Practical Winter Driving Tips

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It’s that time of year – almost.snow-lead

You will likely be reading – and hearing – about how to make the best of it when the flakes begin to fall.

I won’t recycle the boilerplate recommendations about all-wheel-drive (not really that much of an advantage) or suggest you buy a set of snow tires (I’m assuming you’ve thought of that).

I’m figuring you might like some useful tips. Things you may not have read – or heard about – before.

Here goes:

* Make sure your AC is in good working order –

It might not sound silly – it’s cold outside; why worry about AC? – but it’s not. The air conditioner is an important element of the heater/defroster system because it dehumidifies the interior of your car. Without that vital function, the moisture-heavy winter air will fog up your windshield and leave you guessing where the road is.fogged-windshield

Cars without working AC can be as un-fun in winter as they are when it’s 98 degrees outside. And much more dangerous. This is why it’s a good idea to make sure the AC is working in Fall.

Before the bad weather starts rolling in.

Related: Check/change your car’s cabin filter (many late-modern cars have these). Lots of dust in the air in Fall … like pollen come Spring.

*Polish and then wax your windshield – 

A smooth surface will help dissipate water better and the wax coating will bead water and make it easier to slough off. Your windshield wiper blades will last longer, too.wax-pic

You’ll want to start with a cleaner/polish (some waxes are “all in one”) which has a light abrasive to gently clean the surface. The wax is the protective coat that will slough off the water.

Do the side/door glass and rear glass, too.

Especially the side and rear glass. Because they haven’t got wipers (usually) to clear them. If you wax them, the airflow over the car should keep them clean – and you’ll be able to see.

There are also products (RainX is one) that are “hydrophobic” – they repel water, forcing it to bead and roll off the surface of the exterior glass. In light rain, you may not even need to use your windshield wipers – or you can use them less. Which ought to make them last longer.

Related: If you haven’t already, change out the windshield washer fluid for a winter formulated fluid. It’s usually orange-colored rather than the usual blue-ish stuff. If your fluid reservoir is still full of the old stuff, you can easily suck it out using a turkey baster or a large medical syringe.

*Let some air out of (and then back into) your tires –tire-pic-2

If you’ve ever driven on sand (at the beach) you’ll already know this trick. Reducing tire pressure by about 10-15 pounds increases grip by increasing the tire’s contact patch. Think about the weight of the car pushing down on the tires; with less air in them, the tread spreads out – and this increases traction on shifty/slippery surfaces like packed snow.

But this trick is for low-speed (25 MPH or less) slogging on packed (compacted) snow only. It’s really important to not drive at high (or even medium) speeds on under-inflated tires. If you do, the car will handle weirdly – possibly, dangerously. Braking performance will also decrease. And the tires will run hotter, which isn’t good for them, which isn’t good for you.

There are also occasions when more rather than less pressure can be helpful, such as fresh (and deep) unplowed snow. Increasing the pressure will make the tire narrower – which helps it bite through the snow to the pavement below. Adding 3-5 pounds of air on really cold days also compensates for the cold – which reduces the air pressure in the tires.inflator-pic

So, again: To increase traction on compacted snow, try lowering pressure by 10-15 pounds. On fresh, unplowed snow (and when the outside air temperature is below freezing) add about 5 pounds.

You don’t need a gas station to do this, either. For about $50 you can buy a portable air compressor that is powered by your car’s cigarette lighter/12V power point. It’s smart policy to keep one of these in the trunk at all times – winter or summer. Along with a can of aerosol tire repair/inflator (Fix-a-Flat). The Fix-a-Flat is a fast/easy way to get going without risking changing a tire by the side of a busy road, with sail fawn-addled Clovers abounding.

* Keep the gas tank full – 

You may have hear this one before. But here’s a new reason you may not have heard before: A full tank will improve traction because of the extra weight over the wheels. In front wheel drive cars especially, this can be very helpful – because they are weight-biased toward the nose, where most of the drivetrain (engine and transaxle assembly) is concentrated. These cars are usually light in the tail. A full tank “trims” out the car – to borrow a term from aviation.

