Whether you’re going ice climbing, snowshoeing, skating, or skiing, you’re going to have to drive to your destination. Don’t ruin your trip before you even get where you’re going. You may have seen the bumper stickers that say “ski like a local” on your last trip up to Sugarbush, Mammoth, Snowbird, or your closest ski area. What it means is to ski like you’ve been doing it your whole life, like you know all the etiquette, and do it with pride. I’d like to talk to you about how to get to that ski area safely, show that this ain’t your first rodeo, and drive like a local.
It ain’t my first rodeo either. Growing up in northern New England, working for mountains as an instructor and patroller, and now for my job regularly travelling 1500 miles in a week, I’ve done my fair share of winter driving. Every time it snows heavily I see dozens of cars having real difficulty, spinning out, skidding, going off the road, and getting stuck. It’s almost always avoidable, too. In this article we’re going to talk about what you should do to prepare your car for winter, what you should always have in your car in the winter months, and how you should drive when the weather is bad.
Let’s start with your car. Plenty of locals believe in owning a “winter beater”, basically the Sling Blade equivalent of your summer car that you keep in a shed out back (and done dug itself a hole to sleep in). You hate this car, and therefore when it rusts itself into the ground you don’t care. If you’re going this route, you’ll probably just have to pick and choose from my suggestions as you see fit. If you’re looking at particularly cold weather where you are, you should do some basic maintenance. Have your battery checked and make sure it’s holding a charge, and winter starts are more difficult. If you added fluids that were designed for warmer weather, it’s time to change them out. You may want to use a 5W30 oil, swap your windshield washer fluid for de-icing fluid rated for cold weather, and if it’s crazy cold add some gas-line antifreeze to your fuel. If your car is notoriously hard to start in the winter, think about installing an engine block heater to keep the oil warm and flowing. If you have any exposed rust, clean it off and paint the metal–that rust will only get worse in the winter.
Most importantly, get dedicated snow tires! All-season tires simply don’t cut it in real winter weather. If you will primarily drive only when the weather is good, studless snow tires will give you better braking on wet and dry pavement. However, if like me you will be driving long distances in whatever weather winter has to dish out, studded snowtires can be a literal lifesaver, especially on surprise black ice. I personally prefer Scandinavian tire companies like Nokian and Gislaved, but many people have great success with tires like the Michelin X-Ice, the General Altimax Arctic, Bridgestone Blizzaks, among others. If you already own a set of snow tires, check the tread depth on them using the ‘quarter trick”. Grab a quarter and stick it in among the tread channels in multiple spots on each tire. If you can see the top of good old George’s head, it’s time to get new tires. Without tread depth and exposed siping, your tires aren’t going to perform as advertised and you’ll quickly learn what it’s like to join car with tree. If you are on crazy steep or unplowed roads, you may also want to invest in a set of chains for your car, which are required and necessary in certain areas.
As far as what to keep in your car, there’s some things that live in my trunk or back seat for almost half the year. First, a combination brush and ice scraper is a must. You can get away with a small ice scraper but when the snow really packs in, you’ll want a full-sized one. Second is a small collapsible shovel. It can be some plastic cheapo from the hardware store or it can be your favorite Avy shovel. If you’re snowed in and need to dig yourself out, or if you get stuck, this will be indispensable. Third is extra windshield washer fluid. You go through a ton of this stuff in the wintertime with all the muck and mud flinging at your windshield, and if you run out of fluid on the interstate at night, you will get yourself into a terrifying situation–trust me on this one, I’ve been there. Having to come to a complete stop and find the shoulder in a whiteout with a blacked-out windshield is not something I’ll do again willingly. The fourth thing that I consider essential is some sand or kitty litter, in case you get stuck. I top it up weekly or more.
There are some other things that I bring with me that I think are a good idea, but that may not be necessary, so I will list them:
- A spare set of gloves and a warm hat.
- A space blanket or sleeping bag in case you get truly stuck in the middle of nowhere. I’ve never had to use this myself, but I did pull one out for an injured motorist at an accident scene.
- Flares, reflective triangles, or other ways of alerting drivers to an accident or breakdown.
- A cell phone and a 12-volt car charger.
- A spare bottle of gas-line antifreeze.
- Lock de-icer (in my pocket, not in the car).
- De-icing spray or de-icing windshield fluid for the nasty ice storms we get here in the Northeast.
- A real hydraulic jack–trying to use the one that comes with your car in a snowstorm is terrible.
- My AAA membership card
- A flashlight or headlamp with fresh batteries, preferably lithium.
- Rain-X. Can’t beat the stuff. Highly recommended.
- A 1/4 tank of gas. I never let myself go below a 1/4 tank in the wintertime, just in case I get stuck and need to use the heat from the engine to stay warm.
- A tire pressure monitor. Cold weather drops the pressure in your tires, so for extended cold spells you may need to add a bit in. Only do this after you’ve driven for a while, because driving does warm the tires up again.
- Rubber floor mats. Not only do they keep your carpet clean, but you can pull them out and use them under your tires if you ever get stuck.
However, none of these things, with the exception of maybe the windshield fluid and snow tires are going to prevent an accident. These days traction control, ABS, and all-wheel drive do a hell of a lot to make your car safer to drive, but I’ve driven all over New England with a rear wheel drive Volvo with none of these toys, and I can promise you that while these features are great, they’re not necessary to keep you from going off the road. What is necessary is some damn common sense. Slow. The. Hell. Down. That being said, don’t go slower than you need to, because you might get rear-ended. With modern cars you may not even realize how bad the roads are because your car is constantly making corrections to power and braking when the wheels slip, and this may lure you into a false sense of confidence at high speeds. I’ve been passed by plenty of fancy SUVs going 90 in a blizzard only to pass them a few minutes later with their blinkers on, in a ditch. Water on ice is the slipperiest stuff on earth, and no amount of traction control is going to keep your 2-ton vehicle from sliding around on it.
Speaking of which, learn how to control a skid. I’m not saying go and master the Finnish Flick , or advanced drifting techniques. Just go to an empty parking lot after a snowstorm and unleash your inner 10 year old–slide all over the place just to see how to control your car, and learn what it means to “drive into” a skid. Keep your distance from other cars and anticipate breaking much earlier, because you never know when you’re going to slide and touch bumpers. Drive with your lights on at all times, and if the visibility is terrible or if you drop well below the speed limit, put on your emergency 4-way flashers. Don’t follow the lights of the person in front of you! This may seem like the best way to stay on the road, but it’s also the best way for 5 cars in a row to end up in a ditch. If the visibility is that bad, slow to a crawl and think about stopping at the nearest hotel or gas station and waiting out the storm. And for the sake of your car and rust, wash your car more often. I use automatic car washes in the winter because they do a better job of getting to the undercarriage and washing off the salt, but whatever you prefer is better than letting your car sit in salty water for half the year. As soon as the roads clear after a storm, I wash off my car.
This is obviously not a comprehensive piece, but that’s a ton of information you may not have had if you live below the snow belt. Now you’re prepared to go out there, drive safe, and I probably won’t have to help pull you out of a ditch this year. Happy Holidays!