Last week, I asked on the Trips By Lance Facebook page what people do when the threat of bad weather potentially affects a road trip. The answers were all over the place, ranging from leaving ahead of schedule to beat the bad weather to leaving as planned and taking a chance that the roads won’t be too bad. As someone who is born, bred and has always lived in the Southern United States, I hate even the hint of a threat of icy conditions. Nothing good can come from icy streets. It’s the main reason my traveling tends to hibernate during the winter. But when I do make plans, I have my own winter weather road trip guidelines.
Before I jump into my winter weather road trip guidelines, all of you non-Southerners need to understand where I’m coming from on these concerns. If you live in Chicago or Boston, for example, you probably think I’m off the rails to express concern about driving in a little snow or ice. But other than the fact I live in the South where road equipment to handle icy streets is not readily available, I’ve had a few experiences with slick roads. When I was in college, I drove a lightweight pick-up truck. I slid off the road on black ice. Nothing major, especially considering it was a residential street and I was driving slow. But it was enough to make me think about ice the next time.
Well, the next time came a few years later when on a road trip from Memphis to St. Louis to watch a hockey game. It had snowed off and on in St. Louis that day, but the weather south of the city had been more of the rain variety. It was about midnight as I drove my friend’s heavy SUV along Interstate 55 in southern Missouri. Suddenly, I began sliding all over the road. I couldn’t control the truck. We went flying down the ditch at 70 mph, coming to a rest on a barbed-wire fence. Black ice. Again. We managed to get a tow out of the ditch and limped home no faster than 30 mph the rest of the night. But it was enough to give me permanent distaste of icy roads.
So knowing that I’m chicken when it comes to icy conditions, here are my winter weather road trip guidelines.
Don’t book anything that can’t be canceled
I’ll be honest: I don’t always follow this advice. In February 2013 I booked two nights in Atlanta through Priceline.com, which sells non-refundable rooms only. We had tickets to The XX concert that was Downtown, and the best way to get a great hotel really cheap on the weekends in Downtown Atlanta is through Priceline. Chances that a sudden ice storm would’ve kept us out of Atlanta were slim, so I went ahead and booked the room. I am looking at a couple of winter road trips in 2014, but this time I plan on booking a room that I can cancel if weather ends up keeping us home. I’m OK paying a little extra for a nice hotel in New Orleans if it gives me the piece of mind knowing I don’t have to get on the interstate between Memphis and New Orleans.
Prepare the vehicle
This might seem simple, but there are several common-sense things that can have your car ready for an emergency.
- Have tires fully inflated. Not only will your gas mileage be better, but you lessen the chance of having a blowout. No one wants to change a tire in the frigid darkness on the side of the road. And that also goes for the spare tire, you know those tiny things in the trunk you never think to check. Have a look at yours and you’ll probably find it to be low.
- Keep the gas tank filled, especially if the roads already are bad or are projected to be bad. Nine years ago, my wife’s niece, her husband and their dog were on the way from central Illinois to Louisville, Ky., at Christmas. A heavy snowstorm happened to come through, shutting down the interstate between Indianapolis and Louisville. They were stuck in their car overnight on I-65. A low gas tank means the car must be turned off, meaning no heat. You want the heater on, so keep the tank topped off.
- Pack an emergency car kit. For me, this includes jumper cables, a flashlight and tire-changing equipment. But after having to jumpstart my car’s battery today in the cold, I think I’ll add a pair of gloves to this kit.
Prepare the inside of the car
OK, so you have the car ready for an emergency, but are things ready for the care of its passengers? Going back to the story of our niece, her husband and their dog being stranded on the road overnight in freezing temperatures, it reminds me of an important and basic item to have: blankets. My wife usually packs one or two blankets that can be used in the car in an emergency or just to stay warm while I keep the air cool to stay awake while driving.
And if you’re traveling with children, you probably already pack snacks and drinks. When there is the threat of bad weather that can have you on the road longer than planned, that can mean hungry and whiny kids in the back. Pack some food and a few water bottles. If there isn’t bad weather it will maybe keep you from having to stop for a bad fast-food meal.
Have a backup plan
When driving from Memphis to Colorado for a ski trip a few years back, a couple of friends had to add a day of driving as a bad storm forced them to drive hundreds of miles north out of the way to avoid it. They lost a day, but in their eyes that was better than turning around, going home and missing the entire trip.
If you have decided to drive in the winter to a destination that could see bad weather, you probably should be prepared to drive around a storm, stay overnight to wait out the ice, maybe even leave a day early. I’ve been snowed in a couple of times and just had to prolong the trip each time.