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How to drive in the snow: The complete guide to staying safe

Driving in winter is no joke. You need to get around in winter just like any other time of year, but depending on where you live you could be dealing with anything from a few inches of snow on occasional days in the depths of winter to regular deep drifts which hang around for months. And taking to the roads in these conditions has risks from hitting black ice at the worst possible location to skidding into an intersection, not to mention the worry that your car might conk out and leave you stranded in the cold in the middle of nowhere.

For those who grew up in the colder parts of the country, winter driving is a regular way of life. But if you're not used to it, it can be an alarming adjustment to get used to driving in snowy conditions.

To keep yourself and other drivers safe on the roads in the winter, you need to know the basis of driving in the snow and to make some specific preparations to your vehicle. We've got advice for you on how to handle the roads safely, as well as some suggestions for handy tools like our favorite winter gear ranging from snow chains to ice scrapers.

Difficulty

Easy

Duration

15 minutes

What You Need

  • Roadside emergency kit

  • Sand bags

  • Snow tires

  • Snow chains

  • Folding shovel

  • Ice scraper

  • Patience

Tire chain in the winter
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Prepare your car for winter conditions

If you want to learn how to drive in the snow like a pro, the best place to start is at home in your driveway, before the first flurries ever hit the ground. We're talking about two things here: maintenance and preparation. Every winter driving checklist should follow the steps below for a successful season behind the wheel.

Step 1: Make sure your maintenance is up to date.

All the driving skills in the world won't do you a bit of good if your car can't reliably get you from point A to B. During the warmer months, a breakdown is a minor inconvenience, but if your car fails on a snowy backroad after dark, the stakes are considerably higher.

If you're mechanically inclined, start by checking all your routine maintenance items, from brakes to fluids, and make sure your car isn't overdue for anything potentially catastrophic. If you don't have the time or the inclination, schedule a routine maintenance appointment with your local mechanic.

Step 2: Be particularly mindful of your tires.

Your vehicle's ability to maintain traction in snowy conditions depends on several factors, but the first and most pressing is always where the rubber meets the road.

Check the tread of your tires and ensure they've got plenty of life left to give. The depth and quality of your tire tread determine how well your vehicle can grip and shed snow, so if they're nearing the end of their life or have any observable cracking or damage, replace them (ideally with winter tires, more on that below). You'll also want to keep a close eye on your tire pressure, as falling temperatures have a habit of stealing a few PSI while you're not paying attention.

Step 3: Keep your tank at least half full.

Running out of gas in bad weather can be particularly dangerous, but there's actually another reason you should keep it topped off if you'll be driving in snow. Gasoline is heavy, and the more you've got in your tank, the more your car weighs.

Increasing the weight of your vehicle puts more weight on your tires, which in turn helps keep them from spinning and losing traction on snow and ice. As an added bonus, having a full tank of gas also helps prevent your fuel lines from freezing, which is important if you want your car to start in the first place.

Step 4: Put together a winter roadside emergency kit.

Don't leave it up to AAA or your local tow truck driver to make life and death decisions on your behalf. You should put together a roadside emergency kit specifically for driving in snow and keep it in your car until spring rolls around.

This kit should include everything from emergency food and water to tools and gear to get your car back on the road should you slide off or experience a breakdown. If you want to learn how to put a proper kit together, check out our guide to winter roadside emergency kits.

Step 5: Prepare before you set off on each journey.

Each time you get ready to leave on a journey during winter time, make sure you've got your car ready. Begin by turning on your engine and defrosting your windscreen and your rear windows using the heaters, and make sure the windows are clear before you pull out. While you're waiting, make sure that your windscreen wipers aren't stuck or frozen to the windows and that they can move freely. Wipe off any accumulated snow from the top of your car, as this can be dangerous if it flies off in a chunk and falls either on your windscreen or onto the car of the person behind you.

Also check that your lights are working, as this is especially important in low visibility conditions. Wipe any accumulated snow off your headlights and indicator lights.

