How to drive in snow

While we're all dreaming of a white Christmas, driving in snow can be dangerous. Here’s how to prepare and drive safely

James Mills
Oct 7, 2021

The winter months are closing in and the temperature is dropping, and with the winter months come darker evenings and unpredictable weather conditions that can quickly turn nasty. Heavy rain, snow and ice present a number of challenges and hazards to drivers so it pays to be prepared. We've put together this guide to driving in snow and ice to help you stay safe this winter.

It probably comes as no surprise that winter is the busiest time for breakdown companies too, with these difficult conditions playing a big factor. Venturing into the cold with even a basic level of preparation could keep you from falling victim to slippery roads or poor reliability.

The first and most crucial thing you should do when the snow starts to fall is ask yourself, 'Do I really need to make the trip while it's snowing?' as it's better to put it off than risk getting stranded. Staying home is often the best option when the weather is bad.

If you have no choice, though, it's worth taking a moment to brush up on some simple checks to make sure your car is fit for driving in winter weather and that you've got all the kit you could need. Read on to make sure you've covered all the bases when it comes to driving in snow.

Car maintenance checks for the winter

First things first, there are three important fluid checks you need to carry out under the bonnet. Screenwash is probably the simplest, you’ll need plenty of this as there’s plenty of debris and dirt. Not only does this keep your windscreen clean but it will also prevent it from icing over. Screenwash contains de-icer, so it shouldn't freeze as long as you have it diluted correctly; check the bottle for directions or buy a ready-mixed formulation if you aren't sure.

Next, check that the cooling system is filled correctly with the appropriate mix of water and antifreeze. Look for your car’s expansion tank (usually a plastic reservoir) with minimum and maximum level markers on it, the level of fluid should be between the two.

Finally, but most importantly, don’t forget to check the engine oil. It’s even more important to keep an eye on this during the winter because oil thickens in extreme cold. This will make the engine more difficult to start and more susceptible to damage.

To check the engine oil level you'll need to use the dipstick. Check the oil while the engine is cold (when it has not been used for a while), make sure the vehicle is on a flat surface and wipe the dipstick with a cloth first to get an accurate reading - the level should sit between the minimum and maximum markers.

Keep in mind that oil is not the same as fuel. The level needs to be maintained close to the maximum, if you notice the oil has started to drop you should top it up immediately. Running an engine with low or no oil risks catastrophic damage.

It’s important to keep an eye on your fuel gauge too. If you end up on a slippery road and have to make several wheel-spinning attempts to get up a hill or have to carry out a detour due to road closures, it's likely you'll get through more fuel than normal, so it's best to keep the car with a relatively full tank when conditions are tricky.

Next check that all the lights on your car are working, the windscreen wipers are in good order, and that the tyres are correctly inflated and have sufficient tread depth – ideally more than 2mm. New tyres typically have 7-8mm of tread and the less tread you have, the less grip you'll have on wet or snowy roads.

If you live somewhere that has sustained temperatures below seven degrees centigrade or receives heavy snowfall, you may also want to get winter tyres or all-season tyres fitted to ensure you have the best grip in winter conditions.

In all cases, if you don’t know where to look or what to check, refer to the vehicle manufacturer’s handbook.

Winter kit for your car

A high-visibility vest is a potentially life-saving piece of clothing that you should always keep in the glove box or door bin. They aren't expensive, they don't take up much space and you'll be glad you have one if you do get stuck in the snow and need to get out of your car at any point along your journey.

Useful tools to keep in the boot of your car include an ice scraper, a reflective warning triangle, a tow rope, sturdy shoes or wellies and a warm coat plus a hat and gloves. Furthermore, a small snow shovel can be useful for quick escapes from pesky snowdrifts. These should all be very high on your agenda if you’re planning on taking a trip in the snow. Getting stuck in freezing conditions is not fun in the slightest and can be dangerous if you aren't prepared.

For long journeys, you should consider taking a blanket, drinking water and some snacks in case you end up being stranded for longer periods of time - it's not out of the question that you might have to spend the night in the car. Don’t forget your phone charger either. If you do get stranded, you'll probably need to phone for help or let someone know you won't be back for dinner.

The best cars for snow

Driving in snow is a slippery affair, and it's not until you actually try it that you realise just how treacherous it can be. For that reason, the best cars for snow driving are the ones that offer the most grip. Since it's only the tyres that are in contact with the ground, the rubber on the car is extremely important. So, if you want to be sure you can keep driving in snow, it's worth investing in a set of winter tyres.

