Winter Driving Survival Tips

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Yeah, it’s almost that time of year again. In a matter of weeks, it’s gonna be cold. And a few more weeks after that, it’s gonna start snowing, sleeting and freezing. Maybe it already is snowing where you are.

Are you ready?

After years of dealing with winter in the Northeast – and dealing with DC area drivers in winter – I’ve come up with the following roster of survival tips. Maybe they’ll be useful to you, too:

* Prepare your vehicle –

Check and replace the wiper blades if they are more than three months old; top off the windshield washer jar with fresh fluid. If there’s heavy snow out – and especially if your car does not have snow tires – lower the air pressure in your tires by 5-10 psi or so. This will give you much better traction. Just be sure to remember to pump the tires back up to the normal recommended pressure when the snow clears. And if your car is fitted out with high-performance “summer” tires… stay home.  Or drive something else.

* Know your vehicle –

More precisely, know its built-in limits. Some layouts – for example, rear-drive sports cars and sport sedans, 2WD trucks and SUVs – are much worse in winter driving environments than others. They break traction on slippery surfaces with much less provocation – especially 2WD trucks, which are very light in the tail. And because of their low-to-the-ground design, sporty cars tend to get mired in even a couple of inches of freshly deposited snow – even if they’re all-wheel-drive.

Such cars should, ideally, be left in the garage when severe weather hits. But if you have to drive, drive with added caution and full awareness that you are starting out with a car that’s not at its best in the snow.

* Know yourself –

As Clint Eastwood once put it, “A man has got to know his limitations.” Some people are just better drivers than others – just as some people are better athletes, or mathematicians or cooks. Not a value judgment; just a reality check. If your vision’s not so great under ideal conditions, maybe you should try to avoid driving in a white-out snowstorm. If you’re terrified of skids and haven’t been trained to recover control, ice on the road can be very intimidating – and especially dangerous. And not just to you, but to everyone else around you. Bad weather driving – especially in extreme bad weather – requires more skill than ordinary A to B driving under ideal conditions. Be honest with yourself. If you know deep down you probably shouldn’t be out there, then you probably shouldn’t be out there. 

* Keep the fuel tank full –

A full gas tank adds weight – which gives you more traction, especially in a RWD car or 2WD truck/SUV. Also, a full tank means you’ll have power (and heat) even if you get stuck in a monster traffic jam caused by bad weather or have to park by the side of the road for an extended period of time. Running out of gas in a blizzard is no fun. By topping off the tank before bad weather rolls in, you’ll avoid that scenario. In addition, keeping the gas tank topped off helps prevent condensation build-up in the tank – water in your gas – which can lead to hard starting and rough running.

* Maintain momentum –

The best race drivers are the smoothest drivers – and this is just as true of making progress in bad weather. Accelerate gradually, without mashing the pedal (which will usually cause the drive wheels to slip and slide). Ease into the brakes gently to slow down in a controlled, smooth fashion; don’t stomp on the pedal. Anticipate – rather than react. And under certain circumstances, it’s best – and safest – to keep moving rather than come to a full stop and risk getting stuck. And getting others stuck, too. For example, if you’re facing a snow-covered hill, avoid stopping at all costs. If you stop mid-way up, odds are good you’ll get stuck; you may even slide back down, too. And into a ditch – or someone else’ car. Keep on the throttle; it’s ok if the car drifts left-right a little so long as it’s still under your control. Maintain. You can do it!

And finally…

* Be prepared to ditch –

Part of driving in snow/ice is the reality that you may have to go “off road.” As you drive, look around you and be thinking about where you’d want to point the car if you had to run off the road in order to avoid piling into traffic ahead of you that suddenly slowed down. It’s better, for example, to slide into a relatively soft median strip than slam into a telephone pole. Packed snow has more give than a fixed object such as an oak tree or bridge abutment. Beware of water – rivers, ponds, etc. If you have to leave the road, you do not want to go there. Hitting almost anything else is preferable to taking a Slurpee swim.

Throw it in the Woods?




  1. “… if you’re facing a snow-covered hill, avoid stopping at all costs. If you stop mid-way up, odds are good you’ll get stuck; you may even slide back down, too. And into a ditch – or someone else’ car.”

