10 winter driving tips to survive the slippery, snowy streets

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antikainen/123RF
Winter is nearly here, and with the frigid air comes a new host of unique driving challenges. We love snowball fights and ice skating as much as anyone, but the conditions can prove treacherous if you’re on the road. If you follow these winter driving tips, you’ll maximize your chances of staying safe on the snowy streets.

The following 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

Snow tires

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

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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 things to keep in mind that can save you a headache down the road.

Pedestrians, sledders, and reindeer are harder to see during this time of year, 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

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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

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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

Stay visible

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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.

Check your route

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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

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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.

Stay charged up

How to test a car battery
Joseph Belanger/123RF

Cold weather decreases battery power, but it also increases the amount of effort needed to start a gasoline or diesel engine. Before winter sets in, make sure your battery is in good condition.

You can test a car battery yourself using a multimeter, a tool that should be easy to find at an auto parts store or online. With the vehicle off, set the meter’s dial to DC voltage and attach the leads to the battery terminals. A reading of 12.45 volts or higher means the battery is fully charged. Anything below that indicates the battery won’t be able to provide power reliably.

If your car does die and restarts after getting a jump, that indicates the battery isn’t the problem. Other potential culprits include the alternator and associated parts, like the alternator belt and mounting bracket, or the battery cables. Make sure all of those items are in good repair in order to avoid items later.

Fill ‘er up

Gas pump

Trips to the gas station probably aren’t on most people’s list of favorite things to do, but when temperatures drop below freezing, it’s good to get in the habit of keeping your gas tank at least half full. This prevents condensation from forming in the fuel lines, which is important because that condensation can freeze and cause a lot of problems.

Fuel isn’t the only fluid that should be topped off before winter driving. The mess created by the sand and/or salt used to de-ice roads means your windshield washers will be working overtime. Make sure you’re stocked up on fluid, and that the fluid is rated for freezing temperatures. The same goes for coolant — make sure the system is filled with the correct mixture of antifreeze and water (that information will be in your owner’s manual), and that there are no leaks.

Be prepared for an emergency

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In addition to stocking up on emergency supplies, there are some steps you can take to keep yourself, your vehicle, and other road users safe if you actually encounter trouble. If you get stuck, stay with your vehicle. You’ll avoid the possibility of overexerting yourself while trekking to get help, and your stranded car may actually be the most effective way to attract that help.

If you expect your vehicle to remain stationary for a long period of time, attach a bright marker like a ribbon or flag to antennas or windows so the car will remain visible if snow builds up. Keep the interior dome light on too; it won’t use a large amount of electricity. Keeping the car running in order to keep the cabin warm may sound tempting, but remember that the exhaust pipe can get blocked by snow, letting  carbon monoxide into the cabin.

Update: We’ve added three new tips for the 2017-2018 winter driving season. 

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