These use a different type of rubber that offers greater grip in cold conditions and on wet tarmac, so should keep you moving better than even a four-wheel drive car with normal summer tyres. For the best chance of keeping moving, a four-wheel drive car with winter tyres should offer the best of all worlds, with the tyres providing strong grip around corners, when accelerating and when braking, while the four-wheel drive system provides greater traction when pulling off.

If you opt for winter tyres you have two options - buy another set of wheels and swap the wheels and tyres when the temperatures start to drop and then switch back when things warm up again, or you can simply have the tyres swapped on the same wheels. Either way, you're likely to end up with tyres or wheels and tyres that need storage. You can either keep them at home or some garages will store them for you, for a small charge.

Another option is all-season tyres. This type of tyre offers far greater grip than summer tyres in cold conditions and on wet or snowy roads. As the name suggests, though, they perform better in warmer conditions than winter tyres. With many parts of the UK not seeing particularly cold or snowy winters, all-season tyres could be a good compromise - keeping you moving in winter with extra grip in cold conditions, while still performing adequately in summer.

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Winter car checklist

1. Clear snow and ice from your car

It might seem obvious, but it’s sensible - and also a legal requirement - to remove snow and ice from a car before setting off on a journey - having a clear view of the road around you should make driving safer and less stressful.

The Highway Code says all windows, lights and number plates must be clear of snow or ice, and being caught breaking this law can result in a fine and penalty points on your licence. The penalty could be greater still if your actions are deemed to have caused a crash.

2. Use air-conditioning

This might seem unnecessary when the temperatures are low, but using air-conditioning prevents the build up of moisture inside your car, which in turn stops the windows misting up. Also, using the air-conditioning through the winter ensures the system keeps working as intended, making it less likely that your air-conditioning will stop functioning by the time summer arrives.

Be aware, however, that having the air-conditioning on does cause the car to burn more fuel, so you might want to switch it off once all the windows are clear.

3. Switch on your lights

As the old saying goes, be safe, be seen. So switch on your lights. The Highway Code says lights must be used if visibility is seriously reduced, and it simply makes sense to do so. If people can't see you, they're more likely to crash into you or pull out in front of you.

4. Use main roads

Larger roads tend to be better kept than minor roads and are more likely to be gritted and ploughed. Avoid using smaller, unlit roads if you can help it; snowy roads can be particularly treacherous if you can't see what's coming.

5. Proceed with caution

When driving in snow and on icy surfaces, you’ll need to be as smooth and delicate as possible with the accelerator, brakes and steering. Turn the steering gently when needed, apply the brakes softly and use as little of the engine’s power as possible to maintain a safe speed.

With most cars you can pull away from a standstill with only a small amount of engine revs, or start in second gear, to reduce the likelihood of spinning the wheels. Some automatic gearboxes offer a winter driving mode that does just that, starting in second gear and changing up a gear sooner.

Most modern cars have traction control systems that prevent the wheels from spinning or limit the amount they spin under heavy acceleration. While normally helpful, these systems may prevent you from making safe progress if they're too keen to engage on snow. If that's the case, you may want to look in the car's manual to find out how to disengage this. Do this, though and you'll want to be particularly gentle with the throttle to avoid getting the wheels spinning dramatically when accelerating.

Remember, too, that stopping distances on slippery roads can be greatly increased, so you’ll need to greatly increase the gap between you and the car ahead. Braking distances on snow can be several times more than on dry roads, so leave extra space and try to brake early rather than at the last minute, as this could cause the car to skid. Bear in mind, also, that winter tyres offer far greater braking grip on snow, slush and wet roads, so this provides a far greater safety net in cold conditions.

6. Hills will need a clear run

In the same way that leaving a generous gap behind the vehicle ahead is important when driving in wintry conditions for safety, it's important to leave extra space so that when you reach a hill you’ll be able to get a good run up, building momentum during the approach, so that you don't have to accelerate much on the hill - which could cause the wheels to spin - to get to the top.

Again, winter tyres or all-season rubber will offer you far greater grip when negotiating hills, meaning that the car should be more able to pull off on a slippery hill.

What to do if your car slides on ice

Always look in the direction it's travelling and steer into the direction of the slide if you start to lose control. This will help you instinctively 'counter-steer' to correct the slide and straighten the car. If it's beyond saving, keep the brakes applied until you come to a stop.

Consider a winter-weather driving course

It doesn’t have to be wintertime for you to take a winter driving course to build your skills. Specialist venues are able to simulate slippery surfaces, so you can learn what to do in the event of your car losing control - all in a safe environment. You’re likely to learn more in a day than you will in a lifetime of driving.

 

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