(CNN) — Warm thoughts of young romance — not the cold, harsh possibilities of a Midwestern road trip in winter — were on Dawn O’Hair’s mind as she left Chicago for Indianapolis to see her boyfriend.
Her weekend visit, back in the winter of 1997-98, did not go well. After a spat with her beau, O’Hair got back into her car very early on a Monday morning to return to Chicago and her job.
She should have stayed put. The 23-year-old was driving up Interstate 65 straight into a blizzard.
“I ended up in whiteout conditions. I had trouble maintaining control in my 1995 Chevrolet Cavalier,” she said. “The wind was crazy. The snow was blowing sideways. It was super hard to see. It was horrible.”
“I got nervous and decided to pull over [but] my car got stuck,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. I got out and tried to figure out a way to get traction, but without luck.”
And there she was — in a real mess. She hadn’t checked the forecasts. She had nothing particularly warm to wear. No blankets. No winter kit. Just her Chevy and time to ponder how things went so wrong so fast.
O’Hair’s story is a far too common one — people caught off guard by a blizzard or some other unexpected onslaught of wintry weather.
Unless you live in a year-round warm climate and plan to stay there, it’s important to know how winter storms behave, how to avoid and prepare for them, and heaven forbid, what to do in the worst-case scenario.
What’s a blizzard? And why are they so dangerous?
First, not every ol’ winter storm is technically a blizzard.
Any weather system with below freezing temperatures along with snow and ice can be a safety hazard. Blizzards, however, are one of the most dangerous types of winter storms.
“Oftentimes the strong winds and cold temperatures associated with blizzards can produce dangerous wind chills, which can lead to hypothermia and frostbite, especially if stuck outside for extended periods,” he said.
Your first line of defense
Navigating potentially treacherous roads in winter? Check the forecast before you embark.
Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images
Awareness and avoidance are your best weapons against blizzards and other bad winter weather.
If you’re taking a road trip, “begin checking weather conditions about a week in advance of your trip and make sure to check again each day as the weather forecasts become more fine-tuned,” Muccilli said.
“Have alternate plans for your travel, and if weather conditions are looking increasingly unfavorable, use those alternate plans or delay travel.”
Muccilli said you should check conditions along your entire route, not just the starting and ending points, especially if you’re crossing through high mountain passes.
If you’re going hiking or camping, checking forecasts is a must, said Beth Pratt, the California regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation.
Don’t skip a forecast check just because it’s fall, spring or even summer in some locations. They can lull you into a false sense of security because your guard might not be up as much as the dead of winter, Pratt said.
She resides on the border of Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevadas, where you might start out on a hike on a late fall day while it’s still warm but suddenly encounter a dangerous wintry blast.
Where do blizzards happen?
Russians know a lot about blizzard survival. A man walks during a winter storm in Moscow in February 2018.
Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images
A little geographical and climate knowledge helps, too.
Just as it’s important to know blizzards aren’t a winter-only event, you must also realize they might happen in places you usually associate with hot weather.
Dress for success
Having the right clothing is crucial if you’re going to a place where blizzards and other cold-weather storms might happen.
Remember O’Hair’s predicament. It’s important to bring along winter clothing even if it’s not that cold or threatening as you depart or you just plan on staying in your car.
If you’re outside, the Red Cross also says to cover your mouth to protect your lungs from severely cold air. Don’t gulp in deep breaths of frigid air and talk as little as possible.
A shovel could mean the difference between getting out and staying stuck.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
— A survival blanket
— Road salt and a shovel
— A scraper
— Jumper cables
— Drinking water
— A repair kit
— A flashlight and road flares
— A cell phone charger
What if you run into bad winter weather?
“If the weather becomes too severe to continue driving, pull over, and if possible move your car to the closest gas station or hotel and ride out the storm,” Muccilli said. Don’t drive around barriers onto closed-off roads.
What if your car is stuck in the snow?
If conditions are safe enough, you can “attempt to shovel out your tires and throw down sand, rock salt, dirt, cardboard or kitty litter to give your vehicle more traction. If this does not work, call for roadside assistance or emergency services.”
