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Winter travel tips

Driving down a snow covered road towards a tunnel

How to prepare for a road trip

Nobody really likes traveling in winter weather, but there are times when it can’t be avoided. The best you can do is be prepared in advance, just like you would by listening to the radio for weather and road conditions for your trip.

Best rental car for winter travel

You just landed at the airport for your winter vacation and there’s snow in the forecast, which is great for your snowboarding plans but not so great considering you still have to drive quite a ways to get there. If you’ve got to rent a vehicle, you don’t need a 4WD F150, necessarily, but you do need something that’s going to deliver safe and dependable traction. A RWD car like a Dodge Challenger probably isn’t the best call, so think about AWD or 4WD models like:

All of these are loaded with features like vehicle stability control, anti lock brakes, traction control, and lane management. Many even include things like adaptive headlights, collision avoidance, and automatic emergency braking. All of these can make your winter driving experience a bit safer and less nerve-wracking. If possible, see if you can also find a model with heated seats, heated steering wheel and mirrors (for your own creature comfort).

If you’re going to be navigating through snow on flatter ground, you can probably do just fine with a FWD car; FWD will inherently get a bit better traction since the engine’s weight is over the wheels that are getting all the torque. For hilly terrain, though, AWD or 4WD is just about the only way to go in winter weather.

SimpleTip Give the rental a look over for any issues before leaving the lot, including a quick glance at the tires to make sure the tires have decent tread, looking for any bald spots or uneven wear. If you have any concerns be sure to call this out to the rental company; bald spots and uneven wear can negatively impact traction which hinders the safety of you and your family.

Winter tires on a silver car driving down a snowy road

How to prepare for a winter road trip

Once again, it all comes down to the right kind of preparation. Here’s a checklist of things to keep in mind (presuming it’s your own vehicle, as this should all be expected for a rental):

  • Make sure you’ve got a full tank of gas, especially if you find yourself stranded and have to idle the engine to keep warm.
  • Ensure that all the lights are in good working order.
  • Ensure that the battery and charging system are in good shape -- extreme cold slows down the chemical process in a battery and can cut the amount of amperage it can deliver by as much as half.
  • Keep all the glass clean and clear before you even start. Check your wipers and washer fluid and replace if necessary (don’t forget the wiper on the rear window).
  • Check the tires for proper inflation, tread depth and overall condition, including your spare tire if you have one. If you’ve bought winter tires, this is the time to have them installed (don’t forget to change them again when temps are above 40 degrees F, as they will wear quickly in warmer weather).
  • If you’re using winter tires that are pre-drilled for studs, consider having the studs installed. Be sure to check state laws first to see if they’re allowed; many states ban them completely, and others restrict their use to certain months.
  • Make sure that your cooling system (radiator, coolant, hoses, hose clamps, heater core, and blower) are all in top shape. If you’re in doubt, a shop can use a hygrometer to check the condition of the coolant and recommend a flush/refill if needed. Remember that the coolant isn’t just there to keep the engine operating temperature down in hot weather, it’s also what provides heat and defrost functions.
  • If you haven’t inspected your brakes lately, this is a good time to do that too.
  • Check the motor oil and remember that conventional oil tends to thicken in colder weather, making it harder for it to reach the engine’s upper end at startup. Synthetic motor oil is more stable across a wide temperature range (meaning it also won’t thin out in extreme heat), so this might be a good time to switch to synthetic.
  • Make sure that anything external like a cargo carrier (roof or tailgate) is tight and secure.

SimpleTip Winter weather can change around each corner, so whether you are traveling locally or in a new place, it’s always a good idea to have the local news radio station preset so you can hear weather and traffic updates as you travel along. Some states display their local information channel on road signs, and some newers cars even have a way to check weather and traffic through their radio interface. Of course, if you have a smartphone, using your favorite apps to check weather and traffic will be just as helpful.

When the rubber meets the road

Okay, so you’ve got a full tank of gas and your vehicle’s 100% squared away. Now it’s time to start driving!

You probably already know that to stay safe while driving in winter weather you should anticipate slower speeds and budget out more time for the drive; that just stands to reason. Keep your speed down, increase the following distances and lead time for vehicles in front of you and don’t get in a big hurry. Now, here are some other tips to keep in mind:

  • Remember that overpasses and bridges are always going to be the first to freeze, so use extra caution.
  • Don’t use cruise control -- it removes too much of your own input in handling the vehicle and can get you feeling overconfident.
  • Use the gas and brake pedals very gently, especially if you’re driving a high-horsepower vehicle.
  • If you feel a skid coming on, let off the gas pedal and steer in the direction of the skid. Oversteer is where the vehicle’s rear end comes around (common for RWD) and understeer is the tendency to keep going straight even though you’re trying to turn (common for FWD). If it’s an unfamiliar vehicle, try to spend some time in a parking lot or other safe area getting used to its handling properties and power.
  • Winter driving is stressful; take more frequent breaks if necessary and switch drivers more often on a longer trip.
  • Try to avoid winter driving after dark; if you have no choice, be mindful of your high beams and other drivers.

Car with headlights on driving down a winter road at night

If you get stuck...

You hope it doesn’t happen, but it’s always a possibility in winter weather. If you do end up in a ditch or a snow drift, or even get an unexpected flat, it’s important to keep emergency kits in the vehicle, including one well equipped one for winter weather.

If you do find yourself in trouble and there’s room enough in your vehicle for it, kitty litter or sand can give you enough traction to get out of the snow and get moving again; sometimes even just a sheet of cardboard can be enough to provide some grip.

You may have seen your dad, many years ago, “rocking” a vehicle back and forth between Drive and Reverse to try to get enough momentum to get moving again. This is really hard on an automatic transmission, U-joints and the entire drivetrain, so don’t do it for long! Unless you’re driving a pickup truck with a heavy-duty transmission cooler, it can overheat the transmission and fluid pretty quickly and cause some real damage.

If there’s really no getting out of the snowbank on your own, put out the strobe/flares/triangles, turn on your flashers, call for help and bundle up to stay warm until they arrive. Run the engine and heater intermittently to keep warm. If the snow is really coming down, or you find yourself in rather deep snow, intermittently check that your flashers and road flares are visible, and that the car’s exhaust pipe is clear of snow so that the fumes don’t get trapped in the car. Tune into the local radio station or your favorite app for weather updates and try to not lose your mind while you're waiting.

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