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Winter driving

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Winter driving

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    This article is a travel topic

Before leaving

  • Read the previous article on Tips for road trips. Everything that applies to fair weather, applies even more so to inclement weather.


  • Warm clothing (including ski caps, gloves, and rubber boots that fit over shoes) If you live in a mild climate and can't find such items where you normally shop, try a sporting goods store.
  • Extra ready-to-eat food
  • Lighter and strike-anywhere matches
  • A snow shovel (or any shovel, if your can't buy a snow shovel locally)
  • If your vehicle doesn't have a navigation system, consider adding a USB GPS receiver w/software (i.e. Microsoft Streets and Trips, Delorme Street Atlas, etc.) to your laptop computer. Hand-held units are also available if you don't own a laptop. One wrong turn onto a winter-abandoned road could be fatal.
  • If using a laptop, you'll also need a 150-watt or higher power inverter (converts car battery to household power mains voltage) or a laptop car adapter with the correct DC voltage. Usually the inverter is much cheaper, and can be used for other things.
  • Don't forget your cell phone and its vehicle charger. However, service may not be available in rural areas.

Planning ahead

  • If at all possible, allow for a couple days of flexibility so you can wait out a winter storm (preferably before leaving home), if needed. This is especially important for those who have little winter driving experience. Check the forecast before departing and try to avoid the worst of it. The most popular sites online are and
  • Check highway conditions for the roads you will be traveling on at the state/provincial highway department's website (search on Google, Yahoo, etc.)
  • If using mapping software to plan your route, always double-check it yourself. Select "fastest" (not "shortest") routes, as this will help keep it to the main highways. Avoid anything below a state/provincial route except for the last few miles to your destination. Short cuts in winter can be deadly!
  • Always get advice from locals beforehand about conditions off the main highways. The best route may not be obvious to you, or even be shown on a printed map.

Preparing your vehicle

  • Check anti-freeze (coolant) levels, and have it changed every two to four years (depending on type used).
  • Make sure brakes and ABS system are in good condition.
  • Check heater and defroster and make sure they heat with no smell.
  • Bring ice scraper with a brush.
  • Check condition of tires and pressure. Don't forget the spare and tire jack.
  • A vehicle's battery can't work as well in cold weather. Have it replaced if it's near or over the pro-rated warranty period. On an older vehicle check the belts, and an alternator test is a good idea.
  • Snow (studded) tires are good for winter driving conditions, though a few U.S. states prohibit them (except, perhaps, for out-of-state vehicles just passing though). However, if you live in an area where it doesn't normally snow, it's probably not worth the time and expense.
  • Especially without snow tires, always bring tire chains or cable chains. Tire chains give better traction, but are harder to install and remove. Know your tire size (e.g. P195/60R-15) before purchasing. When needed, install on the drive wheels (i.e. front for front-wheel-drive, rear for rear-wheel-drive). For all-wheel-drive/4WD, usually the front is best, but check owner's manual. Only use these in snow or icy conditions, and remove them as soon as they're no longer needed.

On the road

  • Driving on snow, and especially ice requires extra stopping distance.
  • You cannot drive at highway/freeway speeds with chains on.
  • If you miss your freeway exit, get off at the next one and turn around. Continuing on to a less-used alternate route in winter is foolish.
  • If a mountain pass is closed due to snow, there a good reason for it. Don't even think of using local roads to get around the closure. Saving a day or two is not worth risking your life.
  • In blizzard/white out conditions you may not be able to see anything though the windshield. Try rolling down the window and sticking your head outside. Then, find a safe place to get off the road and stay there until conditions improve.

In case of emergency

  • Stay in your vehicle. It can provide enough shelter to save your live
  • Run the engine only for 5-10 minutes each hour, with the heater on to the max. Make sure drifting snow doesn't block the exhaust pipe. Check each time before restarting engine, and shovel the snow out from the rear end as needed.
  • If you must go outside to search for help or food, do so only in the morning hours after sunrise when it's not snowing or foggy, and then only for one hour each way.
  • Assuming no cell phone service, turn your phone on and (totally) off each half hour to help save its battery. But don't waste the battery trying to dial numbers where there's no service. Rescuers can use portable receivers and direction finders to pick up its signal. However, even if they do, it's not possible to communicate with you over the phone.