We have been through several close encounters with severe weather while living in an travel trailer. Even in a typical secure stick home in the middle of a suburb severe weather can be an issue. We have all seen pictures of what happens when an F5 tornado hits a suburb. All these dangers become magnified when you are in a travel trailer or other recreational rig. The fact is that rigs provide you with little shelter from most severe weather and it can be more dangerous to stay in your rig during some forms of severe weather than to lay down on the ground outside. I will attempt to share what we learned over at least three posts.
Blizzards, snow storms, avalanches and freezing rain are all hazards of winter. Winter hazards are actually more common in fall and spring, when Canadian snow birds are on the road, than in the dead of winter. Such storms require mixing of moist air with cold and that requires moisture (i.e. warmer temperatures) coming from somewhere. Lake effects snow is usually nasty but localized stormy weather that can occurs when wind picks up moisture crossing an open body of water and then dumps it onshore. It requires open water and that does not happen in the dead of winter. The snowbird traveling north and south is going to encounter this weather.
Freezing rain is one of the deadliest threats of spring and fall. The rain falls and freezes on contact and everything is covered with a sheet of ice. Driving is impossible. If you don’t crash, someone will crash into you. Over time, the ice builds and the weight of the ice can cause trees and roofs to collapse. If you find yourself hitting freezing rain, stop at the very next safe place no matter how unlikely and boondock there. Never try to drive in freezing rain. Make sure your vehicle is not under tree branches that can collapse on top of you as the ice builds up. Only venture out on ice if you have good ice weather footwear so that you don’t fall and break something.
Avalanches are typically fall and spring event but they can happen anytime. If you are in the mountains always check local road conditions and just stay out of avalanche prone areas if warnings are up. Avalanches can’t be predicted. They hit without warning and a moving wall of frozen water is far worse than liquid. One of the nastiest things about avalanches is the moving snow takes on a peculiar heavy liquid texture but as soon as it stop moving it sinters. The liquid texture changes to solid ice in seconds. You can’t dig yourself out and shake this stuff loose. If the force of the avalanche hitting you or objects like trees and boulders flying down with the snow doesn’t kill you, you will find yourself frozen in a tomb with multiple injures unable to breathe.
On main highways such as the Roger’s Pass in the Rocky Mountains, small avalanches are triggered in a controlled fashion in order to avoid a huge uncontrolled slide. I have experienced this once. The snow was thick and the avalanche danger high. We were ignorant prairie folks traveling home with no idea how dangerous it was. Military personnel directed us and the few other travellers on the road, into an avalanche shed. This is a slant roofed shed with the high end of the slant against the mountain and the low end of the roof on the other side of the road. The idea is you are safe under the shed’s roof and the snow slides down off the mountain and over you. After the vehicles were safe under the shed, the military used howitzers to trigger the slide. There was a rumble and a roar and then the entire shed and everything below it shook as a wall of tumbling white blocked the view off on the outer edge. After a very long wait, a man walked through the shed to tell us all the road was being cleared ahead of the shed. We were eventually allowed to leave, conducted at slow speed through a freshly cleared path with a lot of heavy equipment still working away on the massive mound of snow. It was a most impressive event. We were also cold, tired and in need of a washroom before we finally got through that day. Avoid avalanche country if you can and if you can’t, stay only on roadways were there is proper control and protections systems and be prepared for a long wait.
Another type of winter storm that comes through with a roar but then quickly passes is the Alberta Clipper (or just ‘clipper’ if you from the USA). These fast moving squall lines race across the continent with ferocious winds, cold and a blast of a little bit of snow (2-6 inches) or none at all. Since a clipper often travels at high speed in a line whose length is over half the continent they can be hard to predict and harder to avoid. Fortunately, they pass as quickly as they come and are gone within hours.
You may find yourself driving along one minute in clear weather and the next in blowing snow. If such a thing happens you need to pull over somewhere and just let the clipper pass. One effect of the clipper is that the city streets, which are relatively sheltered, will be open but highways will be problematic. It is not uncommon to be leaving the city where conditions seemed fine for travel only to find yourself stopped by local authorities at the beginning of open countryside. In addition to the snow brought by a clipper, the high winds will pick up any loose snow already lying on the ground. This can create a thick ground level layer of rolling snow. These can hit without warning. A good rule of thumb is if you see a lot of the big rigs pulling over, stop with them. If you find yourself in sudden blinding ground level drifting and you can’t safely stop, get behind a big rig and follow it to safety. Truck drivers are often riding high enough to be able to see above the ground drifting.
If you get stuck by a roadside in snowy conditions or extreme cold remember that leaving your vehicle will likely mean you will die. You will get quickly disoriented in swirling snow and it piles up and covers every landmark you might use for traveling on foot. In the old pioneer days, the wise farmer tied a rope between his house and his barn to hang on to because men were known to get lost when they went to milk the cow in a blizzard. If you fall down, snow will cover you and make you invisible to any would be rescuers. In your vehicle, you are sitting on a road that the snowplows will eventually clear and the police and local volunteer rescue groups will be patrolling. They will find your rig before they find you because it is big and obvious and possibly blocking the road. A lone person wandering in a farmer’s field won’t be found until spring when the farmer begins spring planting. Hypothermia makes you stupid. If you are with someone who has the urge to walk for help make sure they are not suffering from hypothermia and do everything possible to keep them from leaving. If you can’t stop them, don’t follow them. Better one dead than two.
