It happens every year: a college student moves to a climate they are not used to. For example, a student from Southern California moving to Colorado. They’ve never driven in a winter wonderland. What do they do? Do they take the bus, walk, or buckle up and learn to drive in the snow? Let’s explore the latter option.
First, before even trying to venture out into the snow, consider getting winter tires for your car. Winter tires offer better grip in wet, snowy, and icy conditions, making it much safer for you to drive in the winter. Where other tires will simply slip and spin fruitlessly, winter tires will get your vehicle moving forward. This will also help you avoid spinning out or getting into an accident, potentially hurting you and others and damaging your car.
For example, Nokian offers both studded and non-studded winter tires. While studded tires will offer the most control in snowy conditions, Edmunds found that even non-studded winter tires provide better traction during the colder months. The rubber is different from all-season tires, and works well on wet, cold, snowless roads as well as snow-covered streets. True winter tires have a three-peak mountain symbol on them.
Having an extra set of tires for winter is definitely worth the cost, as it will likely help prevent accidents — especially with drivers new to snow. If you are going to use snow tires, studded or unstudded, have a full set installed rather than mixing tire types. You may be eligible for financing instead of fronting all of the initial costs all at once.
If you know snow is coming, one of the best ways to make your vehicle safer to drive in inclement weather is to ensure proper winter maintenance.
Check your vehicle’s:
- tires for any wear tear, and ensure the treads aren’t worn down
- tire pressure, especially if they have been in storage, if you are switching to snow tires
- battery — In some batteries, you may need to add distilled water
- belts and hoses for wear
- radiator for leaks
- oil level
- lights, especially if they have fogged over
- windshield wipers, which you should replace each year
Each of these plays an important part in driving in snow. As such, consider getting each part professionally checked by a mechanic.
For actual driving, good advice is simply driving slow, even with winter tires. Why? As Wired magazine points out, it’s all about the friction coefficient. This is measured between zero (no friction) and 1 (a lot of friction). A tire on a wet surface has about 0.7, and only 0.15 in snow. Ice is even scarier, at a mere 0.08, just slightly more than rubbing two pieces of Teflon together at 0.04. The best way to combat this to have winter tires, but it’s still a good idea to drive slower than you normally would.
For example, your tires will have low friction, and thus low traction if you try to power up a slick hill covered in snow.
For manual cars, start by slipping the clutch as gently as possible. Keep the engine revs low. Change gears early as you accelerate and late as you decelerate. The risk of wheelspin is reduced at lower revs. Remember that driving in the snow is not unlike driving in the mud. If you continually spin your tires, you run the risk of boiling your radiator.
It’s also important to brake early. You will need more space than you think to stop your vehicle. In icy conditions, you may not be able to stop, but you should slow down as much as possible. In some situations, like at stop lights, if traffic is light enough, slow down, and try not to stop. Keep coasting until the light turns green. You will want to be 5 mph or under if possible.
Front Wheel Drive and Snow or Ice
If your automatic or four-wheel-drive car has a low-ratio mode, use that while in the snow. Do not use sport mode.
If, however, your car is rear-wheel drive, fill a few sandbags and place them in the trunk over the back axle. This will help add traction and stabilize the car, as RWD cars tend to slide more in snow. If you do skid, instead of turning into the skid, look at where you want to go, and point the tires towards there. Slowly let off the brakes, and keep light pressure on the accelerator.
All-wheel drive is not a magical fix to the snow, either. While it will help you get moving and stay moving in deep snow, it’s better to have snow tires than rely on which type of drive you have.
Meanwhile, front-wheel drive is good when there are a few inches of snow. The National Motorists Association notes that, “FWD is vastly better in the snow than a rear-wheel-drive car. With a good set of all-season or snow tires, you will probably be able to make it to work unless the snow is really deep — in which case it’s the absence of ground clearance more than anything else that will cause you to get stuck.”
With a 4×4, you will be able to tackle even deeper snow. With good snow tires, you shouldn’t have any trouble unless it’s the snow is incredibly heavy. Even unplowed roads remain an option for a 4×4.
Much like having a safety kit, an emergency kit geared towards snowy and icy conditions is vital, and could save your life in dire circumstances. You will want to include:
- A thermal blanket
- A crank-powered flashlight
- An extra ice scraper
- Sand or cat litter to add traction
- A small shovel
- An extra battery pack for your phone with a charging cable
- Jumper cables
- A pair of warm gloves
- A wam hat and jacket
- Chemical hand warmers
- Paper towels
- Aerosol spare-tire filler
- Food and water
With snow tires, you can be more confident in driving in the snow. Make sure you are well-rested and ready to tackle any curveballs the snow can throw at you. You need to be ready to react quickly if needed.