Taking a road trip in the winter can be a wonderful adventure, but if you are planning on exploring areas where you are likely to encounter snow and ice, then it is important to make sure that you and your vehicle are ready to handle the different conditions. Having the correct tires is just as important as knowing how to use those tires, so be sure to brush up on all guidelines for driving in rain, ice, and snow.
As long as you start prepared with the necessary equipment and knowledge, you'll have a smooth trip. And if some issue does arise, you'll be well-equipped to handle it.
Get Your Tires Ready
Your tires may be the most important component to consider before a winter road trip, especially if your route covers areas with snow and ice. If either one of those is even a possibility, make sure you have snow chains packed in your vehicle (and know how to put them on). If you'll be in an area with light snow and plowed roads, snow chains should be sufficient. If you'll be driving through intensely icy roads or physically in the snow, consider switching out your tires completely with winter tires, which are made to withstand such conditions.
You'll also need to be extra vigilant about your tire pressure while driving in the winter, especially if your route takes you through distinct climates. Every 10 degrees of temperature change causes your tire pressure to rise or drop, so research before leaving what pressure your tires are supposed to be at and check them frequently.
Check the Fluid Levels Before Traveling
The low temperatures that are encountered when taking a winter road trip can be particularly challenging for the operation of your vehicle, with water freezing and oil not working as well as it does in warm temperatures. Before any road trip, it's a good idea to check all of the essential fluid levels—engine oil, antifreeze, power steering fluid, brake fluid, and transmission fluid—but it's especially important before a cold-weather trip. Aside from the fact that car problems in severe weather are potentially more dangerous, full fluid tanks also help to keep the containers from freezing.
Don't forget about the windshield wiper fluid, which is also important and easy to keep filled. Extremely cold weather can quickly exhaust the fluid, and you can add special washer fluid antifreeze to prevent that from happening when driving in extreme temperatures.
Research Your Route for Roads Prone to Snow
In many of the mountainous areas that can make for magical winter road trips, roads will often be prone to closure or restricted to slow speeds. Your favorite navigation app can often keep you informed on road closures, but may not be updated for sudden storms or incidents. Keep the website and phone number handy of the local department of transportation website, as well as local news sources on your phone. For particularly troublesome routes, you may want to have a plan B route in mind before getting on the road.
Pack a Shovel and Sandbag
If you have ever had to clear snow to get your car from your driveway, then you will know how difficult a job it can be. Imagine trying to do this with your bare hands and you will realize it makes sense to have at least a shovel and a small amount of grit with you (like sand) to help move your vehicle. Otherwise, you may be waiting for the snowplow for some time. If you are trapped in the snow, make sure to keep your hazard lights on to attract attention and alert passing cars.
Be Familiar With Winter Driving Techniques
Brush up on techniques for driving in snow and icy conditions. For instance, be sure to leave extra space between the car in front of you, accelerate gently, and avoid slamming on the brakes. If you do brake and feel the pedal begin to pulsate, that's just the anti-lock braking system doing its job; don't let off the brake and keep your foot firmly planted. If you experience a "white out" when the snow is falling and impairs your vision, keep your headlights off and slow down to a crawl.
Look into the official DMV driver's manual for all states that you'll be driving through, or international manuals if you'll be out of the U.S. In addition to more tips and guides for winter driving, there may also be local laws that vary by location that you need to be aware of.
Pack an Emergency Kit in Case You Become Stuck
While nobody likes to think of having an accident while you are on a road trip, it is something you should consider, as even a small accident in wintery conditions can become very serious if you cannot move the vehicle and the temperatures drop below zero. Having an emergency kit with basic first aid equipment, emergency blankets, and food and drink can be a lifesaver if things take a turn for the worse. You'll also want jumper cables, flares, an ice scraper, extra antifreeze, a pack of matches, a shovel, and a bag of sand in case you get stuck.
Service Your Vehicle Before You Travel
Traveling in colder weather takes a much greater toll on the mechanical parts of your vehicle, so making sure you give the vehicle a check-up before you travel to identify any potential problems. Cold weather affects the battery and cooling system, so you'll want to be sure that both are in prime condition before you leave. Other items, such as belts, hoses, spark plugs, and cables, can stop working at any time of the year, but the consequences are potentially more serious if it happens while you're in the middle of a snowstorm.
Give Yourself Extra Time in Your Itinerary
One of the biggest mistakes when planning a winter road trip is to over-estimate the miles that you can cover comfortably during your trip. Make sure that you give yourself plenty of time for stops and don't assume that you will be able to travel at the same pace as you would on the highway in the summer. In any type of inclement weather, be it rain, ice, or snow, you should be driving considerably slower than the legal speed limit and with extra space between the car in front of you.
Avoid Traveling During Rush Hour
Rush hour in cold weather is certainly not somewhere to be if you are driving in winter weather for the first time, and the crush of vehicles close together makes accidents all the more likely. Not only does it make your road trip safer, but it is also much more enjoyable to drive when the roads are quieter, as nobody enjoys the frustrations of a traffic jam. If you'll be passing through big cities, be aware of the weekday morning and afternoon commute. Although if a sudden storm starts, you'll likely hit traffic regardless of where you are as drivers slow down.
Carry the Numbers of Local Recovery Services Along Your Route
You hopefully won't have a need for it, but it's always better to be safe than sorry. It's vital to have the numbers of local recovery services along the route written down, especially if you'll be driving through rural areas that don't always get strong cell service to look up a service while you're out. Even if you're a member of a national recovery service like AAA, it doesn't hurt to have some other numbers on-hand.