Click to enlarge pictureVehicle Emergency Kit (© AAA Washington)

If you do break down, a properly stocked emergency kit can be the difference between life and death in a breakdown.

Be prepared
Whether your intended route takes you over the mountains of Oregon or across the frigid, wind-swept plains of North Dakota, it's important to be prepared for a worst-case scenario, says William Van Tassel, manager of driver training programs for AAA.

"Preparedness starts with letting someone know where you are going and what route you intend to take," Van Tassel stresses. "Just like a pilot or someone headed into the wilderness. Then if you go missing, there's a starting point for a search."

Every driver heading out in the winter also should carry emergency supplies in the vehicle. The contents of that kit will vary depending on your driving habits. If you are frequently in the mountains or other remote areas, you should have a more complete kit. (Read "Be Prepared For Winter Driving" for a complete list of must-have supplies.)

Finally, pack some reading material. Even if you're only "stranded" on Interstate 70 waiting with a few thousand other cars for an accident or snow slide to be cleared, a book will help pass the time and keep you from becoming frustrated.

Bing: Car Emergency Kits

Click to enlarge pictureCouple in Car in Snowy Conditions (© Philip and Karen Smith/Getty Images)

And remain with your car. It will shelter you from the storm and possibly keep you from freezing to death.

Remain in the vehicle
That's always rule No. 1 if you get stranded in an isolated location, Paul says: "Your vehicle provides shelter, and probably heat. The best thing to do is just sit tight and let rescuers come to you."

Don't try to dig out the car. "You could become exhausted shoveling in vain, have a heart attack or get injured," Van Tassel says. "And if you work so much that you sweat a lot, your damp clothing won't keep you warm."

You do, however, want to make sure the car's exhaust pipe is clear of snow, as a blocked pipe will cause toxic carbon monoxide to seep into the car's cabin as you run the engine to make heat. It's OK to run the engine for 10 to 15 minutes each hour to warm the car with the heater, but open the window a crack as protection against carbon monoxide poisoning, whether you've unblocked the tailpipe or not. If you follow another rule of winter travel, and never let the fuel level go below one-half, you'll have enough gas to keep the car warm for several days and the battery charged.

Also, bring your emergency gear into the passenger compartment with you, and if you have a cell phone and service, call 911 for help.

If you're in a remote location, try to keep the hood and roof of the vehicle clear of snow so that you'll be more visible to searchers. At night, the emergency flashers will make it easier to spot the vehicle, or leave the dome light on. It draws less battery current and illuminates the entire interior.

If you are stuck off the roadway, you might not be visible to passing searchers. In this case, try to walk back up to the road — but only if it is a short distance — and place a marker or flag of some sort that will let people know you and the vehicle are down the embankment, for example. Then get back to the shelter of the car.

Remain calm, read your book, and wait for the cavalry to arrive.

Veteran moto-journalist and Wisconsin-native Charles Plueddeman has been driving, riding and testing automobiles, motorcycles, boats, ATVs and snowmobiles for more than 20 years. He is a regular contributor to Boating Magazine and Outdoor Life, and his product evaluation articles have appeared in Popular Mechanics, Men's Journal, AutoWorld, Playboy, Boats.com and many other national publications and Web sites.