Snow and Slush and Ice, Oh My! How to Drive in Winter Weather
If your move sends your road tripping across the country during the winter months, you may encounter areas with drastically different weather than you’re accustomed to. If you’re driving towards the North, you’ll no doubt run into snowy weather along the way—sometimes to the tune of snowdrifts and impassable highways. And if you’re driving through the Midwest, it’s very likely that you could come across treacherous ice covered roadways—which require a completely different style of driving than snow.
Without knowledge of how to maneuver it correctly, driving in winter weather can be incredibly dangerous.
The US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration reports that each year, snow & sleet cause 225,000 crashes and 870 deaths. Icy conditions are responsible for 190,100 crashes and 680 deaths, and snow/slushy pavement brought on 168,300 crashes and 620 deaths.
The danger of driving on snow and ice comes with not knowing how to properly prepare your vehicle and how to drive under these conditions. To help guide you in your cross-country travels, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of tips to help keep you safe on the road through winter weather.
Prepare Your Vehicle for Snow and Ice Driving
Drive a vehicle you’re comfortable with. If you aren’t used to it, things like touchy breaks, loose steering, etc. can make driving on snow and ice dangerous. This is a great reason to move with U-Pack instead of a rental truck. U-Pack drives the moving truck, so you can drive in the comfort of your personal vehicle.
Service your car. Before you hit the road, make to do a thorough check, including:
- Ignition system – check for damaged ignition wires, cracked distributor caps and worn spark plugs.
- Battery – When the temperatures drop, so does battery power. Check for adequate voltage and make sure all connections are properly tightened and corrosion-free.
- Fuel system – If you’re moving to an extremely cold area, consider adding a bottle of fuel deicer into your tank to help keep moisture from freezing in the fuel line (check your owner’s manual first). Another rule of thumb to decrease the chances of frozen gas lines is to keep the gas tank at least half full at all times.
- Windshield wipers – check to see if they need to be replaced, and consider winter wiper blades.
- Fluids – Replace standard windshield washer fluid with the “no-freeze” variety.
- Brakes – The breaking system is the vehicle’s most important safety feature. Have them checked before venturing out into weather.
- Exhaust system – Have the entire exhaust system checked for leaks and holes – exhaust fumes inside your vehicle can be deadly.
- Oil – Check oil levels, and consider changing to a “winter weight” oil if you’re moving to a cold climate.
- Heating and cooling system – Check the radiator and radiator hoses for leaks. And, test the heater and defroster to make sure they are functioning properly. Use a coolant that is designed to withstand winter temperatures. A 50/50 mix of coolant to water is good for most regions, but check your vehicle’s owner’s manual to be sure.
Lights – check to see that all exterior and interior lights are working properly.
Ensure tires have adequate tread. According to tirerack.com, if you’re moving to an area with extreme temperatures and a lot of snow, skip the All-Season tires and go with winter tires. Thanks to good tread design, pliable tread compound and sufficient tread depth, they provide the best ice and snow traction. If you’re expecting to encounter snow-covered roads, consider replacing your tires when they reach approximately 6/32” of remaining tread depth.
Clear your vehicle of snow and ice before you drive. States like New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Alaska, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Washington DC and Massachusetts all have laws requiring drivers to clear snow and ice from their vehicle before driving. In some states, such as New York, if you fail to clear the ice and snow and it blows off onto another vehicle causing an accident, you could be held liable for damages. Before you drive, remove snow and ice from ALL of your vehicle’s mirrors, windows, the room and hood.
Use care clearing windows of ice. Never use hot water to defrost a frosty windshield, and avoid turning the defroster on right away—the thermal shock from the change in temperatures could cause the windshield to crack. Instead, start your vehicle, turn the heater on for five minutes to warm it and the windshield up, and then turn the defroster on. Heat hitting a very cold windshield could cause it to crack. If you’re in a hurry, some experts recommend using a professional de-ice spray or a homemade solution of 3:1 vinegar to room temperature water. You can spray the vinegar solution on the night before or the morning of. It will dissolve frost upon contact. But be careful, some experts say that long-term exposure to vinegar to the exterior of your car could cause damage if it isn’t removed quickly. Some also recommend a homemade solution of 2:1 70% isopropyl rubbing alcohol and room temperature water.
Clear your exhaust of snow and ice. A clogged exhaust could cause carbon monoxide to back up into the vehicle, causing harm, and even death.
Gather supplies. Create a Winter Driving Survival Kit that includes:
- Blankets or sleeping bag
- Road flares and reflectors
- First aid kit
- Heavy boots
- Extra set of clothing for all passengers
- Cell phone
- Cell phone charger that plugs into lighter
- Flashlight with spare batteries (or windup flashlight)
- Small candles and matches (or other fire starter)
- Large garbage bag
- Small knife
- Pencil and paper
- Bright cloth (attach to your antenna to signal that you need help)
- Tool set
- Non-clumping cat litter or sand (for tire traction)
- Small shovel
- Ice scraper/snow brush
- Tow cables or chain
- Tire chains
- Jumper cables
- Non-perishable snacks like raisins, energy bars, canned soup, miniature candy bars, etc.
