Drive a Car in Winter Weather

Driving your car while the roads are snowy and icy can be a stressful ordeal. While some vehicles are well-suited for the snow, some are not and require preparation and know-how to keep the car under control.


  1. Get your car serviced regularly. Preventive maintenance is key. Make sure your battery, cooling system, and windshield wipers are in tip-top shape. You'll spend less money servicing your car than you'll spend towing and fixing it if your car gives out while you're on a dark, snowy road.
  2. Buy snow tires or add chains to your existing tires if you live in a very snowy climate. Snow tires have special treads that cut through the snow and allow the vehicle to have better traction. They're also made of a more flexible type of rubber, so that they don't freeze and become hard in cold temperatures. It is best to get snow tires for the drive wheels. For rear-wheel drive, add snow tires to the rear. If your car is equipped with tires that have predominantly thin tread lines, they will clog easily, making steering or getting traction difficult.
    • Some all-season tires do not rid themselves of snow properly and become clogged in deep snow. These tires may be unsafe to drive with in extreme conditions.
    • Most tire stores will insist on snow tires or studded tires to all four wheels of a front wheel drive vehicle. The rear tires should have adequate or equal traction as the front tires for proper handling and preventing fish tailing, especially when making turns. It isn't critical to have studs on all four ties of a front wheel drive car, but highly recommended so the traction is equal.
  3. Practice driving in winter weather. If you're learning to drive, or are unfamiliar with driving in snowy and icy weather conditions, practice after a storm in a large, empty parking lot with a seasoned driver. Practice how to brake safely, learn to get out of a skid, and how your car handles in winter weather. This can actually be a lot of fun!
  4. Put a few sandbags directly over the rear axle if you have a rear-drive vehicle. The weight of the sand provides more pressure on tires to provide better traction. The sand in the bags could be used to provide traction when you're stuck by pouring some sand in front of the slipping tires. In some instances, the area over the axle of a rear wheel drive will be part of the passenger compartment. Make sure the sandbags will remain in place if you have to make sudden stops. Some people add weight to the rear of front wheel drive cars so the rear doesn't slide outward during turns. This does improve traction for the rear tires, just don't overdo it.
  5. Look ahead and keep a very safe distance from the vehicles in front of you (double the distance you normally would). Keep scanning the vehicles in front of you and look out for brake lights. If you've kept your distance you should be able to bring your vehicle to a stop with distance to spare, instead of having to slam on your brakes and sliding into the vehicles in front of you.
  6. Ease up on the gas if your car starts to slip in place while you're trying to accelerate from a standstill. Remember, the wheels have better traction when they are not slipping. If you have an automatic transmission put the selector lever to 2. Many cars lock the transmission in second gear to facilitate easier starting from a slippery surface.
  7. Drive slowly and carefully. No matter how much preparation and experience you might have, the way your car will move on snow or ice always has a big element of unpredictability. Anticipate turns and stops so you can approach them gently. Do not accelerate into turns. Coasting through the turn works best in deep snow or on icy roads.
  8. When stopping plan well in advance, apply the brakes gently, and slowly add pressure rather than fast sudden braking. Intersections are often extremely icy so do not rely on being able to come to a stop in your normal bare pavement zone. If your car is equipped with anti-lock brakes, the best thing you can do to stop the car quickly is to apply firm constant pressure to the brake pedal. The ABS system will maintain traction, and you will be able to steer the car during braking. If your car doesn't have anti-lock brakes and the wheels do lock, release the brake and re-apply gently. Usually, repeatedly tapping the brakes has good results. Do not try to steer a car not equipped with ABS if your wheels are locked or close to locking. If there is an obstacle in your path and a collision is imminent, it is best to release the brakes to unlock the front wheels and steer around the obstacle with no gas pedal applied. (See the related wikiHow article How to Stop a Car with No Brakes.)
  9. There is much confusion caused by the ambiguity used when instructions are given regarding skidding and the direction of the skid. A great number of people fail to realize that skidding involves the loss of grip of the rear wheels of the car (with rear wheel drive cars) and occurs when the rear of the car is trying to pass the front. To correct for any skid -let up on the gas and gently turn your wheels in the direction you want to go. It is a very natural desire to turn that way and so there is nothing complicated to have to remember which way to turn. Be careful not to over correct and do not re-apply the gas until you are again headed in the direction you want to go. If you happen to see someone in the ditch facing the opposite way they were traveling - they undoubtedly turned the wrong way or did not let up on the gas.
  10. If the car does not seem to turn, or turns too wide, easing off of the throttle lightly might do. If not efficient, feather the brakes and steer just slightly tighter into the corner. Simply panicking and steering sharply into the corner will only reduce control.
  11. If the car is hydroplaning: gently ease off of the throttle without lifting off of it completely. If necessary, ease off completely. If this does not help, de-clutch (in a manual transmission) or re-apply the throttle lightly (in an Automatic).
  12. Don't accelerate while turning! When people say "accelerate," they usually mean speed up. But, remember from high school physics, that there are really three ways to accelerate (change your velocity). All of the three can cause skidding. They are (1) speeding up, (2) slowing down, and (3) changing direction. If you're doing one of the three, don't be doing another simultaneously. For example. if you're turning, don't speed up, but rather feather the brakes.
    • Steer the car smoothly, but work out the ability to turn the wheel quickly, but still smoothly enough to not jerk the car. In sharp corners, a quick turn of the wheel will induce an ideal, although slightly delayed, response. If the car does react with a delay, do not steer even more, but wait for it to respond while staying lightly on the brakes.
  13. Many people are understandably terrified of hills in wintry driving conditions. The first thing to remember is to never apply the brakes on a hill if you can avoid it whether going uphill or downhill. Remember that the slower the wheels are moving (and that the engine is revolving), the more torque is applied. When approaching an incline, speed up slightly before reaching the hill to give you the momentum to get up the hill. Never slow down before attempting an incline or while you are on the hill. Declines are perhaps more difficult to deal with. When approaching a decline, slow down before you reach the hill, then coast down the hill as safely as you can. On long steep declines, coast as long as you can, but do not let your car get out of control. Judiciously apply the brake to keep your speed to a manageable level. On cars with manual transmissions and where it is legal, engine braking is invaluable in dealing with declines in winter weather.
  14. If the car's front windshield is overridden with fumes, turning the A/C on air-recirculation, with a front window slightly open, will remove the moist more quickly, unless the inside of the car is very hot and moist, where the A/C is better turned on "Fresh Air".


