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How to prepare for winter driving

Winter driving conditions can turn treacherous in an instant. Snow, black ice, poor visibility, and extreme cold can disable your vehicle or make roads impassable.

Even on a relatively short trip, you can find yourself stranded for several hours. It’s important to plan ahead, like bundling up to stay warm, for the conditions and situations that can arise as difficult winter conditions develop.

So, before you scrap the ice off your windshield and head off to battle the elements and the other drivers, here are some things you can do to make your winter driving much safer.

Prepare Your Vehicle for Winter

The best time to get ready for winter is before the first storm of the season. Some items to check and talk to your mechanic about include:

  • Test the battery strength.
  • Inspect the exhaust system and the air, fuel, and emission filters.
  • Check the cooling system, windshield wiper and antifreeze fluid levels, and change the oil.
  • Make sure hoses and fan belts and all components are working properly.
  • Consider changing the spark plugs.
  • Check the tire pressure, tread life and consider installing winter tires.
  • Locate the spare tire, jack, and ice scrapper.
  • Inspect your wiper blades to make sure they’re functional and in good condition.

Some Simple Winter Driving Tips

Winter driving has its own set of challenges from the moment you start your vehicle. Here are some useful winter driving suggestions:

  • Clear frost, snow and ice from the windows and exterior of your car.
  • Never warm up your vehicle in a closed garage. This could lead to carbon monoxide problems.
  • Keep your gas tank at least half full to prevent gas line freeze-up.
  • Make sure your exhaust pipe is not clogged with mud or snow.
  • Don’t use cruise control on icy roads.
  • Allow more time for braking when visibility is poor.
  • Stay calm if you start to skid and be prepared for black ice.

Remember, a large truck needs more time to stop in ideal conditions, so snow and icy conditions magnify the challenge. So be sure to give them plenty of room.

Carry a Winter Driving Kit

Winter weather could leave you stuck in the snow, but the following items in your winter driving kit might help you get back on the road and on your way:

  • Small folding shovel
  • Tow and tire chains
  • Basic tool kit
  • Bag of road salt or cat litter
  • Flares, battery powered flashlights and extra batteries
  • Extra windshield wiper fluid and antifreeze
  • Jumper cables to start your car if your battery dies

Pack a Winter Survival Kit

In case you’re marooned in your car, truck or SUV, you might want to keep a small winter survival kit on hand. Some useful items include:

  • A first-aid kit – I have found you can often squeeze in several emergency blankets in most kits.
  • Cell phone charger – having a solar charger as a back up is a good idea any time of year
  • Ice scraper and brush
  • Blankets, warm clothing and other cold weather gear to protect against hypothermia for everyone, including pets if you are traveling with them.
  • Handwarmers – these are usually only a dollar and provide heat for up to 6 hours
  • Flashlight – preferably more than one since they seem to disappear all to easily
  • Toilet paper or tissues – your nose is going to run, and if you are stuck for very long nature is going to call. 
  • Drinking water, and high-energy, nonperishable foods
  • A water bottle with built in filtration is also handy if you are stuck for very long
  • If you are traveling with a baby or toddler make sure you have extra wipes, diapers and clothes and specific foods such as toddler snacks or formula.

Snow Safety Tips If You Become Stranded In Winter

Few people like driving through a snowstorm, and most heed warnings to stay off the roads when a storm is bearing down. But even the best-prepared and expert drivers can get stuck. If it happens to you, here are some important reminders:

  • Be prepared. While the best first step is prevention, some storms come on quickly. If you do get stranded, keeping a few essentials, noted above, in your car can help keep you comfortable while you wait.
  • Stay inside. If possible, pull off the highway and turn your hazard lights on or tie something bright to your car’s antenna to signal that you need help. Then wait inside your car until help arrives to avoid exposure to frostbite and prevent hypothermia.
  • Call 911. If you have a charged phone and reception, call for help and describe your location as best you can.
  • Clear the tailpipe. Make sure there’s no snow covering your tailpipe in order to prevent carbon monoxide buildup inside the car. Check the tailpipe periodically to ensure that fresh snow isn’t blocking it, always watching for oncoming traffic before exiting your vehicle.
  • Keep moving. Staying active inside your car will help you keep warm. Clap your hands and tap your toes to keep your circulation moving and prevent frostbite but avoid overexertion and sweating.
  • Drink fluids. Dehydration can make you more susceptible to the effects of cold. If there’s no drinking water inside your car, melt some snow inside a bag, makeshift cup or filtered water bottle to stay hydrated.
  • Conserve your vehicle’s battery. Use lights, heat, and radio sparingly.
  • Run your engine. Provided you have enough gas in your tank, run the engine for about 10 minutes every hour to keep the car warm. Turn on interior lights when your engine is on so you can be seen inside your car. Open a downwind window slightly for ventilation and clear snow from the exhaust pipe to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Don’t overexert yourself. Cold weather puts your heart under added stress. If you’re not used to exercise, shoveling snow or pushing a car could put you at risk of a heart attack.
  • Do not attempt to walk-out if you don’t know for certain where you are.  Your vehicle, even if damaged, is more likely to be spotted by rescuers than you are.   And unless it is leaking fuel, it will provide you the most shelter from the elements and wild animals.

While at first blush these suggestions may seem like over kill, but they are based on what has unfortunately happened to many on winter roads, including folks that waited for several days before rescuers could finally dig them out.

Last year a friend of mine was struck by a snowplow during a sudden blizzard that shut down the interstate for over 100 miles.  And this was in an area that really sees more than a couple of inches of snow all winter! 

She waited in her vehicle for several hours for the ambulance to arrive, only to have the ambulance slide off the highway less than a mile down the road.  They then waited in the ambulance for over for 6 hours before they were finally rescued and she could be taken to the hospital. 

She said she wished she would have had a blanket or two and a better way to keep warm in her car as her windshield was smashed in and she got very cold.  “At least in the ambulance the wind wasn’t blowing snow in on me, they gave me a blanket and I wasn’t all by myself” she said after the ordeal was finally over.

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