Five Essential Components to Winter Driving


Article originally published at The Prepared Ninja

October is here and that means a new fiscal year for the federal government. It also means that winter will be upon the vast majority of us sooner as opposed to later. With winter weather comes winter driving and with winter driving comes all the extra dangers that no one misses during the rest of the year. It made me think that it would be a good time to re-post the series that I did last year on winter driving that was inspired by a series of “errors in judgment” when it came to the winter drivers in my local area.

*Disclaimer – I am in no means a mechanical or driving expert so use the knowledge shared here at your own risk.

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The first thing that should be accomplished in preparation for winter driving is to ensure that your vehicle is in a good state of repair and ready for the additional challenges of the extreme temperatures and winter conditions.  If you would prefer to have your vehicle taken to a mechanic for a tune-up, which is not a bad option at all if you can afford it.  If your preference is to check your vehicle out yourself then that is great too.  The thing that matters is that someone takes a look at your vehicle to make sure that it is in good operating condition.


  • Check the brakes for rotor wear, screeching sounds, wobbling, or excessive play in the brake pedal.
  • Check under the hood for loose and/or worn wiring, hoses, and fan belts.
  • Check the high and low beams as well as turn signals for proper operation.
  • Inspect windshield wipers and consider specialty snow wiper blades as an alternative.
  • Check the air filter for cleanliness and/or any obstructions.
  • Check the battery for clean terminals and tight connections.
  • Inspect vehicle tires for proper air pressure, sidewall wear, and tread depth.
  • Check motor oil, antifreeze, and windshield washer fluid levels.  Also ensure that the fluids used in your vehicle are appropriate for the temperature range that you will be operating in.
  • Check the heating/defrosting system for proper operation.
  • If your vehicle is rear wheel drive then consider placing sand tubes or another form of additional weight in the rear of the vehicle to provide additional traction.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list and I would encourage you to look into the subject further.  What this should do is serve as a starting point and at least give everyone an idea (especially those that may be less mechanically inclined) of where to get started in preparing your vehicle for the winter driving season.

After you or your mechanic has closely inspected your vehicle and it has been deemed roadworthy, plan your trip before you set out.


  • AAA says it best.  Stay home.  If you really don’t have to go out, don’t.  Even if you can drive well in the snow, not everyone else can.  Don’t tempt fate: If you don’t have somewhere you have to be, watch the snow from indoors.
  • If you must go out, try to hit the road only after the snow plows and salt or sand trucks have had the opportunity to clear and treat the roads.
  • ALWAYS use your safety belt and make sure that all of your passengers are as well.
  • Winter driving familiarization can be accomplished by taking your vehicle to an empty parking lot that is covered in icy and/or snowy and practicing winter driving maneuvers.  This will also give you a feel for how your particular vehicle will react to certain conditions.
  • traffic1Program emergency contacts into your cell phone that includes roadside assistance and at least three other people who can be contacted for assistance if you need it.
  • Use the internet, radio, TV, or your smart phone to check the weather conditions at your destination and along your route before you even leave your departure point.  Allow plenty of time to get to your destination based on the conditions and if there are potential changes forecast than allow additional time to compensate for these additional risks.  Keeping a GPS system as well as a map of the local areas where you are traveling in your vehicle will also mitigate the chances of getting lost.  As great as GPS systems can be, they are not fool-proof, especially when bad weather is present and a map is a great back-up.
  • When planning your route during winter months eliminate risky areas such as hills, bridges, high traffic areas, or points where traffic merges and vehicles could slide into each other.
  • Wear appropriate, comfortable clothing for your trip and remember to dress in layers.  You will not need as much clothing while you are in the vehicle but if you needed to get out you want those additional layers handy so that you are able to stay warm.
  • Don’t get tired driving to your destination.  If you can, plan to have additional drivers on a long trip.  More than one driver allows for a rotation.  Regardless of the number of drivers that you have make sure that you get plenty of rest prior to driving in winter conditions and make periodic stops to stretch every two to three hours.  If you are making a long trip to avoid being tired leave during the day if possible instead of planning on putting in a full day and then leaving for your trip at night.  Driving during daylight hours also has the benefit of better visibility while also providing the advantage of being found easier if you do end up sliding off the road or getting stranded.
  • Make sure that you keep your vehicle’s fuel tank full if possible so that if you do get stranded you have the means to run the vehicle periodically to keep warm.  Ensure that when periodically running the vehicle that the exhaust pipe is clear of obstructions.
  • Clear all vehicle windows, mirrors, lights (headlights/brake lights/turn signals), and the roof of ice and snow.  Completely clear the windows.  Don’t just make the little square on the windshield that makes your car look like some sort of homemade hillbilly tank.