    You are so right about this. I can’t count the times I’ve cursed the morons in front of me who stop at the top of an icy incline instead of just slo-o-o-wly moving and timing its traffic light.

    • You are absolutely right. I live on a mountain and when I’m coming up to a hill I go as fast as necessary at the bottom to have the inertia to cruise to the top and beyond. I keep on the gas the whole time too. Slow pokes in the snow make for some shitty hill climb situations. If there is a slow poke in front of me I either pass them, or pull over and wait for them to get stuck on the side of the road, so I can get by. Just about any car can do alright in the snow if you keep the momentum. Once stopped, well that is a different story.

  2. Well, okay, Eric’s advice is all well and good, but he totally didn’t
    address my foolproof method for survival while driving in snow and/or

    – Hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. Do not deviate from this,
    even for a second. Clutch steering wheel with such bone-crushing
    force that you leave bloody crescents in your palms. Lean into
    steering wheel because it’s well known that this improves your vision
    and appeases the Crash Gods. Tense every muscle fiber in your body
    into cable wires, especially the ones in your neck. Eyes bugged out
    hypothyroidically, except when they’re squeezed shut in terror. Swallow incessantly.

    – Don’t talk normally, but whimper like a little baby kitten. Talk to
    your car, which is now your best friend: “Okay, Baby, okay, you know I
    love you, please don’t skid, Baby, please please please, the best gas,
    Baby, the best most expensive fancy oil for you, Baby, just please
    please please don’t skid …” It is very important that you do this,
    because your car hears everything you say. Don’t get so carried away
    that you stroke its dashboard like you do other times, because this
    means taking your hand off the wheel, and that is FATAL.

    – When you look ahead and see your road is about to slope downward
    four degrees, accelerate your heartbeat into V-fib and allow to bloom
    in your brain the dead-solid certainty that you are about to hit a
    two-inch square of ice, spin out like a cyclotron and careen off the
    road and crash down into the gully 100 feet below at 80 miles an hour,
    even if you’re only doing eight mph at the time. And there’s no

    – When you do pull your (wonderful, heroic, best-in-the-world) car into your driveway,
    take advantage of your boneless state by falling out of the door onto
    your knees and sobbingly thank the Crash Gods for once again sparing
    your miserable unworthy life. Swear you will never leave the house
    again until May Day. Never, no matter what.

    You can laugh, but this method has worked for me my whole life.

    • Based on what I’ve seen around here it apparently works for a lot of other people too Gail; like the two elderly farmers that live right here on my road. Only last year they added a new option to the tightened sphincter / white knuckles technique: driving down the middle of the road with oncoming traffic in big flatbed trucks, one right behind the other. Not being suicidal, I chickened out at the last minute and ran in the ditch, the lead truck having never given an inch of ground.

      Even in four wheel drive, a Jeep Wrangler can get thoroughly stuck in a deep ditch with three feet of snow in it; trust me. Fortunately I had warm gear with me and a tow strap. To his credit, the fellow that did it stopped and pulled me out. So…..I drove the rest of the way home with both hands white knuckled to the wheel at 2 and 10, hunched over, bug-eyed, talking softly to the Jeep……

  3. Survival tips all good. About 20 years ago the head of the Washington chapter of the CAP died after his plane had engine problems. Not from landing his plane,but from the fact that he landed in the Cascades dressed in shorts, with no survival equipment; hypothermia got him.
    Re driving techniques, if you have an all wheel drive car, like a Subaru, letting off on the gas is equivalent to hitting the brakes. Guaranteed to cause problems in the snow and ice. BTW if you ever get ditched in the middle of Wyoming, and see a light in the distance do NOT head for it. It is likely just an unmanned oil well and you’ll never find your car again.

  4. Driving in winter will be difficult compare to other seasons because of heavy snow, we should take extra precautions while driving in winter such as Accelerate and decelerate slowly, Know your brakes, check wipers, fill your tank, go slow, carry sand bags and many more to know for safe driving.

  5. Having spent a number of years driving a Mustang through chicago winters… Tires, Tires, and tires. The only times I got stuck were with all-season tires that were good the first winter and horrible the second. After that I bought dedicated snow tires.