Otherwise, Muccilli said stay inside your vehicle except long enough to set road flares or put out a colorful cloth to make yourself visible. Contact emergency services with as much information about your situation as you can.
If you go on a hike and get lost, what you’ve brought along in your backpack could mean the difference between life and death.
Whether you are camping, hiking, backcountry skiing or doing other similar types of outside activities, carry the correct safety gear. Muccilli said this might include but is not limited to:
— Proper footwear
— Enough water and food
— A headlamp and a lighter
— A whistle
— A first aid kit
— A map or other navigation tools
— A transceiver to transmit your location in case you are trapped in an avalanche
— A probe to pinpoint your exact location
— A shovel to dig out
— An airbag pack to increase your chances of staying near the surface of an avalanche.
“Never hike or ski alone and make sure someone knows where you are going,” he said.
If you’re at a ski resort
Taking a lift up? Dress warmly in case you get stuck there for a bit.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
People enjoying a day (or night) at a ski resort should check the local weather forecast just before heading out to the slopes, said Rick Shandler, national program director of the Safety Team at National Ski Patrol.
He cautions skiers to not let their investment in a pricey lift ticket cloud their judgment.
“People want to get the most value out of their lift tickets and may stay out past what common sense dictates” when blizzards, dense fog or other bad weather is approaching, he said.
He suggested taking the following with you on the slopes:
— A fully charged cell phone in an inner pocket. The cold can quickly sap your battery if it’s in an outer pocket. Get the number of the ski patrol at the resort before you head out and add it to your phone.
— A whistle. The sound carries farther than yelling if you’re down and a ski patrol needs to find you.
— A space blanket. Made of Mylar, they are inexpensive, easy to tote and can keep you warmer and easier to spot if you become stranded.
Pratt said the closest she ever came to dying in a blizzard was in her college years back in 1990. It was in June of all months, while she was hiking with two friends on Mount Washington in New Hampshire.
The mountain is notorious for its dangerous, fickle weather, even in summer.
“The storm came up very fast. We were in college, and young and broke and didn’t have great gear either.”
With the wind whipping and whiteout conditions of a blizzard, “the only thing that saved us is we found the tracks to the Mount Washington Cog Railway. So we had breadcrumbs to follow. If we had not been near those train tracks, we would have had to hunker down. The wind was so fierce it had shredded our rain gear.”
What if you end up in a worst-case scenario like Pratt? She said there are “two things to focus on: Stay warm and stay still.”
“It’s ill-advised to walk yourself out of a blizzard. Navigation is tough, and you burn more energy when you are cold, so conserve it. Find shelter. If there is none to find, build a snow cave if there’s enough snow. Wait it out.”
— Try to find shelter: Also, attempt to stay dry and cover all of your body.
— Out of water? You should melt snow for drinking water. The NWS and Global Rescue warn that eating unmelted snow will lower your body temperature.
— Strategic exercise: From time to time, move your arms, legs, fingers and toes to keep your blood pumping and stay warm. But don’t overdo it. “The strain from the cold and the hard labor may cause a heart attack. Sweating could lead to a chill and hypothermia,” the NWS website says.
Lessons learned and a happy ending
Fortunately for Dawn O’Hair, what she lacked in winter preparation she made up for in a good decision, good luck and good connections with people in northern Indiana.
She wisely stayed with her car instead of walking off into the blizzard for help.
Less than an hour later, a young woman pulled up and offered her a ride to a gas station. That woman had a boyfriend who was a police officer, and he took her to an Indiana state police post. From the post, she was able to reach a cousin to give her refuge and was transported to that cousin’s house via snowmobile.
It ended up taking her several days and more on-the-road misadventures to make the roughly 170-mile drive back home.
So what did Dawn O’Hair Czanik — yes, she ended up marrying the boyfriend with whom she had the spat — learn from the experience?
“I would have paid more attention to the weather forecast and planned ahead better! I probably would have left the day before, but young love is kinda stupid, ya know?”