Anyone who's driven in Montana through a few winters knows how critical it is to not venture out on the open road unless you're properly prepared. 

But if you're new to the state, or if you're still packing around 5-year-old granola bars in your winter driving kit, let's take a minute to review before you find yourself stranded in a blizzard multiple miles from anywhere.

Prepping your car for winter driving boils down to a few key areas; namely what your vehicle needs, what you need, and what both of you will need until help arrives. 

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What your vehicle needs:

It used to be this list was pretty basic. But with the variety and technical complexity of today's cars, the list can vary widely. Suffice it to say let's take care of the old-school stuff first. 

1). Traction

Face it. If you're not willing to invest in the right rubber, just stay home. While "all season" tires in the hands of an experienced winter driver work close to town, it can become a white knuckle free-for-all on the mountain passes. Invest in full-on winter tires. It's cheaper than a tow truck. Studs are helpful, even on all-wheel drive cars, when it really gets icy. Just watch the extra skidding potential on wet pavement. One old-school trick that really works in a pinch is to have a jug of bleach in the trunk and apply it for that extra bit of traction. It's especially useful on those super icy roads where anything can spin out in the backcountry. Invest in tire chains, or cables, and know how to put them on.

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo

2). Wipers and headlights

DO NOT wait until you're in a storm to figure out the wipers don't work. Replace them now, and even carry the right size spares. And don't be lazy and just try to scrape them across your icy windows. I've had experienced state troopers tell me all it takes is one pass to ruin a new pair. 

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo

Don't try to drive with one headlight. I know it's cold and you keep forgetting to replace them. But you, and the drivers around you, will be safer with all the light you can get, especially in a blizzard or fog. Bonus tip; if you have a new car, make sure you know how to engage the emergency flashers before you need them. And remember to wash your headlights along with your windshield at gas stops. Carry extra windshield washer fluid. You'll need it, especially later in the winter.

3). Tools

Used to be, you could fix pretty much anything alongside the road. Now, you might not even be able to find the engine! But having a full tool kit is still critical. That should include not only the basic tools, but flares and emergency reflectors, a battery "jump box", jumper cables and a small air compressor (dropping your tire pressure is another great trick to get out of soft snow, but only if you can re-inflate). And because it's Western Montana, a saw and/or ax is a pretty good idea.

Today, "jump boxes" can be small, inexpensive and include extra features- Dennis Bragg photo
Today, "jump boxes" can be small, inexpensive and include extra features- Dennis Bragg photo

What you need:

Face it. You could die. The trick is improving your odds as much as possible. And with today's abundance of affordable outdoor gear, there's no excuse. And review these often. Nothing worse than pulling out that kid's coat in a jam and trying to keep a teen warm. Or the coat that used to fit you 15 years ago.

1). Clothing

My family gets tired of me always asking if they have winter coats, boots, caps and gloves in addition to whatever they're already wearing. Yet consider, you're going OUTDOORS. In MONTANA. In the WINTER. And you could be caught out there for hours, even days if you run off the road. Make sure it's capable gear, not some Kleenex-for-insulation knock off coat from the big box store. Gloves are most likely to get lost, so keep a pair in each coat pocket. Always. Waterproof isn't just an option, it's mandatory. 

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo

2). Personal protection

A "possibles pack" served the mountain men well and it will you too. In addition to extra small clothing items, you should have any personal medicines, eyeglasses/contacts (with solution), cough drops, headache relief, and other items with you at all times. This is also where I keep multiple flashlights, with spare batteries, USB cords and power "sticks" for charging, knives, and a magnesium flint and steel fire starter plus other smaller items. I keep a couple of basic first-aid items, but really, it's best to have a full-sized kit. 

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo

3). Food

As I mentioned above, making sure any emergency food isn't seriously out-of-date is important. Although that 5-year-old granola bar might be useful for tire traction in a pinch. Keep items in several locations, including your pack, and in the car itself.. Look for items that really pack on the protein. Consider cold though and whether it could be thawed easily. Frozen jerky isn't much fun. 

What you need until help arrives:

-Very warm sleeping bags and pads. These can be shared if space is an issue. Minimum "three season" bag to be safe.

-Space blankets for extra warmth, and also for protection from the snow while working on the car

-Smaller, collapsible avalanche shovels which are invaluable for digging out, or making shelter

-Small, but powerful LED lantern for lighting

-At least one good tow rope with proper hooks for pullouts. 

-A board, or base to solidify a bottle jack in snow

-Tire traction boards, or mats. Expensive but priceless when you need them. Some fold for size

-Cell phone booster antenna. Lots of options but not cheap. Backup power is more important since the cold will sap your battery in minutes. 

-Water in multiple bottles and locations

And there are many, many more items to consider for your individual situation and vehicle. But hopefully, my list will give you some things to start with, putting you in a more self-sufficient mode, and also able to help others on those lonely, cold Montana highways. 

LOOK: The most extreme temperatures in the history of every state

Stacker consulted 2021 data from the NOAA's State Climate Extremes Committee (SCEC) to illustrate the hottest and coldest temperatures ever recorded in each state. Each slide also reveals the all-time highest 24-hour precipitation record and all-time highest 24-hour snowfall.

Keep reading to find out individual state records in alphabetical order.

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