Trooper Glenn Godfrey was stationed in a one-man post, Northway, Alaska, in the late ‘70’s. Northway was the last post on the Alaska Highway in those days, so the closest help after that had to be the Mounties of the RCMP. That stretch of the highway is really lonesome and really cold in the winter.
Trooper Godfrey was on his last patrol of the day. He had driven west to Tok, planned to drive back to the border crossing, then head home; the air temperature was about 65 below zero. After passing a guardrail, he noticed tire tracks leaving the road. He stopped, backed up, and saw that the tracks left the roadway and went down a steep embankment. He followed the tracks down and found a family of six, shivering in the cold, with no cold weather gear. They had unwisely put all of the arctic clothing in a trailer, which had overturned when the car went off the road. Had Trooper Godfrey (later Commissioner) not stopped, all six people would have died.
When the moment of truth has arrived, the time for preparation has passed.
- Unknown -
Every trooper in Alaska carries a shovel, axe, and a crowbar in the patrol car or truck (most carry additional gear). These “pioneer tools” are often handy for a variety of uses. Military vehicles have also carried the same tools, sometimes with a pick, on every vehicle. When your car or truck is up to the hubs in snow or mud, a shovel can make all the difference. I’ve had a winch bolted to the front bumper since before I went to Alaska, along with a variety of tools and gear that can save my life when “stuff” goes south.
A shovel and an axe should always be carried.
Too many people today jump in the car and head from Seattle to Minneapolis with a bottle of water and a granola bar, wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a t-shirt in the middle of November. They don’t think about wind, rain, snow, breakdowns, crashes or anything else that could happen en route. After all, they have a smartphone or iPad with them, so they can call, text, or email if anything goes amiss. I call that driving stupid, and every year people die stupid.
All of the equipment packed in the Ironstorm™ Adventure Travel Bag.
I never park the car without at least a half tank of gas, usually more. I always carry gear, food, a map, and water in the vehicle, and I never rely only on Google maps or GPS to navigate. I’ve seen too many cases over too many years where folks have died due to a lack of preparation. Just last year a family became snowbound on the south rim of the Grand Canyon - the GPS said there was a road; GPS did not say that there was a foot of snow on the road. The only reason the family survived was that mom was a triathlete who managed to walk over twenty miles, in a foot of snow, to a ranger station - all survived.
Necessities for your vehicle kit.
There are things every person who drives should carry in the car whenever they drive: paper maps, a compass, a first aid kit, flashlight, shovel, road flares, water, and a blanket or two. A secondary load should be carried, tailored to the season. Since I write this in early November, we’ll talk about winter.
So, you’re driving with a friend and decide to drive up in the mountains and play in the snow (you were headed to a mall). You leave the pavement, drive up a Forest Service road, and run into snow. You have only summer tires on the car, but you seem to be doing fine…until you’re stuck. You rock back and forth, spin the tires, try to dig out with you non-gloved hands…until you’re soaked, thirsty, sweating, exhausted, have no cell signal, and it’s getting dark.
The first rule: STAY WITH THE VEHICLE! In any season, a car or truck sitting in the middle of the road is easier to see than one person walking. Car, truck, boat, or airplane, the rule is the same- stay put. The vehicle provides shelter from whatever the storm, and, if properly equipped, should supply water, heat, and food for the duration of the emergency.
Rule Two - STAY ON COURSE! If you plan a winter driving trip, map out a route of travel, tell the route to someone you trust, and stick with it unless the route is closed by weather or a zombie horde. If you choose to or have to deviate from the primary route, let someone know. Years ago, a couple said they were driving from Glenallen to Seward (south) with the grandkids. A spur-of-the-moment decision sent them in the opposite direction; the incredibly stupid decision to drive around a “road closed” sign and proceed down an unmaintained, snow-covered road led to disaster and death. The Troopers spent days searching in the wrong direction while the family froze to death. Don’t die stupid.
My truck has a good space behind the seats. I carry a small Action Packer with gloves, a siphon pump, light, flares, first aid kit, a tow strap, jumper cables, and a small tool kit; I carry the same set up in each vehicle. I carry an AR carbine and a two-day bug-out bag in a Maxpedition Gyrfalcon™ Backpack; I’ll cover this bug-out system in a future article. I use the Ironstorm™ Adventure Travel Bag from Maxpedition for the food, stove, sleeping bag, etc. Like every Maxpedition bag I’ve used, this bag is well made and has the option of attaching additional bags or pouches. The Ironstorm holds it all easily, and has concealed shoulder straps should you need to carry it any distance. I attach a second trauma kit from Adventure Medical and a compass, in small Maxpedition pouches, and attach a Glock folding shovel. The bag is tied off to the seat supports so it won’t fly around in a crash.
