Winter Road Trips: A Snow Survival Guide

Aleksandar Nakic / Getty Images

Aleksandar Nakic / Getty Images

If you’re planning on hitting the road this winter you’re going to need a little help. Even if you’ve figured out everything you need to pack, stocked the car with entertainment for the kids, chosen your favorite playlist or audiobooks, and mapped out the best possible route, there’s one thing that you CAN’T control: the weather. Depending on where you live and where you’re going, snow can really throw you, both figuratively and literally.

But don’t fret! There are ways to make winter driving easier, safer, and less of a headache. Sure, you probably can’t keep the kids from fighting in the back seat or asking you every fifteen minutes how much longer the drive is going to be, but you can still make the trip a lot less treacherous.


Before you leave

Stock up

Make sure your ice scraper, snow shovel, and flashlight are in the car. Pack something abrasive, like cat litter or sand, in case you get stuck in the snow and need to create some traction around the wheels. And it never hurts to have jumper cables on hand no matter what the season.

Eating in the car is a no-no for some families — just ask anyone who’s opened the door to the back seat to find a stream of Cheerios pouring out and you’ll know why. That said, having a secret stash of snacks will come in awfully handy if you find yourself stuck, whether it’s in gridlock or a snowstorm. Water, too!

And It’s not just about what you pack. Stock up on information. If your car is relatively new, it probably comes with a whole slew of safety features and the best way to take advantage of them is to know what they are. Knowledge is power.

Tune up

Overprepare. Even if your drive isn’t that long, fill up the tank – there could be unanticipated traffic during the holidays and you might find yourself stuck for a while. And it’s well worth the time and money to get a quick tune-up and check-up on your brakes, lights, tires, battery, wiper blades, heater, defroster, oil, and anything else your trusted mechanic recommends. If you have a long ride ahead of you, or lots of hills and rural roads, or drive in the snow regularly at home, consider getting winter tires.

Power up

Charge your cell phone! You may need it for the GPS, to tell relatives you’re running late or arriving early, or to call for help if you get stuck in the snow. Pack a charger, too.

On the road

Some tips for driving in snowy or icy conditions:

If you’re driving uphill in the snow, resist the urge to speed up. It may seem like the right thing to do, but it isn’t; instead, try to maintain a consistent speed — no stopping at all if you can avoid it. Try to start with a bit of acceleration before you reach the hill, but once you’re there, consistency is what’s going to get you up and over.

Make sure you leave room between you and the car in front of you. Don’t try to keep up with any speedsters zooming around you! Those speed limits are meant for ideal conditions, not for icy roads. (Just reference the age-old question, “If everyone else was jumping off a bridge…”)

If you’re changing lanes on slippery roads, look for an area of pavement with snow on it to get some traction. Ice is invisible, so don’t assume it isn’t there just because you can’t see it. It’s especially insidious in shady—literally shady, not side-eye shady—patches of road, because the sun may have melted the ice on the pavement in the more open areas leading up to them.

Hope for the best, expect the worst – and know what to do when it happens

Even the most careful drivers in the world can find themselves skidding. If that happens, ignore the temptation to pump the brakes. Take your foot off the gas, and maintain even, gentle pressure on the brake. Steer the car smoothly in the direction you want to go – and be sure to look in that direction, too. Stick to small gentle movements to keep a skid from turning into a spin.

Stuck? Before you call for help, try getting yourself out by clearing the show away from the area around the front wheels and turn off any traction system your car might have. Now shift back and forth between reverse and drive (a low forward gear is best), trying not to spin the wheels too much.

If that fails, it’s time to call for help. While you’re waiting for the cavalry, clear snow from under your car and around the exhaust pipe. You’ll want to run the car intermittently to keep everyone warm, but don’t overdo it, and open a window an inch or two to bring in some fresh air.