Winterize Your Car

Categories: Seasonal
A Car in need of winterizing

The first snow of the year has fallen, so I guess it’s time to talk about how to winterize your car. Doing it right is easier than you might think. With a few simple steps you’ll be ready to safely drive nearly anything through the snow, sleet, and slush. Trust me, I drive a V8 Mustang year-round. In Wisconsin.

Change Your Rubber

I’m sure I don’t have to explain why winter sucks for driving. First things first, if you’re like me and rolling around on All-Season tires, carry on. However, if you’ve got summer compound tires, it’s time to swap them out for winter tread. Summer tires are formulated to be soft, pliable, and sticky in warm temperatures. Below freezing, they’re hard as Fred Flintstone’s stone wheels.

Winter tires are not only chemically formulated to remain supple well below zero, but have deeper, more aggressive tread patterns to bite through the snow and ice to find the pavement beneath. If you want to get extra crazy, there’s a process called Siping; cutting thousands of small slits into the tires’ tread which makes them grip like gecko feet in wet and snowy conditions, but at the cost of just destroying their longevity and durability.

Speaking of rubber, your windshield wipers need replacing for largely the same reasons. Summer wiper blades are formulated for warm weather and bug guts. Winter wipers, like winter tires, are optimized to remain soft and maintain a seal against the glass at much lower temperatures and while being assaulted by, well, salt. Ditto your wiper fluid, which needs to be topped off with winter mix because summer fluid can quite literally freeze.

Pack Your Ditch Bag

From sixteen through twenty-two, I drove some of the most desolate winter backroads you can imagine outside of Alaska. Homestead ten miles away from a town of a thousand people. Bad cell service and might not see another car for hours. My parents made sure my little brother and I never left the house without a “Ditch Bag” in the winter. Context clues here should tell you this was a survival bag for when we screwed up and landed in a snowy ditch.

What you need in a ditch bag (Not everything will literally fit in a bag. Just needs to be in your trunk generally):

A bag: Gym bag. Old backpack. Whatever. Gotta keep this shit somewhere.

Good high-ankle winter boots: You’re going to be tromping around in deep snow.

Wool socks: Keep your little piggies toasty.

Winter gloves/mittens: Gloves preferred for dexterity, you’re going to be shoveling.

-Thermal blanket: In case you need to snuggle up for warmth.

Road hazard reflector/flares: Let other drivers know you need help.

Collapsible snow shovel: To dig your way out.

Ice scrapper/snow brush: Obviously.

Candle: You’ll be shocked how much heat a single candle puts out in an enclosed space.

Lighter: For the candle, duh.

Hard candies: Digging out a car takes a lot of energy. You’ll need calories that can’t spoil.

20lb bag of sand: Not salt, not kitty litter. They both create enormous, slippery messes. Sand for traction.

Driving like it’s Winter

The most important thing you can do to stay safe driving in winter is drive like your grandma. Be gentle with the throttle, keep the revs down and try to stay in higher gears to prevent the wheels from spinning. Cut your speed by a third or more depending on conditions. The sand in your trunk will keep some extra weight and over your rear wheels, which is important for traction in any platform but especially rear-wheel drive cars or pickup trucks.

If you do lose traction and the backend slides out, don’t panic. Overreacting to a slide or skid is what puts you in the ditch. When you feel a slide begin, don’t hit the brakes. The rear wheels will lock up and the rear will spin right out. Instead, take your foot off the gas, let the vehicle coast, and turn the steering wheel into the direction of the slide. If the back end steps out to the left, turn the wheel to the left until the slide stops, then gently straighten back out and resume travel.

Don’t let your fuel gauge get below half a tank. Refuel often. If you do wind up in the ditch on a deserted stretch of blizzard-covered country road, the fuel in your tank is your only source of heat. If this happens, get out and clear the area around your exhaust of snow to prevent any build-up of carbon monoxide. At idle, half a tank of gas or diesel will last for many hours and keep your interior warm and comfortable until someone discovers your predicament.

That’s what I’ve learned about surviving as a winter driver over the years. Follow along and you should have no trouble making it through until next spring. And once you do, come on back here for tips on how to get your ride ready for summer.