Driving in Snow and Ice

Be extra careful when hitting the road in winter weather 

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, over 70% of the roads in the U.S. are located in regions that receive an average of more than five inches of snow each year. So if you’re moving to areas known for snow or ice or will be driving through winter weather on a trip to your new home, there's a good chance you'll need to know how to prepare for it and how to drive in it.  

Person driving in snow and ice.

 

Prepping for winter driving 

Before you set out, perform a routine maintenance check to ensure the car is in good working condition — now isn't the time for a breakdown. Then, you can start the winter-weather prep: 

Pack supplies 

Prepping for a drive in icy or snowy regions is different from regular travel. Here are some things to take with you: 

  • Warm clothing including gloves, hat, boots and coat 
  • Blanket  
  • Flashlight 
  • Snacks 
  • Water 
  • First-aid kit 
  • Phone charger/backup battery 
  • Ice scraper 
  • Jumper cables 
  • Foldable shovel 
  • Tire chains 
  • Tow strap 
  • Bag of sand or non-clumping kitty litter (to help with traction) 
  • Road flares or reflectors 
  • Extra windshield washer fluid 

Plan your route 

Look up road conditions on state websites, social media or local news to be aware of closures, wrecks or trouble spots. Then plan your route along main roads (ideally with few hills and ample shoulders) since they're most likely to be treated and traveled.  

Tell someone you're headed out 

Don't travel without telling family or friends, so they can be on alert to help if you need it. 

Tips for driving in snow and ice 

Winter weather conditions call for driving differently than you would in normal or even wet conditions. The most important thing to remember is to take your time and drive with caution — even if you have an all-wheel or four-wheel-drive vehicle. Avoid doing anything distracting (phones, eating, etc.) and keep your focus on the road.  

Keep your vehicle clean 

If you’ve stopped in an area with snow and ice, be sure your windows, mirrors, roof and hood are clear before driving. This helps with visibility and it’s the law in some states — snow or ice build-up falling off your vehicle while it’s in motion can cause damage to other cars or pedestrians. It’s wise to do this anywhere you’re driving, but the states where it’s required are:  

  • Alaska 
  • Connecticut 
  • Georgia 
  • Massachusetts 
  • Michigan 
  • New Hampshire 
  • New Jersey 
  • Pennsylvania 
  • Rhode Island 
  • Tennessee 
  • Wisconsin 

You’ll also need to clear the exhaust to prevent carbon monoxide from backing up into the vehicle, which can be very dangerous and could be deadly.  

Fuel up 

It's important to keep at least half a tank of gas because dropping below that can impact winter engine performance. While it's a myth that low fuel levels could freeze, you do need gasoline (and the alcohol in the gas) to absorb the moisture in the tank and lines, preventing them from freezing. And if you get stranded, you'll have extra fuel to run the car to stay warm. 

Know how to recognize the signs of ice on the road 

Black ice often just looks like water on the pavement so it may not be obvious when driving conditions start to deteriorate.  Roads can begin icing well before the air temp hits 32 degrees, so watch out for these signs: 

  • The tires are making much less road noise 
  • The vehicle feels weightless or is slow to respond to steering 
  • The rear of the vehicle begins slipping to one side when braking 

Note that bridges and overpasses are usually the first to freeze due to the air circulating them. Slow down before you come to a bridge, then use steady speed and keep two hands on the wheel to maintain control. 

Drive slowly and smoothly 

Change speeds gently, break lightly and avoid moving the wheel suddenly. Fast acceleration can cause you to slide forcefully.  And this isn't the time for cruise control because ruts in the snow or ice could cause the car to drift.  

Anticipate what's ahead 

The stopping distance for snow and ice is 10x that of a dry road (and 5x that of a wet one), so keep lots of space between yourself and other drivers. Allow extra time to respond by driving in the clearest lane and watching for issues up ahead.  

Know how to handle skids 

The most common issue when driving in snow is skidding due to lack of traction. If the front wheels slide, ease off the gas to let the wheels regain grip. For rear wheels, turn the steering wheel in the direction of the slide, ease off the gas and stay off the brakes.   

Use steady pace on hills 

When you're going up a hill, you'll want to avoid stopping. Gently apply the gas before you begin to climb, and keep a steady pace throughout. When going downhill, avoid slamming your brakes — just apply gentle, constant pressure. Or you can shift into a lower gear, which makes the engine do some braking for you. Just be sure to put it back into a higher gear at the bottom.  

Use caution when passing plows 

While it may be inconvenient to follow behind a slow-moving snowplow, the blowing snow can reduce visibility. Passing a snow plow can also be illegal in some states. In states where it is legal, make sure there is plenty of room to go around them, and never pass on the right. 

Use your headlights 

Winter weather conditions can decrease visibility, so drive with your headlights on — it's the law in most states. Just be aware that bright lights can reduce visibility due to the reflection off the snow.  

Put on tire chains in the snow 

Snow chains improve traction by cutting through the snow, and in some mountainous areas they’re required. If driving through a place where they’re necessary, find a safe place to pull over and put them on. 

Don't stop for stranded vehicles 

Unless the driver is in immediate danger, it's best to call 911 and let first responders help them. Parking on the side of the road puts you in harm's way if other drivers lose control.  

What to do if you get stuck 

The first thing to do is assess the situation. If it isn't an emergency and you think you can easily free the vehicle, use sand for traction or a shovel to dig a clear path. 

If there's been damage to another car, person or property or you’re stranded and can’t easily free your vehicle, call 911. If possible, send a pinpoint of your location on GPS, so they'll know exactly where you're located. Then make your car visible by turning on your emergency flashers.   

If conditions are clear and it’s safe to get out of the vehicle, set out emergency reflectors. Otherwise, stay in the vehicle while you wait for help to arrive. Keep the car running just long enough to warm it up, then turn it off to conserve fuel. If you're stuck for a while, be sure to clear your tail pipe before turning the car back on. It's also smart to save the battery on your phone and only use it to check on help arriving. 

Share your tips for driving in snow or icy conditions 

If you've found other helpful tips for driving in winter conditions, leave them in the comments.