Do you holiday plans include a lengthy drive to visit family and friends? If so, you’re not alone. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics states that the number of Americans traveling over Christmas more than doubles—with 91% of those trips being made by car.
But the Department of Transportation shares some less cheery numbers: Car accidents climb over 34% during the winter holidays, and almost a quarter of Christmas on-road collisions can be attributed to weather.
To help you avoid hazards and arrive safely to visit friends and family, we asked experts for their best advice on how to prepare your car for winter driving.
Preparing Your Car for Winter Driving Checklist
There’s nothing worse than worrying about breaking down while listening intently to every click and ping—especially if your car is older or infrequently driven.
Get some peace of mind before hitting the road by ensuring your car’s roadworthiness with these tips provided by Alyse Ainsworth, a safety and security expert with ASecureLife.com:
1. Check Your Tire Pressure
“Tire pressure decreases in colder weather and increases in warmer weather,” says Alyse. “You may find that as the weather gets cooler outside, your tires get a little flat.”
She warns that driving with low tire pressure puts your car at risk for tire blowout, rim damage, and even decreased steering performance. Meaning that it’s extra important to make sure your tires are in tip-top shape and that they have the right amount of pressure before you hit the road.
According to Alyse, you can check this yourself with a tire gauge. “The number on the side of your tire will let you know the correct PSI,” she says. “If the pressure is low, head over to your nearest gas station and fill your tires to the appropriate mark.”
Never checked your tire pressure before? No problem. Just check out the brief instructional video below:
Alyse suggests that, in the winter, you should add 3–5 PSI to each tire to combat the decrease in pressure that comes with cold weather. “If you don’t feel confident doing this yourself, then head over to the nearest auto shop or tire store. Most will top your tires off for free.”
2. Consider Purchasing Snow Tires
“Some people are not used to driving on snow and ice which means their tires aren’t either,” says Alyse. “But snow tires can help.”
Constructed with flexible rubber that can stay soft in the coldest conditions and designed with superior tread, snow tires are able to better grip—and maintain contact—with icy, snowy, and slushy roads.
Alyse warns that if you are driving on low-profile tires, then you should get them changed to either all-season or winter. “Additionally, no matter the season, make sure your tires have sufficient tread depth and no damage.”
There are two easy ways to ensure that your tires have sufficient tread:
Look in the grooves down the center of the tire’s tread for slightly raised bumps. These are the tire’s wear marks. If your tire’s tread has worn down to reach these small bumps, it’s time to buy a new set.
Take a penny, turn it upside down, and insert it into the tire’s tread with Abraham Lincoln’s face towards you. If the penny can go in deep enough so that Honest Abe’s hairline is slightly covered, you have sufficient tread to make your trip.
Note that it’s important to check both the center and outer tread pattern:
If the center tread is worn, but the outer tread is relatively deeper than your tires might be over-inflated.
If either the inner or the outer tread is worn more than the center grooves, your tires may be under-inflated.
If one side of your car’s tires is more worn than the other, you may need to have your car’s alignment checked before your trip.
Want to see a demonstration of how to check your car tire’s tread? Just view the video below:
3. Ensure Your Headlights Are Working
With winter comes decreased sunlight and hazardous driving conditions that can impair your field of vision. If your headlights are not in working order, that can further impair your vision.
Before hitting the road, take the time to make sure that your headlights, brake lights, turn signals, and emergency lights all have properly working bulbs and switches. Alyse suggests also packing some replacement bulbs in the trunk of your car in case one goes out.
4. Check That Your Windshield Wipers Are in Working Order
“A couple of other things to check are your wipers and fluid,” says Alyse. “Especially if you’re dealing with rain, sleet, or snow, you’ll want to ensure your wipers will clear your windshield completely.”
Topping up your wiper fluid is simple, and extra fluid can be purchased at any automotive store. If you need help locating your specific model’s wiper fluid reservoir, search YouTube for “(make+model+year) + fill wiper fluid” or look in your car’s manual.
But you’re not done yet! “Believe it or not, windshield wipers expire,” says Alyse. “They only last about two to three years in moderate weather and even shorter in hot climates or intense conditions.”
To check to see if your wipers need replacing, look at the surface of each wiper blade, checking for imperfections and cracks. Even the slightest nick can cause rain or snow to smear across your windshield, so look carefully and err on the side of caution.
A pair of replacement blades will run you about $40 at a local auto store. But, considering that they’re the only between you and a windshield blurred by inclement weather, new wipers are definitely worth the investment. Then, if you’re unsure of how to swap out new blades for yourself, just check the video below:
5. Check Your Car’s Fluid Levels
“To ensure your car is in the best possible shape for your trip, top off your car’s fluids or change them entirely,” says Alyse. “You should check fluids as frequently as once a month and get them changed by the recommended date on your service sticker.”
Begin by checking your oil by pulling out the dipstick and wiping it off with a clean rag. Insert the stick back into the pipe and pull it out again. Look at the end of the dipstick to see how much oil is left in your car. There should be lines that read “add” and “full.”
You will also want to check your coolant—your engine works overtime in the cold, and you don’t want it to overheat.
Not sure how to check your oil or coolant levels? Instructions for both can be found in your car’s manual. Or, search YouTube for “(make+model+year) + check (oil/ coolant)” to find an instructional video.
