In February 2021, we went to South Texas to visit a couple of National Parks sites and generally enjoy warmer weather. We’ve wanted to do this trip for a while and February seemed like a good time of year for it. It would be an escape from the cold in Georgia and avoid the Spring Break crowds.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans.
As we began planning the trip, we built our itinerary to avoid the predicted snow and ice in North and West Texas. We headed to South Padre Island, about as far south as one can go in Texas. Thankfully, we did not get any winter weather, but we were still caught up in the rolling blackouts and water outages. While our experience was mild compared to many folks in Texas, it did make us think about what we should have with us whenever we travel just in case we get caught up in another travel emergency on the road.
While winter travel is an obvious worry, there are several other kinds of disruptions that can strike, from weather to natural disasters to simple mechanical failure. Anytime power and water are disrupted, groceries are delayed or the ability to travel is disrupted, you need to be prepared to endure or get out.
So, here are our tips for enduring a travel emergency. Note: we are not survival experts but rather road trippers who spend a lot of time on the road in just about every condition.
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Travel Emergency Tip #1: Be Flexible
We have said this many times when talking about winter road trips but it bears repeating: be flexible in your travels and, most importantly, your mindset. You never know what will happen in the world which might cause you to lose the ability to travel to your destination or enjoy your destination when you get there.
Winter weather can easily snarl travel in an area for a few days, depending on how severe it is. If the area is remote, it might take even longer for roads to clear.
In the summer, wildfires out West are another common issue that delay travel or require evacuation from an area at a moment’s notice, as well as prompting blackouts.
In the late summer and fall, hurricanes lash the southern coast of the US, crippling infrastructure. Typhoons can do the same in the Pacific.
Internationally, volcanic eruptions can spew lots of ash into the air and completely ground air travel for days, even weeks.
So, what does being flexible mean?
It means having the ability to change your plans at a moment’s notice. Being flexible means understanding that the service disruptions you are experiencing are even worse for the folks who live in the area. It means working with people to make things better. Most importantly, it means being as self-sufficient as you can be in the event of a travel emergency.
Which brings us to tip #2.
Travel Emergency Tip #2: Be Prepared
When a travel emergency strikes, how quickly things go bad will surprise you. Anything longer than momentary disruptions in basic services, like electricity, water, phone service and internet connectivity, can have a significant impact on what’s available and what’s not.
When we were staying on South Padre Island, we had power and water early on but, by the second day, had lost water. We were lucky. More than half the island did not have power. Most of the cell phone towers were down. The internet was down for large parts of the island.
That meant most of the restaurants were closed. The ones that were open couldn’t process credit card transactions. Even in the greater Brownsville area, we found extensive closures due to either power or water outages. No Walmarts were open. More than a few grocery stores closed their doors. There were long lines at gas stations.
As we moved north towards Houston, we found ourselves in even more disrupted services. Many hotels were without power and water and closed accordingly. That meant the open hotels had very few rooms if any. We found a grand total of one hotel that had power and was accepting customers. That said, the hotel did not have water when we made our reservation. We figured it was still better than driving all night or sleeping in the truck.
The lack of water had another serious impact: restrooms at the open gas stations and restaurants were completely closed. Combined with the lack of open public restrooms due to COVID, this situation got uncomfortable quickly.
Again, the folks who lived there had it a lot worse than we did.
So, as a traveler, how do you prepare the complete disruption of services? The answer is to have a travel emergency kit… a duffle bag you fill with gear and toss in your car and mostly forget about until you need it.
Travel Emergency Tip #3: Gearing Your Emergency Kit
In terms of gearing your kit, let’s talk about your biggest priorities in any emergency situation: water, food, shelter, warmth and health.
You can survive without food for several days but you can only go about three days without water, so your first priority needs to be finding fresh water. Since no power generally means no water treatment and no ability to pump water into water towers, having the ability to treat water from other sources is really important.
We got a LifeStraw Flex collapsable water bottle in a Cairn box and it is perfect for travel emergencies. It does not take up a lot of room, will hold 22 ounces of water and you can use pretty much any freshwater source. One thing to note is it does not kill viruses but it does take care of parasites. You can easily use a cloth to cover the opening to filter out particles.
I suggest getting one each for the folks who typically travel in your car.
For us, food is not that big of a concern because we typically take plenty of hearty snacks with us on the road, like Clif Bars and beef jerky.
That said, we always travel with a 2,400-calorie emergency ration bar. By itself, it won’t last long in a survival situation but, combined with what we normally travel with and rationing, we can make it for a few days without food.
