Winter Driving Survival Guide - Requirements and Driving Techniques

winter driving guide 1 photo
Photo: pixabay
Brace yourselves, winter is coming, and along with it come icy roads, park spaces covered in snow, slow driving and the possibility to remain stuck in remote areas. Considering all these, you should know how to fight your way through this driver-nightmare season.
Reason why we’ll cut the chase and start giving you some actual advice. But before we’re going to dive into details, you should know that winter tires are a must if you want to drive in such conditions, and we also have a whole material on the advantages they provide.

As a general rule, snowy roads require you to drive slower than in the summer; you might have your car equipped with winter tires, but they won’t perform miracles when something bad happens and you need to slow down quickly or avoid an obstacle.

For some of you, most of the info here will seem commonplace and that’s because we’re mostly aiming this material towards new drivers ready to go through their first winter behind the wheel.

We’ll leave the driving techniques for later because before you’ll reach that point, you first need to make sure your car is suited for winter driving.


We have to burst your bubble and give it to you straight from the beginning: if you live in an area where street snow removal services can’t bring the black asphalt up to the surface, leave your low-slung sportscar in the garage.

If you have a normal car, with a decent amount of ground clearance, go ahead, fit it with snow tires and also make sure you check these things as well:

Lights - as you have probably noticed, night comes faster now than in the summer, so make sure all your car’s lights are working and are visible (to be read as: deposited snow or ice isn’t blocking them).

Because you’ll be driving more in the dark, some of your lights might get burned earlier, so make sure you check all of them work so you'll be visible for other road users. Non functional braking lights could take the driver behind you by surprise and you will get rear ended, especially because the road is slippery.

Ask someone to have a look at them from the outside while you’re in the car and switch everything ON and OFF, like the brake lights, running lights, signals and such.

Battery - if you’re starting the winter with an old battery, you’re going to have a bad time. And that’s because the battery will go under more stress during cold weather and won't cope with it.

It’s common knowledge that batteries get affected by low temperatures. Add in the fact that they have to support more loads to power the lights for longer, the heater and start the engine and you can understand what could happen if your battery is already showing signs of dying during the autumn - it will let you down one morning.

Also, try not to use the battery too much with the engine OFF. Most new cars have a shut-down protection, which will turn off the radio and other consumers after a while to stop you from draining the battery completely. But if you own and older car, it won’t do that, so make sure you turn off everything before leaving the car.

Air conditioning - it might sound crazy, but windows de-icing is part of the active safety, because you need to see properly in order to know your surroundings and take the right decisions.

Thus you should check if your de-icing/demisting feature on your car works properly. Oh, and you should know that leaving your climate control on ECO mode will stop the aforementioned features.

Brakes - make sure they are regularly maintained and work properly. If you feel vibrations during braking or the car pulls left or right, that’s a problem and you should see a service.

Also make sure the ABS (anti-lock braking system) works. It won’t reduce brake distance on slippery roads, but it will leave you the opportunity to steer clear off an obstacle during hard braking.

Coolant - this is another important thing you should check. If your car used only a little dose or no antifreeze in its coolant fluid, you have a problem because it will freeze and several internal parts could get damaged.

If you plan on replacing the coolant yourself, take notice to what kind of antifreeze you buy. Some will freeze faster than other types and they can also come as a concentrated fluid you’ll need to dilute with distilled water.

WARNING: antifreeze is highly toxic, so avoid contact with eyes, skin and under no circumstances do not ingest it.

Windshield washer fluid and wipers - same goes for this. Buy winter windshield washer fluid if you don’t want it to freeze in its container, in the hoses or even in the spraying nozzles.

Old wiper blades are also nasty to have during winter, when you’ll need to clean the windshield more than ever. Get new ones and avoid cheap replacements, because the rubber they use hardens at low temperature and it will cause you a lot of headaches.

Hoses and belts - big temperature variations happening in the engine bay when you’re driving and then letting the car outside over night, can “cook” some old hoses and belts, turning them brittle and wear up to the point they will fail. We suggest seeing a workshop for this king of check up.

Auxiliary winter equipment - apart from checking all of the above, make sure you don’t forget the special winter equipment.

Tire snow chains are a must if you plan on leaving the city. Buy a pair, learn how to mount them and only do that for the traction wheels. It’s useless to have snow chains on the “free” axle.

A pair of thick gloves is also useful when you might need to grab that foldable shovel (which shouldn’t be forgotten at home) and start digging your way out of a snow-drift.

Speaking of being caught in a snow drift, you should also have two small bags - one with sand and the other with salt - in your trunk. The salt will melt the ice/snow, while the sand will aid a bit with traction to get the car out.