    IME alkaline batteries don’t hold up well in a car. they go dead pretty quick. Rechargeable lead-acid battery flashlights I have found to be a better choice.

    • funny, I’ve found the exact opposite. I’ve had alkalines sit for 5 years in a drawer in my camper and were perfectly fine when I went to use them, but rechargeables were always a crapshoot.

      I pretty much stopped using rechargeable flashlights.

      • Either way you go wtih batteries, alkaline or rechargeable, you need to check / rotate your batteries at least at the change of seasons (sping /fall). Even the newer rechargeables (NiMH) tend to bleed down quicker than alkalines, so if have to rely on them, have a couple of sets, keep them charged and rotated regularly. It’s like anything with a shelf life, either test / maintain / rotate regularly it or just plan on not having it when the SHTF. There’s no free lunch.

      • Any dry cell I’ve kept in a car doesn’t last. Alkaline, NiMH, NiCad whatever… The only thing I’ve been successful with is rechargeable sealed lead-acid. The entire flashlight is designed around the battery. The battery itself can only be removed if the flashlight is disassembled.

        • Brent, What kind of time to failure did you experience with dry cells? I’ve typically seen about a 2 year life expectancy when kept in a car (with a minimum quarterly recharge cycle on NiMH). That’s why I stress check and rotate. Of course my EDC is one flashlight on me, one in my coat, one in my BOB and one in my console, so I may be a little extreme……

          • couple of months.. first I used an old snake light with C cells. Then I used a mag light with D’s. Keep in mind chicago temps can make the inside of car vary from -20F to 120F give or take.

          • Roger that on the Chicago temperatures. The only thing I can figure is that I stick with AA & AAA LED lights. Maybe the smaller batteries, combined with being farther south (Kansas City area) makes the difference. Although I would have thought higher temps in the vehicle would kill batteries quicker than extreme low temps, I suspect any electro-chemical device doesn’t like being frozen.

    • You could use a faraday light or a crank (manual generator) light.

      They are not dependent on batteries, but their charge only lasts for a short time.

      • Check out the Eton Scorpion. It is a handcrank generator and solar powered clock radio, flashlight with a USB output charger for external devices. It covers AM/FM/Weather band with a carabiner to attach it to your gear and even has built in bottle opener! It’s about the size of checkbook and three times as thick, so it doesn’t add much weight or take up much space. With an IGo USB cable and appropriate tip, you can charge any sail fawn with it too.

  6. carry energy food, water blankets and warm clothing everywhere. You never know when you will be stuck for hours, or have to walk.

    Be sure to have a good flashlight and spare batteries.

    • Right on Jay. I was on my way home from work last year and the snow had drifted off a big field across the road about three feet deep about two miles from my house. No way was I going to make it through that, even in a Jeep. There were two State Troopers in a big Dodge four by sitting just north of the drifts. They said there was a guy stuck in the snow on a secondary road right by my house and he’d been there all night (it was almost 11:00AM). There was no way for the Troopes to get to him. I hope he had those blankets, food and water you suggest, because otherwise he was just plain screwed. I hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, especially when traveling in the winter.

    • I thought about mentioning that – and am glad you did. Out here in the Boondocks, we do carry blankets and other emergency gear for just the reasons you and Boothe mentioned. In winter, it is not uncommon for enormous drifts (six-feet-plus) to appear in the road, even long after the actual snowing has stopped, as a result of fierce winds. You can (and people do) find themselves stuck and outta luck in a re,ote, forbidding area with no help around or likely to be around for some time.

      Good call!

      • I’d also like to point out that Space Blankets are cheap and compact enough to have in your glove box or even your pocket. Even if you don’t carry a “72 hour bag” you can still have enough “Every Day Carry” items with you very conveniently to keep you from freezing to death should the worst happen in bad weather on a remote road. Rather than just carrying a space blanket or two, I also tote a pair of -150 degree insulated boots, good gloves and Arctic coveralls (I’ve worked outside in Minnesota winters). The real biggie as Eric so aptly pointed out, is stay out of the water! If you get wet and can’t immediately produce fire and shelter, you’re probably done.


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