I think we should add an additional ration bar to the truck after seeing how quickly things got bad in Texas. I think one of these per person who travels in your car should be enough, especially if you travel with snacks like we do.
One of the things most susceptible to disruption is communications. When the internet and phones are down in an area, you will find most businesses can’t accept credit cards at all.
Having cash quickly becomes essential for acquiring supplies like food or fuel when communication is disrupted.
While we were in Texas, we could not find many open stores or restaurants and even among the ones that were open, many could not accept credit cards. We quickly exhausted our emergency cash supply.
When we found a functioning ATM, we got out $200 in cash and we recommend everyone travel with $100 per person in your group. While I don’t like keeping cash in our vehicle, we do keep it in our travel emergency kit.
If you are traveling by car, your shelter is traveling with you. It may not be comfortable but you can safely sleep in your vehicle if needed. The biggest issue with sleeping in your car is keeping warm. In the winter, keeping a couple of blankets in your vehicle is a great idea but they can take up a lot of space.
That’s where space blankets come in. These lightweight metallic blankets reflect 90% of your body heat back to you. These are reasonably cheap and take up very little space. Having used a similar blanket while I was in the Army, I can tell you that they work well, especially in wet environments.
Get at least one for each person and I recommend getting them in bright orange so the can be used as a signal.
Taking Care of Your Health in a Travel Emergency
Once you take care of the essentials of survival, it’s time to start taking care of your basic health needs, like first aid and cleanliness. Believe it or not, keeping clean really helps cut down on disease and improves morale. A good first aid kit can keep a minor wound from becoming something life threatening.
We take finding a “public” restroom for granted in this country. It seems every gas station and restaurant has a restroom available to the traveling public as long as you make a purchase. But what happens when COVID closes restaurants to everything but drive-through? How about when water shortages force gas stations to close their restrooms? What do you do then?
We got TP Kits a while back for our daypacks when we hike. But, after a trip across the Southwest where we didn’t find an open restroom for more than a hundred miles, I made sure we had a few of these kits in our truck as well.
TP Kit contains toilet paper and a wet wipe in a biodegradable, resealable package. This will allow you to take care of business and pack out the paper in a sealed package for later disposal. The kits are small and easy to pack. Take at least a couple for every person on your trip in your travel emergency kit.
We originally got these no-rinse bathing wipes for days when we were boondocking in our camper. This would allow us to clean off without having to haul water for a shower, perfect for an overnight stop at a Walmart.
But the travel emergency uses for these became very evident after not being able to get a shower for a couple of days on our trip. While not as good a hot shower, these will get the funk off and are easy to pack.
First Aid Kit
Having a first aid kit is important no matter what kind of traveling you are doing. Indeed, being able to take care of small injuries on your own is critical to being self-sufficient during a crisis. Having a good first aid kit will help make sure that small injuries do not become life-threatening in the absence of immediate medical treatment.
If you have more advanced training, a good first aid kit can also be used to keep a person alive even after more serious wounds.
We use MyMedic first aid kits. We have a couple of their Solo Kits, one regular and one advanced. I carry the advanced kit because I got advanced first aid training in the Army. These kits are very well-stocked for needs while on the trail and we like them a lot.
If I were to get just one kit for my car, I would certainly get the Auto Medic Kit. It has everything you need for a travel emergency kit while on the road. It even includes a space blanket and a whistle.
That said, do not get more first aid kit than you know how to use. For example, both the Advanced Solo Kit and the Auto Medic Kit contain a Rapid Application Tourniquet System, which should not be used if you do not have training on how and when to use it.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Once you have taken care to the immediate needs of water, food, shelter and health concerns, it’s time to make a critical survival decision: should I stay or should I go?
For some travel emergencies, it is better to stay put, like if your vehicle is stranded or you are lost and low on fuel. It is easier for rescuers to find you if you just stay put and that is my recommendation in almost all situations.
For us in Texas, it was better to stay put for a while to allow the ice to melt further north. After the roads were clear, it was time to go. We were an unnecessary burden on the infrastructure and taking away from the people who live there.
If you are in a situation where you need to walk away from your vehicle, stick to established roads! Don’t travel off the road unless you really know what you are doing. Even then, don’t go off the roads. That’s how folks get lost.
Your emergency kit should have gear to help you endure and call for help as well as tools to help you get yourself out of the situation, including walking out if needed.
So, let’s talk about the gear you need to endure a travel emergency by staying in your vehicle or at a hotel for an extended time without power.
When the power is out, having a battery back up is great but having a battery that will charge from the sun is even more useful.
We got this battery pack from Cairn and we leave it in the truck at all times, clipped so that it gets sunlight on a regular basis. We can use this battery to charge our phones and other small devices, like the rechargeable headlamps below.