The vehicles good and the trip has been planned, now make sure that you know how to handle operating a vehicle in hazardous conditions and what to do if you get stranded.  This is another area where I will try to share what I know and could gather but I would again urge you to look for more information so that you feel the most comfortable with your own abilities.  Some, regardless of how much reading is done, may need to seek additional driving instruction.  This is ok.  What is important is that you realize the limit of your abilities and seek improvement if you need to.


  • Remember the basic rule. Law enforcement officers can cite you for driving dangerously even if you are traveling at the posted speed limit if the weather and road conditions dictate that vehicles should be operated at lesser speeds.
  • Keep an eye out for other vehicles and attempt to anticipate the actions of the other vehicles driver. You will have less time to react on rain, snow, or ice so leave additional room between you and other vehicles.
  • Make sure that you are always visible to other vehicles by driving with your lights on. Use low beams at all times. Using high beams during winter driving conditions is not more effective and can make driving more difficult because of impaired vision as a result of reflecting light.
  • The slippery conditions created by ice and snow add additional time and distance to what you normally would need to stop. Allow for extra braking distance and time when ice and/or snow is/are on the roads. These same slippery conditions make it necessary to slow down the speed of your vehicle, make yours starts deliberate and smooth, and make turns slowly. When braking also remember to lightly apply the brakes and never “slam on” the brakes, doing so could cause the vehicle brakes to lock up or put the vehicle into a skid. Conventional brakes can be gently pumped while anti-lock brakes need to have gentle and steady pressure applied to properly brake in slippery conditions.
  • If it is possible to avoid stopping all together, then do so. It is much easier to get moving again from a slow roll then from a dead stop. Don’t commit any traffic violations but slowly rolling up to an intersection while waiting for a light to change can make getting through the intersection a lot easier.
  • If you start to go into a skid then handle it properly. Keep both of your hands on the wheel. Remember the face of the clock, the left hand goes at ten o’clock and the right hand goes at two o’clock. Steer the vehicle in the direction that you want it to go. It sounds simple because it is and oh yeah, it works.
  • Some areas of the roadway such as bridges, overpasses, and seldom traveled roads will freeze before others. These same areas are also the prime areas for the formation of black ice. Look out for spots in the road that look black and shiny; this is possibly black ice which can cause sudden loss of control of your vehicle. If you identify what you think is black ice then slow down, keep your foot off of the brakes, and guide your vehicle through the area keeping both hands on the steering wheel.
  • Avoid using cruise control when driving in winter conditions to maintain maximum control of your vehicle.
  • Don’t power up hills. Applying extra gas on snow-covered roads just starts your wheels spinning. Try to get a little inertia going before you reach the hill and let that inertia carry you to the top. As you reach the crest of the hill, reduce your speed and proceed downhill as slowly as possible. Don’t stop going up a hill. There’s nothing worse than trying to get moving up a hill on an icy road. Get some inertia going on a flat roadway before you take on the hill. If additional traction is needed on hills consider shifting into a lower gear.


The first thing that you should do if you get stranded in your vehicle is attempt to call for help. This can be hard sometimes because of poor cell phone reception. Always keep in mind that sometimes even with a poor cell signal that text messages are able to be sent even when a call can’t be made. This can be a potential work around if you get stranded and need to get help.

If you are stranded, don’t leave your vehicle unless there is no other option. Every year people are killed because they wander out into winter storms after getting stranded in their cars. Often times their cars are found long before their bodies are. The best thing that you can do is let someone know that you are going somewhere, what the route you are taking is, and when you expect that you will arrive at your destination. This will give anyone that goes looking for you the best chances of finding you soon and alive.