It’s also a big help if the car is rear-drive (especially if it’s a 2WD truck or SUV). You want more weight over the drive wheels, which will improve traction on snow/slick roads.

The other upshot to keeping the tank full is that it will help reduce condensation formation inside the tank resulting from temperature differentials. Water in the tank (and fuel lines) is bad news.

Keep your tank topped-off and that’s less likely to be a problem.

Some other thoughts…  about the kind of car that’s best for snow-day driving: 

* It’s older … and it’s paid for –

Driving on ice/snow – and amongClovers who don’t know how to – is less stressful when your car’s paid-for and already less than perfect.

Another dent’s not going to matter.clover lead

If you slide off the road and scrape some guardrail in the process your only real worry is how to get it back on the road. So long as it’s still drivable and basically intact, you’re good. But you’re far from good when you slide off the road in a $40,000 car you’re still making payments on.

 On top of the pain of that first big dent  is the pain of having to deal with the insurance mafia. If you have an old/paid-for car, on the other hand… who cares? Get some come-alongs and pull the fender back out enough so the metal doesn’t scrub the tire. No need to call the cops, much less call the insurance mafia.

And if some Clover hits you, it’s Christmas in January! So long as the car’s still drivable, you don’t have to get it fixed.

But Clover has to pay.

EPautos.com depends on you to keep the wheels turning! The control freaks (Clovers) hate us!

Goo-guhl blackballed us!

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30 COMMENTS

  1. An additional thought about keeping the tank full: If you are stuck with having to use low-grade fuel (ethanol-laced), you will have to be concerned about condensation in the fuel line. Keep it full if you con’t have a ready source for real gas.

  2. The most valuable winter driving lesson I ever got was on a warm summer day. A grassy right-of-way under a high-tension power line in Virginia stretched out for miles, and I couldn’t resist taking a (probably illegal) drive down it with my nearly-new Honda CB750K. I quickly found out that with just a little too much throttle the rear tire would break loose in the grass and the rear end would start to walk out to the side, but as long as I kept the front wheel pointed where I wanted to go, and used the throttle to keep the steering from going all the way to the locks, I could drive it crossed up for miles. In that moment I learned what is meant by the cryptic “steer into a skid” because I could SEE and FEEL what was going on with my machine.

    That very fall I hit a patch of leaves in a corner and started to go down. Without thinking about it, I got on the throttle to spin the rear wheel, kept the front wheel pointed where I wanted to go, and it snapped back upright in fine style. I would wish on every driver the opportunity to practice skid control in a SAFE location before an emergency forces them to understand what “steer into a skid” means.

    • Excellent points, Tom. I enrolled my son in an advanced driving course for new drivers at a local racetrack. The instructors put the kids through a bunch of real world situations, including the controlled skids. One of the things they stressed was the necessity to keep your eyes on where you wanted to be, not where you were headed.

      It was pretty cool how fast these kids got it. Props to you for learning it on a bike!

      • I learned vehicle dynamics bicycling. But watching where you wanted to go is key. about three years ago, maybe longer, one winter morning I am driving somewhere different and suddenly there are idiots who hit each other and decided the best thing to do was leave their cars in the traffic lane on the far side of a curve at a traffic light which just turned green. I soon found why they hit each other. Ice. I watched where I wanted to go as the car refused to stop and weaved into traffic in the neighboring lane and around the cars parked in the travel lane and scrubbed off enough speed to merge between barely moving cars in the other lane.

      • Hi Yeti,

        “One of the things they stressed was the necessity to keep your eyes on where you wanted to be, not where you were headed.”

        Bon Bondurant himself taught me this years ago.

    • Hi Tom,

      I learned that same lesson on dirt bikes, before I ever got behind the wheel of a car. It’s a fantastic (and pretty safe) way to – as you write – feel and see the physical processes. Grass/dirt are much softer than asphalt, too!

  3. Now just wait until you are in one of these Uber/Google self-driving cars, or probably even worse, stuck behind one while it’s snowing. There goes the laser and radar, bouncing off all the snow flakes. WTF happens with these “self-braking” cars in a heavy snow? This oughtta be fun!

