Avoid a winter driving catastrophe: 15 tips for the road

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Navigating through snow, sleet or freezing rain can be challenging even for an experience motorist. But if you’re unfamiliar with winter driving conditions, it could be catastrophic.

It doesn’t have to be. Here are my top tips for your winter holiday driving, whether in your own vehicle or a rental car:

Check your spare tire or tire inflator kit. Along with run-flat tires, tire inflator kits have replaced spare tires on 29 million vehicles in the last 10 model years, according to AAA. Unfortunately, a tire repair kit isn’t a suitable substitute for a spare tire, nor are run-flat tires.

For example, sidewall damage will even flatten run-flat tires, and it can’t be repaired by tire inflator kits. Consumer Reports recounts the nightmarish tale of a motorist whose run-flat tire had a sidewall failure, causing him to be stranded for 2½ hours waiting for a tow truck.

If your car has a spare tire, make sure it’s properly inflated and you have a working jack. If you’re renting and the car has no spare, try to rent a different car. If that’s not possible, or if your personal car merely has a tire inflator kit, make sure it hasn’t expired. If it’s expired or soon to expire, replace it.

Make sure your car’s antifreeze level is adequate if heading to cold weather. You don’t want the engine to fail due to a lack of antifreeze.

Be prepared to meet weather’s challenges. Driving through sleet, snow and ice is dangerous. Quick starts are ill advised. Stopping takes considerably more distance and time in those conditions. Cars sold in the U.S. since 2012 have anti-lock brakes (ABS), which make driving in bad weather safer, but if you’re renting a car in a country with no requirement for these brakes, you’ll need to verify your rental has them.

If you haven’t driven much in frigid weather, you may not be familiar with “black ice,” a thin, virtually transparent coating of ice on road surfaces, allowing the black road to show through. It’s often formed by rain freezing on cold road surfaces, especially on bridges. It’s extremely dangerous because it’s invisible. Drivers don’t know it’s there until their car is sliding on it. If conditions for black ice exist, drivers must assume it’s there.

Pay attention to weather forecasts at your destination and along your route. Don’t hesitate to alter your plans according to weather conditions.

In winter weather, add extra distance between your car and the vehicle in front of you compared to when roads are dry.

Don’t use cruise control on snowy or icy roads. Cruise control generally reacts improperly on wet roads if your car slips or slides, so turn it off.

Ensure your car’s tires are properly inflated. Cold temperatures reduce tire air pressure. Improperly inflated tires degrade your car’s handling characteristics, making it harder to control on slippery roads.

Adequate tire tread on all your car’s tires is essential. Tire tread enables tires to grip the road and allow water on road surfaces to escape from under them. Worn tire tread prevents that, making steering and braking difficult.

Ensure your windshield wipers are in working order. They need to sweep freely and follow the contour of your windshield properly, without streaking.

Ensure your windshield washer reservoir is filled with “de-icer” fluid. Top off the reservoir with de-icer, so you’ll have ample fluid to clean your windshield as needed.

Ensure your rental car has an ice scraper. If not, and the rental car company has none, buy one.

Keep your fuel tank at least half full at all times. You never know when a traffic jam or accident will stop your travels, or if car woes such as a flat tire might strand you for hours. You’ll need plenty of fuel, if stuck, to keep warm in winter and your battery charged to power your lights for safety.

Carry a car emergency kit. My car emergency kit for winter travel includes a blanket, water, snacks, first aid kit, small LED emergency flasher and a flashlight.

Have a fully charged cellphone with you in case of emergency. This is essential whether driving on interstate highways or back roads.

Make sure a third party has your itinerary and driving route. Give a friend or family member your itinerary, driving route, and arrival times. If you don’t arrive at your destination on time and you’re unreachable, they can contact local authorities and tell them where to search for you.

If you have a smartphone, keep its locator on, so friends or family could use an app such as the iPhone’s “Find my iPhone,” as an emergency locator. Don’t forget to give them your password, if needed, to use the app.

Ned Levi

Ned Levi has traveled the world as an engineer and business executive. He is the founder of NSL Associates, a technology consulting company, and is a professional photographer specializing in travel and wildlife photography.

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  • sirwired

    I’d add one of those new Lithium-based battery jumpers (and a pair of safety goggles!) to the emergency kit. Unlike jumper cables, you don’t have to find a willing volunteer, and unlike the older lead-acid jump boxes, the new lithium ones can fit in the glove box, and only have to be recharged once a year (instead of once a month.) Not necessarily feasible for a rental car, but a good thing to have at home.

    As an added bonus, they usually have reverse-polarity protection; getting the + and – reversed is all-too-common with Good Samaritans jump starting cars, and it can fry both vehicles.

    On spare tires:
    On the one hand, I regret that many automakers no longer include a spare tire. On the other hand, all too many people didn’t keep it inflated, let it get too old, used it improperly, or unsafely used the emergency jack. (There’s a reason auto enthusiasts commonly call the emergency jack “The Widowmaker Jack”; they are often flimsy and frequently unstable.) So, while in an ideal world a spare tire means fewer tow trucks, in the real world, the emergency tire repair kit is probably a better choice.