Being able to keep a phone charged, if you can get a signal, can allow you to call for help and provide lifesaving information, like your precise location, to rescuers in a travel emergency.
Even if you are not staying put, you can use your phone’s GPS features along with downloaded maps like Gaia for navigation (if you had the foresight to download maps ahead of time). This battery has enough power to keep our iPhone 12 Pros topped off.
Believe it or not, a lot of the gear we keep in our truck for travel emergencies came to us in Cairn boxes. It seems like every month we get something else really cool that we use in our travels.
This is a no-brainer but I am always surprised at how many folks travel without extra charging cables in their vehicle. I suggest making sure you have cables for all the possible connection types you have. At a minimum, you should have two each of micro USB, USB C and Apple Lightning cables. Even if you don’t have all of those connections, one of your passengers might or you might meet someone along the way who desperately needs one. Amazon sells some great cables for a very reasonable price.
Battery Jump Starter
So, my mom got me this gizmo one Christmas and I thought, “Sure, OK. Maybe this will have some value.” It’s not that I didn’t trust my mom’s judgment, it’s just this device seemed too good to be true. A compact battery that jumpstarts a car? Yeah, right.
It’s amazing. While we have never had to use it to jump our own vehicle, we have used it several times to jump other vehicles and it has worked every time! So, we keep it in the truck and check the battery every so often to make sure it is fully charged.
The ability to jumpstart yourself in a cold environment is an amazing thing, especially if you are in a remote area. Imagine coming back to the trailhead after hiking in the winter only to find a dead battery and an otherwise empty parking lot!
The battery will even charge a laptop, so it is a pretty stout addition to your emergency kit. Once you jump your car, you can recharge the battery from your vehicle using the 12V adapter!
Cell Phone Booster
Compared to the other items on this list, this is a pretty expensive addition. A cell phone booster uses an antenna and a signal amplifier to take a cell phone signal that is barely there and turn it into a usable signal.
This is especially useful if you travel in remote areas and get your vehicle stuck. While it will not magically create a signal, it will make a very weak one useful.
I would not travel off major roads out West in the winter without one of these in your vehicle. While they are pricey, they can save your life if you are stuck off a rarely-traveled road.
When the power goes out in a travel emergency, having portable light sources with you is highly important. They are also excellent for use as a signal at night if you are stranded.
We recommend having at least a headlamp per person in your car. While you can use ones that are powered by a battery, we like rechargeable headlamps so you can recharge them with your solar battery. What makes headlamps great is they are hands-free.
We just picked up a pair of cheap, rechargeable headlamps on Amazon for a great price. Now, these aren’t the best headlamps out there but they will do just fine in an emergency. They have several light modes, including a white flood and a red strobe, which is valuable as an emergency signal. What I really love about these is a charge indicator, so you know how much juice you have left.
These aren’t the headlamps we would take on the trail but the are just fine for casual use in an emergency.
We also recommend taking this collapsible portable lantern. If you are stuck in a hotel room, this will be a lifesaver. You can charge it with a battery or it has its own solar panels, freeing up your solar battery to charge other devices.
The lantern will last for six hours on medium power, which is 24 lumens. It is not the brightest light in the world but it packs down to almost nothing and will charge using its own solar panels or you can use the solar battery to charge them.
When road tripping, I always take several tools with me to handle adverse conditions and I recommend you keep these tools with you at all times: a collapsible shovel, a hatchet, a multitool with pliers and an extraction tool.
A shovel is very useful in digging tires out of soft dirt, mud and snow. This shovel from Inunio collapses down into a small carrying case and includes several emergency tools like a whistle and knife blade. It even has a saw blade on one side, which can be quite handy. This is a major improvement over the entrenching tool I used in the Army.
A hatchet can be used to chop up firewood for signaling and keeping warm or useful as a hammer if it has a flat head on the back. I have a hammer in the truck, so instead of a hatchet, I have a Ranger Tomahawk, which is perfect for light chopping duty. This isn’t designed to cut down trees but rather to cut up branches to use for firewood. It came with a compass that will do just fine for basic navigation.
A good multitool has a plethora of uses and should have pliers, a knife blade, scissors and a variety of screwdriver heads. I keep one in the glove box and use it for all kinds of things.
Lastly, an extraction tool has two special features: a glass breaker and a seatbelt cutter. This tool should be kept where the driver can get to it in the event of an accident. This tool will allow you to extract yourself from a car when you can’t open the door or window or get the seatbelt to come loose.
These tools will allow you to extract yourself from a lot of situations and quite handy to have.
