Photo: Andrew Bret Wallis/Shutterstock

A Former SEAL’s Tips on How to Survive Getting Stuck in a Blizzard

Travel Safety Outdoor
by Matthew Meltzer Nov 20, 2019

As winter travel revs up this month, lots of us may find ourselves out driving through snow-filled mountains in conditions we’re not comfortable with. Not to say you’re going to run off the road in a blizzard, but if you do, there are some things you can do both before and during to help your chances of survival.

Matt Napiltonia is a former Navy SEAL, who spent over eight years doing rescues and evacuations in Afghanistan as both an Army Medical Services Officer and civilian. He’s now the Senior Operations Manager at Global Rescue, a medical security and evacuation service tasked with pulling people out of difficult situations in highly remote places. He’s seen a lot of what it takes to survive over the years and offered us some tips on how to withstand getting stuck in a freak winter snowstorm.

1. Fuel up your car.

If you’re the type of person who likes to play the how-far-past-empty-can-we-get game, usually the consequences if you lose are, at worst, an embarrassing walk down the highway. In a blizzard, the stakes are a lot higher.

“I hear from people all the time who run out of fuel in the mountains,” says Napiltoinia. “How the … if it’s 20 degrees outside, and it’s snowing, fuel up your car!”

Not only is this important so you don’t find yourself stranded in the middle of an icy country road, but it’s also important should you crash. The amount of gas in your car determines the amount of time you’re able to run the engine and stay warm. The more gas, the toastier it’ll be.

2. Stay put.

“One of the things people do, if they’re in the woods or off the road, they won’t stay put. In many respects, that can be the kiss of death,” Napiltonia warns. “Imagine you’re in a whiteout, and you don’t have service, and you can’t geolocate yourself, and you don’t know if it’s five miles or 50 miles to the next town. Most people aren’t prepared to actually hump out in a blizzard and bite off more than they can chew. And then they’re exposed to the elements.”

Tempting as it may be to try and hoof it back to civilization, your car provides some shelter from the elements and is ultimately a safer place to be. Napiltonia also points out that if you’re near a road, typically law enforcement, a snowplow, a farmer, or some enterprising motorist will come by within 48 hours. So he suggests waiting at least that long before thinking about leaving.

3. Pack a marker panel.

Napiltonia suggests bringing a fluorescent orange or pink marker panel along with some 550 parachute cord to tie it to your car.

“It’s no different than what a downed aircraft would have,” he says. “Tie that to one end of the car and the roof of your vehicle, and you can be seen from above.”

4. Bring water, a lighter, and a metal cup.

Hydration can ultimately become the most important factor in surviving an extreme circumstance, especially with the energy your body expends trying to stay warm in a blizzard. Napiltonia says having at least a gallon is a must but also advises preparing for when it runs out.

The good news about being stuck in a blizzard is you don’t have to go far to find water. The bad news is that it may not always be safe to drink, and in some circumstances, temperatures may be too cold for it to melt. Bringing along a lighter and a metal cup will allow you to not only melt the snow, but also boil it to ensure its safety.

5. Throw kitty litter or sandbags in the trunk.

This isn’t just so your pet has a place to do his business. It’s so you can lay it down in the snow and possibly gain some traction should your car still be ready to drive.

“You always want to bring a shovel,” he adds. “A fold-up shovel or snow shovel so you can dig yourself out and that bag of sand or kitty litter will help you get some traction. I’ve been able to do that once before.”
If you’re feeling strong, he also suggests packing a substantial amount of sand in bags and putting it in the back of your car. This will keep the back end weighted down, making your car easier to handle in the snow, and less likely to run off the road.

6. Carry a survival kit.

In addition to the aforementioned kitty litter, water, and fire-starting equipment, Napiltonia also stresses the importance of packing a bag of smaller items you may need in case of a blizzard.

“I also bring a small ax and saw, and it’s all in a backpack in the back of my two cars,” he says. “I also bring jumper cables, a first-aid kit, a whistle, and duct tape … and a big thick scarf, it really keeps the wind off of you.”

He also advises including a spare cell phone battery. This might seem pointless given snowbound country roads generally don’t have much in the way of cell service. But it may prove crucial should you find yourself having to walk to safety.

“If it’s been 48 hours and nobody’s come to get you, and you think you’re fit enough, you may have to hike out to the road,” he says. “And cell service may pick up at some point, and then you’ll need that charge.”

7. Clear your exhaust pipe.

When a vehicle runs off the road, especially in the woods, it’s not at all uncommon for dirt, wood, rocks, and other debris to clog up the exhaust pipe. Under normal circumstances, it’s not terribly important unless you’re planning to run the engine. But when you’re using your vehicle as an all-important source of heat, you need to make sure carbon monoxide isn’t getting into the car.

“You may need to stay in that vehicle where you keep the vehicle warm, turn it on in intervals to keep heat in,” he says. “You don’t wanna block the pipe because of a carbon monoxide gas backup.”

8. Layer up, and get the heaviest sleeping bag you can afford.

“People need to pack the highest quality sleeping bag they can afford,” he says, beginning his advice on cold-weather clothing. “They need to stuff that in the back of the vehicle, along with long underwear, a fleece, and a heavy jacket — something you can stay in 0-20 degrees for long periods of time.”

Granted, most winter travelers likely have this on them already, but it always pays to have it handy. He also recommends bringing along a pair of boots to trudge through the snow in case that becomes necessary.

9. Keep a resilient mindset.

“The human soul is resilient, and 99 percent of survival is mental,” says Napiltonia. “It’s no different than being a SEAL and getting through SEAL training. If you can mentally keep yourself in the game, you can survive almost anything if you have the stuff I told you to take. But if you have a weak mind and a weak demeanor, you’re probably still going to die.”

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