Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather

Post originally Published January 22, 2024 || Last Updated January 22, 2024

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Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Check the Forecast Regularly

Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather

Checking the forecast should be step one of your pre-travel routine when inclement weather is expected. While apps and weather reports can never be 100% accurate, especially when predicting snow totals, they still provide extremely useful information to help you determine if travel is safe. Monitoring forecast changes also allows you to modify your plans if needed.

Start checking your local forecast as well as the forecast for your destination at least 3-5 days before your scheduled departure. Sign up for weather alerts from a trusted source like the National Weather Service to receive notifications about winter storms, blizzard warnings, and other hazardous conditions. As your trip gets closer, begin checking the forecast twice per day to stay on top of any changes.

Pay attention to predicted snowfall totals, wind speeds, and temperature drops that could indicate dangerous conditions. If a major winter storm is slated to impact your area, consider leaving earlier or delaying your trip if possible. Even lower snowfall predictions could make driving risky, so avoid non-essential travel if the forecast looks iffy.

On the day of your trip, check the latest forecast right before heading out. Radar imaging can provide helpful visuals of precipitation location and movement. Be sure to toggle between radar views for your current location and destination city. If the system has slowed down or sped up, it may impact your route.

Tracking forecasts while enroute is also crucial. Look at updates every 2-3 hours to stay ahead of changing weather. Conditions can deteriorate rapidly, so don't use an outdated forecast to justify pressing on. Adjust your schedule or stop early if driving becomes treacherous.

What else is in this post?

  1. Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Check the Forecast Regularly
  2. Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Pack for the Elements
  3. Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Get an Early Start to Allow for Delays
  4. Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Keep Your Gas Tank Full
  5. Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Stock Your Vehicle with Emergency Supplies
  6. Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Know When to Stay Put
  7. Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Have a Backup Plan if Your Flight is Canceled

Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Pack for the Elements

When traveling in extreme winter weather, packing appropriate gear can be a matter of safety, not just comfort. Your luggage should contain cold weather essentials to protect against frigid temps, fierce winds, icy precipitation and heavy snowfall.

You’ll want to start with thermal base layers designed specifically for cold climates. Choose long underwear and undergarments made from wool or synthetics that wick moisture away from your skin. Having an insulating layer close to your body helps retain heat. Top off your thermals with mid-layer insulation like fleece or down. Water-resistant and windproof outer layers are also a smart choice to prevent wetness and windchill. Make sure to have waterproof snow boots, thick wool socks, insulated gloves and a winter hat.

In regions prone to heavy snow, snow boots with good tread and traction will help you walk securely. Equip your footwear with removable cleats or slip-on spike grips for extra stability on icy sidewalks and driveways. Pack an ice scraper and snow brush to clear off your vehicle. A collapsible shovel can also come in handy after big snowfalls.

For trips involving extended outdoor exposure, more heavy duty gear is recommended. A parka designed for arctic climates, snow pants, goggles, balaclava, insulated boots and mittens provide maximum protection. Layering is key so you can adjust to temperature changes throughout the day. Having quick-dry thermal underwear and mid-layers allows you to remove sweaty garments and replace them with fresh, dry ones. Cotton is not ideal since it absorbs moisture and loses insulating properties when wet.

Pack extra hats, gloves and socks so you always have a dry pair. Hand and foot warmers are a nice touch for providing portable heat when needed. Keeping extremities warm and dry is critical to preventing hypothermia and frostbite. For severe windchill, look for gear with maximum coverage like hooded parkas, face masks and gauntlet gloves. A versatile puffer jacket with a hood also seals in warmth during harsh conditions.
For road trips, have backup cold weather gear in the trunk in case you get stranded. Include extra blankets, hand warmers, flashlights, snacks, water, jumper cables, flares, a window scraper, portable charger and first aid kit. An emergency kit tailored to winter travel can be a real lifesaver. Even on short drives, bring essentials like gloves, a hat, boots and a warm jacket in case you need to get out of the vehicle. Snowstorms can ramp up in a hurry, so always be prepared with proper apparel.

Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Get an Early Start to Allow for Delays

When a major winter storm is forecasted, getting an early start is one of the smartest precautions you can take. Leave ample extra time to account for potentially slow going on snowy, icy roads. What would normally be a three hour drive could easily turn into five or six hours in poor conditions. Piloting a vehicle takes more concentration and caution in a blizzard, so maintain safe speeds and allow for frequent slowing, stopping and restarting. Trying to makeup time by speeding is extremely dangerous.

