Driving in the winter can be a bear. When snow and ice cover the roads, traction is limited, traffic is slow and there's always some yahoo in an SUV who thinks he's Mario Andretti with four-wheel drive. But, with a little common sense and our practical knowhow, you'll be ready for Mother Nature's challenges. Take a look at our seven tips for winter driving below.
1. Get the proper equipment
- In the trunk: Snow shovel, brush, ice scraper, blanket and sand or cat litter, which provide better traction for your tires if you get stuck.
- On the car: Consider getting snow tires, especially if you have high-performance tires during the summer. For extra traction, consider tire chains. Just make sure your local laws allow them.
- Under the hood: Make sure you have plenty of windshield washer fluid, and make sure you have the correct type for the temperatures you'll be encountering. The same goes for your engine coolant and oil. And make sure your battery is in good condition. It has to work a lot harder to start the car in cold weather.
- Always have these in your car on longer trips, regardless of the season: Jumper cables, flashlight, phone charger, flares or other emergency markers and extra food, water and medicine.
- Consider these the next time you buy a car:
- All-wheel drive: If winter weather is consistently bad in your area, it might be worth the extra investment. Remember, you don't need to buy an SUV to get all-wheel drive. Check out our list of great cars for winter driving.
- Stability and traction control: If your car is older, it may not have these features. Traction control can be a big help when you're trying to get moving in slippery conditions, and stability control can help prevent life-threatening skids.
2. Prepare your car
- Before you start your car: Walk around it and make sure the exhaust pipe is clear of obstruction. Also make sure you're not in an enclosed area, like a garage, that could trap carbon monoxide.
- Start your car. Get it warmed up while you begin to clean it off. This will loosen any ice on the windows and make it nice and toasty by the time you get in. For more information on cleaning your windshield in winter, see our windshield defrosting tips.
- Be careful digging your car out. Make sure you have firm footing at all times. Don't overexert yourself shoveling snow. Take frequent breaks.
- Clean the entire car: Make sure snow and ice are clear from every surface, not just your windows. Snow and ice on your lights can impede visibility for you and others. Snow on your roof can slide onto your windshield when you brake, or fall off of your car and hit another motorist.
3. Know your car
- What are its capabilities? Does it have all-wheel drive? What about stability and traction control? How high off of the ground does it ride? Do you have the right tires for the conditions you’ll be facing? Knowing what your car can handle can keep you from getting stuck.
- Don't be overconfident. So your car is a four-wheel drive off-roading machine with all of the latest high-tech driving aids. That doesn't mean you can tear through the neighborhood at breakneck speed, especially through corners. Stability control and other safety freatures can be lifesavers, but they can't perform miracles.
4. GO SLOWLY
- Snow and ice significantly reduce your tire grip, so you need to do everything much more slowly, including accelerating, braking and turning. Give yourself as much extra space as possible around your car, in case you lose control. That means increasing the distance between your car and the car in front of you. AAA recommends at least doubling the amount of time you normally give yourself to stop in an emergency. It should be three to four seconds on dry pavement, and eight to 10 seconds in snow.
5. What to do if you skid
- Most experts recommend the following: Take your foot off of the accelerator and turn the wheel in the direction you want to go. Don't slam on the brakes. Wait for the car to slow down enough for you to recover control.
- Practice! Find an open, safe and legal place to practice driving in the snow. Make sure you know what it feels like to lose control and how to recover when you do. The more practice you have, the more confident you'll be in an emergency. Some car insurance companies offer emergency driving schools that teach you to recover from skids and slides in a safe environment.
6. What to do if you get stuck
- Getting unstuck: You might be able to free yourself without leaving the car. Try backing up and going forward slowly. The rocking motion might be enough to free your car. Don't spin your wheels — doing so might dig your car in deeper. If you can't free yourself this way, use your shovel to clear the snow from around the car. Apply a generous amount of cat litter or sand around the wheels and keep your front tires straight.
- If you can't get free: Stay in the car and stay warm. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends putting bright markers on the antenna or windows and keeping the interior light and hazard blinkers on to increase your visibility. The interior and hazard lights won't use as much electricity as the headlights. If you need to run your vehicle to stay warm, do it as little as possible. This conserves gas and reduces the risk of exhaust poisoning. Make sure the exhaust pipe is unobstructed.
7. Don't go
- The last tip is the simplest. Don't go out if you don't have to. The best way to avoid winter road hazards is to avoid the road.