Driving in Snow and Ice

Not sure how to safely drive in the snow or ice?

If you're planning a cross-country move or a driving vacation (or a road trip during a move) that goes through any winter weather, you'll want to know what to do on slick roads. These winter weather driving tips will help you understand how to prepare for the trip, how to drive through snow and ice, and what to do if you get stuck.

Person driving in snow and ice.


Things to do before driving in winter weather

Since you have to act quickly if you encounter problems while driving on snow or ice, it’s crucial to do some work before you hit the road to fully prepare. Here’s how to get the vehicle and yourself prepped so you can focus on the drive:

Get the car ready

Because car trouble could leave you stuck on the side of the road in extreme temperatures, you’ll want to take a few precautions to keep everyone safe. Before the trip, use a maintenance checklist or take your vehicle to a repair shop to get everything in good working order. Then make sure there's a full tank of gas before you drive into any winter weather.

Pack some essentials

If you get stranded, you’ll want to have these supplies with you: extra warm clothing (don’t forget gloves, hats and socks!), a flashlight, an ice scraper, blankets, protein-packed snacks, water, a phone charger or backup battery, a small shovel, and sand or kitty litter.

Plan the route

Check DOT websites for road conditions in the areas you’ll drive through. If possible, choose a route where you can avoid areas with poor driving conditions. Even if it’s more miles, it may get you there faster since you’ll have to drive slower on snow or ice.

Familiarize yourself with the car's warning lights

Read the owner's manual to determine if the vehicle has a stability or traction control system and know where the lights are on the dash. If they come on, it means that you've momentarily lost traction or stability, and the system is automatically trying to correct it. This is critical to watch for because it will alert you to the fact that road conditions are causing the vehicle to lose traction, so you know to drive more cautiously. It also lets you know that the car is working to regain grip, so you don’t try and override it.

Be prepared in case of skids

A skid can happen suddenly when the car completely loses traction and moves uncontrollably. Knowing what to do beforehand (and thinking through the different scenarios) will help you make the right choices in the moment. Here’s what to do if you start skidding:

  • For front-wheel skids, ease off the gas to let the wheels regain grip, then steer in the direction you want to go.
  • For rear-wheel skids, let off the gas (and stay off the brakes) and turn the steering wheel in the same direction of the slide. Once the car regains traction, steer back into the original path.

Practice installing tire chains

Since you’ll only use chains when the road is completely snow covered, you may have to take them on and off several times during your trip. Practice putting your set on before the trip so you can do it quickly and safely when the time comes. Read the instructions or use this video to help. Remember to pay attention to state laws and signs about tire chains, as some areas prohibit their use, and in other mountainous areas, they may be required.

Winter driving tips

In any winter weather, the main issues are visibility and traction, so the keys to safely driving in poor conditions are staying visible to other drivers, seeing upcoming challenges clearly and maintaining control of the car.

How to increase visibility

  • Fully remove snow from the vehicle. A snow-covered car can be a hazard to you or other drivers — causing visibility issues if snow goes flying. In some states, you can even be ticketed or fined for driving without clearing your car. Use this resource to check laws in the states you'll be going through and learn how to remove snow.
  • Keep headlights on. Make yourself more visible to other cars by keeping your headlights on — it's the law in most states. Just be aware that in heavy snow, the reflection can cause issues, so don't use your brights.
  • Remain alert. Don’t drive distracted. In low vision, it’s super important to keep your focus on the road to avoid stranded cars and anticipate what’s ahead.
  • Keep the defroster on. If freezing precipitation is coming down, use the defroster to avoid accumulating ice on the windshield.