This is why an emergency winter kit is essential. A travel emergency kit should have a heat source, extra blankets to stay warm and some emergency food and water in case you have to sit in your vehicle for 12-24 hours. Your well equipped recreational vehicle is actually an ideal place to be stuck in a clipper. Pull as far off the road as you safely can so you don’t have some poor fool rear ending you because he didn’t see you. Settle in and wait it out with your nice propane furnace and three way fridge full of food. Crawl into your nice bed with all those warm blankets and cover up and go to sleep until the clipper has blown itself out. When rescue arrives, be sure to offer them a hot drink because they have likely been out for hours in the cold.
Blizzards are monster spirals of dangerous weather that, not unlike hurricanes, can cover several states/provinces at once and last for days. There are two good things about them. They generally move slowly and they are not often as cold as a clipper though they are still cold enough to kill you if you are outside of shelter. The so called Colorado Low is probably the worst of them although I have developed a very healthy respect for the infamous “nor’easter” of New England and the Maritimes. The Colorado low begins in the mountains, travels over the plains growing into a giant slow moving monster packing high winds, and carrying a massive amounts of snow. Because it moves slowly, it can can dump as much as a meter (a yard) or snow before passing. The snow is also heavy water packed snow that sticks and clogs the best snow clearing equipment. As it passes, the temperature often drops and the heavy wet stuff freezes solid and is almost as hard as cement. Even in winter wise places like Winnipeg, a Colorado low can stop the city for days.
The further south you are, the less familiar the other drivers will be with adverse cold weather conditions and, the more of a hazard they represent to you. As a northern driver, you must take into account the fact that they don’t know how to stop and turn on ice and snow. There is a high possibility that little skiff of snow is going to wreck your rig because someone unfamiliar with driving on ice hit you. I have no qualms about the other drivers while traveling during a snowfall in Minnesota. I simply will not travel in the slightest amount of snow in Virginia because the locals are so utterly stupid about snow.
Sometimes avoiding a blizzard means making a decision to drive much longer or much shorter than you had originally planned to get past or stay out of the area the storm will track. Sometimes this means a diversion of half a day off the planned route to get out of a watch/warning area. If there is a blizzard coming, check the storm track several times during the day and as soon as you wake up because tracks change, often abruptly. We once fled Virginia Beach in 2010 at 8:00pm in the evening Christmas Eve to avoid a blizzard. This major storm was due to the combination of a Colorado low and a nor’easter. We left Virginia Beach two days early because we didn’t want to miss a deadline we had in the south. We stopped outside of the watch area in Kinston, North Carolina about 2:00am. My husband woke me at 7:00am because the forecast had changed and we were now in a warning area that was expecting 9 inches of snow. We got up, drove until we were well out of the warning/watch area in South Carolina and stopped at a state park. We were awakened by a ranger at 8:00am the next morning. He was knocking at our door to advise us the park was under a blizzard warning and expecting 6 inches of snow. Since the county had only one snowplow, if we stayed in the park, we would likely not get out until the snow melted and the dirt track that passed for the road into the park had dried enough to travel. He was there to warn us that clearing the road typically took a week or so. He was really excited and happy. He had never seen snow before. I tried not to roll my eyes at that.
We left him to the experience, pulling out by 9:00 am and we drove further south. We stopped for breakfast under a clear sky. When we came out to continue our journey south, we had to dig some Canadian winter gear out to clear the snow off the windshield. We got ahead of the snow but every time we stopped the snow started again so we had to keep moving. That storm chased us right into Tallahassee Florida. We arrived at midnight before we were finally beyond it’s southernmost reach. We saw residents of Tallahassee outside in the night with their sleepy eyed children awoken to marvel over the wonderful beauty of big fat snowflakes. They were welcome to that! We kept driving south.
In 2009 we were heading to Boise Idaho and our original plan was to go through new territory in Wyoming. A Colorado low meant we decided to trek west into Montana instead and then go south at Billings. We fell asleep in a campground in Dickinson, North Dakota, assured by NOAA that we were west of the blizzard track. When we woke up, we found the storm had slowed and veered northwest. We drove from Dickinson in a light snow under a full blizzard warning, staying just ahead of storm until we got to the Montana border. We ended up going through Bozeman Idaho and skipping Wyoming altogether that year.
Blizzards, especially the Colorado Low, can also mean being snowed in at one location for days after the blizzard passes depending on local snow clearing. The farther south you are in the continent, the worse the snow clearing will be. Six inches of heavy wet snow in a place like Winnipeg Manitoba is a minor inconvenience that will add ten minutes onto preparing the car for the commute because of the need to clear snow off the windshield. It will cause a few traffic snarls meaning you’ll likely be late for work. Two inches of light fluff in Georgia can shut down an entire city for days.
If you can’t avoid a storm, make sure you are stopped in a safe place with enough food, water and propane to survive for several days. Try to stop before conditions get horrible. This is often the time to check into a hotel or stop in at an all season campground. It might be okay to sit out a clipper in a Walmart parking lot but if a big blizzard is going to leave you stuck for a few days in one spot, this is a great time to splurge and rent a hotel room. One of my fondest memories of traveling was when we stopped at a lovely hotel in Ironwood Wisconsin after several days of boondocking on a trip north. There was a monster blizzard coming.We could not outrun it or avoid it.
Instead, we enjoyed a second honeymoon in a wonderful spot with an indoor pool, exercise room, and 100+ cable and movie channels. It was so nice to soak in a hot tub after two days of only cold, wet-wipe baths. I was actually sad when the snow eventually stopped and we could continue on our journey. Severe cold weather events are potentially dangerous, but with advance planning, flexibility, and a little luck, they end up being the positive and fun experiences of being a fulltimer out on the road.