What to know, what to pack, and what to do
If you end up in the ditch during a road trip, you’ll be fine, right? You pay for a roadside assistance program. Just make a call and you’ll be up and running in no time, money well spent.
Not always. When conditions are particularly bad – maybe after a bout of freezing rain – RCMP might implement a tow ban, preventing trucks from stopping to pull you out. Or, what if a freak atmospheric river washes out parts of the road, preventing help from even getting to you? And, of course, what if your phone dies on top of all that.
Here to tell us what to do before and if trouble emerges are Disaster and Emergency Management and Centre for Applied Disaster and Emergency Management instructors Ian Foss and Paul Prevost. Survival is a matter of proper planning, packing and assumping that whatever problems you encounter are yours to solve until someone arrives to tell you otherwise.
Prepare your vehicle and yourself
“It all starts with preparation,” says Prevost, a former fire chief and emergency services pro with nearly four decades of experience. The first part of preparation is situational awareness, he adds. What’s the weather forecast for where you’re headed? Will you need winter tires? Prevost has a four-wheel drive truck with studded tires, but he has chains handy, just in case.
“And at least half a tank of gas,” he adds. “If you’re stuck on the highway for 20 hours you’re going to want it.” (If you’re in the ditch, Prevost recommends clearing snow from the tailpipe to allow the vehicle to properly exhaust while you keep warm, preventing carbon monoxide poisoning.)
Foss, who’s also director of the search and rescue program for the province of British Columbia, adds that preparation should also involve anticipation of possible problems. “You’re looking at, overall, what am I doing on my trip, where am I going, and what are the risks and hazards there?”
All this preparation will then inform your packing.
Bring emergency essentials
“Whether [you’re] going from Edmonton to Calgary or Edmonton to Victoria, it shouldn’t matter,” says Foss. “The planning process is the same.” The only difference, really, is that “you might not take as much stuff.”
In either case, here are the essentials:
Medication – Keep a reasonable supply of all daily doses in the vehicle at all times, says Foss, who keeps seven days’ worth on hand. If he got stranded, “I don’t need to go try and figure that out. That would be a stressful thing for me.”
Food – Granola bars and jerky will do in a ditch, says Prevost. Don’t forget about your pet, he adds, who might be along for the ride. “We keep some dog treats in there, too, and some food.”
Water – A bottle or two per person is all you’ll need in winter, says Prevost, since you can melt snow into cups if needed. Summer could require a small supply in a cooler.
Warmth – Blankets are your best bet, says Foss, whose background as a first-responder saw him handing them out regularly. Extra toques, mitts and sweaters are good too. Also consider a candle-in-a-can, homemade or store bought, with a set of matches. It won't be a perfect subsitute for a working vehicle heater, but it will be "better than nothing when you are freezing," says Prevost. Crack a window to maintain the oxygen supply when using one.
Communications – a cellphone is only as good as its charge. Keep it topped up by bringing cords to connect it to your vehicle or, better yet, to portable power packs, says Prevost.
First aid – Foss uses a comprehensive off-the-shelf kit that would cover two to four people during a weekend in the backcountry. “A lot of people carry band-aids. I want a little bit more.”
Maps – If your phone is dead, you’re unlikely to find an alternative route if a road is unexpectedly closed and you don’t have a good old-fashioned paper map. “You might know the area, but do you know the back roads?” asks Prevost.
Safety gear and tools – Prevost recommends never being without a working flashlight, a high-visibility safety vest for being outside the vehicle, a 12-volt tire inflator, booster cables, a tow strap, duct tape to patch a broken light, a length of haywire or something similar to tie up a hanging exhaust pipe, and basic tools, such as a screwdriver set, pliers, crescent wrenches or an adjustable wrench, and vise grips.
A window sign – This is as much for first responders as it is for you. Make a sign large and clear enough to be seen from the road that says HELP on one side OK on the other. Display it as needed. “When I was a first responder in Golden,” says Foss, “I responded to the same car crash four days in a row.” No one had marked it as safely vacated.
As an instructor and emergency management veteran, Foss recommends everyone learn the basics about emergency preparedness, even if it is only by spending some time online. He recommends adventuresmart.ca, where visitors can learn about the Three Ts: Trip Planning, Training and Taking the Essentials.
The Alberta government offers a number of online preparedness resources as well, outlining different hazards and what to do about them.
After you’ve made yourself aware of those materials, prepared for the conditions, packed the essentials, all that’s left is to keep an eye on the road – and the other on the ditch. If there’s a vehicle stranded ahead, Prevost recommends caution. In some cases, trouble is easy to predict.
“If another vehicle is going to go off the road,” he says, “it’s going to do it in the same place.”
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