rainy and snowy weather.
  8. Do not use cruise control in wintry conditions.
  9. Look and steer in the direction you want to go. Accelerate and decelerate slowly.
  10. Know whether you have antilock brakes, which will “pump” the brakes for you in a skid.
  11. If possible, don’t stop when going uphill.
  12. Signal distress with a brightly colored cloth tied to the antenna or in a rolled up window.

See more cold-weather tips provided by AAA.

Please be safe out there, we all have someone we need to get back to.