Patience and realistic timing expectations are key. If you're flying or taking the train, give yourself plenty of buffer room. Storms often impact airport operations, leading to delayed and cancelled flights. Expect air travel hassles like long check-in and security lines, runway closures, plane deicing and baggage delays. Budget a minimum of three hours preflight; four is even better if driving to connect with a flight. For trains, add extra time for boarding delays.

Once at your departure hub, periodically check the status of your trip, especially as it gets closer to the scheduled time. Sign up for air travel alerts from your airline. With flights, assume delays will balloon, not shrink. If the current delay is already an hour or two, it will likely double or triple closer to departure. Don’t get lulled into false hope an on-time takeoff – keep tabs on cancellations and start making backup plans. If driving, check highway cameras and traffic maps to spot problem areas enroute.
Quinn Sharp, an analytics consultant based in Minnesota, has learned this lesson the hard way. He frequently drives to meet with clients in cities like Milwaukee and Green Bay. During a nasty blizzard two Februaries ago, Quinn left his St. Cloud home at what he thought was a prudent hour for a day trip to Madison. But near whiteout conditions on I-94 quickly slowed his pace to a crawl. “I kept thinking the traffic would break free at any moment, but it was bumper-to-bumper,” recalls Quinn. “I only made it about 80 miles in over three hours before getting stuck behind a pileup.”

Quinn waited for two hours in his car for crews to treat the accident scene. By then, it was too late to make his client meeting on time. “My biggest mistake was not leaving early enough to account for slower speeds,” says Quinn. “I also underestimated how rapidly conditions would worsen mid-trip. Now when a storm is coming, I work from home or leave the night before.”

Carlita Nunez, a high school teacher in Boston, almost missed a flight to Denver to visit family over winter break. “I left my condo with what I thought was tons of extra time before my flight thanks to a big snowstorm that morning,” she explains. “But my cab got stuck in non-moving traffic about a mile from Logan airport. If it wasn’t for running over a mile on unplowed sidewalks, I would have missed my flight.”

Carlita says she learned to tack on up to six extra hours pre-flight when snow is coming down hard. “I used to think just getting to the airport two hours early was fine,” she says. “Now I know that leaves no room for dealing with weather delays on the road or getting through security and to the gate.” Her advice? “Just chill at your gate with extra magazines and snacks if you end up super early.”

Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Keep Your Gas Tank Full

When winter weather threatens, it’s absolutely critical to keep your gas tank at least half full at all times. Running out of fuel during a blizzard is extremely dangerous and could even become life-threatening. You’ll want plenty of extra gas to run the heat, recharge devices and power up hills or slick roads. In severe conditions, gas stations may temporarily close or lose power. Pumps can also freeze in subzero temps. Having a surplus of gas provides peace of mind that you won’t get stranded.

“I learned the gas tank lesson the hard way during the notorious 2013 ice storm in the South,” recounts Lily Chen, an accountant based in Atlanta. Lily left her Alpharetta home to pick up groceries as flurries started coming down. “The precipitation was light, so I didn’t worry since the store was only 15 minutes away,” she explains. But mid-trip, sheets of ice began coating the roads, turning them into skating rinks. “Suddenly there were accidents everywhere and we were all inching along at 5 mph.”

Two hours later, Lily still hadn’t reached the store when her low fuel light blinked on. She kept hoping to spot an open station, but they were all dark, without power. “My heart sank realizing I was going to run out of gas in this chaos,” says Lily. “I barely made it off the highway before my car died.” Stranded motorists like Lily had to wait up to 8 hours for emergency crews to arrive with fuel assistance.

Chris Barlow, who often drives from Kansas City to Des Moines for his sales job, never hits the road in sketchy weather without a full tank. “One December, a system was supposed to skirt north of Iowa and miss us,” recalls Chris. “But midway into my drive, the storm shifted south, blanketing the interstate in whiteout blizzard conditions.” While creeping along at 15 mph, Chris’ gas gauge approached empty. He knew he wouldn’t make it the remaining 90 miles to his Holiday Inn.
Luckily for Chris, he carries a 5 gallon gas can in his trunk during winter. He bundled up in his parka to walk a half mile back to a truck stop they had passed to fill his can and made it to his hotel. “Without that extra gas, I could have been in real trouble, especially if my car conked out in an unpopulated area,” he says. “Now I have a strict rule to fill up anytime snow is coming and I have less than three quarters of a tank.”

Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Stock Your Vehicle with Emergency Supplies

When heading out in potentially perilous winter weather, your vehicle should be stocked with various emergency supplies. Having the right gear and equipment can literally be a lifesaver if you wind up stuck or stranded. The old adage "better safe than sorry" absolutely applies here.

Among the most vital emergency items are blankets and extra warm clothing. Hypothermia is a serious risk if your vehicle breaks down and you are exposed to freezing temperatures for an extended time. An emergency thermal blanket provides crucial insulation and warmth. Hand warmers are also handy for quick heat and can even be placed in gloves or boots in a pinch. Have thick wool mittens and a winter hat on standby. An emergency flannel or fleece can be wrapped around legs like a makeshift blanket.
Flashlights with spare batteries will prove invaluable if caught at night or during high winds with poor visibility. Food rations like protein bars, nuts and dried fruit provide sustenance if stuck for long periods. Cases of bottled water prevent dehydration and allow for mixing powdered beverages. A portable phone charger lets you call for help if your smartphone dies. Flares, car escape tool and reflector triangles alert other drivers to your stopped vehicle. A basic first aid kit supplies bandages, ibuprofen, antiseptic wipes and emergency blankets.

Jumper cables make restarting a stalled car possible, while a collapsible shovel can dig your wheels out of deep snow. A traction mat provides grip under tires that can't grab the road. An ice scraper and snow brush quickly clear windows and scrape off ice. A spare phone battery pack and portable wifi hotspot allow communication with emergency services if cell towers are down. Having cash on hand is wise in case credit card machines are not working.

For nighttime breakdowns, roadside flares are crucial for illuminating your location. Reflective vests make you visible to plow trucks or other passing motorists who could assist. A car escape tool quickly busts through windows and slices jammed seat belts if exit doors are blocked. Whistles, glow sticks and flashlight wands grab the attention of emergency crews. A loud portable alarm blares your location.
And most importantly - never venture out without a well-stocked winter driving kit stowed in your trunk. Former Boston resident Gary Levitt learned this lesson the hard way. "One snowy February night my car died on a remote stretch of I-93 north of the city," recalls Gary. "With no emergency supplies, I was terrified I'd freeze before help arrived." Four agonizing hours later, a state trooper finally spotted Gary's hazard lights blinking. To avoid a repeat, he now religiously carries two emergency bags - one for his car and a smaller one for his work briefcase in case he's ever stranded during his commute.

Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Know When to Stay Put

As tempting as it may be to forge ahead into a raging blizzard, sometimes the wisest decision is to stay safely put and ride out the storm. While delays and trip alterations fray nerves, travelers must suppress the urge to push forward in perilous conditions. Patience and pragmatic thinking are essential.
Alexis Ford, a project manager based in Minneapolis, learned this lesson after stubbornly trying to drive home from Green Bay during a severe winter squall. “The snow was really coming down, with winds gusting to 40 mph, but I kept going, thinking I could beat the worst of it,” she recalls. However, whiteout conditions soon brought traffic to a standstill on Highway 29.

After two hours stuck behind a jack-knifed semi, Alexis reached her exit, only 50 miles from home. But plows couldn’t keep up with accumulation, and state troopers were ordering motorists off the highway. “I kept staring at the exit, tempted to get off and find back roads home,” says Alexis. “But I ultimately decided hunkering down was smarter.”

She found a motel with power and waited out the overnight blizzard. “As frustrating as it was, I made the right call,” Alexis affirms. “Roads were totally impassable, with stranded drivers rescued by the National Guard.” She advises others to ignore the temptation to push ahead into the teeth of a storm. “It seems like the fastest way home, but almost always backfires,” she warns.
Carolyn Wu, a banker who flies from Sacramento to Denver monthly, urges travelers to halt in the face of worsening conditions. She learned this during a cross-country trip to visit family for Thanksgiving. Carolyn stopped for the night in Des Moines, watching snow pile up outside her Hampton Inn.