Parachute Cord and Duct Tape
Parachute cord, alternately paracord or 550 cord, is a staple in just about any survival situation. It was originally designed as a lightweight rope for parachutes and it has hundreds of uses. There are seven smaller strands inside the core of the cord that you can use for all sorts of things. Having about 50 feet or so in your emergency kit will buy you a lot of versatility for not a lot of money.
The other cheap thing you can toss in your travel emergency kit is duct tape. Like paracord, it is incredibly versatile in terms of making repairs and waterproofing items. I recommend getting either silver or orange as you can use it for signaling as well.
One trick you can use duct tape for: if you have to leave your vehicle, use it to mark trees along your path, both as breadcrumbs for you to get back to your vehicle and for rescuers to follow your trail.
So, you have all of this gear in your vehicle but what happens when you have to abandon your vehicle? It could be that your vehicle is stuck on a paralyzed highway or you simply need to be able to walk out with your basic supplies following a natural disaster.
That’s where having a packable daypack comes in handy. We got this small daypack from Eagle Creek several years ago at a conference. While it is not the most robust daypack out there, it packs down to next to nothing.
We keep two of these in our truck in case we need them. We have been surprised at how useful having a couple bags in the truck is for just dealing everyday loose items. Having a backpack makes it a lot easier to keep your hands free as you walk out of whatever situation you are in.
We keep packable raincoats in our vehicle at all times. It really sucks being caught without a raincoat normally. In a travel emergency situation, having an outer layer that is both wind- and waterproof is essential. Wind and rain/snow will sap away your body heat rapidly, even in the summer.
If you don’t travel with rain gear all the time, we recommend picking up a couple of durable, packable ponchos, at least one per person who normally travels with you.
I really like these emergency ponchos because they are made of the same material that space blankets are made of and will reflect a lot of heat. They are also orange, so they are handy for use as signaling equipment as well!
Paper Map / Atlas
We never travel without a Rand McNally spiral-bound road atlas. Even though we use Ford Sync GPS for most of our navigation, we know sometimes we just need to plan things out on a map. Being able to see other driving options on a map makes it so much easier to pick routes in our travels.
A lot of folks don’t have an independent GPS system or device in their car and we understand. We used our phones for navigation for years before we got our latest truck. But what happens when there’s no cell phone signal. Sure, there are GPS apps that can download maps in advance but most folks don’t think about that BEFORE the emergency happens.
Having a paper map, even a small state map from the atlas we have, will allow you to navigate major highways without a GPS. Even if you need to leave your car behind, you can take the paper map with you. Don’t want to take the whole atlas? Tear out a page and just take what you need!
I learned how to use a map and compass exceedingly well when I was in the Army. I can navigate pretty much anywhere using a good map and a compass. But I know most folks don’t posses that skill.
Still, having a compass will help you navigate both while driving and walking. At the very least, you can orient yourself with the map. Road maps always have north at the top of the page, making it pretty easy to figure out which direction you need to be going on the road.
You do not need a super expensive compass unless you plan on navigating off a road. A simple compass will help you determine which direction to go at a crossroads and confirm you are going the right direction. That’s all you need. Remember, stay on established roads! It makes it a lot easier to get help!
In a pure survival situation, staying warm is staying alive. Even if you are stranded with your vehicle, starting a fire can keep you warm and provide a signal to folks looking to rescue you.
I keep a ferro rod in my pack and my truck. This rod allows you to strike it with metal and it will shower the ground with sparks, igniting dry kindling. The problem comes when you don’t have anything dry to use as kindling.
This is gonna sound dumb, but a bag of Fritos corn chips will work just fine as tinder and do not cost much at all. Another simple item you can use for tinder is duct tape. Just tear it up into small pieces and use your ferro rod to spark it into a fire.
This rod comes with a basic compass and a built-in whistle. My biggest recommendation is use a knife when striking the rod… You will get a lot more sparks.
Most auto hazard kits contain flares and reflective triangles to signal to drivers that a road hazard is ahead. Those work well for that purpose but what if your vehicle is off the road?
A whistle is much louder than your voice and you can do it for much longer than you can shout. Many survival implements have whistles built-in. Or you can buy them quite cheaply. My recommendations: 1) Make sure it has some sort of clip or lanyard so it won’t get lost easily. 2) Make sure it does not a have a pea or ball. A whistle with a pea (think the whistle your coach used in PE) can fail when wet and the ball can be dislodged, rendering it useless.
Many of the items I link above have whistles included or built in. Just make sure you have one.
Bright orange is quite visible from above and definitely indicates that you are having an emergency, which is why I recommend choosing that color for the space blankets/ponchos so they can serve double duty as a signal.