6. Consider Heading to a Mechanic for a Thorough Inspection
Car maintenance novices might have an easy enough time checking the above four points. However, Alyse suggests that it’s worth stopping by a certified mechanic who can also inspect your air filters and transmission fluid before a long car trip.
The advice to enlist your mechanic for an inspection is seconded by Jill Trotta, an ASE Certified Mechanic with 25 years’ experience. Jill is also the Automotive Group Director of RepairPal—a certification service that ensures fair estimates and nationwide warranties on repairs done in any RepairPal-certified shop.
“I would recommend having your vehicle inspected before driving in the winter,” Jill says, adding that they can also make sure the belts and hoses are in good shape; the coolant has the right mixture, as well as lend an expert eye to inspect not only your main tires but your spare tire as well.
“It’s also important to make sure your A/C is working properly,” she suggests. “On later model cars, the A/C acts as a dehumidifier and helps to defrost windows.”
7. Pack Some Just-In-Case Supplies
While performing all of the above checks certainly minimize your chances of getting in an accident or stuck, there’s always the risk of something going wrong—or, even having to pull over due to heavy snowfall.
To avoid worst-case scenarios, such as being stranded due to a blowout, Jill suggests brushing up on your know-how and packing a few supplies just in case.
“Make sure you know how to put the tires on and get them off before taking off on a trip,” she suggests.” I would also make sure to have a tarp to put on the ground and some gloves so putting the chains on and off is more comfortable.”
To avoid feeling stranded and starving, it’s also important to stock up on a few necessities. “Have blankets, water, a basic tool kit, a flashlight, and some protein bars on hand.”
Finally, Jill says “I wouldn’t depend on the car battery as a long-term solution. So, have an extra battery or phone battery charger in case you get stuck and need help.”
Additional Winter Driving Tips
1. Plan Your Route
Jill’s final advice is to remember the importance of planning your route ahead of time. Even if you’ve driven the same route every year, driving conditions can change hour by hour. Check up-to-date road conditions, traffic timing, and allow some extra time for detours.
2. Know How to Get Un-Stuck
Brad Hines, Huff Post writer and author of Autoprofitz: How To Make Money Buying and Selling Cars, suggests a few ways to get out of the rut.
“If your tires are spinning in the snow, sometimes letting a few pounds of air pressure out of the tires can help out,” says Brad. “Make sure you keep an A/C-powered tire inflator in your trunk for an emergency so you can re-inflate them afterward.”
According to Brad, if you can’t risk deflating your tires, sprinkling some sand or even putting down flat wooden boards beneath the wheels can help out.
Joe Giammona, CEO of 911 Driving School, pitched in with the ingenious suggestion to pack a bag of cheap kitty litter in place of sand, just in case you get stuck in some slush. Sprinkling the litter on the ground directly under your tire gives the rubbers something to grip, and increases your chances of getting unstuck without asking for help.
3. Keep Your Fuel Tank Above Half-Full
Additionally, he states the importance of not allowing your fuel levels to get too low.
“Make sure that your gas tank is at least half-full at all times during the winter season,” Joe says.
“In the event that your car gets stuck or stranded, keeping your gas tank as far from empty as possible will ensure you have a source of heat in emergency situations.”
4. Understand the Limitations of Four- and All-Wheel Drive
“All-wheel drive is four-wheel drive all the time,” Brad says. “While four-wheel drive needs to be manually engaged by the driver.”
More importantly, neither 4WD or AWD can help your car stop faster or have better lateral traction (around turns). However, what they will do is help your car to accelerate in the snow without getting stuck.
Pro Tip: If you’re going down hills in the snow, especially in low gear, Brad warns that taking your foot off the gas can be almost the same as hitting the brake—that is, it can make the car skid.
5. Don’t Forget to Share Your Route Before Buckling in for a Long Drive
Joe also mentions the importance of sharing your route with family and friends. “If you have to venture out during a storm or hazardous driving conditions, be sure to tell a relative, friend, or coworker your destination and your expected arrival time.”
Summary: How to Prepare Your Car for Winter Driving
Here’s a handy checklist to ensure you don’t forget the following items, lest you get left out in the cold:
Check your tires: Use a pressure gauge to ensure tires are filled to the number indicated on the tire’s wall. Add 3-5 PSI when driving in cold weather or stop by an auto shop for a top up.
Consider swapping out your tires: Check to make sure your tires have sufficient tread and aren’t a low-profile design. If you’re driving on ice or snow, consider swapping for snow tires that can offer extra grip.
Check your lights: Switch on your headlights, brake lights, turn signals, and emergency lights to make sure all bulbs are working and switches are in good order. Consider grabbing an extra bulb or two in case one burns out on the road.
Inspect your windshield wipers. Carefully look at each wiper blade to see if there are nicks or cracks, which are signs that they need replacing. Also, check to see if your windshield wiper fluid needs topping off.
Check your fluid levels. Including both wiper fluid, oil, and coolant.
Consider a professional check-up. A mechanic can inspect your belts, fluid levels, and tires to ensure that you aren’t stuck in the cold.
Pack basic supplies. Including blankets, snacks, water, and an extra cell phone battery to ensure that, if you are stranded, the day doesn’t go from bad to worse.
Finally, it should go without saying, but make sure that everyone in your car is properly buckled up for a safe ride.