No matter how good of a driver you are, the winter season can really test your limits. Ice and snow make driving a cumbersome task. Beyond that, this cold season actually presents a lot of challenges for you and your car. As the weather tests your car’s mechanical abilities, the fogs and slippery roads test your ability as a driver.
Here’s the deal:
This season does not have to ground you indoors. You no longer have to have the chills that come with the cold weather because you can be a better winter driver. All it takes is a bit of effort on your part to guarantee smooth driving.
With this guide, you will get top notch advice on tips to improve your winter driving capabilities.
Table of Contents
- 1. Drive when necessary
- 2. Get regular service and maintenance checks for your car
- 3. How are your windshield wipers?
- 4. Rear-view is important
- 5. Check your tire pressure
- 6. Weighting the back can help
- 7. Check your battery
- 8. Keep the gas tank full or close to full
- 9. Check the cooling system
- 10. Too cold? You might need a block heater
- 11. Tire chains
- 12. Use the correct headlamps, and use them correctly
- 13. If your car has an ESC, don’t fight it
- 14. Use the right mode
- 15. Test for traction
- 16. Plan ahead for the worst
- 17. Make sure your phone is on
- 18. Think about acquiring winter tires
- 19. Slow is good; you’ll get there eventually
- 20. Stay alert
- 21. Separate the car’s controls
- 22. Learn to control understeer
- 23. Know your car’s limits
- 24. Keep your distance
- 25. Cold weather; Dress Appropriately
- 26. Don’t be lazy while cleaning
- 27. Do not make complete stops
- 28. Tune in to your local radio for regular traffic guides and weather reports
- 29. Buy a comprehensive breakdown cover if you don’t have one already
- 30. Don’t have a car yet? Consider the features that will help in poor conditions
1. Drive when necessary
Let’s face it:
Sometimes, we are inclined to call in sick or postpone our outdoor plans for when the weather lets up.
Winter is a good excuse to stay indoors. Besides, if you’re not exposed to danger, then no harm will befall you. It would be better to stay at home and not face any danger than to go out and stay stranded or worse, be in an accident.
If you are not sure of your driving abilities in lousy conditions, it might be time to call that Uber.
However, if you must, make sure you follow the guides and tips compiled here.
2. Get regular service and maintenance checks for your car
Believe me, there’s nothing worse than being stranded in the snow. You literally feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.
Think about this:
One driver decides to make a service check prior to starting a journey. Another driver opts not to make a service check just to save some cash and later gets stranded in the snow. At the end of the day, the prior check would have been worth it because now the second driver has to pay for a maintenance check. If the damage was great, this would also set him back further.
It is much better to deal with the worn out hoses, spark plugs, and pumps while you can before they leave you stranded.
3. How are your windshield wipers?
A pair of good winter wipers can be very handy in the cold season. The rubber coverings keep ice from collecting on the blade making them very effective. It is, however, important to remember to take them off in the spring. This is due to their weight that can damage the wiper motors.
In order to avoid the foul smell coming from your windshield wipers, remember to turn off your wipers before shutting off your engine. This is because if your blades freeze to the windshield, the wiper motor may burn out while trying to get the wipers back to “rest position” when you start your car.
Here’s another important tip:
Always make sure that you windshield washer reservoir is full. On a snowy day, you can easily use up more than half a gallon of windshield washer fluid whilst trying to keep your windshield clear.
It may also be handy to have some extra fluid in case you run out. If you live in a very cold area, it may be advisable to invest in concentrate to supplement your windshield washer fluid. This makes it work very well at extremely low temperatures.
4. Rear-view is important
As far as visibility is concerned, you need the rear view as much as front view. It is important to defog and defrost your windscreens before you head out.
While you’re at it, have your mechanic check if your defrosters work and service them accordingly.
If you have a rear windscreen wiper, make sure you change it for the winter wipers and maintain them as you would with the windshield wipers.
5. Check your tire pressure
This is an often forgotten service item. Assumption won’t keep you from being stranded in the snow. Be sure to do a tire pressure check as soon as the winter season arrives.
As soon as the temperature drops, the tire pressure drops by about one pound per ten degrees of temperature (remember that high school physics?). So if the temperature has dropped by 50 since the last time you had your tire pressure checked, you could very well be facing a dangerously low tire pressure situation.
By the way:
Having your tire pressure reduced when it is winter does NOT improve traction. As a matter of fact, it only makes driving worse.
6. Weighting the back can help
This is especially useful if you have a rear-wheel-drive vehicle. This added weight, placed behind the rear axle, can help increase the traction of the rear wheel. Another option is to add wheel weights on the rear wheels.
If you’re not sure about the location of the rear axle, just draw an imaginary line between the two rear wheels. It is usually towards the front of the trunk.
You should be careful not to place too much weight on the rear. This mistake can cause the front end to nose up leading to a loss in steering and braking abilities.