  4. Let’s see, I agree with Eric G, clean the inside of your windows. Bon Ami and Bartender’s Friend are both good cleaners that won’t scratch. Once you’ve removed dirt from your windshield steel wool does a great job of cleaning everything else off. If you’re going to use such as Bon Ami, do so with distilled water. Invisible Glass is a good cleaner and Spray Way actually dissolves insects better than most glass cleaner. I don’t let that be my final cleaning since it has lots of perfume and other crap but it’s initial cleaning is great. Use Invisible Glass on the inside and you won’t have to put up with the smell other glass cleaners have. No matter what sort of glass cleaner you use, wash off the residue on the dash and wherever it gets on the inside(and outside). Go back over vinyl and leather with an appropriate product to restore it’s shine and undo the drying caused by harsh chemicals.

    Back in the good old days when a company could give you the best product it could make and nobody screamed it was “depleting the ozone”, Windex made their glass cleaner in a can that foamed like crazy. It could be sprayed on things like mirrors and left to dry and made those mirrors nearly impossible to fog up(directions were on the can). I’ve tried with other cleaners like Spray Way and it didn’t work.

    I wholeheartedly recommended waxing every bit of glass on your vehicle. Carnuba seems to last longer than some others in my experience. I also wax my headlights or headlight lenses…..hell, I even wax every lens on a car.

    If you have bare aluminum wheels, Amsoil Metal polish will not only shine them but put a protectant on them that lasts quite a long time. It works well on headlight lenses too. It causes things to be shed that would normally stick, anything as far as I can tell including mud and snow and plain old nasty black road crud and brake pad dust too. It did a great job for me always hauling roofing trash to the landfill where the dust would be a foot deep(wear your tall boots) and it was 4WD territory.

    When snow and ice is “here, right now”, ever since I can remember we’d throw several sacks of range cubes in the trunk and back of the pickup. It’s best to throw some plastic or a tarp over them in the pickup bed since rain or melted snow will make a mess. When I worked at a gyp mill we’d all head for the culled sacks of mortar. Many times I’ve thrown weights for tractors in that work well in car trunks too, just keep them from sliding into the side(how come you got dents from the inside?)

    Fuel up every day as close to the house as possible. This WILL reduce water in your gasahol and diesel tank too. I’m religious about it and it makes a difference, one that might very well mean the difference with a vehicle running or not and in really cold weather it can happen anytime. Keeping some fuel additive just for alcohol is a good idea too. Diesels tend to appreciate things like Sea Foam in that sort of weather and if you can find #1 fuel, use it.

