Prepare Your Car for a Winter Road Trip

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Making it ‘over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house’, in cold or snowy weather can be a challenge. If the car you are driving is ill prepared for the winter months, your winter road trip may turn out to be more than challenging, but down right dangerous.

Broken down, cold and stranded can ruin anybody’s day. Avoid this scenario by preparing your vehicle for winter weather.

It is imperative that drivers properly maintain the equipment on their vehicles during the winter months. Tires, wipers and antifreeze should be routinely checked. Tires that are worn should be replaced with tires that have more tread and can grip the driving surface well.

Windshield wipers must be able to completely clear the windshield of any rain, ice or snow while the vehicle is in motion. The ability of a driver to see in bad weather will be severely impaired without windshield wipers that are in proper working condition. Heavy rain and snow become greater hazards if drivers cannot see the road or the vehicles in front of them.

Prepare Your Car for a Winter Road Trip

If you are the type of person who keeps up with the general routine maintenance on your car, you are ahead of the game for a winter road trip. If not, it is never too late to begin. A good place to start is to consider your car’s fluids.

Oil is the lifeblood of a car

Changing the oil regularly prolongs the life of the engine. This is even more important during the winter months and for your winter road trip.

Dirty oil will not circulate properly. Also, you’ve heard that old saying, slow as molasses in January? Well, oil can be pretty slow moving in cold weather as well.

For this reason it is important to choose oil with the proper viscosity grade. Viscosity determines the amount of tar found in the oil. More tar means more viscosity, less tar translates to less viscosity. Talk to your mechanic to determine the needed oil viscosity level for your region of the country.

Antifreeze is a coolant

Do not be deceived by the word ‘coolant’. Because it is frigid outside does not negate the use of coolant in your radiator.

Antifreeze keeps the motor from overheating which is just as possible in cold weather. Radiator levels should be half water to half antifreeze. Water alone can crack the radiator if it freezes.

Before your winter road trip, have your mechanic check the level of antifreeze or check it yourself with an inexpensive antifreeze tester.

Keep your gas tank full before and during your winter road trip

Strive to keep the gas tank fuller during winter months. Condensation can form in the tank which makes it hard to start on a cold winter morning.

Keeping the tank at least half full will discourage this from happening.

Windshield wiper fluid

While not as critical as the aforementioned fluids, is still important. Water should be replaced with a non freezing alternative.

Visibility can be dimmed due to sand and salt on the roads. The ability to wipe away the grime is essential. (Don’t forget to check the blades while you are at it. Blades should be in good working order. You may even consider replacing blades for ones which are heavy duty and made for ice and snow.)

Check the battery

If oil is the lifeblood of a car then the battery is the heart.

The common life for a battery is 3 years, give or take. Batteries are notorious for acting up in cold weather. Also dead or slow starting batteries affect alternators. Or vise versa. Have the battery checked for it’s effective output before winter settles in.

A batteries posts and cables should be checked. Posts should be clear of corrosion. This is easy to do with a wire brush, a little water and baking soda. A dab of Vaseline on the posts will assist in the prevention of corrosion. Cables should be replaced if they are split or cracked.

Good tires are a must for your winter road trip

The appropriate amount of air is essential for proper performance. Check the door panel, or your car’s maintenance book to find what the psi (pounds per square inch) should be.

Check the tread. No tread, no traction. You do not want to be caught without enough friction to stop the car on a wet, icy road.

If for your region of the country, tires with heavy tread will not do the trick, invest in snow tires, or chains. Snow tires can be changed in and out as appropriate to the seasons. Chains can be secured in the trunk of the car for use when needed.

Belts and hoses

These are the connective tissue beneath the hood of your car. Both usually have long wear, but you do not want to take the chance on losing one at the wrong time. Examine hoses and belts for cracks, splits, or holes and replaced. Cold weather can negatively affect the rubber made belts and hoses.

Take a look at your car the way an internist would look at the physical body. What’s in there that could go wrong? Anticipating what could go amiss in cold weather is a better alternative than finding out the hard way, stranded alongside the road.

Driving in snow during your winter road trip

Driving in snow, ice and rain during a road trip can be intimidating and dangerous for inexperienced drivers. Inexperience is invariably linked to an increase in accidents while driving in inclement weather. A lack of experience isn’t the only contributing cause of accidents while driving during periods of adverse weather conditions.

Vehicle operators should obey the speed limits and drive more slowly when ice, rain and/or snow are on the roads. Drivers should allow greater distances between them and the vehicles in front of them due to hazardous road conditions. Stopping suddenly, especially if the vehicle in front of you slides on on the road because of icy conditions or wet roads, could cause accidents – accidents that are sometimes fatal.

Colorado and some other states offer defensive driving courses for drivers about driving on ice and snow. These courses train drivers to react correctly to hazardous driving conditions like driving on ice, snow or wet roads.

Driving too fast on ice causes the tires on your vehicle to lose their grip on the road and slide. Nothing can be more frightening to an inexperienced driver than losing control of the vehicle that they are driving. Defensive driving courses developed to train drivers how to react when their vehicles begin to slide are the best way of teaching new drivers to prevent accidents caused by ice, snow or rain.

Driving during adverse weather conditions is potentially hazardous. Always maintain all equipment, including tires, and regularly check they are in good operating condition.

Do not drive too fast and always maintain enough distance between you and the vehicle in front of you to allow for enough stopping time. Take defensive driving courses, if offered, to experience first-hand what it is actually like to drive on ice, snow or wet roads.

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Barb Webb. Founder and Editor of Rural Mom, is an the author of "Getting Laid" and "Getting Baked". A sustainable living expert nesting in Appalachian Kentucky, wen she’s not chasing chickens around the farm or engaging in mock Jedi battles, she’s writing about country living and artisan culture.
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