Getting your car ready for winter
Low temperatures, poor visibility, snow and ice can all make winter driving hazardous. But you can minimise the risk and stay mobile by following these tips…
First things first: it’s vital that your car is in top working order so it’s ready to tackle the worst of driving conditions. We’re highlighting these checks as being necessary for winter driving, but if you perform them all year round, you and your car will be prepared for whatever comes your way, whenever it does so.
Whether you go for winter, summer or all-year tyres, we recommend you regularly check their condition and pressure. Ensure that your tyres have plenty of tread – 1.6mm across three-quarters of the tyre, all the way round, is the legal minimum, but road safety organisations recommend that tyres have at least 3mm of tread in winter to ensure they have adequate grip in poor conditions.
You can measure the tread with a 20p piece. Hold the coin in the tread and so long as the rubber comes above the border around the coin, the tyre is legal.
The recommended tyre pressures for your car will be listed either in the manual or on the door frame.
You don’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere because of a flat battery, so it’s worth taking your car into a garage to have its battery tested. Make sure the battery is in good condition and fully charged and, if you’re concerned, carry a set of ‘jump’ leads with you or invest in a battery booster, so you can jump-start your car if necessary.
Brakes and brake lights
Wet, snowy or icy conditions all increase stopping distances. Check that your car’s brakes work effectively and that the brake lights are functioning.
Check oil levels and ensure you use the correct engine oil, because cold weather can make it thicken. Information on which oil to use can be found in the manual, or it can be obtained from the manufacturer’s service department.
You’ll use far more screenwash than normal because of the spray thrown up by damp, salty roads, so make sure you keep it topped up. Also check it’s of a high enough concentration so that it won’t freeze.
Check your windscreen wipers; they shouldn’t smear dirt across the screen. If your wipers aren’t clearing the screen properly, clean them first, then replace them if that doesn’t work. Perished or split wiper blades should also be replaced immediately.
Keep your car topped up with fuel so you can run it to keep warm if you get stuck in snow.
Top up your radiator with anti-freeze; your local garage will be able to check that it’s the right concentration. Anti-freeze comes in different colours, but generally red anti-freeze lasts longer than blue, green or orange-coloured equivalents.
In conditions where visibility is reduced, your car’s lights make other road users aware of your presence. Check that all lights are functioning as they should, including brake lights and indicators. Also check your fog lights. However, only use them when visibility is poor, because they can dazzle other road users and make your brake lights difficult to see
What to keep in your car during winter
It’s a great idea to keep a bag of essential equipment in your car for when the temperature plummets, including tools to keep your car moving, supplies and blankets…
Driving conditions can deteriorate rapidly, so it makes sense to keep a few things in your car so you’re prepared for the worst. Ideally, no one wants to get stranded in their car, but it’s worth getting everything ready in case it does happen.
Here’s what we recommend everyone keep in their car when driving in the winter:
If your car breaks down, you’ll need to set up a warning triangle to warn traffic of your vehicle’s presence and to make your car visible to the emergency services.
Mobile phone charger
Keep a phone charger in the glovebox, complete with a 12V adapter for the cigarette lighter. Most mobile phones can now be charged via a USB cable, so it might be worth getting one to keep permanently in the car.
Warm, waterproof clothing
Several thin layers are better than one thick jacket, but a warm fleece is essential. Don’t forget a pair of thick socks, gloves and ideally wellies. It’s also a good idea to keep a blanket in the car in case you get stranded overnight.
De-icer and a scraper
It’s useful to keep these on board all winter because you may have to clear the windows in the morning and when you return to your car at the end of the day.
This might seem like a strange item to be useful at this time of year but driving when the sun is low in the sky is difficult and can be tiring, so wearing sunglasses is a good way to combat the poor visibility and glare that low sun can cause.
This is a handy item to keep in your car all year round. Either get a torch you can recharge in a cigarette lighter or USB port, or make sure you check the batteries once a month or carry spares.
This will help to ensure you stand out as much as possible if you have to stop and get out of the car.
Shovel and two mats or strips of old carpet
If you’re in an area that’s likely to have a lot of snow, a shovel will be useful for digging snow away from your car’s driven wheels, and then you can put the carpet under them so you’ll be able to pull away.