    (My primary car both has a (full-size!) spare, AND I keep an emergency compressor in the trunk, because I neglect the inflation of the spare just like almost everybody else does…)

  • Patricia Ann

    Great tips, some we just need to remind ourselves, but others (like the rental car hints) we haven’t thought of. I’m making a check list!

  • technomage1

    One tip to help with winter driving is clay based kitty litter – the cheap kind. Buy a small bag and you can use it to absorb moisture out of the air by spreading it in a container under the seats (no scraping the inside of windows) and as a source of traction should you become stuck on ice.

  • AJPeabody

    The best thing I’ve found for moving off of ice or out of a snow or mud hole from spinning wheels is to have two strips of the expanded metal they sell for keeping leaves out of gutters. Slipped in front of the drive wheels, they give super traction. Not practical for travel, of course.

  • Skeptic

    I take a standard floor-type bike pump for tire inflation. No issues with bad electrical connections, missing adapters, or tired batteries. It is really easy to pump a car tire to 32 psi! I change my own summer/studded tires (already mounted) each spring and fall and use the bike pump to add pressure to those that have gotten soft while in storage. If this small 60-old woman can do it, so can everyone else.

  • Skeptic

    Also toss in a 12″ length of cast iron pipe. Added to the way-too-short lug wrench included with the car, it creates enough torque to break the seized lug nuts to get the wheel off, and to ensure 100 ft-lbs of torque when you put the replacement on the lugs. Costs almost nothing at your local hardware store.

  • NedLevi

    I think you’re likely right about the battery jumpers. I’ve been looking at, and testing a few. So far the Antigravity Batteries XP-10 Battery Jump Starter & Charger is the best one I’ve seen, but testing these requires at least 6 months to test durability, etc., so I didn’t include it. Of course, it’s not suitable, in my opinion, to take while traveling.

    You’re also right about spare tires not being properly maintained. That’s why I recommend making sure with a rental car, you ensure it’s inflated properly, and that the car has a working jack. All too often I’ve seen, or been told by a reader that part of the jack was missing when the rental was picked up.

    My best friend got a flat yesterday, wouldn’t you know it considering my article was published today. He has run-flat tires. He called AAA to tow him. He has no spare, and the inflator kit was useless because the tire was damaged by some kind of big nail or screw just above the tread. It wasn’t in the tire. I continue to think the best best is a spare. In the US a AAA membership isn’t bad either. You can let them change the tire, if they can get there in a reasonable amount of time.

  • NedLevi

    I’ve been using the same air pump for years that gets plugged into the accessory outlet. I’ve never had a problem with it.

  • NedLevi

    Thanks PA. That’s in part how I wrote the article. I’ve collected tips from others over the years and took the best ones for the article.

  • LonnieC

    I’d add a couple of things:

    First, learn how your car feels in the ice and snow. Go to an empty parking lot (Sunday morning?) when there’s a little snow down, and drive around (watch for the light posts!). Then, while driving at about 10mph, stop quickly, turn quickly, etc., and see what happens. Try to get a feel for how your car handles. This can help a lot once back on the road.

    Second, teach every driver (and passenger?) how to use the tire and jack, if there is one. This will require looking at the Owner’s Manual and reading it carefully. And it will also require the following:
    Make sure your spare is fully inflated or at least keep a little tire inflator in the car
    a 12″ square of wood to help steady the jack (good idea sirwired!).
    a drop-cloth or a 4′ square of plastic sheeting (another good idea sirwired!!)
    a couple of blocks of wood (4″x4″x12″)
    a pair of work gloves
    a work-light with good batteries
    a set of reflecting triangles in the trunk
    If all of this seems inconvenient, think much more inconvenient it is to have a flat tire and a flat spare on a back road at night in the snow.)

    Then, on a nice day, take out the driver/passenger who needs a lesson, and go through the steps:
    1. Put on gloves;
    2. get out the jack, spare tire, etc.;
    3. “break” the wheel nuts free before jacking up the car (just enough to know they are going to come loose when the car’s jacked up) ;
    4. then block the diagonally opposite tire in front and back of that tire;
    5. set up the jack (on that 12″ square if you have one);
    6. jack up the car;
    7. remove the tire nuts and put them somewhere they won’t roll away;
    8. takeoff the bad tire, put on the spare;
    9. put on the wheel nuts finger tight;
    10. tighten them by starting with any one as the first, then going to a loose nut diagonally opposite the first, then back to one next to the first one, then back again to one next to the second one, etc., back and forth until all are fairly tight;
    11. lower the jack until the tire just touches the ground and can’t be turned;
    12. then fully tighten all of the nuts – again going from any one, then an opposite one, then back to one near the first, etc.;
    13. then fully lower the car;
    14. remove the jack, put everything away, and brag to everyone when you get home.

    And a little hint: If you ever lose all of the wheel nuts when changing a tire, just remove one nut from each of the remaining three wheels and use those three to hold the fourth wheel. You don’t have to jack up each tire to do this. You’ll be fine until you get to a service station or dealership.

    If I’ve missed anything. feel free to let me and everyone else know!

  • Carl 0001

    Another tip is if you do skid into a ditch, make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of snow and is not damaged before running car to stay warm