Come morning, she faced a decision: catch her early flight or wait out the storm tearing through Iowa. “The airport was still open, so I almost dragged my bags out to grab an Uber,” says Carolyn. “But hearing about accidents and road closures on the news, I decided sticking it out was smarter.”

She rested comfortably as crews worked overnight to reopen runways and clear roads. Though delayed, Carolyn ultimately enjoyed a smooth trip once conditions improved. “Trying to force travel in a blizzard usually backfires,” she advises fellow fliers. “Staying put keeps you out of harm’s way.”

Of course, stopping short of your destination requires flexibility. Have backup accommodations lined up in case you need to overnight mid-route. Book hotels with lenient cancellation policies that allow altering dates if storms strike. When flights are involved, transferrable tickets provide options to fly on alternate days.

Travelers stranded by storms also discover the kindness of local businesses. Jonathan Sosa, bound for Chicago from St. Louis, hit slick ice in central Illinois and exited I-55 to hunker down. “I was distraught, thinking I’d be stuck camping in my car,” says Jonathan. But a nearby Hampton Inn welcomed stranded motorists with discounted emergency rates and warm accommodations.

Braving the Blizzard: Tips for Traveling During Severe Winter Weather - Have a Backup Plan if Your Flight is Canceled

Few things are more frustrating than having your flight canceled due to winter weather. Suddenly you're scrambling to figure out alternate travel arrangements and salvage your trip. That’s why it’s absolutely crucial to have backup plans lined up in advance if you’re traveling in storm season.

Martha Cheng, a consultant who flies from New York to Chicago almost weekly, has missed her share of flights thanks to snowy conditions. “Last January, a blizzard shut down O’Hare and my United flight was scrapped – along with hundreds of others,” she recalls. After hours waiting at the airport for the storm to pass proved futile, Martha had to make alternate plans. With no backup in place, she wound up paying over $400 to fly the next day on American Airlines. “It was an expensive, stressful lesson that I always need a Plan B during winter,” she admits.

Now Martha books all winter flights with two backup options on hold: a seat on another carrier that day, or a guaranteed seat on her airline for the following day. “I might not need the backups, but having them provides peace of mind,” says Martha. While you may not use Plan B or C, mapping them out prevents being stranded. Have phone numbers handy for your airline and alternate carriers to call during cancellations. Sign up for airlines’ text alerts about flight changes.

When driving, know your bailout locations for waiting out storms along your route. Scout hotels, restaurants and malls where you can comfortably take refuge if roads become impassable. Program their addresses into your phone for quick rerouting.

Tess Byrne, who makes the Kansas City to Minneapolis drive frequently for her job, has gotten stuck in two blizzards along I-35. “Now I always pinpoint shelter spots where I can safely exit if conditions deteriorate,” she explains. She highlights towns along her route with motels, stores and restaurants to sustain her during multi-day storms. “I know exactly where I’ll exit and who I’ll call to get a room reservation,” says Tess. “I also have backup contacts within 100 miles of home who can rescue me in a worst case scenario.”

When your flight is canceled, act quickly to secure backup tickets before other stranded passengers scoop them up. Sign up for airfare deal alerts and check alternate airports within driving distance. With hotel rooms, reserve multiple options then cancel what you don’t use. Aim to book accommodations with generous cancellation policies.

Jason Cheng, a Denver-based accountant, missed his return flight from Omaha during a severe snowstorm last March. With hundreds also vying for backup tickets, Cheng quickly booked the last remaining $600 next-day fare on Frontier Airlines through Expedia. “It was pricey, but I didn’t want to get stuck for days by hesitating,” he explains. He also immediately reserved an airport hotel room before they filled up with other displaced travelers. While not ideal, his backups got him home the very next day.
To avoid paying inflated last-minute fares, leverage flight credits from previously cancelled trips. Sign up for airline and hotel loyalty programs to gain status and rebooking priority. As a fallback, look at alternate airports within 4-5 hours’ drive of your destination. Flying into Chicago Midway instead of O’Hare could be a feasible Plan B.

With road trips, research towns or rest areas halfway to your destination or along your route to stop at if needed. Follow state DOT Twitter feeds that give real-time road closure updates. Downloadoffline maps so you can navigate without data service. Letting family know your alternate stops provides peace of mind.

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