  • Every time you approach a bridge or overpass - do your best just to coast over, without any acceleration or braking. Because air can travel underneath the road surface, as well as over it, any moisture on the road will freeze well before it would off of the road. As well, the shape of the bridge can increase wind velocities, cooling the road surface further and affecting handling.
  • Keep your gas tank full for 2 reasons: if you do get stuck somewhere and you're completely isolated for a period of time, you can use your car for warmth. It also prevents water condensation from forming in your gas tank. (some fuel additives are available on the market that "remove" the water mixed in your fuel.) Carrying a thick old blanket, coat or sleeping bag in the trunk is wise, too.
  • Always be cautious. Even a seemingly clear road can have ice. If you see the headlights or taillights of a car ahead of you reflect off the road, chances are it's ice.
  • Carry a small plastic bucket with a good fitting lid full of a sand/ salt mixture in your trunk along with a small shovel. If you find yourself stuck and alone sometimes putting a little sand/salt mix under your tires can really help give you some traction and allow you to get yourself unstuck. Kitty litter also works but not quite as well.
  • Test the road. When first starting out, briefly accelerate firmly, then firmly brake. This will give you a better feel for the road conditions. If you notice the road conditions change, repeat the process in a safe manner (at a stop sign or empty side street). Being aware of road conditions will help you make better driving decisions.
  • Carry a set of jumper cables with you in case your battery dies. Most people will offer a jump but few people will actually carry the cables. Your chances of getting a jump-start increase 10-fold when you have your own cables.
  • Front wheel drive vehicles tend to handle snow better than rear wheel drive vehicles, but must be driven differently. For example, if the back end of your car starts to slide in a vehicle with FWD, turn the front wheels the direction you want to go and gently accelerate to pull the car out of the slide. Rear-wheel drive owners should take their foot off of the gas in this situation.
  • If there is a lot of slush between lanes, and you do have to change lanes - plan this ahead of time and do it at very low angle of approach, holding steering wheel steady. slush has a tendency to work almost as a suction strip that may cause sudden change of direction.
  • Make sure you turn on the engine and heater and scrape the snow from the car before setting out.
  • Try not to have to stop completely, especially if on an incline.This means very gradual stops on snow and maintaining momentum before getting to a hill.
  • Avoid cruise control when conditions are slippery. Being on cruise control can make you less aware of a car slipping out of control and slower to respond to a skid. It can also spin the tires of a car slowing due to lost traction, aggravating the situation.
  • Unpacked snow in either the passing-lane, the shoulders, or in-between tire-tracks offer much better traction for steering or stopping than packed snow or ice in the right lane. Iced over lanes is a good place to be the meat in a metal-and-meat sandwich. Firmly grip the wheel, and slowly make your move to a safer place to drive.
  • If you are stuck in the snow, keep your engine running to keep warm and do not shut the engine off. Check occasionally to make sure that snow isn't building up around your tail pipe, which will cause dangerous carbon monoxide to enter the vehicle.
  • When driving on icy or snowy roads with automatic transmission, make sure that your overdrive option (if you have one) is turned off. This will keep the transmission from applying drive or changing the drive speed to the drive wheels, and give total control over to the accelerator. (This also works when driving in very heavy rainfall.)
  • For heavy rain, try pre-treating your car's windshield with an anti-rain treatment like Rain-X or similar. The water droplets will roll off the glass instead of smearing, increasing your visibility in bad conditions.
  • There's no shame in asking a passenger or a passerby to give you a push if you're stuck. Sometimes a little nudge from the car behind you will help. Be careful when using a tow rope. It's easy to rear-end the car towing you if you gain traction suddenly. It's best to be pushed, but be sure the pushing vehicle is touching your bumper before they start pushing to minimize damage to both vehicles.
  • For FWD, you should turn the direction you want to go, maintaining rotation on front tires by gently applying the gas. At the same time, you should lightly apply the brakes to bring the tail of the car around. For RWD, do it oppositely.
  • When accessing deep water, brake to wipe off speed before it. Release the brakes, entering the water under very slight acceleration and a straight steering wheel. In a manual transmission, de-clutch rather than accelerate. After exiting the water, use the brakes lightly, release and re-apply two-three times (Without pumping), to see if the brakes feel normal. If they feel light or "spongy", a few more braking like this, will dry them out.


