Buckle up: 11 tips for taking a safe winter road trip

Jan 27, 2022

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Snow, ice, sleet, slush — unless you’re planning a winter road trip specifically to avoid snow, you need to know how to deal with the season’s inclement weather, preferably before you turn the key in the ignition.

Not all winter road trips will involve extreme weather conditions. However, you don’t need to be driving in Alaska to run into snow-covered roads, as witnessed by the quick-moving snowstorm near the nation’s capital that stranded thousands of passengers on a 40-mile stretch of road for more than 24 hours at the beginning of the year.

“Many drivers don’t know what to do when the weather gets cold,” says Benjamin Leuchter, a test and development driver for Volkswagen. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan winter driving adventures — in fact, we’re big fans of ski trips. It just means you’ll want to prepare to drive in snowy conditions to avoid getting stuck, according to Leuchter.

Before hitting the road this winter, follow these tips from Leuchter and other car safety experts for staying safe during a cold-weather road trip.

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Bring winter safety essentials

(Photo by Lightshape/Getty Images)

“Having some essential items in your vehicle before hitting the road is key to not only give you peace of mind, but to ensure you’re prepared in case of bad weather,” says Suzanne Johansson, a safety engineer at Chevrolet.

In addition to a snow brush and an ice scraper, Johansson recommends keeping a snow shovel and abrasive material such as sand or cat litter in your car. You’ll also want to have jumper cables, a flashlight and emergency flares in case you encounter unexpected problems.

While you may not want to wear your heaviest coat, boots and gloves when you get behind the wheel (it can be hard to drive when you’re overly bundled), Johansson recommends stowing cold-weather clothing in your car. She also suggests keeping a blanket or sleeping bag in your emergency winter car kit should you find yourself in need of extra layers to stay warm while stuck or stranded.

Pack a DIY car emergency kit

On top of winter-specific car items, the experts at AAA strongly recommend packing a well-stocked emergency kit before venturing out in your vehicle. Create a bag that includes a cellphone charger, a flashlight with extra batteries, a first-aid kit, drinking water and extra snacks and food for travelers and pets to keep in your car.

Prepare your car for winter

Prior to starting your trip, you’ll want to set aside time for getting your car checked by an expert. “Have your dealer or a trusted mechanic do any scheduled service on your vehicle [before you embark on a trip in wintry conditions],” Johannson says. During this service visit, make sure your battery, tires, headlights and brake lights, wiper blades and other critical parts are tested and ready for winter, she adds.

Check your tires

Since your tires are the only part of your car that actually touch the road, it’s especially important to make sure they’re ready to roll before your winter road trip begins. Start by checking the tread depth, which you can do by inserting a quarter (head first) into the tread, advises AAA. If you can see the top of Washington’s head, it’s time for new tires.

Also, check the tire pressure on all four tires, especially in winter when they tend to drop with the temperature, Leuchter says. Routinely check and adjust your tire pressures to the recommended levels for your vehicle, which are listed inside the driver’s side door jamb.

Hit the car wash

Having a clean car may not be top of mind when you’re preparing for a winter road trip, but it’s a commonly missed tip that our experts say should be prioritized. This is especially true for cars with advanced safety features that rely on sensors and cameras. In the front, keep the windshield, front grill, front bumper area and headlamps clean. In the rear, make sure the rear camera lens and rear bumper are clean.

Download the right apps

Another way to prepare for a winter road trip is to load your phone with helpful apps. Here are a few options:

  • Weather Underground, Weather, Weather Bug: Any weather app that provides both long-range forecasts and emergency weather alerts based on your current GPS (like these) will ensure you receive up-to-date information about driving conditions throughout your journey.
  • GasBuddy: This app is designed to help you find the cheapest gas as you drive to your destination, but it also doubles as a way to locate the closest service station in an emergency.
  • ChargePoint or ChargeHub: Travelers with electric vehicles will want to use one of these apps to find nearby charging locations.
  • Waze: Use this directions app to get real-time, crowd-sourced road conditions and hazards.
  • Google Maps: Through this app, you can download directions for offline use so you can always know how to get to your destination, even if you lose your phone signal.
  • TripWhistle: One of our favorite travel apps, TripWhistle maps your location and allows you to easily text or send your GPS coordinates.
  • Hotel Tonight: Another TPG go-to app, this last-minute booking app can locate the closest available hotel room and find you the lowest price, should you find yourself needing to get off the road and take a break.

Read the manual

When was the last time you read your car’s safety manual? It’s another overlooked prep step, says Johansson. Before you set out, take some time to review the sections of your owner’s manual that cover anti-lock brakes, traction control and four- or all-wheel drive (if equipped) so you’re aware of your vehicle’s features and how to use them prior to needing them.

Skip cruise control

While you may be tempted to use car features like speed-maintaining cruise control, Leuchter recommends avoiding cruise control systems since the frequency of stops may increase in wintry conditions. Instead, manually control your car’s position so that there’s more distance — at least three car lengths — between your vehicle and the car in front of you. Also avoid quick acceleration, aggressive steering and sudden braking, Leuchter says.

Fill up the gas tank and other car essentials

(Photo by Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images)

It’s important to stay fueled and charged since bad weather can cause unexpected delays, Johansson says. She recommends keeping your gas tank at least half full and your cellphone charged whenever you head out in your car in winter. Additionally, you’ll want to check that your windshield washer fluid is filled with an antifreeze solution to protect your visibility on the road.

Know what to do if you start to skid

If you’ve ever driven in icy weather, you’ve probably experienced the stomach churning that accompanies the sensation of your tires connecting with an icy road. While hitting a patch of ice and consequently skidding can cause nerves, it’s important to stay calm and resist the urge to slam on the brakes, according to AAA. Instead, decide where you want the car to go and steer in that direction.

Dig out and stay warm while you wait for help

Should you find yourself stuck in snow or ice and waiting for help, clear the snow from the base of your vehicle, especially around the exhaust pipe, Johansson says. Then, intermittently run the vehicle to keep the interior warm. Don’t forget to open a window about two inches to bring in fresh air.

Featured photo by Westend61/Getty Images.

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