Cars on the street in the winter snow during traffic
Image used with permission by copyright holder

How to drive in the snow

Now that your vehicle is properly prepared for a snow day, it's time to learn the basics of driving in snow. There are no well-kept secrets or expert-level skills here: It's all about taking it slow, planning ahead, and keeping your cool.

Step 1: Understand braking, turning, and accelerating.

There's an old saying in the car racing world that applies to pretty much everything you do when driving in snow: "Don't do anything to scare the car, and the car won't do anything to scare you."

That's excellent advice in general and particularly good advice for how to drive in snow. What we mean here is that you should avoid any abrupt actions when speeding up, slowing down, or going around turns. Ease onto the gas when you speed up and ease back off it when it's time to slow down.

When slowing down, apply the brakes smoothly and gradually, building pressure as you get a feel for how much traction is beneath your tires. Approach corners at a low enough speed that you can turn the wheel smoothly and slowly into the apex, and keep it smooth when exiting the turn as well.

Step 2: Give yourself as much space as possible.

You've no doubt heard this one before for driving in the rain, and it applies to snow as well. In the rain, the rule of thumb is to give yourself double the usual distance between the vehicles around you and to start braking twice as early for stops and turns.

In the snow, make that triple for both. Extra distance gives you extra time to be as smooth as possible on the brakes, which further decreases your chances of going into a skid. Speaking of which ...

Step 3: Know how to handle a skid.

Drive long enough in the snow and even the smoothest, most careful driver on the road will lose traction at some point. Your first step is remembering not to panic, and your next step depends on the type of skid.

For front-end skids, in which your front tires lose traction and the vehicle begins to run wide in a turn, you'll want to smoothly let off the gas pedal to allow your car to regain traction. It should only take a moment for your car to fall back in line, at which point you can slowly roll back onto the gas to complete the turn.

For rear-end skids, in which the back tires break free and begin to drift out Fast and Furious-style, you'll want to turn the car in the direction of the skid. So if the rear end brakes lose traction and drift out to the right, you'll want to ease off the gas and slowly turn the wheel to the right to keep your car on its intended path. It's important to stay off the brakes here: Just wait for the rear tires to regain traction, at which point you can resume normal steering.

Winter driving on a curvy snowy country road
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Step 4: Build momentum before approaching hills.

Anytime you see a long (and fairly straight) incline coming up, it's best to build up some momentum before starting up it. In snowy or icy conditions, your car loses momentum gradually as you travel uphill if traction is less than ideal.

You can counteract this effect by hitting the hill with some extra momentum, then staying steady on the gas until you approach the top. Just make sure to give yourself time to slow down just before cresting the hill: You want to arrive at the top at a controllable rate of speed, especially if you know there's a downhill coming. Typically you can just let gravity do all the heavy lifting here by letting off the accelerator.

Step 5: Be prepared for ice and black ice.

When there's snow on the ground, chances are high that you'll be dealing with ice in some places too. Generally speaking you want to follow the same tips for driving on snow like accelerating gently and putting your car in a high gear. You also need to leave a much longer distance between you and the car in front to allow for longer stopping distances.

One of the big dangers of these conditions is black ice, which is extremely difficult to see. Unlike regular ice on the roads which you're prepared for, you might hit a patch of black ice without even realizing it's there. If you think there might be black ice on the roads then drive even slower than you usually would in winter, and be extra gentle with the braking and accelerating. If you do feel your car slipping on black ice, don't make any sudden movements with the steering wheel and don't slam on the brakes. Instead, lift your foot off the accelerator and keep the steering wheel straight, which should allow your car to travel straight across the ice.

Step 6: Pro tip: Practice your skills in a safe place.

Take any opportunity you can to learn how to drive in snow and ice in a controlled environment. Find a snow-covered (and empty) parking lot, and spend time practicing turning, braking, and accelerating to get a feel for how your car reacts to low traction situations. Our goal here, once again, is to get as smooth as possible and to find the limits of traction for your vehicle so you know how to avoid them.

