1. Put some extra clothing and emergency items in your vehicle; these will come in handy if you break down in very cold weather. It doesn’t take much — assemble a basic kit including a pair of gloves, weather-resistant pants and/or coat, maybe an old pair of boots, a blanket, jumper cables, a flashlight with some extra batteries, and a windshield scraper (and maybe a de-icer), and you should be in good shape. You might also toss a few nutrition bars in as well; those things won’t spoil until the next millennium, are packed with calories and can bail you out in a pinch.
2. Make sure your car is checked over for winter weather readiness. In particular, you or a mechanic should check your tires before the first big winter storm. For folks living in northern regions, checking tires during the fall is an almost sacrosanct ritual, and it’s a good idea even if you’re just a weekender in the snowy parts of the country.
3. Once your vehicle is inspected and equipped, follow this advice we heard a while back from Montana’s snowplow drivers: “See and be seen. Keep your headlights and taillights clean, especially in stormy weather. Keep windows clean and make sure defrosters work well. If snow has built up on your vehicle overnight or after a break from driving, clear it away so it doesn’t blow off and obscure your windows.”
4. Slow down. The U.S. Department of Transportation recommends slowing down by about 50 percent in very bad weather; additionally, leave extra space between you and the car in front of you. You’ll want to use your best judgment, but the slow tend to survive this race.
5. Remember that not all stretches of road are created alike. For example, many recently built small bridges and overpasses have been designed to blend into the surroundings, with a gradual or nonexistent change in elevation. These bridges nonetheless remain susceptible to icing over much more rapidly than regular blacktop. Look out and look ahead for these short stretches of road when temperatures near or drop below freezing. If you don’t know the ropes of driving on icy surfaces, this primer on how to drive on black ice is recommended reading.
6. Avoid using some of the modern features. They may actually serve you poorly in bad conditions. In some SUV’s and four-wheel-drive vehicles, for example, you may have better traction when the vehicle is underway, but the four-wheel drive won’t help you stop any faster. Also, skip the cruise control; your cruise control feature may accelerate when you least want it to, such as when you are climbing an icy bridge.
7. In college, a friend of mine taught me to put a bag of kitty litter in the trunk, both for added ballast to offer better traction, and to put under the wheels if you need to get yourself out of a slippery spot. (This can get messy in a minivan or other trunk-less vehicles, of course.)
8. If you are stranded and have to stay in your car, you can run the engine for heat, but make sure the exhaust pipe is not obstructed by snow or mud. If you prefer not to have the engine running the whole time, close the windows to keep heat in, and run the car for perhaps 10 minutes every hour, opening a front window a crack when you do so.
9. If you are parking at your hotel or near attractions in bad weather, opt for a spot in an indoor parking garage when available.
We hope these “driving during winter” tips help you, and may you never need to travel where the sun doesn’t shine!