At night, a strobe on a headlamp, like the one I recommended, or lantern is a very effective emergency signal, as is a campfire!
Now that you have your kit put together, it’s time to talk about making it work for you.
Travel Emergency Tip #4: Make a Plan
While the above kit will help you out significantly, as soon as you are in an emergency situation, you need to start making a plan how to use what you have to self-rescue. You cannot rely on others to be able to help you.
Professionals will tell you if you are lost or stranded, the best thing is to remain with your vehicle and do your best to attract attention to yourself and I agree. This kit will help you stay put for several days if needed.
But what happens when you are in a position where staying put isn’t viable, especially after a few days?
That’s when it is time to make a decision on how to get out. All of the tools you have will help you. Use your map to establish your route direction and your compass to keep you going the right way. Stick to established roads. Don’t take shortcuts. If you have to take a detour, make sure you make your way back to the main route as soon as possible. Highway crews are far more likely to keep major routes open in all but the most adverse conditions.
Most importantly, don’t panic. I know that is easy for me to say but, when you panic, you make poor decisions.
Travel Emergency Tip #5: Keep an Eye on Supply Levels
If you are able to keep moving, especially by car, keep an eye on your food, water and gas. As things got worse in Texas, we found gas was hard to find and open restaurants even harder to find.
We recommend not letting your supply levels drop below half until you are well out of the affected area. Once food, water or gas gets down to half, it’s time to start looking for more.
Honestly, we had our best luck at gas stations a bit off the beaten path but they are also the ones least likely to get additional shipments of fuel.
Finding food was equally as hard. We had a good supply of snacks with us but finding meals without breaking into our emergency supplies was hard. Water was even tougher. Because so many municipalities had problems with their water supplies, bottled water and open restrooms were hard to find.
Travel Emergency Tips #6 and #7: Don’t Be Afraid to Use Your Kit and Don’t Forget to Restock
For a lot of folks, having an emergency kit is kinda like having an insurance policy… even if they have it, they won’t use it when they need it, thinking a worse need will come along. That’s one of the reasons why I made sure to include mostly non consumables.
This kit is there to help you solve your problems while out on the road. If you aren’t willing to use it when you have a problem, what use is it?
Once you are out of the emergency, don’t forget to restock your emergency kit. It may take a bit of time to get all of the consumables back up to snuff but don’t forget to do it.
Lastly, some of the items in your kit have rechargeable batteries. The batteries lose charge over time. Every now and then, check your batteries to make sure they are fully charged. I suggest setting the reminder to be the same as when you change out your air filters or batteries in your smoke detectors.
What About Traveling Without a Car?
Obviously, when traveling without a car, carrying all of this gear is not practical, necessary or even legal, especially when traveling by plane.
Still, you can have serious issues while on a trip, like our friends who were stuck in Puerto Rico for several days following a hurricane with no water or power. The situation for many of those travelers got pretty dire long before they were evacuated.
So, what do you take with you when not traveling by car?
I would focus on carrying light, easy to pack items that will help you take care of the essentials.
CrazyCap makes stainless steel water bottles that have a UV light built-in for sterilizing questionable water. It is great for travel and would be good in a disaster, provided that you take a solar-powered battery pack with you to charge the cap after about a week’s worth of use.
What makes it a good choice is you can use it as a normal water bottle and only use the UV sterilization feature as needed.
Again, we recommend taking a rechargeable headlamp with you, as well as a space blanket. Both are light and provide the essentials of light and warmth if needed.
Food is a little trickier but you can certainly take several smaller emergency bars as long as they remain sealed. I would also recommend a good first aid kit but make sure you let TSA know the kit is in your carry-on before you go through security.
Also be sure to keep some cash, in varying denominations, with you. Once the power goes out, credit cards and ATMs may be useless.
Final Thoughts on Preparing for an Emergency
Emergency kits are one of those things that you hope you never need but are quite glad to have if you do need them.
These suggestions are designed for the everyday traveler for all sorts of emergencies. Obviously, if you are traveling in the winter or into backcountry areas, that requires additional equipment to do safely.
I am by no means a survival expert and this guide is designed to provide you with options and capabilities, not training on how to use the gear. There are plenty of folks out there who run survival blogs that can teach you digitally how to use your gear.
All that said, we cover thousands of miles every year in all kinds of weather. This is how we handle adverse situations and the gear we carry to aid us when bad things happen. We hope this helps you develop your own emergency kit and gives you a good mindset for how to self-rescue if the need arises.
We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.
We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.
If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.
We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.
As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.
We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.
We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.
We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
Click here to book a tour.
We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.