Planning on hitting the road in the winter? Whether you’re headed with friends to the nearest skiing hot spot or visiting family for the holidays, winter road trips can be incredibly fun, feeding your sense of adventure during colder months.
With a little preparation and know-how, you and your vehicle can confidently take on whatever a long winter drive might throw your way.
First things first—winter weather can get messy, icy, snowy, muddy, and potentially dangerous at times especially in an authentic western state that is Montana. But a little snow doesn’t have to stop you from planning a road trip during this time of year.
(However, when it comes to more extreme weather conditions, like storms and blizzards, you’re probably going to want to change those plans.)
With proper planning, you may be able to avoid tricky car troubles due to winter weather on your road trip.
Here are six essential vehicle maintenance tips to consider before your drive:
- Replace worn wiper blades and refill wiper fluid.
- Check your tire pressure and tire tread.
- Fill up your gas tank or charge your electric car.
- Check your oil (and get it changed if needed).
- Have your vehicle’s HVAC system checked.
- Make sure your car’s battery is running properly.
If your wiper blades are cracked and worn, making strange sounds, or aren’t making good contact with your windshield, it’s time to get them replaced.
Are your tires low on pressure? This can be pretty normal during colder months, so you’ll want to check your tire pressure before (and throughout) your winter road trip and fill them with air as needed.
Make sure to also check your tire tread routinely. If you need to, change to winter tires before your trip.
Ultimately, it’s ideal to check your tire pressure before driving and three hours after driving.
To check your tire tread before winter driving you can do the classic, tried-and-true penny test. Take a penny and insert it head-first into several different lines of the tread of your tires. Be sure to check all tires, especially if you didn’t replace them all at the same time!
If you don’t see the top of Lincoln’s head on the penny, your tires have enough tread to keep going. The rule of thumb is that you need 2/32 of an inch of tread or more, which the penny helps measure. If you have less than that, it’s likely time to replace your tires.
It’s a no-brainer that a full gas tank is essential to start your road trip, but for winter road trips specifically, keeping a solid amount of gas in your car is even more important.
If you have an electric vehicle (EV), make sure you leave it is a fully charged when you leave and pack your plug-in charger in case of an emergency. Plan your trip accordingly to make sure you can find EV charging stations along your route and/or can charge your car overnight. Don’t forget that colder weather generally leads to lower performance from your car’s battery as well.
Also, it’s important to make sure you have enough oil before you start off on your winter road trip. Oil doesn’t typically freeze, but it can become thicker in colder temperatures and potentially flow slower through your vehicle’s engine.
Before you turn your car engine on, do a cold reading of your oil by opening the hood and pulling the dipstick out from your engine. Wipe it off with a paper towel, and then replace it and push it all the way down.
Pull the dipstick back out: If the oil is at a level that’s appropriate on the dipstick lines, you’re good to go. If not, top it off with additional oil before you leave for your trip. To top your oil off the right way, make sure to check with your manufacturer’s guide or consult with a mechanic.
Is your heater working? Do you have heat? Is it sufficient? You can do a quick check yourself, but if anything seems even slightly out of whack, it’s a good idea to have it looked at by a professional before you drive long distances in winter weather.
If you notice that your car’s HVAC produces strange smells or noises when it’s turned on (or no heat at all), you’ve likely got a problem.
If your car heater is on the fritz, the two most common causes are:
- Thermostat trouble, or
- Low antifreeze or coolant
Colder weather can cause battery issues. Before you head out on the road, make sure your battery is in good shape for a long trip.
In colder weather, it’s a good idea to have jumper cables in your car, especially if you’ve had battery troubles before and have a long winter road trip ahead.
Once you’ve prepped your vehicle for your winter trip, here are some simple winter weather driving tips to get you to your destination without a hitch.
- Do NOT warm up the car in the garage! Not only is it not truly necessary to get your car “ready” for a winter drive by warming it up, but it also increases emissions and wastes fuel and can be a safety issue. A running vehicle gives off carbon monoxide, so it’s a serious safety issue to warm up your car in a closed garage or enclosed space.
- Remove snow and ice from all mirrors, windows, cameras, and sensors. Make sure you always have maximum visibility. It may not be your favorite task to scrape off every bit of ice and snow in the freezing cold, but it’s crucial for safe driving. In some states, there are laws in place that require drivers to completely clear a vehicle of snow and ice before driving in it, since lingering snow can fall off and hit other cars on the road.
- Check the weather and time your drive accordingly when possible. If you know when snow is predicted to stop or ease up and have some wiggle room in your schedule, consider adjusting your drive to a time when you’re likely to have greater visibility. And if you’re going on a winter road trip, do a bit of research ahead of time: Are there routes you could take that would be less hazardous than others? Could you time your departure to be before or after the risk of a snowstorm?
- Love cruise control? Avoid it during winter weather conditions. If there’s a chance of ice or snow on the roads, don’t use cruise control. You’ll need to have full control over your speed to adjust to the complexities of winter driving. Keep to slower speeds and don’t accelerate or decelerate rapidly in winter weather, especially if there is any chance that ice is present.
- In bad winter weather, or when there’s a chance of ice, increase the space between you and other vehicles and reduce your speed.
How to Drive on Icy Roads
First, if you can avoid driving on icy roads, you absolutely should! However, that’s obviously not always an option. If you do have to drive in icy conditions, there are a couple of tips you should follow in addition to the winter driving tips listed above
Overall, if you choose to drive on icy roads or encounter icy conditions you weren’t expecting, stay alert and aware.
If you’re in a particularly challenging situation, it may be helpful to turn off any additional distractions (even your music) to have clearer concentration.
Driving on an icy road is challenging, but the task can bring out the best driver in you if you move forward with caution and care.
Winter Road Trip Checklist
Before you have your bags packed and all your favorite podcasts loaded up for your road trip, you should think through what you’ll need to bring with you in your vehicle as you take on winter roads.
Keep the following items with you in your car in case you encounter any weather or vehicles issues:
- Basic first aid supplies (including any medications you or your passengers might need)
- Flashlights with fresh batteries
- Spare warm clothing
- Duct tape
- A multi-use knife
- Thermal blankets
- Extra cell phone batteries, chargers, or portable chargers/power packs
- Basic tools, including a screwdriver, wrench, small shovel, and ice scraper
- Snacks and bottled water
- Jumper cables
- Air compressor