Make sure you also get a soft brush to get rid of the snow on your car as well as a windshield ice scraper. And don’t get lazy with that thick layer of snow on top of your car. It’s heavy and it will make your car use more fuel.


Now that you have everything, let’s see how you should behave in the driver’s seat, because most of the maneuvers you’ve used on dry roads might not work as expected on icy/snowy ones.

Get comfortable

This basically means to achieve an optimal temperature inside the car. If you’re lucky enough to park your car in a garage, this won’t represent much of a hassle since you’ll only turn on the AC to maintain that temperature.

But if you left your car outside at -20 degrees C (-4 F) over the night, you’ll surely feel it in the morning. If your car has a remote start feature, you can use it for about 5 or 10 minutes before entering the it to create a more pleasant place to be and start your day.

It will eat up some extra fuel, but then, driving with a huge restraining winter jacket on could prove dangerous at a certain point. Another reason to take it off after a comfortable temperature has been achieved in the cockpit. Of course, you should pull over and take it off, not struggle with the operation at a stoplight or while driving.

Also make sure you can properly reach all the controls now if you’ve previously adjusted your position wearing a thick coat. You should be able to touch the upper part of the steering wheel with your wrist and fully press the pedals without shifting your body position on the seat. Don’t forget to adjust your mirrors to the new position.

Be gentle

The lack of friction between your tires and the road is your worst enemy now and your car won’t feel the same under certain maneuvers, like accelerating, braking or hard cornering.

Work out the clutch (if available) and the gas pedal smoothly when starting from a standstill, don’t accelerate hard and gently press the brake pedal when needing to stop or slow down.

Same goes for the steering - abrupt steering input at higher speeds will break-loose the friction forces between the tires and the ground, making the car steer with a big delay or not at all.

Always stick to the speed limits and keep your distance from the vehicle in front of you. This way, you won’t have to jerk the car, loose the control and hit something if things get nasty up front.

And even if the road looks all black and clean, don’t forget about black ice, which is a very clear coat of ice getting deposited on the road surface to take you by surprise when you least expect.

Always plan ahead

Is the guy in front of you signaling its intention to change direction on an adjacent road? Does that person on the sidewalk seem to be hurrying to reach the crossing? Will that truck be able to stop behind me? Is that light gonna’ turn red?

All these questions and many more should bounce around in your head and that’s because braking distances grow quite a lot on ice/snow and you might not be able to stop in time.

That’s why we said you need to stick to the speed limits and take your foot off the gas at the slightest sign of danger. Leave that phone down, don’t join mentally consuming discussions with the passengers and constantly analyze your surroundings.

You should always have a backup plan, an escape route for when something bad happens in front, behind or near you in case you won’t be able to stop, and that’s how important is to always know your surroundings. Check you mirrors quickly every few seconds and avoid driving close to big trucks or buses.

Use your car’s features at their most

If you got a fancy new car, there are chances it comes with driving modes - a knob or some buttons where you can select the type of conditions you’ll be driving in. Do select “Winter” or “Snow” if available as it will aid with power delivery and braking.

Driving a hybrid vehicle or one that has a CVT (continuously variable transmission) will probably require you to switch the “engine braking” on, which sometimes could be off to allow coasting.

When not in an emergency, try to slow you car down using engine brake. On an automatic gearbox, this should be done automatically when you depress the gas pedal. If not, try to use the “-” or “shift down” feature to progressively switch into a lower gear.

On a manual transmission, this is done in the same way but you’ll also have to work the clutch. To engine brake, all you need to do is downshift to the next inferior gear to force the car slow down using the engine a compressor. You shouldn’t touch the gas when downshifting, of course.

Engine braking is especially recommended if you drive an old car with no ABS function. And speaking of ABS, don’t be afraid of it.

If you haven’t encountered a situation when the ABS kicks in so far, it fells like you broke the brake pedal and then it will start pulsating rapidly. That thing is normal as the system is quickly applying and disengaging the brakes to avoid wheel lockup.

Another thing you should know about ABS is that it is not made to stop your car faster. It’s own purpose is to leave you in control of the car. On a non-ABS vehicle, if you brake hard enough or the road is slippery, the wheels will lock up and you won’t be able to steer the car. The ABS system cuts the braking power as soon as the wheels start to lock up, so they’ll keep spinning and allow you to steer.

So, in an emergency situation, press the brake pedal as hard as you can and quickly find a way to steer away and avoid hitting whatever’s in front of you. It will work and you will be spared of other trouble.

In the end, we can give you an extra piece of advice: find a large area covered in snow (like an empty parking lot) and try to see how your car reacts under hard braking, accelerating and steering so you’ll know what to expect.
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