- Bottled water and energy drinks
Tissues or a roll of toilet paper
Travel with a cell phone and charger. This is one time you don’t want to leave home without it. Add all emergency numbers, including tow truck companies in your area—just in case.
Buckle up! Even if it’s tempting to forgo the seatbelt when you’re wearing bulky clothing and coats, don’t do it. Not only is it the law, it’s also for our safety. Seatbelts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passengers by 45%, according to the National Organization for Youth Safety.
Take off kids’ winter coats. According to a Consumer Reports article, bulky winter coats should not be worn underneath the harness of a car seat. You can test to see if your child’s coat is too big by putting the coat on your child, sitting them in the safety seat and fastening the harness. Tighten the harness completely, then without loosening the harness, remove the child from the safety seat, take off the coat, place them back in the sat and buckle the harness strap. If you can pinch the webbing between your thumb and forefinger, the coat is too bulky to be worn in the car seat. Instead, use a blanket to keep the child warm.
- Check your insurance. If you don’t have the comprehensive and collision coverage on your vehicle, you may want to consider upping your insurance before winter weather driving.
How to Drive in Snow and Ice
- Plan your route. Avoid back roads and less-traveled roads. Check the highway department website for road conditions to help you determine your route. Also, check the weather along your path using this helpful tool from Weather Underground.
- Stay home if possible. If you are moving and starting a job, you may have no choice but to hit the road and drive, despite the conditions. But if you can, it may be best to stay home and wait for roads to clear before driving.
Stay alert. Driving when you’re tired is never a good idea. It becomes even more dangerous when you’re driving in severe winter weather. Make sure you’re wide awake and alert before you start your journey and that you anticipate what is up ahead.
Drive with headlights on. In many states, the law requires turning your headlights on with rain, snow and sleet conditions.
Decrease your speed and leave plenty of room. Drive slowly, with slow acceleration. You should allow at least three times more space than usual between you and the car in front of you. Give yourself plenty of space and time to maneuver. Drive with care when approaching intersections, off-ramps, bridges or shady spots.
Brake carefully. Don’t break if you can help it, and always avoid slamming on them. If you have anti-lock brakes, press the pedal down firmly and hold it. If you do not have anti-lock brakes, gently pump the pedal.
Use care on bridges and overpasses. They are the first to surfaces to freeze, so they can get hairy fast. Brake before the bridge and use steady speed while driving over them.
When turning, don’t over steer. Gently guide your vehicle through the turn. Wait until you are going straight to accelerate.
Steer smooth. Don’t jerk the wheel when on ice. The main problem with steering happens when you come out of the ice patch and your tires hit the pavement. If the wheel is turned as your tires hit clear pavement, it can cause your vehicle to dart sharply off the road. If you do skid, don’t slam on the breaks. Simply take your foot off the gas and steer your car in the direction you want to go. Wait for the car to slow down so you can regain control.
Don’t use cruise control. Even if the roads aren’t icy, if there has been sand or salt applied, cruise control is a bad idea.
Use caution on hills. When approaching a hill, gently accelerate before the hill and keep a steady pace while climbing it—but don’t stop. When descending the hill, drive slowly, with caution. Avoid slamming on your breaks. Instead tap them and apply gentle pressure.
Watch for black ice. “Black ice” often looks like a puddle, but instead it’s a sheet of ice that is very slick. Black ice can be especially prevalent in the mornings and evenings.
Drive in the right lane. Often, the right lane is the first lane to be cleared by plows. Stay in this lane except when passing.
Use turn signals. If you are turning or passing, it’s especially important to use signals when it’s icy or snow-covered. The people behind you will need ample warning that you’re turning so they can prepare in plenty of time.
Don’t stop for accidents or stranded vehicles on an icy roadway. Unless the stranded driver is in immediate danger, call 911 to contact authorities who are able to safely block the road. Parking on the side of the highway when ice is present can cause other drivers to break and lose control.
- Leave room for plows. If you are following a plow, grater, or other removal truck, be sure to leave plenty of room. These trucks will be spraying salt or throwing snow, so you’ll want to steer clear.
What To Do If You Get Stranded in the Ice or Snow
Call for help. If there is a medical emergency or if there has been damage to another vehicle or property, dial 911. If the situation isn’t an emergency, call a friend, the non-emergency police line, or tow truck to help.
Try to make your car visible. Turn on your flashers, or attach a bright colored cloth to your antenna.
Avoid exertion. Don’t attempt to push your car out of a snow bank or do anything too physical.
Stay inside your car. If possible, stay inside where you will be protected from the elements and other vehicles.
Don’t waste fuel. Keep the vehicle running long enough to warm up the car, but if you think you’ll be stranded for a long time, conserve fuel by turning it off. If you keep everything sealed up and closed, the car should stay warm for a while without the engine running.
- If you get out, keep the doors unlocked. You don’t want to get locked out in the snow.
Whether you are off to see family for winter break or traveling across the country for a move, we here at U-Pack hope you stay safe on the roads. If you have any other tips for traveling in the snow and ice, leave us a comment. We would love to hear your tips!