No matter what your destination, a winter road trip often includes bad weather, frigid temperatures, and travel delays. Use this winter road trip checklist so you don’t forget anything important — for your car, your passengers, or your peace of mind.
Although the summer months are most popular for road trips in the United States, many Americans also travel by car during the winter. Whether it’s to visit family for the holidays or to glide down freshly powdered slopes on a ski trip, hitting the road is often easier and more affordable than flying. But winter road trips often mean Arctic temperatures and snowy conditions. Let this winter road trip checklist guide you to the essentials you need to pack for a safe, comfortable journey.
Sage Advice: This winter road trip checklist is meant to complement my ultimate road trip packing list. To be sure you don’t overlook any important items for your car, passengers, or sanity, add these winter road trip essentials to that list before embarking on a winter road trip.
Ice Scraper — I don’t need to explain why you need this, but if the weather hasn’t yet turned cold and nasty at home, it’s easy to forget to pack one. What I like most about this ice scraper is that it easily separates into a brush and scraper.
Extra Windshield Wiper Fluid — While the salt spread on the roads during wintry conditions does a great job of reducing ice buildup on the roads, you’ll likely find yourself cleaning your windshield more often. But don’t just pull a jug of any old wiper fluid off the shelf and pack it in your trunk. De-icing windshield wiper fluid includes alcohol and a touch of antifreeze to help melt the snow and prevent the liquid from freezing in the fluid reservoir.
Snow Chains (AKA Tire Chains) — Like cleats dig into the field to support football players, snow chains give your car a little more traction in the snow. Tire chains are such a winter road trip essential that some mountain states have “chain carry” laws requiring travelers to have snow chains with them during the winter months.
Sage Advice: Installing snow chains can be a bit overwhelming if you’re a newbie. This video provides a good overview of how to install tire chains. However, you should always follow the manufacturer’s directions for your specific snow chains.
Battery Pack and/or Jumper Cables — Jumper cables are a tried-and-true road tripping staple. If your car battery is dead, cables are your car’s lifeline to the power source offered by a tow truck or good Samaritan. But what if your car battery is dead, your phone battery is dead, and you’re in the middle of nowhere? The modern-day alternative to jumper cables is a battery jump starter pack. Think of this bad boy as a self-contained jumper cable — no second car required!
Empty Gas Can — When my gas needle flirts with that fine line between half full and half empty, I start looking for a filling station. Keeping your tank on the full side is especially important during a winter road trip, when driving with snow chains can result in lower gas mileage. Or, you may find yourself at a standstill due to an accident. (This happened to me during an especially wicked Thanksgiving road trip during an ice storm.) Adding an EPA-approved gas can to your winter road trip checklist can be a godsend if you run out of gas, and the best thing about this 2.2-gallon gas can is that your car won’t smell like gas.
Roadside Emergency Kit — In addition to holding your jumper cables, your roadside emergency kit should also include items like a tire pressure gauge, a reflective warning triangle, flares, a flashlight, utility knife, and whistle. My kit also includes duct tape (because that stuff can fix ANYTHING) and work gloves (because if I have to change a flat tire myself, I don’t like getting my hands dirty). You can certainly purchase and pack these supplies into a container yourself, or you can get this roadside emergency kit and get on with your winter road trip.
Small Bag of Sand or Kitty Litter (Plus a Shovel) — You don’t have to cross a mountain pass in a blizzard to get stuck in the snow. In fact, my brother-in-law got stuck in the relatively flat driveway of our Vrbo the night before my daughter’s wedding. He’d flown into Colorado, and his rental car didn’t include these winter road trip essentials. Fortunately, he’s an engineer by day (and there were plenty of people to help push the car), but your winter road trip will be much more enjoyable if you can skip this potential delay!
Winter Road Trip Essentials for Your Passengers
Extra Blankets — If you get stuck or stranded, you’ll need to stay warm as the temperatures drop. While you can certainly pull the extra blankets from your linen closet and pack them, it’s even better to have one emergency thermal blanket per traveler. Lightweight, waterproof, and windproof, they are designed to retain up to 90 percent of your body heat. And, each mylar blanket fits into the palm of your hand, taking up a lot less space than a bulky quilt or comforter.
Warming Packs — Hot packs are pouches designed to help keep your hands or feet warm in cold weather. The most common warming packs are single-use, air-activated pods that slip into your gloves or boots. These packs are often best for a winter road trip because they don’t need to be recharged. So as long as you don’t run out of packets, you’re all set. But you can also pack reusable hand warmers that can be “recharged” in boiling water at your destination. Other options include battery-powered hand warmers and rechargeable hand-held portable heaters that can provide warmth for six to 12 hours.
First-Aid Kit — Similar to the roadside emergency kit for your car, a first-aid kit is for the people along for the ride. One of the things that sold me on this kit is that it comes fully stocked. I also like that it’s in a hard plastic case which helps protects the items inside from all of the other junk in my trunk.
You can also create your own first-aid kit by filling any container with bandages, pain reliever, burn cream, antiseptic wipes, tweezers, a thermometer, a pair of safety scissors, antacid tablets, and antihistamine. Whether you purchase a first-aid kit or make your own, be sure to periodically inspect and replace the items inside if they’re expired.
Sage Advice: Add motion sickness pills to your first-aid kit, especially if you plan to travel on mountain roads with a lot of switchbacks.
Sunscreen and Lip Balm — Sunscreen in winter? Oh, yes! If the sun is shining, you are at risk of absorbing the harmful rays that can cause skin cancer, even if it’s as cold as Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell. You’ll also want Chapstick to create a protective barrier between your kisser and the frigid wind.
If your winter road trip takes you to a high-altitude destination, sunscreen and lip balm are even more important. For every 1,000 feet you climb above sea level, there is an estimated 10% increase in harmful sun rays.
Winter Road Trip Essentials for Your Belly
Adequate Food and Water — If you’re like me, you put a lot of thought into packing road trip snacks. But this recommendation goes beyond trail mix, chocolate candy, and a Costco-sized container of red licorice. When packing for a winter road trip, it’s wise to include enough food for each person to last an overnight stranding or a closure of all the local restaurants and grocery stores due to inclement weather. It may sound like an unlikely scenario, but this advice has saved my bacon on more than one winter road trip!
Emergency Chocolate — Did you know that members of the Swiss army received a rectangular bar of dark chocolate in their emergency rations? Although my family isn’t Swiss, we think it’s wise to follow this mountain nation’s lead. So, we always pack a stash of high-quality dark chocolate for good measure. (An adorable slobbering St. Bernard with a small keg of brandy attached to its collar is optional.)
What’s On Your Winter Road Trip Checklist?
Do you like to travel by car? Is there anything you’d add to this winter road trip packing list? Share your advice in the comments section below.
Ready to Go? Use These Helpful Links to Book Your Trip
- Find low fares and book your plane ticket with Skyscanner and Expedia. Or take the scenic route in an RV from Outdoorsy.
- From hotels to private homes, find the perfect accommodation with Hotels.com or Vrbo.
- Don’t leave home without travel insurance from AXA.
- Need something else to plan your perfect trip? Visit my travel resources page for more trusted partners. Happy wandering!