Tips for maintaining or regaining traction

  • Drive slowly and smoothly. Change speeds gently, brake lightly and avoid jerking the wheel. And this isn’t time for cruise control since you’ll want to manage speeds in case of ruts or drifting.
  • Avoid driving in the dark. One of the biggest dangers to nighttime winter driving is hitting black ice and spinning out. Plan to travel during daylight, if possible, when sunshine and traffic can help melt roadways.
  • Watch overpasses, bridges, ramps and shaded spots. Bridges, ramps and overpasses freeze faster because air can circulate around them. And shaded areas can stay icy longer than spots in the sun. Use caution and decrease speeds in these places.
  • Don't spin the tires. If stuck, use a shovel, cardboard, kitty litter or sand to give traction under the tires. Spinning them without going anywhere can dig the vehicle deeper into the snow or overheat your engine and burn your tires on ice.
  • Know what to do on hills in snow vs. ice. In either condition, you don't want to stop while traveling uphill, if at all possible.
    • On snowy roads, slightly speed up before the hill to give your car momentum (instead of forcing acceleration on snow-covered roads). Stay with a steady speed to the top of the hill.
    • On ice, avoid hills, if possible. If you have to go uphill, maintain a consistent speed and don't go too slow where the tires could start slipping.

How to drive in snow

Both falling and fallen snow can pose issues for drivers. Here's what to do if you're driving in snow:

Use caution when passing plows

While it may be inconvenient to follow behind a slow-moving snowplow, it’s not always safe (or legal) to pass them. In places where it is legal, make sure there is plenty of room to go around them, and never pass on the right.

Safely exit the road in a whiteout

If the snow is falling heavily enough to cause a whiteout, exit the road and stop in a safe space. Shoulders are unsafe because another driver could hit you if they can't see clearly. Before you can stop, don't brake suddenly or change lanes, and allow for even more distance between drivers.

Use the anti-lock brake system (ABS)

If you need to avoid an obstacle and can't come to a slow stop, push the brakes hard and keep steering. Many modern vehicles have ABS, which allows you to brake while steering since it adjusts the force on the wheels. You might feel the brakes vibrating, and that's OK. It means the system is working.

How to drive in icy conditions

Roads can ice well before the air temp hits 32 degrees, so use caution if conditions are wet and temps are in the 30s or below. These tips will help you navigate icy roads:

Know when you're driving on ice

Sometimes winter weather causes ice accumulation, but roads can also ice when snow has melted and refrozen. Black ice, which is a thin coat of transparent frozen glaze that blends in with the road, can be especially dangerous. Watch for these signs to know if you're encountering icy spots:

  • The tires are making much less road noise
  • The vehicle feels weightless or is slow to respond to steering
  • The rear begins slipping to one side when braking
  • Ice is accumulating on the wipers, side view mirrors or trees near the road

Gently tap the brakes

Unlike snowy conditions, where you could apply strong brakes in emergencies, braking heavily on ice can make the car spin out and lose control. Instead, gently tap the brakes, and in an emergency, focus on steering to come to a safe spot.

What to do if you get stuck on a snowy or icy road

If the vehicle somehow gets trapped in snow or you get stranded on ice, follow these steps to get help while staying safe:

  • Be visible. Start by turning on your emergency flashers. If it's dark out, keep interior lights on (batteries in most modern cars won’t be drained by interior lights when used short term). During the day, use a brightly colored scarf or shirt hanging outside a rolled-up window as a make-shift flag.
  • Assess the situation. If it's not an emergency and you think you can free the vehicle, use sand, kitty litter or a shovel to dig a path. If there's been damage, injuries or you can't easily release the car, call 911 and wait inside the vehicle for help to arrive.
  • Unclog the exhaust pipe in deep snow or accumulating ice. If exhaust fumes have nowhere to go, they can back up into the vehicle, which can be a health hazard.
  • Conserve fuel. Only run the engine intermittently to heat the vehicle.
  • Don't get out in the elements. If help isn't visible within 100 yards (one football field), stay in your vehicle to avoid dangerous situations like frostbite, hypothermia or exposure.
  • Stay warm. Stay inside as much as possible and put on the cold-weather gear you packed. Get creative if you’re still cold — huddle together, use floor mats, maps, or anything possible to stay warm.
  • Save your phone battery. Only use it to contact help. Even if you have a charger, powering the car to charge your phone uses valuable fuel.

Trying to avoid driving in ice or snow?

Very few spots in the U.S. never get winter weather, but there are many places where it's pretty rare. If you can plan your route through these cities and states that don't get snow, you can likely avoid winter weather driving conditions.