Keeping a window cracked open is a must. If your vehicle becomes covered in snow it can actually create a seal and ultimately lead to asphyxiation. The window being cracked is also necessary if you are going to use a candle or a canned heat product like Sterno to try to stay warm or prepare food in the vehicle while you are stranded. Maintaining body temperature is imperative to ensure survival if you get stranded in your vehicle in the middle of winter. Running the engine periodically is the best way to heat a vehicle in this scenario. The danger in running the engine is the risk of carbon monoxide leaking into the vehicle especially when a vehicle is stationary as well as potential engine damage caused by running for extended periods of time. To mitigate the chances of asphyxiation and engine damage, only run the vehicle for ten minutes or less per hour and remember to keep the window cracked.


The only thing missing now is a Winter Car Emergency Kit. The list below was designed to be as comprehensive as possible but of course no one person can do it all. If there is something that you see I missed please leave a comment and let me know. Remember that just because you can call for help does not mean that someone will be able to get to you immediately. Having an emergency kit in your vehicle will help ensure your survival as you wait for assistance to arrive.


  • Properly Inflated Spare Tire (Full Size Spare If Possible), Tire Iron, and Tire Jack
  • Gas Can
  • Compact Shovel
  • Tire Chains (If Permitted by State & Local Laws)
  • Jumper Cables
  • Tow Strap
  • Rock Salt or Cat Litter (Assist w/ Traction)
  • IMG00221Basic Tool Kit
    • Multi-Tool
    • Adjustable Wrench
    • Phillips Screwdriver
    • Flathead Screwdriver
    • Pliers
    • Needle Nose Pliers
    • Socket Set
    • Wire Brush
    • Razor Knife
    • Electrical Tape
    • Duct Tape
    •  Bailing Wire
    •  Shop Rags
  • Gas Line Antifreeze
  • Emergency Tire Sealant (Fix-A-Flat)
  • Tire Pressure Gauge
  • Fire Extinguisher
  • Spare Bulbs
  • Spare Fuses
  • Spare Engine Belts, Hoses, Hose Clamps, & Hardware (Screws, Nuts, Bolts, Etc.)
  • Extra Fluids As Needed (Engine Oil, Antifreeze, Power Steering, Windshield Washer, Etc.)
  • Swiss Army Knife
  • Flashlight with Extra Batteries
  • Reflective Triangles or Signal Flares
  • Brightly Colored Cloth (Antenna Signal)
  • Ice Scraper/Snow Brush
  • Compass
  • Road Maps/Atlas
  • Cell Phone Charger
  • Emergency Cash (Quarters & Small Bills, ~ $20)
  • Battery Powered Radio w/ Batteries (AM/FM/Weather)
  • First Aid Kit (Including Life Sustaining Prescription Medication If Needed)
  • Emergency Candles or Canned Heat
  • Nylon Cord or Rope – 50 Feet (Parachute Cord is Ideal)
  • Two Methods to Start Fire
    • Bic Style Lighter
    • Wood Matches
    • Magnifying Lens
    • BlastMatch (Flint Striker)
    • Magnesium Fire-Starter
  • Tarp or Painters Plastic
  • Extra Clothing
    • Hat
    • Coat
    • Gloves
    • Sweatshirt
    • Shirt
    • Pants
    • Long Underwear
    • Socks
    • Underwear
  • Extra Shoes (Boots Preferred)
  • Poncho
  • Blanket or Sleeping Bag
  • Emergency Blanket
  • Food (Non-Perishable & High-Energy)
    • Backpacking Type Meals
    • MRE’s
    • Energy Bars
    • Nuts
    • Granola
    • Beef Jerky
    • Dried Fruit
    • Canned Goods (Soup, Chili, Etc.)
    • Chocolate
    • Instant Coffee
    • Hot Chocolate Mix
    • Tea Bags
  • Bottled Water (Only about ¾ full to allow for expansion as a result of freezing.)
  • Manual Can Opener
  • Metal Hiker’s Cup (Use to Melt Snow for Water)
  • Water Purification Tablets
  • Toilet Paper
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Feminine Hygiene Items
  • Toiletry & Hygiene Items (Toothbrush, Toothpaste, Deodorant, Etc.)
  • Pencil/Pen & Paper
  • Whistle (To Signal)
  • Book (Entertainment)

Thanks for taking the time to get smart about winter driving and don’t forget to drive safe!

Sources: National Traffic Safety Institute, American Automobile Association, The Weather Channel

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