    Things I carry no matter the weather but it’s mostly when there is something wet happening: A recovery strap. I like the ones known as “snatch straps”(no, not going there)They’re great because a small vehicle can pull out a large one. They have a lot of stretch. The ideal way to use one is to let the tow vehicle run out to the end of the stretch and when it begins to lose traction then you gas your stuck vehicle hard and you’ll often shoot out of there and if you need to go a good ways, hopefully the pulling vehicle driver will realize it and you will too and you’ll both stay on the gas till you’re in a good spot. I don’t mean to sound patronizing but you’d be surprised how many people don’t get this. I live in the shinery which is sand. When you pull off our chert and sand road and think you’re going to turn around, you’d better be in 4WD and know how to use it….in sand. I get the retired crowd who’ve made their fortune and feel a need to return to the county they grew up in barely getting by and plan to build their million dollar home(several million dollar elsewhere) after buying a few hundred acres they’re going to pay way too much for. Basically, what they’re doing is coming back to increase your taxes. Hey, it’s just money……to them. This is the couple who pull off the road in their diesel 250 Ext. cab or crewcab pickup that’s 2 wheel drive. Why do they have that pickup? They know everybody has a pickup in the country so they’ll drive one too. What they fail to realize is a 2 WD diesel pickup is helpless off pavement. I used to pull them out a lot, now I hear an engine rev up and don’t go looking. They have a cell phone, let them pay for their stupidity and maybe they’ll decide to build somewhere else, not in your county, in some larger town close to the country club. I pulled out one couple in just such a vehicle one day only it took 3 tries. I only had a 6 foot chain with me, can’t remember why, think I’d just cleaned my tool box and was sorting stuff, what would go back in and what would not. I hooked up to the rear bumper. Neither of them even got out. I turned their steering wheel to make the tires point straight, the way they’d gotten there and told the guy “don’t turn your wheel, when you feel me pulling use just a little throttle”. I start to pull and immediately realize I’m digging holes so I stop. He’d gassed it and turned the steering wheel full lock. I reached in and turned the tires straight again and told him to NOT turn the wheel and just keep his foot off the brake and don’t gas it, I’d just pull him out since he was digging holes that only made it worse. I hook back up after I get out of my holes and tried again. Same result and same problem, sitting there with his wheel turned full lock. By this time I’m losing patience and tell him the third time, DO NOT TURN YOUR STEERING WHEEL. This time his wife jumps his ass and says “Dammit, do what the man says”. I tell him we don’t have the room to keep digging holes so I go back, unhook, move to the side out of those holes and hook back up. This time I nail it when the slack is out and both pickups go straight till I have to turn to stay out of the fence and get his front end on the road. He was sitting there with his steering tires straight at a point he could have helped by turning them. By this time the corners of our beds are nearly touching since it was just a 6 foot chain. I didn’t really care since my bumper was homemade out of drill collar. Screw him. His wife thanked me profusely and he said thanks. I left them with the admonishment to not get off that road even a little bit. That same road is also full of RR spikes since the chert came of the old railbed beside it. It never ceases to amaze me how many people have flat spares or no spare or part of a jack system, no lug wrench, etc. Since I carry a small floorjack under my toolbox and a dammit jack along with a good 4 way(I like impact wrenches but the battery never quits on that old 4 way lug wrench) I’m in good shape. I have enough socket sets to fit just about anything too. I often carry a big air bottle and that’s a life saver when their spare is low. When you have a flat from a RR spike don’t bother to get it fixed, just head to get a new tire.

    I also carry a come-along and an extra chain for when there’s nothing you might hook to. If you have a pickup and tool box, take about 4 feet of 7/8 or 1 inch sucker rod. Sharpen one end and use the collar end of the sucker rod for the other end. You can drive this as far as you need into the ground and connect to it at ground level. A come-along will not always be able to pull out a big vehicle like a one ton pickup but if it’s just a stuck or slick situation it will. I buy the good come-alongs with 3/8ths cable and a pulley block with hook to double it’s pulling power. Use this with a chain so you can keep moving up the chain and can pull one further. I keep a large shop hammer in my box too as well as a double-bit axe. If you don’t want to haul this, esp. in a car, just throw in a single bit axe and it’s a hammer and axe. I finally figured out when hauling an axe to make a blade guard for it. I use some 1 inch abs tubing that I grind half an inch out of in a straight line. This is the part to slip over the blade. I have it long enough to turn up a bit on each end to keep it on and using a torch, heat it at the corners and turn it up. Take the axe out, heat the corners and turn them in just a bit more and it stays on the axe since it’s a tight fit. This doesn’t save the edge of the axe nearly as much as your hands when you reach into the toolbox and forget the axe is there. Another thing that is irreplaceable when you need it and that’s seldom is a screw pin chain shackle. I carry one since I have a few. Why not? It only weighs a pound or two. A friend had a great way to get his 2 WD hunting buggy(old Chevy panel wagon) unstuck. He had extra long wheel studs and pulleys strung with cable and extra lug nuts to bolt over the wheels. He’d go out and drive a piece of sucker rod on each side. When he spun the tires even though it was an open differential, they’re going to pull evenly and walk up the cable. I learned something that night.

    Some people use a powered winch and that’s good but it’s not very conducive for pushing things unless you spend $12-1500 for a big cattle guard with a built-in winch holder that is behind the pushbars. Building one of these isn’t cheap either and it’s very time consuming. Most people just spend big bucks on a Ranch Hand brand and call it good. The problem with those is removing it to be able to remove your grill and do things like replace an a/c condenser or strainer or oil cooler. Then your option is to buy one that has over a foot between the pickup and the guard making your vehicle that much longer. I prefer to make one with a big pin on either side and a couple of bolts each side to hold it in place. Once you remove the bolts you can just let the whole thing pivot down out of the way and don’t need to remove your block heater cord, fog lights, etc.

