The ball has officially come down in Times Square, and that means the holiday season has finally concluded. However, although the time for presents and awkward family get-togethers may be over, the effects of winter are still very much in play. Don’t get us wrong, we love snowball fights and ice skating as much as anyone, but the conditions can prove treacherous if you’re on the road.
That said, the folowing tips will focus on the correct way to drive in slippery conditions, what supplies you should have on hand, and ways you can make your trip a little easier. There’s still a lot of winter left, so pour yourself some cocoa and let’s get to it.
Wear the right shoes
When it first starts to snow, the first thing most people should do is fit their car with winter tires, studded tires, or tires fitted with chains, and there’s good reason for that. A good set of tires can be the difference between getting home safely and skidding into a ditch, so it’s important to know what type is best for you.
First things first, if it looks like the planet Hoth outside, those all-season radials probably aren’t going to cut it. As their name suggests, all-seasons are designed to handle all types of weather, but they don’t excel at one particular thing. You wouldn’t wear your Birkenstocks on the ski slopes, would you?
We recommend a good set of true winter tires during the cold winter months, such as the Bridgestone Blizzak or Goodyear Ultra Grip, which are generally made from a softer compound that stays more flexible as the temperatures drop. This results in more grip overall, as they conform to the contours of the road better than summer or all-season tires, which tend to turn hard and brittle when chilled. Winter radials also feature deep, open tread patterns designed to push away slush, and generally contain small grooves called sipes that act as “teeth” to bite into slick surfaces. To see just how effective winter rubber is on snow when compared to all-season tires, check out this comparison video by Tire Rack.
If the streets are smooth enough to skate on, consider studded tires or chains for even more control, but remember that most states have restrictions on when you can use them. Check out AAA’s state-by-state breakdown to brush up on your local regulations.
One last tip: don’t mix and match your tires, as it can result in uneven traction and decreased stability.
Winterize your ride
Fitting your vehicle with good winter rubber is usually the first step when winterizing your ride, but it doesn’t have to be the only one. Outside of sheltering your car, checking the battery, and purchasing sand bags — which are discussed in detail here — there are other options that can save you a headache down the road.
The simplest, most-overlooked tactic is keeping your gas tank at least half full when it dips below freezing. We know how easy it is to settle for a $10 top off, but an empty gas tank can result in condensation and your gas line freezing under frigid conditions. Trust us, few occurrences will leave you feeling more defeated than an unresponsive engine on a cold morning. On a related note, make sure the antifreeze/coolant and windshield washer reservoirs are filled to the appropriate level.
Pedestrians, sledders, and reindeer are harder to see during this time of year as well, so visibility must be near the top of your priority list. That means make sure your wipers are up to the task of removing snow and slush from your windshield, and clean off your car before you set off. Not just a little peephole in the windshield, the whole thing — side windows, rear windows, side mirrors, and even the headlights if they’re frozen over. An ice scraper or brush is best for this, but that old library card you haven’t used in months will do in a pinch.
Finally, consider an engine block heater if you live in a place like Northern Minnesota, Russia, or the Arctic. They’re a must-have for diesel engines in these types of climates, but they’ll make sure your gas-powered car starts on even the nippiest of mornings. Also, don’t use the handbrake if you have an older car. They can freeze overnight when they get wet, and that’s a bad way to start the day.
Keep your supplies stocked
One of Benjamin Franklin’s most famous quotes — “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” — was actually meant to educate the masses about fire prevention, but it works just as well when the puffy jackets and gloves come out. Warm clothes and food are a given, but things such as flares, glow sticks, flashlights, blankets, shovels, jumper cables, first aid kits, sand, snow brushes, and spare tires are just as vital if you get stranded. It’s important to have your supplies ready ahead of time as well, because emergency kits are often forgotten in the rush to get up the mountain.
Amazon has tons of pre-made emergency packs for purchase, ranging from small 42-piece kits to larger, more inclusive options that come bundled with folding saws, emergency blankets, cell phone chargers, and radios.
Keep it clean
A clean car is a happy car, but during winter, we tend to let our vehicular sanitation duties slip. It’s easy to see why; it’s freezing outside! Believe it or not, however, keeping your ride fresh is actually more important in winter than it is in summer.
Compacted snow and ice can be dangerous to drive with, particularly when it slides off your trunk at freeway speeds. Countless windshields are broken each year because of this, so while it can be a pain to scrape sleet off your roof in the morning, take a moment to do so while your car is warming up. Also, make sure to keep your headlights clear to improve visibility.
There’s another reason to preserve your car’s cleanliness during winter, and this one has to do with preventing rust. Depending on where you live, your roads may be salted to prevent ice from forming. Salt can wreak havoc on the steel, aluminum, plastic, and vinyl surfaces that make up an automobile, so it’s important to wash your car regularly. For extra protection, give your car a healthy layer of wax before the plows roll out.
Visibility is important throughout the year, but it becomes particularly important when Mother Nature drapes her icy blanket over the earth. Snow and ice dramatically reduce your ability to see, but fear not, we have some tips to help you see and be seen.
The first tip is an easy one — keep your lights on — but make sure to stick with your low beams or fog lights when allowed. It’s easy to assume that high beams are better because of their increased spread, but heavy snow will actually reflect light back on you and make visibility worse.
If you end up getting stranded, being seen is even more critical. Always make sure to keep a reflective jacket, flares, and lights on you if you need to apply chains or exit your vehicle, and remember that the days are shorter so you have less light to work with. One final tip — keep a brightly colored piece of cloth attached to your radio antenna to increase your visual footprint.
Always check your route
Last but most certainly not least, always check your route before you leave. You needn’t worry about this much if you’re just milling around town, but if you’re heading over a mountain pass or frozen tundra, always review the conditions beforehand. Routes like these don’t have typically have an abundance of detours, so if you get stuck up there, you’re in for a long night.
Most states have their own road condition websites, but the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration offers a national database. Simply click on your state to view camera feeds, traffic info, transportation options, and the like.
Winter may be a hazardous time for motorists, but it’s a great time to be alive. So whether you’re on your way to the ski lift or a cozy vacation home, stay safe out there. For more advice on getting around in the snow, check out AAA’s Winter Driving Tips playlist on YouTube.
Take it slow
The only thing more important than the preparedness of your vehicle is how you use it. The best four-wheel drive system in the world won’t save you if you decide to act like a dummy when navigating ice, because at the end of the day, physics gonna physics.
The key to successfully driving in snow is strikingly similar to facing off with a Tyrannosaurus Rex — take it slow, and no sudden movements. You must give significantly more time to execute nearly every action when the road is slippery, including accelerating, braking, turning, and even changing lanes. If and when you start to skid, take your foot off the brake and turn the wheel into the slide — not out of it — and calmly work to regain control.
Calmly correcting a slide is easier said than done though, so another important suggestion is to practice. By practice, we mean find a safe, empty lot with snow on it and get to slidin’. Every car feels different, so it’s vital to know how yours reacts to a loss of traction, and it’s crucial for you to know how to respond. And if you happen to have a little fun at the same time? So be it.
Better yet, if the weather outside is too frightful, just stay home.