Winter Road Trip: 15 Essentials to Keep You Safe and Warm

No matter what your destination, a winter road trip often includes bad weather, frigid temperatures, and travel delays. This packing list includes all of the winter road trip essentials you need when you hit the road in winter — for your car, your passengers, and 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 road conditions. Let this winter road trip checklist guide you to the essentials you need to pack for a safe, comfortable journey.

Do You Enjoy Winter Road Trips?

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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.


Winter Road Trip Essentials for Your Car

A woman scraping snow and ice off a car's windshield

1. Ice Scraper and Snow Brush

I don’t need to explain why you need to keep an ice scraper in the car in winter conditions, 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 snow brush and ice scraper.

2. De-Icer Spray

If you have an ice scraper in your vehicle, you might think that you’re all set for any winter weather you encounter. But if you experience any ice, de-icing spray will save the day.

Every year that my parents drive to Kansas City for Christmas, they seem to hit a horrific ice storm. After spending the night at their usual spot in the Texas Panhandle, the woke up to a 1/4-inch layer of ice covering their car. With the car running and my Dad scraping ice for nearly 30 minutes, he didn’t made much progress. But with a bottle of de-icer purchased from a gas station in walking distance, the car was ready to hit the road in minutes.

3. Extra Windshield Wiper Fluid

While the salt spread on the roads during colder months and winter 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.

Car Driving with Snow Chains in Wintry Weather

4. Snow Chains (AKA Tire Chains)

Even if your car is outfitted with snow tires during the winter season, this is an important essential to pack. Like cleats dig into the field to support football players better than tennis shoes, snow chains give your car a little more traction in the snow than all-season tires.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.

5. 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!

6. 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.

7. 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.

Man Digging Car Out of Snow Drift

8. Small Bag of Sand or Kitty Litter (Plus a Snow 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 after a dusting of snow 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! 

Sage Advice: I like this collapsible shovel because it is sturdy yet is easily broken down into three pieces to save space.

Winter Road Trip Essentials for Your Passengers

9. Extra Blankets

If you get stuck or stranded, you’ll need to stay warm in the cold temperatures. 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  emergency blanket fits into the palm of your hand, taking up a lot less space than a bulky quilt or comforter.

10. 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

11. 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. Or, go with a natural option by packing lavender essential oil. Apply a few drops behind the ears or by your navel to battle nausea and motion sickness.

Related Article: 8 Reasons to Travel with Essential Oils

Woman Applying Chapstick in Snow

12. 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.

Related Article: Does High Altitude Make You ______? (Your most embarrassing questions answered)

Winter Road Trip Essentials for Your Belly

13. 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!

While it’s hard to forget to pack water when it’s hot outside, don’t make this mistake when traveling in snowy conditions. Be sure to pack a reusable water bottle for each passenger.

Related Article: My Favorite (Mostly Healthy) Road Trip Snacks

14. Back-Up Batteries

Just like my mood dropping with the temperature, batteries discharge faster in cold weather. Be sure to pack extra batteries for items like flashlights and lanterns. It’s also a good idea to have an external battery like this power bank to charge your phone and other electronics.

15. 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 Winter Road Trip Essentials are Most Important to You?

Do you like to road trip? Is there anything you’d add to this winter road trip packing guide? Share your advice in the comments section below.

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11 thoughts on “Winter Road Trip: 15 Essentials to Keep You Safe and Warm”

  1. Kitty litter – never thought of that! I use it for drying and de-odorising my boots or trainers and keeping damp out of my RV, but never thought of it as a winter road trip essential!
    Great post, thank you for sharing!

  2. I’ve never been on a road trip in the wintertime – when it’s cold, I rather become a homey girl 🙂 This being said, I’m sure it’s even more important to be well-prepared than it is in summer. The idea of being stuck in a car with no heating without a warm blanket, hot drinks, and some food….just terrifying! Therefore, all those winter-road trippers out there can be more than grateful for your checklist!

    1. I hear you! I hate winter myself! But with all of my family living in the Southwest, a winter road trip is often required to see them! (And to escape the snow and ice in Kansas City!)

  3. This is a great list. I often take roadtrips in the winter (not near as many than in the summer) and I never thought about bringing kitty litter. What a fantastic idea! I keep several blankets in my car year-round (for cold, beaches, sleeping).

  4. These are great tips, especially for someone who isn’t from up north. As a southerner, I wouldn’t have thought to pack along some of these items. Thanks for the tips!

  5. Jenn | By Land and Sea

    This is a great list Sage! We are usually well prepared for winter conditions since we live in the Rockies, but I hadn’t thought about adding hand warmer packs to our kit. Great idea!!

    1. And now hand warmers don’t have to be once-and-done landfill food! I love the ones that can be reset for reuse in boiling water as well as the electric hand warmers that can be recharged. Yay!

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