    I also carry an unopened gallon of distilled water and one of anti-freeze year round in every vehicle. I’ve used duct or Gorilla tape to fix a hose and then have enough coolant to get where I can get more hose. Of course carry extra engine oil and transmission fluid since a hose can start leaking any time.

  5. All-wheel drive not much of an advantage? I heard that Subaru’s don’t need winter tires because they do fine with AWD, of course winter tires would be an improvement.

    I have a turbo 4 cyclinder FWD car that was impossible in snow on summer tires and awful on all-seasons, but is good with winter tires.

    I generally see RWD vehicles having the most trouble in winter, maybe because they are clovers? In my area a lot of people will say not to have a RWD vehicle because they are bad in winter (again maybe they are being clovers).

    • Hi Andrew,

      AWD can definitely help in winter… if not counteracted by crappy (for snow driving) tires, which many AWD-equipped vehicles come with from the factory. Meanwhile, a FWD with the right tires can be a champ in snow. If the driver knows how to drive, of course.

    • I drive up to the sierras here in CA in the winter all the time, and I have an AWD Subaru as well as an RWD sedan. The AWD Subaru on all season tires has a much easier time going up snowy hills than the RWD sedan with some of the best snow tires in the world (Nokian Hakkapeliitta), however, the sedan with snow tires brakes better, corners better, and in general, feels much more sure due to the additional grip. This winter, I’m going up in the Subaru on some really good snow tires (Bridgestone Blizzaks), and I will be unstoppable.

      AWD on crappy tires gets you in trouble, it gives a false sense of security, and I’ve driven by many a stuck SUV on old all-season tires in my RWD sports sedan.

  6. ERIC THIS ARTICLE REMINDED ME OF 1972 AND MY 72 IMPALA CUSTOM HAD JUST MOVED TO DENVER FROM CHICAGO AND HAD A SET OF STUDDED SNOWS THAT WERE STILL LEGAL AND PUT THEM ON IN DENVER WERE THEY TOLD ME ITS SNOWS BUT MELT RIGHT AWAY.WRONG.BUT TO HAVE SOME FUN ON ASUDAY IT WAS JUST FLAKING IN DEBVER SO WE TOOK A RIDE UP TO THE PASS ON I75 AND THE SKI LODGE TO WATCH THE SKIERS THE SNOW WAS A BLIZZARD AND ON THE WAY BACK TO DENVER THE ROAD WASN T PLOWED ,THAT IMPALA WITH THOSE STUDDED SNOWS HANDLED LIKE A SHERMAN TANK .AT ALL SPEEDS.WAS A FUN RIDE BACK.AND I REMEMBER AS A KID IN THE GAS STATION WAXING CARS FOR CUSTOMERS I WAS TOLD BY MY BOSS TO BE VERY CAREFUL IN NOT GETTING WAX ON THE GLAS ,DO NOT USE THE WAX RAGS TO GO OVER THE WINDSHIELD .HOW WRONG HE WAS.AND HE KNEW HIS STUFF .BUT I HAVE WAXED MY GLASS ALL OF IT SINCE THE 60 S .DOES EXACTLY AS YOU SAY.NO NEED MOST OF THE TIME FOR WIPERS AND THE ICE AND FORZEN SNOW COMES OFF MUCH EASIER.

  7. A question I’ve long had that seems irresolvable by googling: when a front wheel drive car goes into a skid, do you still apply power to the wheels, or let off the throttle? Rear wheel drive skids are a snap in comparison.

    • Hi Ross,

      In a FWD car, the rear wheels (of course) are not powered, so applying power doesn’t help weight transfer/balance/traction. The rear of the car gets lighter and the FWD car’s usual tendency to understeer increases. Backing off the throttle makes FWD car “snap back” and become more predictably controllable. Since most drivers’ tendency is to back off the throttle, this is plus. But trained/experienced drivers can make more hay with a RWD car (and throttle oversteer)!