Bottle of drinking water and snack bars
Should you have to spend the night in the car, water and some sustenance are important to help keep your strength up. A hot drink in a thermos is even better.
How to drive in winter
Winter presents a different and sometimes hazardous set of driving conditions – low visibility, snow and ice can all impact your driving, so follow our tips to stay safe
Check the weather forecast before you head out for a long trip. If the outlook is bleak and a lot of snow is predicted, put your journey off if it isn’t essential; there’s no point in taking unnecessary risks.
If you have to drive, there are a few things you can do to stay safer, such as choosing a route that stays on main roads, which are more likely to be regularly cleared of snow and gritted than side roads.
Follow our tips to stay safe:
Clear the windows
Scrape any ice from the glass (or use a de-icer), demist the interior and don’t drive off until you have good visibility all round and the fan is blowing out hot air to stop mist from building up again. If your car has an air conditioning system, use this rather than just the heater because it will work more quickly and create less condensation.
Also remove the snow from your car’s lights and indicators and from the roof of the car, because if you brake heavily, snow could fall forwards onto the windscreen or bonnet and obstruct your view. Alternatively, it could be blown backwards onto the vehicle behind.
Pre-condition electric cars
If you own an electric car equipped with a pre-conditioning function, use this to maximise your range by heating the battery and interior while it’s still plugged in before you set off.
Give everyone space
Stopping distances can increase tenfold when you’re driving on snow or ice, so make sure you leave a much larger gap than you would in optimal driving conditions, especially when driving up or down a hill.
If conditions are really treacherous, take this one step further by waiting at the bottom of the hill until it’s completely clear of other vehicles and then driving up at a constant speed in a low enough gear that you don’t have to change gear while ascending.
If you’re driving downhill, slow down as you approach the incline, select a low gear and stay in that gear while you descend, trying to avoid using the brakes if possible or touching the brake pedal only gently if you really need to use it.
Even on the flat, avoid sudden braking or acceleration and keep your car as controlled as possible, giving other drivers more time to react to changes in speed. Again, try not to use the brakes unless you have to, in order to reduce the risk of skidding on ice or compacted snow.
Drive in a higher gear
If your car has a manual gearbox, you might get better traction for pulling away by putting it in second gear instead of first and easing your foot off the clutch slowly to avoid wheelspin. On the flat, aim to use a higher gear than you normally would while driving. If your car has an automatic gearbox, check your owner’s handbook for model-specific information such as a winter mode option.
What if your car skids?
If you feel your car’s tyres losing grip, don’t panic; keep hold of the steering wheel and steer into the skid. If the rear of the car is sliding to the right, for example, steer in that direction, preferably without braking.
What to do if you get stranded in winter
If the worst happens and you get stuck in your car, don’t panic. Follow our simple advice and you’ll be prepared if you have to spend the night in your car…
Getting stuck in your car is one of the most dangerous pitfalls of winter driving, whether you find yourself snowbound or just held in traffic. Here are a few simple measures that you can take to help:
Prepare an emergency kit
Ensure that you that have emergency kit items in your car before you set out, because they will make spending a few hours or a whole night in your car more bearable. Before setting off, make sure your car has plenty of fuel in it, or is fully charged so you can run the engine to keep yourself warm if you get stranded at the roadside.
Keep the engine running when possible
As well as keeping you warm, this will stop the engine from freezing in extreme conditions. If you have to spend the night in the car, don’t panic. Get your emergency kit together and put on extra clothing. Lock all the doors and try to get some sleep. Start the engine every hour to run it for a few minutes to warm both it and the interior. In heavy snow, make sure the exhaust pipe is clear of obstructions before turning the engine on.
Heater and heated seats
Make sure that you only run the heater when the engine is on, otherwise you risk flattening the battery. Drivers of electric vehicles will find that heated seats use less charge than heaters.
If you have to leave the car
Make yourself as visible as you can to other road users, and do the same for your car is as well. Try to stop in such a way that the road is clear for emergency services. If there is a barrier at the side of the road, stand behind it. Make a note of where your car is; roadside markers or your smartphone can provide you with this information.
If you’re stranded in a remote location
Don’t leave your car. It will protect you from the elements and make it easier for the emergency services to find you.