I’ve never met a road trip I didn’t love. That said, driving 400 miles through a snowstorm and arriving home at 1 AM was definitely not my favorite. (Apparently, not all states maintain their interstates the same way—ahem, Virginia.)
But no matter where you’re traveling, winter drives require some special considerations. If you’re planning a winter jaunt this season, your road-savvy travel columnist has come to the rescue with driving and preparation tips to get you anywhere safely.
Visit Your Mechanic
Sure, you can check your battery, lights, tire inflation, and oil yourself (right?), but a good mechanic will have the skinny on what else your car might need before your trip. Fuel injection system cleanses (like a colon cleanse for your car!) and coolant flushes are two important maintenance items to consider before a winter trip—especially if you’re as bad as I am about timely auto maintenance.
Also ask for an oil change, a top-off of all fluids, and an overall inspection to make sure your ride is road-worthy. Trust me, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of (pricey) treatment later on down the road.
Get Your Tires Trek-Ready
If you’re headed to the Great White North, Alaska, the Rockies, or anywhere where it snows so much they don’t bother with plowing, you need chains for your tires. If you aren’t sure if you’ll need them, check out your destination’s transportation department website, or ask your mechanic.
At best, you want tires that are all-weather and rated for safety in the snow—and of course properly inflated and in good conditions. Poor tires like to go flat in wintry conditions. I think it’s Murphy’s Law.
Prepare for Anything
An emergency kit may seem like overkill for a two-hour drive, but many motorists have been stranded for hours during a surprise snowstorm or a bad accident just while going to the grocery store. A good kit includes blankets, extra water, high-energy snacks, gloves, flares, a folding shovel, jumper cables, a tow rope, flashlight, extra batteries, de-icing spray, windshield washing fluid, a snow brush and ice-scraper, and cat litter (to help get your car out of a slippery situation).
In addition to your emergency kit, bring a cell phone and car charger. If you can afford it, get a roadside assistance plan—if you add it on to your car insurance policy, it can run as low as a few dollars a month.
Before you venture out, check the weather and road conditions before you leave so you know what you’re up against. Once you’re all geared up and ready to roll, remember that wintry driving isn’t just as simple as hitting the open roads. First, get all the snow off your windshield, windows, mirrors and the top of your car. That snow on the roof likes to slide down over the windshield at the most inopportune times—and can seriously reduce your visibility.
Before leaving, also make sure your windows are fog-free, and keep them that way throughout your journey. In winter weather, this means using your defroster to blast cold, dry air. And if you need to immediately de-fog your windshield, roll down your windows.
Also, keep an eye on your gas tank, and plan to top off more often than usual. I like to stop for gas when my tank hits around half way to ensure that I’ve got plenty of fuel to get me to a safe spot.
And finally, reduce distractions. Keep your cell phone out of sight so your eyes can stay on the road and your hands on the steering wheel. (You also might want to reconsider blasting Trans-Siberian Orchestra.)
When Things Get Icy (or Dicey)
During any freezing precipitation or icy conditions, slow and smooth is the way to go. One way to stay at a safe, steady pace is by downshifting gears. (But a word of caution: bring your foot off the gas slowly to prevent your car from lurching ahead.)
Make sure to leave plenty of following distance and to avoid braking as much as possible—if you need to stop or you start losing traction, smoothly remove your foot from the accelerator. If you start to fishtail or spin, remove your foot from the gas pedal and gently turn your wheel into the direction of the spin until you feel yourself gain traction. Once you do, smoothly steer yourself back into your lane and reduce your overall speed.
And if you get stuck somewhere—whether because of icy conditions, accidents, or heavy snow—stay put. Your car is a much safer place than the side of the road to wait it out and call for help.
So don’t let the frightful weather keep you at home! With a little preparation and focus, winter road trips can be every bit as rewarding as their summertime counterparts (OK, minus the windows down, wind blowing through your hair bit). Happy (and safe!) travels.