A good tip is to add a small weight at first, say 20 pounds, and then take it for a test drive to see if it works before advancing to larger weights.
Check out this pro guide on weighting the rear of your car.
7. Check your battery
Have your mechanic check the battery along with the charging system. If your battery is old and weak, it could disappoint you on the road. Also, if your charging system isn’t at its best, you could be stranded simply because your battery isn’t getting properly charged.
Batteries are considerably weaker at lower temperatures. This means that while you need more power from a battery in the winter, it is actually offering less than is expected of it.
Here’s a good piece of advice:
In the winter, obtain the biggest, most powerful battery that can fit in your car.
Cold cranking amps, the maximum number of amps that a battery can deliver at zero degrees (F) for 30 seconds, is a good rating measure to use. The most powerful batteries are rated above 600 CCA.
Check out Consumer Reports for tested CCA ratings. Don’t just rely on company infomercials.
8. Keep the gas tank full or close to full
There are many benefits that stem from maintaining a full tank in the winter:
- It can help reduce moisture in the fuel system.
- It can add extra weight to your car to maintain it at a steady pace.
- If you do get stranded, the engine can be a good source of heat while idling. With a full tank, you can run the engine indefinitely to keep warm.
Points of caution:
- If you own an old jalopy it would be recommendable to crack open a window if you are going to be idling the engine. This is because oldies have the tendency to have exhaust leaks and rust holes in their structure. While driving, this may not be such a big issue because the wind is aiding in removing the exhaust as you move forward.
- If you are stranded, be sure to periodically get outside and clear the snow from behind the tailpipe to keep it unobstructed.
9. Check the cooling system
Make sure that this system is in proper working order.
Make sure you have enough coolant in your vehicle and that it meets the manufacturer’s specifications. Have it tested for proper mix, proper pH, and strength of the built-in corrosion inhibitors.
Antifreeze is also made to perform rust inhibiting functions. As such, the rust inhibitors in it break down over time and need renewal.
Drain and replace the coolant in your vehicle as recommended by the manufacturer, to remove dirt and rust particles that can clog the cooling system and eventually lead to its failure.
Have your mechanic thoroughly check for leaks in the coolant system.
The experts at Cartalk have a fairly comprehensive guide on why you should have your cooling system checked.
10. Too cold? You might need a block heater
Block heaters warm up an engine to increase the chances that the engine will start as well as warm up the vehicle faster than it would in the cold weather.
Remote starters offer the same advantage of heating up your engine, and essentially your engine coolant, but they are not so suitable in extremely low temperatures.
Remember, a block heater is meant to be plugged in via a power cord, so you should always remember to unplug it before driving off. Some modern parking lots have electrical outlets for the purpose of plugging in the block heaters.
Some cars, such as the second generation Toyota Prius, pump hot coolant from the cooling system into a 3-litre insulated thermos-style reservoir at shutdown, where it stays warm for up to 3 days.
11. Tire chains
These are an optional investment since many experts would concur on their inferiority to winter tires.
If you decide to own these, it is important that you practice putting them on while in your driveway once or twice, so that the process is much easier in the field.
12. Use the correct headlamps, and use them correctly
When it’s snowy, your headlights must be on regardless of whether you can see the road ahead or not. This will not only improve your visibility but also make it easier for other drivers to see you.
Automatic headlamps need to be activated overridden manually by turning the headlamp switch to the dipped beam setting.
Fog lamps are to be reserved for extremely poor visibility. Rear fog lamps will only make it hard for those behind you to see the road ahead; think of the effect when there is a spray from melted snow coming from the rear of your car at the same time.
Snow does not mean you need to use your main beam headlamps any more or less often than you would normally. You shouldn’t leave them on when you are driving towards or behind other traffic, as the brightness will obstruct those drivers.
If you are in doubt about which lights to use, put yourself in the position of other drivers around you. By asking yourself questions like whether they can see you and whether they might be blinded by any of your lights, you are very well on the path to becoming a better winter driver.
13. If your car has an ESC, don’t fight it
If your car has an ESC, it is advisable not to fight it.
Here’s how this system works:
A vehicle’s electronic stability control uses a steering angle sensor, a yaw sensor and a lateral G sensor in addition to the ABS wheel speed sensors. The system takes information from these sensors and decides the appropriate time and form of intervention it should take. In doing so, it tries to maintain the path it thinks the driver wants to take.
As such, if the vehicle starts to slide, do not abruptly counter steer in the opposite direction at full steering lock as this will make the system think you want to turn the car in that direction. The result is that the ESC will take longer to make the right corrections.
Instead, it is better to tone down the steering wheel inputs and straighten the wheel as this will make the intervention much more subtle.
The same goes for traction control. Fighting the system will only lock you out and take longer to make forward progress.
