How to prepare your car for winter: get your whip cold-weather ready

As the temperature drops, it’s time for those important checks

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With the low sun, early nights, freezing temperatures and slippery conditions, driving in the winter can be daunting. Thankfully, there are a lot of simple things you can do to help make your winter journeys as safe and stress-free as possible.

These are mostly obvious, but too many drivers fail to appreciate the dangers of driving in the winter, with no lights on and a huge pile of snow on their roof, just waiting to block the windscreen…

Here is your annual reminder of how to prepare your car for winter, driving in the snow, and what to carry with you.

Check your fluid levels

Many drivers will have gone all year without checking the levels of their oil, antifreeze, coolant, and maybe even screenwash - especially given this year’s record-breaking summer heatwave and lack of rain to muck up our screens.

But as winters draws in, all of these should be checked. For oil level, check the dipstick when the car is warm and parked on level ground; some newer cars state their oil level in a sub-menu of the infotainment system. Do not rely entirely on the car to tell you when oil is low, as by the time this happens damage may already have been caused.

Antifreeze and screenwash are, of course, more obvious things to check, as these are cold-weather essentials. If you’re going on a long journey, it is advisable to carry a spare bottle of screenwash, as even a large reservoir can run dry after 200-300 miles of winter driving, as salt sprayed on the road quickly makes a mess of your screen.

It may seem obvious, but check you have plenty of fuel as vehicles tends to use more in the winter, lowering your range.

Electric cars suffer particularly badly in cold weather, losing as much as 50% of their usual driving range, so you may need to plan extra charging stop to accommodate for this.

Battery

The AA suggests you buy a new car battery every five years, so bear this in mind if yours is older than that, and especially if your car sometimes struggles to start first time. Also check the connection points of your battery for corrosion. 

You can clean this off yourself. Disconnect the battery (remove the black negative connection first, then the positive), and use a strong mix of warm water and baking soda to scrub at the terminals with an old toothbrush or wire brush.

When reconnecting, attached the positive lead first, then negative. If the connections appear to be damaged, get a professional to have a look.

Lights

If any lights aren’t working then your car will have failed its MOT, but as this could be almost a year ago it’s worth checking them yourself. You should also make sure every light is clear when driving after it has snowed, and you must have the dimmed beams on when driving at night or in adverse weather conditions.

A lot of modern cars switch on their daytime running lights (DRLs) automatically, along with all cabin and dashboard lighting. This causes far too many drivers to think the main headlights are on, when they aren’t. 

You should also only use your fog lights when it is actually foggy, and remember to switch them off again when visibility improved to beyond 100 metres.

Wiper blades

Check for any cracks or splits in the blades and buy new ones if you spot any damage. They are very easy to remove and replace, taking just a few seconds on most vehicles. 

Be careful not to pull them if they are stuck to an ice-covered screen; spray some de-icer on them if they don’t lift up right away. Given how much dirt and grime gets onto your windscreen in the winter, a new set is highly recommended.

Forcing your wipers to work when they are frozen to the screen can cause damage or blow a fuse. Spray de-icer on them before trying to clear the screen, or consider wrapping them in an old sheet if they are regularly getting stuck overnight.

Winter tyres

The legal minimum tread depth in the UK is 1.6mm, but in winter it is advisable to have at least 3mm of tread on all four tyres. Use a tread depth gauge to measure, or look at the tread wear indicators on the tyres themselves.

Your tyres should also be inflated to the correct pressure, which is written in the owner’s manual.

Winter tyres are an option here, which give much improved grip on cold roads and through snowy and icy conditions. Even if the roads are clear, winter tyres perform better in the cold than the summer tyres likely fitted to your car now. 

It’s obviously a fairly large investment, at around £100 per tyre (plus the cost of fitting, then the need to store your summer tyres somewhere), but if you rack up a lot of winter miles they could be worthwhile.

Clear off the snow – all of it

Too many drivers set off after having only cleared snow from the windscreen. You must first make sure all snow and ice is cleared from the entire screen, not just the part cleared by the wipers. 

You must also clear snow from your roof, bonnet, rear screen and lights, as this can slide forward when you brake, covering the windscreen, or fall backwards into the path of following vehicles.

Winter driving tips

  1. Planning ahead is the most important thing you can do when driving in winter conditions. This means having plenty of fuel onboard, as more is used in the cold, and looking far ahead along the road while driving.
  2. Your inputs should be smooth and gentle, as accelerating or braking hard, and yanking at the steering wheel, isn’t going to help. If you are struggling to set off because your wheels are spinning, try setting off slowly in second gear; unless facing up hill in a particularly low-powered car, your vehicle should manage this fine, and with less wheelspin.
  3. Shift up to a higher gear sooner than normal, and use lower revs than you usually would to help prevent wheelspin.
  4. Some cars - particularly automatics - have a winter driving mode which you can enable to help with setting off in slippery conditions.
  5. Drivers of electric cars should be aware that the energy recovery system - which slows the car quite firmly when lifting off the accelerator - takes a while to warm up in cold weather. Don’t be surprised to find the car coasting and not slowing down when you lift off the accelerator at first - plan for this and brake accordingly until you feel the system begin to work.
  6. Stick to main roads as much as possible, as these are more likely to be cleared - either by snow ploughs and gritters, or simply by extra traffic.
  7. Remember that stopping distances can increased by up to 10 times when driving on snow and ice, so look a long way ahead, stay slow and steady, and plan your steering and brake inputs well in advance.
  8. Maintaining momentum will help you up hills, but don’t carry more speed than is absolutely necessary - and remember that you should only travel at a speed from which you can stop in the distance you can see ahead. If you don’t think you can stop before the next unsighted turn, then you are going too quickly.
  9. Leave a lot of room between you and the car in front, especially while going uphill, as if they get stuck you are likely to have to stop behind them and may struggle to get going again.
  10. Beware of driving in the wheel tracks of other vehicles on uncleared roads, as compacted snow can be more slippery than fresh snow.
  11. Before setting out, make an effort to understand what driver-assistance systems your car has, and how they work. Older cars have none (except ABS to help with braking, and perhaps a simple form of traction control to prevent wheelspin when setting off), but modern cars can have a number of systems to help out.
  12. Always point the steering wheel where you want to go, as the stability systems will do their best to keep you going this way in the event of a skid. However, if the car does begin to skid and rotate with no sign of the systems coming to your rescue, steer gently into the skid - so if the rear of the car rotates to the right, steer to the left - and do not stamp on the brakes, as this will likely increase rotation.

Things to carry when driving in the winter

Finally, here’s a list of items to take with you when driving in wintry conditions:

De-icer and scraper – To help clear your screens and remove snow from the car. A CD also works if you’re still in the nineties

Torch – With the sun setting earlier, you might need it to find your screenwash in a layby, or light the way to safety after a breakdown

Phone and charger – Vital for checking traffic reports, road closures, weather forecasts, maps, and for calling your breakdown company or the emergency services

High-visibility jacket – To be worn if you breakdown. If parked on the hard shoulder you should not remain in the car

Coat and sturdy shoes – You may have to walk to complete your journey

Sunglasses – Bright sunlight on a snow-covered road can cause blinding glare, so you should carry a pair of sunglasses with you. Glasses with polarised lenses work best

Shovel – You may encounter very deep snow, or need to dig your car out the following morning if staying away from home

Tow rope – If you get stuck on snow-covered rural roads, a friendly SUV or tractor driver might be able to give you a tow to a clearer road. Check the car manual to locate the towing hook

Image Credits: Land Rover