  • Even if you're a good winter driver and have a very capable vehicle, keep in mind that there are other drivers on the road who are less capable of controlling their car.
  • Remember that 4-wheel drive only helps you get going, and does nothing when trying to stop. If you drive a 4WD vehicle, don't be overconfident; you are not invincible.
  • Never park your car on a hill/gradient in freezing temperatures. Even though your car may stay in place for a while, melt on the tires will eventually run down and re-freeze underneath the tire. The ice will build up over time, slowly detaching the tire from the road. At some point the buildup may be enough that your car is no longer touching the road, and your car will start to slide down the slope!
  • Never keep your vehicle in 4-wheel drive for long periods of time if you have it. Most 4-wheel drive vehicles are part-time, which means that they normally drive on 2 wheels and switch to 4 wheels when the going gets tough. Running in 4-wheel drive mode all the time will cause a lot of additional wear and tear on your drivetrain and it will significantly reduce the lifespan of your vehicle.
  • A pleasant, sunny day is no guarantee that you will have good driving conditions. Watch out for black ice, which is a layer of ice so thin that it takes on the color of the roadway. People are less careful when hazards (such as black ice) are less obvious, so watch your own driving habits and those of the cars around you.
  • Do not drive if you are sleepy or you have had alcohol. Being wide awake and sober is essential for driving safely in any condition.
  • A good visualization technique is to imagine that a raw egg is sitting under your accelerator pedal. No more speeding!
  • If you end up idling with your engine on to stay warm, crack the door here and there to make sure that deadly gases (especially carbon monoxide) don't build up in your car. Sometimes having the window open is not enough. Open the door for approximately 20 seconds to exchange the air in your car.
  • Before putting chains on your vehicle make sure to read your owner's manual. Some vehicles prohibit putting chains on the tires and can seriously damage the vehicle. It is also important to check the laws regarding tire chains in your state. Some states prohibit using chains due to excessive wear and tear on the roadways.
  • Front-wheel drive vehicles may lose traction to the front wheels if the driver removes his or her foot from the gas pedal while taking a curve on an icy or snowy road. This is because of drag caused by compression that takes place in nearly all automobile engines. However, if the vehicle has a manual transmission, putting the clutch in will eliminate this drag, and help the front wheels maintain traction. Otherwise, the driver can use caution by maintaining just enough gas pedal pressure to avoid engine drag. This may require practice in a safe, open, icy location.
  • Engine braking is not necessarily the best way to slow down on slippy roads. It is not quite as likely to cause a skid as the service brakes, however, it can still cause a skid, and if it does, it is very hard to recover. Instead of relying on the engine to slow the car, shift to neutral and use the service brakes very gently. If you do not have ABS, pulse the pedal if any wheel starts to skid. On cars with ABS (most modern cars) the brakes will automatically prevent you from skidding if you use them too hard; you should not pulse the pedal on cars with ABS.

Things You'll Need

  • Keep these things handy in your car:
  • Ice scraper
  • snow broom
  • traction-aid tracks
  • jumper cables
  • a small shovel can also be useful in deep snow (you can buy shovels with telescopic or folding handles for easy storage in your trunk in most hardware stores)
  • a small container of sand/salt mixture.
  • some extra windshield washer fluid (especially if your car's dashboard doesn't have a warning light for it)
  • Emergency kit containing non-perishable food, warm clothing, blankets, and first aid supplies.
  • An emergency candle, or storm candle, sold in any grocery store. The warmth provided by this candle will normally keep the inside of a car warm for several days. Make sure to include a pack of waterproof matches as well, available at most outdoors stores.
  • Check with local regulations before using chains or studded tires, as they're illegal in some places.

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Sources and Citations