- Vehicle Kit List -
It seems unlikely, but I seem to need water more in the winter than in summer. I carry two gallons in the truck year ‘round. Even when the temperature is below freezing, teens or low twenties, the water doesn’t freeze. If I see a week of -20, I take the water out, leave it in the garage, then replace it before I hit the road. I include a large-capacity water filter and a water bottle.
You can only survive 3 days without water.
Once again, I go to Proforce. I have a mummy-type bag in the duffel. When in the stuff sack, they are very compact. I use mummy bags rather than larger rectangular bags since there is less air to warm up. The bag can also be pulled over your head, with a drawstring around your face, which eliminates heat loss from your head.
Proforce Equipment sleeping bags, mats, and shelters are compact and very well made.
I use the small NDUR single burner stove from Proforce in my kits - they are easy and quick to use. The stove puts out plenty of heat to boil water, and I get four pots of water to a boil on one small gas canister. I think I can stretch one gas can out to four days if I have to, but in the truck, I also carry a Coleman Peak gas stove and a small fuel bottle - in a pinch, it will burn unleaded gas. DO NOT burn the stove inside the vehicle- take it outside. An open flame in a closed space burns oxygen and puts out carbon monoxide, which will kill everyone inside the vehicle.
NDRU single burner stoves and gas canisters can easily boil water.
Cold requires calories. A calorie is actually a heat unit, and you need lots of heat when the thermometer drops. I use a one-gallon ziplock bag with freeze-dried meals, oatmeal, raisins, nuts, coffee and tea, various brands of bars, etc. The bag contains over 5,000 calories - if I stay inside, limit my exertion, one bag is plenty for one day. I carry five bags in the duffel. If I try to dig myself out of the ditch for a couple of hours, I may eat a spare bar. I don’t eat candy anyway, but it gives empty calories that won’t stay with you. I put one or two Wildo Camp Box utensil kits - plates, a small cutting board, and cups- so if you’re sharing the food you all don’t have to eat out of one pot.
The food bag holds 5000 calories.
Please notice this is plural - batteries die. I have two flashlights that stay in the vehicle, and a lantern that I add in winter. The Siege lantern from Streamlight runs on standard D cell batteries (three) and has four modes - dim, bright, red, and SOS. I don’t really know anyone who reads Morse code, but a flashing red light will get attention. In the dim mode, the light lasts for hours. I carry the same headlamp I carry in my one day bag, the Streamlight Bandit. Again, dim and bright modes and handy if you need your hands. It charges via a USB port, so drain that useless iPad and recharge something you need.
Streamlight Siege lantern, flashlight, and Bandit headlamp make chores easier.
I always try to dress in layers, regardless of the seasons. You can drive across the country in that T-shirt, but have an underlayer, long pants, boots, gloves, a fleece or sweater, knit or fleece cap, and water-resistant or waterproof outerwear; have it all in the back seat, not in the trunk.
This is not expensive to do. I have all of this ‘cuz I’ve spent my life outdoors, but watch estate and garage sales, the paper, shop carefully, and you don’t need to spend a fortune. The critical thing is to DO IT NOW before you need it - go back and read the quote at the top.
Extra clothing packed in the Ironstorm™ Adventure Travel Bag.
I started out on October 14th to meet my friends in elk camp. There had been an early snow in N. Idaho/western Montana, and I was in snow a few miles off the pavement. As I climbed, the snow got deeper. The usual rule of thumb is to drive in two-wheel drive until you can’t go anymore, then switch to 4x4 to get out. I pulled off in a wide spot to let two outbound trucks pass- they stopped and told me the pass had over two feet and they had put tire chains on all four wheels and were headed back - seemed like a good plan. When I tried to back up, I was stuck. I spent a few minutes with a full-size shovel, dug the wheels out, and dug a path on the opposite shoulder to be sure of the ground. A simple J turn and I was out.
Shovels rely on leverage to dig and lift- the longer the handle, the better the leverage. That said, a shovel takes some room, and any shovel is better than none. Military surplus shovels, small folders from Glock or SOG knives, shorter T-handle shovels…have something to dig with other than your hands or an empty pop can. If you have room, carry an axe; if not, at least a hatchet.
The proper tools can assist with almost any situation you encounter.
- Gear bags, rucks, etc.: www.maxpedition.com
- Quality Outdoor / Survival Gear
- Adventure Medical Kits
The author is a retired Alaska State Trooper, former soldier, outdoorsman, and martial arts grandmaster. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.