Experiment with hard braking to get a feel for how your ABS performs in snow. Find a quiet enough lot and you may even be able to practice correcting skids without attracting the attention of local law enforcement.

White Volkswagen car in deep snow with winter tires on.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What to do if you get stuck

Now, if you've been paying attention to our earlier advice, you shouldn't have to worry about getting stuck in the snow or slush, but it does happen, so here's what to do if you do get stuck.

Step 1: The first thing to remember is try to avoid getting stuck in the first place.

The best way to do that is to try and not stop unless you are in a dangerous situation or about to hit something. Most people will automatically try and stop when heading off the road, but as long as it is safe to do so, keep going. The momentum of your car will likely keep you from getting stuck.

Step 2: If you do get stuck, don't spin your wheels in an attempt to get free.

If you're not on a solid surface like concrete, all that will do is dig a hole and make things worse. Try shifting to you lowest gear and only hitting the gas part way, which will give you more control than if you spun the tires at a high speed.

You can also try rocking your car by going in forward and reverse, once you get some traction keep the car moving until you're back on solid ground. Another cheap and low-tech solution is to carry sand or even kitty litter with you in the winter. It will give your car some added weight, and if you do get stuck, you can toss it under your tires to give them some more traction.

Close-up of Michelin winter tire in front of a white screen.
Michelin

Essential gear for driving in snow

So there you have it, the bare essentials for getting from point A to B safely in the snow. While the above tips and tricks are a solid foundation for any driver braving icy roads this winter, there are a few basic items we recommend adding to your vehicle to make driving in snow as stress-free as possible.

Step 1: Get snow tires.

Your average three-season car tire is designed for maximum traction on wet or dry pavement but isn't ideal for extreme cold and the limited traction scenarios that come with it. Winter tires feature extra siping and optimized rubber compounds for added grip on snow and ice and improve just about every aspect of winter driving performance from cornering grip to stopping distance.

Our favorite right now is the X-Ice Snow tire from the folks at Michelin, as it packs outstanding snow performance alongside a 40,000-mile tread warranty that should last between six and 10 winter driving seasons.

Konig snow chains on winter tires with a white background.
Konig

Step 2: Get snow chains.

If you don't have winter-specific tires, or even if you do but want added traction, snow chains are a tried-and-true solution for driving in the slushiest snow and slickest ice. We recommend a set of these easy-to-use steel snow chains from the folks at Konig, which come in pre-cut sizes for just about any tire and rim combination on the market.

Shovel for driving in snow
SOG

Step 3: Purchase a folding shovel.

Getting stuck in the snow is no fun, but staying stuck because you can't dig yourself out is even worse. We recommend keeping a compact snow shovel like this tough folding shovel from the folks at SOG inside your vehicle just in case. It's also a great accessory for any offroad vehicle and fits easily into just about any trunk or cargo area.

Snow Joe ice scrapper
Snow Joe

Step 4: Pack an ice scraper.

Get a jump on your defroster with this handy ice scraper from Snow Joe. It's small enough to fit in your glove box but strong enough to break through even the thickest frost and ice thanks to its wide brass blade that's tough on ice but won't scratch or scuff your vehicle's windows, mirrors, or windshield.

Car roadside emergency kit.
AAA

Step 5: Bring your roadside emergency kit.

Truth be told, every driver should have a roadside emergency kit in their car year-round, but it's especially crucial when weather conditions are potentially life-threatening. We're fans of this extensive roadside kit from the folks at AAA, which includes a medical first aid kit as well as a handful of roadside essentials like jumper cables, an air compressor, warning triangles, and good ol' duct tape.

Driving in the snow and ice is all about being prepared. If you spend more time preparing to drive in the snow and making sure that your car ready for a wintery blast, odds are that you'll be more confident in your ability to drive in the snow. Of course, nothing beats practice, so make sure you find a safe area and get some practice under your belt. The most important thing is to stay calm and in control when the snow hits, if you're in control, chances are you'll be able to keep your car in control as well.

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Steven John
Steven John is a writer and journalist living just outside New York City, by way of 12 years in Los Angeles, by way of…
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