14. Use the right mode
Most modern vehicles have different driving modes that make it enjoyable or easier to maneuver the car in different conditions.
Winter driving techniques have benefitted greatly from the development of such driving modes. Many modern cars feature a snow mode setting that, when selected, dials back throttle response, increases the intervention of the stability and traction control systems, and starts automatic transmission in second gear to reduce wheel spin.
It is recommended that owners with vehicles with “snow” modes in their transmissions or all-wheel-drive systems to always use them.
Those with high-performance cars are especially more inclined to using this mode as they’re more likely to overwhelm available traction if not driven with care through the snow.
15. Test for traction
Find a suitable space to test out your wheels for traction. The best spot would be an empty parking lot that’s out in the open. Carry out test runs on this surface until you are sure of the amount of traction that your tires have.
This practice runs can be very helpful on the field. You will be more aware of the capabilities of your car so you can plan for future trips easily.
16. Plan ahead for the worst
Ever heard of a winter survival kit? Now you have.
You should think of having one with you, preferably in the trunk of your car. This one time investment can go a long way in saving your life and those of your passengers. It could also come in handy when being a Good Samaritan.
Here’s what you need to have:
- A shovel
- A windscreen scraper and small broom
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- Battery powered radio
- Snacks (energy bars are recommended)
- Matches and small candles
- Extra hats, gloves, socks, etc
- First aid kit
- Sleeping bags or blankets
- Tow chain
- Road salt, or sand for traction
- Booster cables
- Emergency flares or reflectors
- Fluorescent distress flag and whistle
- Cell phone adapter to plug into lighter
It may seem like you’re preparing for the apocalypse, but being prepared for the worst is the best way to be safe.
You can learn more about this survival kit here.
17. Make sure your phone is on
You can never know when a fully charged battery will come in handy.
In the event of you being stranded in the snow, you might have to call in for help. It is therefore important that you know the local emergency numbers beforehand.
When you do call for help, be sure to give important details such as where you are, the condition of everyone in the vehicle, and the problem you’re experiencing.
Follow the instructions you will be given by the receiver on the other end to make it easier for them to help you. Do not hang up until you know what to expect.
If you must leave the vehicle, write down your name, address, phone number, and destination. Leave the piece of paper inside the front windshield for someone to see.
18. Think about acquiring winter tires
Many experts agree that adding a set of winter tires has to be one of the best traction improvement you can make to a car in the winter. You can just decide to go all out and buy four tires complete with rims. This will make it easier transitioning from your normal tires to your snow tires.
If you can’t afford all four tires, a good start is acquiring two for the wheels that are driven by the engine. This will give them the added traction advantage you need to stay on the snow.
Another plus is that they can improve handling and braking and can shorten your braking distance by as much as 25 percent. On the other hand, all-season tires lose their grip when the temperature dips below 40 degrees (F).
19. Slow is good; you’ll get there eventually
Even whilst you’re equipped with all the recommended requirements for combatting lousy weather, driving in snow is still quite treacherous. Just because you seem to have a handle on driving in the winter does not mean everyone else does.
A false sense of security is just that, false.
Be slow and gentle on the road. Remember that you have considerably less traction in this weather. Turning, braking, and accelerating all have to be done in a gentle fashion.
Rapid movements will only increase the chances of skids and eventual loss of control.
Here’s a good tip:
Practice driving on snowy ground in an empty parking lot. Try sending the car on a little skid on purpose and practice taking control of your car. This can also help you know how fast you can go while maintaining control of your car.
20. Stay alert
The road is full of many different characters.
While you’re paying attention to every tingly spidey sense you get, another fellow driver may not. As stated above, do not fall prey to a false sense of security.
The road you may have driven on for the past couple of months is not the same during winter. Pay attention to the new changes and keep an eye out for any slippery-than-usual surfaces.
Sometimes the smartest route isn’t the one that every other motorist is taking. Ice could have glared on the ‘communal’ track and it would be a safer choice to move over to the right or left of this track.
Also, be aware of wet patches. The most dangerous conditions are around freezing. When the sun makes the ice wet, you had better be equipped with great tires.
As a motorist, you should avoid risky driving behaviors at all times. In the winter, this rule cannot be emphasized enough. Such behavior includes, but isn’t limited to:
- Using your phone while driving
- Over speeding
- Drunk driving
21. Separate the car’s controls
A car has three main jobs/controls:
- It is meant to accelerate,
- To make corner turns, and
- To brake.
All these functions have maximized performance when they are carried out independently. For effective performance, it is advised that you train yourself to perform each function one at a time.
First, learn how to brake in a straight line before you engage the steering wheel to make a turn. Conversely, when making a turn, stay off both pedals and wait until you begin to straighten the wheel before feeding in any throttle again.
