Do the words safe winter driving make you nervous? If you answer yes, you’re not alone. Summer is usually considered the traditional time for family road trips because the weather is better. But winter can be an equally great time to hit the road with your family, especially if you like to ski or want to avoid the summertime crowds at city attractions.
It’s only the second week in January, and my family has already taken three long road trips this 2013-14 winter season during which we’ve driven through everything from snow to icy rain. We’ve ascended mountains in fog and traversed twisting country roads covered with snow. And in each instance we’ve made it safely to our destination and enjoyed ourselves enormously once we did so.
Top winter driving tips
Check the forecast. Start checking the weather along your route a few days before you are scheduled to leave. If a storm is forecast, check out the hour-by-hour forecast to see when the precipitation is expected to be heaviest. If you need to – and are able to – change your plans. That’s what my family did during the late-November East Coast storm of 2013 – we originally intended to leave for Vermont from Delaware on the day before Thanksgiving, which would have had us driving at the height of the bad weather. By leaving on Tuesday morning instead we stayed ahead of the storm, which was moving from south to north.
Prepare your car. Before you go, check to make sure that your tires are fully inflated, your windshield wiper blades are in good shape, and that your wiper fluid tank is full. If you are at all concerned about your car’s battery, have your mechanic check its charge to make sure it’s functioning properly. Gas up your car, and keep the tank half full during your trip.
Pack a winter emergency kit that includes the following items:
- A shovel
- A windshield scraper
- Booster cables
- Tire chains (if you’ll be on roads that require them in bad weather)
- Blankets and spare hats and gloves
- A first aid kit
- A flashlight and spare batteries
- Snacks and water
- A cell phone charger
Know your route. When the weather is bad, the most direct route isn’t always the best one, especially if it has you driving on mountain roads. Interstate highways are usually the first roads to be plowed and treated, so if possible choose a route that has you on them.
Have a backup for your devices. We all rely on our mobile devices, but it’s important to remember that some areas still do not have cellular coverage (this is especially true in the mountains or remote rural areas) and that even your GPS can sometimes fail to work properly. Make sure print out directions and have a good road atlas in your car.
Take it slow. If you do get caught in some weather, the best thing you can do is slow down and be respectful of the conditions. Remember that it will take you longer to stop on a wet or icy surface and adjust your speed and the distance between your car and others accordingly. If you are going uphill, accelerate slowly but steadily to avoid getting stuck. Driving downhill? Put your car in a lower gear to limit your use of the brakes.
Know your vehicle. It’s a good idea to learn about how your car works before you hit the road during winter weather – traction control, anti-lock brake, and four-wheel drive systems can be helpful, but only if you know how to use them properly. Your car’s manual should tell you and may also offer tips for winter weather driving.