      Modern car caveats: TCS/stability control will usually intervene regardless. Even when supposedly “off” it is usually still on.

      • The two best winter cars I’ve had were FWD, followed closely by my RWD S10 (V8 swapped) after installing a richmond locker and snow tires (rear only).
        I borrowed a ’98 LandCruiser (full time awd) a few years back and was very impressed with it in the snow except for braking (it even had blizzaks on a 4 wheels). It stopped worse than the S10 (prolly because it was much heavier).

        Planning to swap the 2.56 open diff. in my Roadmaster out for a 3.42 posi (prolly going with a Yukon duragrip this time) before the snow flies, should be a different car afterwards.
        The 2.56 build wheel speed too fast (spins in snow) to easily modulate the throttle, not to mention they suck for city driving.

  8. There is a product called “Crystal Fusion” which is like Rain-X but lasts for months if not years. Normally it is one of those dealer after-the-deal add ons but if you look carefully you can find it. I have that on all my windows (On my new 2016 Diesel F250 – I do need to figure out how to hack the CAN bus to remove the speed governor, I was only able to average 90 for an hour or two through Montana and North Dakota, ah, the wide open spaces – we do need to have the inspection ports of entry add clovers to invasive species).

      • Hi VZ,

        Yup. The cops (and the system) have created this insane environment – “threats” to “safety” lurking everywhere. The combination of paranoia and hair-trigger escalation, contempt for ordinary citizens (to say nothing of the enumerated constitutional protections) and a plethora of obnoxious, tyrannical laws accounts for our current predicament.

        I know I harp it on it a lot, but it bears repeating: Things like “checkpoints” and buckle-up laws would have been inconceivable in the America I grew up in.

        The America we’re living in today is much more like the East Germany I read about growing up.

  9. Here in the people’s republic of California, low temperature wiper fluid is illegal in areas which don’t see extended freezing temperatures. I live near San Francisco, but travel to the mountains frequently, where it does get cold. All I can really do is buy my wiper fluid up there, 200 miles away, and siphon out what I had in the car to make room of the stuff that won’t freeze.

    Is there anything these meddlers won’t regulate?!

  10. Woohoo! My favorite time of the year!

    Thanks for the window tips. I use Rain-X all the time, but I will try the wax on the side windows as well.

    Depending on where you will be driving, carrying an emergency kit with a way to eat drink, stay warm and make fire is also advisable.

    Oh, and please clear the snow from your car completely before you take off. I see Clovers all the time with just a small hole on the windshield cleared. Like driving a tank or a submarine or something.

    Winter driving can be a blast. I think I put my Tahoe in 4 only once or twice last winter. It’s much more fun to go sideways!

    • “Oh, and please clear the snow from your car completely”
      I clear all the windows (and lights), and most if not all the hood, but will leave snow on the roof to blow off. If there is ice on the roof, otoh, get it off so the guy behind you doesn’t eat it.

      • Completely agree, Phillip. Seeing these morons on the road with snow and ice flying off their vehicles is disgusting and dangerous. Those losers don’t understand how unsafe their habit is, when it only takes five extra minutes to clear their vehicles.

        I just wish that were a requirement to maintain a driver’s license.

        • Hi Travis,

          I understand (and sympathize with) the “better licensing” stuff. However, it’s (my opinion) as potentially dangerous as similar calls for “stricter licensing” for guns.

          A better way to deal with the problem – in my opinion – is to deal with the incompetent and reckless who actually cause problems rather than presuming general incompetence.

          If someone’s incompetence or recklessness behind the wheel (or the trigger) results in harm caused, hold that person fully responsible for the harm caused.

          But leave everyone else who didn’t cause harm alone!

  11. Also, regularly clean the inside of your windows. The stuff that outgasses from the plastics will really film up the windows and it takes a lot longer for the defroster to get rid of the fog.

    I’ve heard from the antique car guys that Bon Ami cleanser (and only Bon Ami) is the best thing to clean a windshield. Can anyone confirm? Seems like it would make a big mess trying to rinse it off, then rinse it off the paint, the hood, the driveway…

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