If you don’t know how to drive on snow and ice, it won’t matter if you have a Ford Bronco or a Toyota Prius. Most of us figure we know how to drive in inclement conditions, but many of us don’t really know what our limit is. Last year, in thePacific Northwest, we had freezing rain that turned into a full-blown ice storm. I drive a full size Bronco with new traction tires. I grew up in a snowy climate, and am an experienced driver. The roads were a complete sheet of ice. In the end, I had to chain up to drive home. I saw many wrecks, and a lot of those vehicles were 4X4’s, some better equipped than my own. Know your limit and don’t be afraid to stay home if the conditions are more than you can handle.
The best advice for driving in bad winter weather is not to drive at all, if you can avoid it.
Don’t go out until the snow plows and sanding trucks have had a chance to do their work, and allow yourself extra time to reach your destination.
If you must drive in snowy conditions, make sure your car is prepared, and that you know how to handle road conditions.
It’s helpful to practice winter driving techniques in a snowy, open parking lot, so you’re familiar with how your car handles. Consult your owner’s manual for tips specific to your vehicle.
Driving safely on icy roads
- Decrease your speed and leave yourself plenty of room to stop. You should allow at least three times more space than usual between you and the car in front of you.
- Brake gently to avoid skidding. If your wheels start to lock up, ease off the brake.
- Turn on your lights to increase your visibility to other motorists.
- Keep your lights and windshield clean.
- Use low gears to keep traction, especially on hills.
- Don’t use cruise control or overdrive on icy roads.
- Be especially careful on bridges, overpasses and infrequently traveled roads, which will freeze first. Even at temperatures above freezing, if the conditions are wet, you might encounter ice in shady areas or on exposed roadways like bridges.
- Don’t pass snow plows and sanding trucks. The drivers have limited visibility, and you’re likely to find the road in front of them worse than the road behind.
- Don’t assume your vehicle can handle all conditions. Even four-wheel and front-wheel drive vehicles can encounter trouble on winter roads.
If your rear wheels skid…
- Take your foot off the accelerator.
- Steer in the direction you want the front wheels to go. If your rear wheels are sliding left, steer left. If they’re sliding right, steer right.
- If your rear wheels start sliding the other way as you recover, ease the steering wheel toward that side. You might have to steer left and right a few times to get your vehicle completely under control.
- If you have standard brakes, pump them gently.
- If you have anti-lock brakes (ABS), do not pump the brakes. Apply steady pressure to the brakes. You will feel the brakes pulse — this is normal.
If your front wheels skid…
- Take your foot off the gas and shift to neutral, but don’t try to steer immediately.
- As the wheels skid sideways, they will slow the vehicle and traction will return. As it does, steer in the direction you want to go. Then put the transmission in “drive” or release the clutch, and accelerate gently.
- Do not spin your wheels. This will only dig you in deeper. (NOTE – IF you become stuck in the median, don’t spin your tires. I witnessed a truck do this, catch traction, and side-swipe another car.)
- Turn your wheels from side to side a few times to push snow out of the way.
- Use a light touch on the gas, to ease your car out.
- Use a shovel to clear snow away from the wheels and the underside of the car.
- Pour sand, kitty litter, gravel or salt in the path of the wheels, to help get traction.
- Try rocking the vehicle. (Check your owner’s manual first — it can damage the transmission on some vehicles.) Shift from forward to reverse, and back again. Each time you’re in gear, give a light touch on the gas until the vehicle gets going.
Sources: National Safety Council, New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, Washington State Government Information & Services
First off, don’t panic. Think before you act. Staying with the vehicle is your best option. If it is snowing and cold out, you will be exposed to the elements. Unless better shelter is within sight, your chances of finding better shelter than your vehicle go down drastically. Plus, road crews will spot your vehicle far sooner than they will see you struggling in the snow.