Combining these functions on a slippery surface will only cause less traction for you. Experts state that having the discipline to separate the controls allows drivers to maximize the performance of their cars during winter conditions (conditions that make performance options very limited).
22. Learn to control understeer
When the front tires lose traction and begin to skid, this condition is known as understeer.
Learning to control your vehicle when it has been taken past its limits of adhesion is key. On low grip surfaces, like snow and ice, this condition can be experienced willy-nilly.
The most common type of skid occurs when drivers enter a corner too quickly and at the same time turning the tires too sharply.
In case you’re caught in such a situation, this is the best way to come out on top:
First, you need to put load back onto the front tires. Slowly release the throttle and straighten the steering wheel. Wait very briefly for the front wheels to regain traction. Look at where you want to end up and point your wheels in that direction.
This correction can take long to master due to its counterintuitive nature. Don’t be shy to practice.
23. Know your car’s limits
Do you remember that fancy ad that made you buy your beloved car? Do you remember all those cool things you saw your car doing on screen? Well, forget all that in the winter.
A car’s performance is truly tested in lousy conditions, winter included. You should be aware of its capabilities in the snow. You should know the type of four-wheel-drive you have, anti-lock-brakes, traction control, and stability control. This is because all of these will be truly tested in this conditions.
It is not such a bad idea to drive around in a snowy, empty parking lot just so you can know what to expect from your car on the road.
24. Keep your distance
Remember that braking in wintry conditions takes considerably longer due to lowered traction. Don’t be in so much of a hurry.
Keep a safe distance between you and the car ahead to avoid colliding into it unnecessarily.
If you find yourself behind a snow plow, be even more cautious. Snow plow drivers do not have the best visibility and can create clouds of snow that can also affect your visibility as well.
A good rule of thumb is to be about 20 seconds behind the car in front of you. In this way, if the car in front should make a sudden stop, you have enough time to stop and avoid causing an accident.
25. Cold weather; Dress Appropriately
Don’t be macho about it. It won’t cost you much to dress up warm. While driving it is important that you are not distracted by the cold weather. A pair of gloves could also come in handy.
Dressing appropriately does not mean you have to be dressed in layers upon layers of clothes. Be warm, and be comfortable while doing it.
It can also pay to have an extra set of warm clothes in your car just in case the cold gets through the ones you have on.
26. Don’t be lazy while cleaning
Most people tend to clear only a small space in the windshield for visibility. You should learn to clean off your entire car and not just a little peephole. In wintry conditions, you require as much visibility as you can afford to have in order to avoid unnecessary harm.
Here’s the gist:
You need to make sure that every glass surface on your car is as clear as can be. From your windscreens to your side mirrors, to your lights, make sure they’re all in perfect condition for the road.
While you’re at it, ensure you scrape off all the snow on your car’s body because it is as much a danger to you as it is to other motorist on the road with you. Besides falling onto your windshield and obstructing your visibility, this snow cover can slip off your car and obscure another driver’s visibility.
It is an undeniable fact that if your headlights are covered by a thick layer of snow, you are going to have it rough mapping the road ahead. Always make it a point to wipe off the snow from your lights before heading out.
27. Do not make complete stops
Poor cold starts are among a driver’s worst enemies.
In winter, the engine is considerably harder to start because the oil isn’t as fluid as it is in the summer.
If you’re travelling uphill, do your best to avoid having to shift gears as this may cause traction issues. You can do this by maintaining a constant speed.
If you’re going downhill, slow down before you proceed and use a low gear to avoid braking. If you have to, apply your brakes gently.
If you drive an automatic, check the handbook to know the recommended winter mode.
If you drive a manual transmission, do not go downhill in free gear. This will only make things worse when you finally shift into gear at the bottom of the hill or when you have to brake.
28. Tune in to your local radio for regular traffic guides and weather reports
A lot of useful traffic information is relayed via the local radio.
While tuned in, you can get to know what to expect during the day in terms of weather conditions. This will help you plan your journey appropriately.
Also, other motorists might call in to the local radio station to update on the state of roads and traffic channels. This will help you plan out your route based on which ones are open and easier to drive through.
29. Buy a comprehensive breakdown cover if you don’t have one already
This policy, like all other policies, will give you assurance of protection and could prevent you having to endure a long wait in the cold.
30. Don’t have a car yet? Consider the features that will help in poor conditions
When you’re at your car dealer’s shop, ensure that they take you through the safety features it has along with its capability to battle through the cold weather.
Anti-lock brakes and vehicle stability control are some of the features to watch out for when you want to traverse lousy wintry conditions.
Vehicle stability control is known to prevent accidents during otherwise dangerous driving conditions. This does not mean you get to be reckless, it just means that you get to have an added degree of safety on the road.
Another factor to consider is whether you drive in snow almost all year round or just a couple of days. Al-wheel-drive is a good option for the former while front-wheel-drive suits the latter just fine.