Cut off a piece of your ground cloth and tie it to your antenna. This will make your car more visible to road crews. You will need to use your shovel to keep your grill and your exhaust pipe clear and open to air. This is vital so your passenger compartment will not fill up with exhaust. Run your engine sporadically. Heat up your cabin, and shut down. Having plenty of fuel on hand will extend how long you can heat your vehicle.
Do not eat snow. You need to melt it first. You can do this with a cup on your dashboard with the defroster running. You can also use your engine to heat it up. I’ve cooked burritos on my exhaust manifold on road trips.
Watch your engine temp gauge or idiot lights. If you see the temp rise, shut down and examine around your grill. Open the hood and check around your radiator. Check your serpentine belt to make sure it is tight. NOTE – If you have an electric fan, it can come on at any time. Be careful around it.
If you plan to nap, set your alarm. You must keep a watch on your grill and exhaust pipe. This is critical.
Always remember, give yourself some more following distance. I suggest twice or more your usual amount. Leave for work early, and if it looks like you are going to be late, don’t stress about it. You need to concentrate on your driving and those around you.
If bad conditions are going to persist more than a few days, fuel up as often as you can. I have seen areas where gas stations were closed for a couple days because of power outages. In one area, there was only one station, and they ran out of gas. Having a full tank gives you options. You can bypass a station with a long line, and wait for a day or two. Plus, gas equals weight.
Carry extra supplies.
- A flashlight with extra batteries. A D-Cell Mag Lite is a good choice here. The LED bulbs they make for them extend the battery life considerably. Carry a spare pack of batteries.
- Water. Small bottles seem to be the most manageable way to go here. I keep a small cooler with water bottles. If they do freeze, you won’t have a mess to deal with.
- Food. While a couple of MRE’s work great, snacks would also be fine.
- Blankets. Those space blankets work great. Throw an old wool blanket in the trunk, too. Wrap yourself in the wool blanket first, then the space blanket. You will be toasty warm, without so much crinkling.
- Small tarp or ground sheet. If you need to change a tire or chain up, you won’t get as wet. Try to find one in orange. Coglans makes a pup tent that is also a ground cloth.
- Rain Gear. A rain coat, pants, hat and gloves could be a lifesaver. They are more expensive, butColumbia and Helly Hansen make packable ones that fold into their own pocket. I have had to use mine more than once.
- Gloves. A decent set that is waterproof and windproof cost about $20 and can really save you some headaches.
- Car charger for your cell phone. This will help keep you in communications.
- CHAINS! If you’re in an area where you might need them, get them. Put them on a couple of times in November to re-familiarize yourself with them.
- Cat litter or pea gravel. Cat litter in jugs is easy to put in the trunk, easy to pour out for traction, and you won’t have to clean up after a ripped bag.
- Small shovel. For clearing snow from your tires, exhaust, or grill if you become stranded.
- An Extra change of clothes. I keep a small duffel bag in the back of my rig, with a change of clothes, toothbrush, deodorant, that kind of stuff.
- Fluids for your vehicle. Pre-mixed anti-freeze, oil, transmission fluid, and a funnel. You may not need it, but you might come across someone who does. Engine cooling system failures are one of the biggest causes of breakdowns in cold weather.
- A book, playing cards, or some other form of entertainment.
- Basic tool kit. Screwdrivers, a set of wrenches, both a socket set and combination wrenches are nice to have around. A knife, a roll of duct tape, and some electrical tape and zip ties could come in handy, as well. A few hose clamps can be useful. If you have some smaller ones, they can be combined to make a large one.
- Firestarters. Keep a couple of lighters in your tool kit or first aid kit.
Winterize your vehicle. Have the oil changed, the cooling system looked at, and flushed if necessary, as well as the rest of your fluids. Four by owners, when was the last time your transfer case and front diff was checked? Examine your windshield wipers, and make sure your snowbrush is in your vehicle. Check all your lights. Examine your tires. Are they worn out? Do they need rotating? Half a Saturday going over this basic stuff can save you a lot of headaches later on.