If you enjoy winter travel, you already know that preparation is the key to success. Whether you are hitting the slopes or celebrating a special holiday in a big city, you need the proper gear in order to enjoy your winter vacation. Advance preparation is doubly important when it comes to winter driving. You'll need to make sure your car is in good working order before you leave home. You'll also need to know how to drive it safely in snow and ice. Unfortunately, winter driving skills typically aren't part of the driver licensing exam. You have to learn them from someone else.
Prepare for Winter Driving
Check your vehicle. Your car or truck should be in good operating condition. Tires should have plenty of tread and your lights, defroster and windshield wipers should all function properly. Check (or ask your mechanic to monitor) fluid levels, particularly oil, antifreeze, washer fluid and gasoline. Make sure your battery is in good shape; it will have more trouble starting your car in extremely cold weather. If you know you will be driving in a storm, fill your gas tank before you leave home so you don't run out of gas en route. Carry chains or put snow tires on your car if you are driving in areas known for heavy snowfalls.
Organize emergency supplies. Everyone should travel with emergency items, but this becomes even more important during the winter storm season. Be sure you have a blanket, warm clothing, sand or cat litter, a shovel, an ice scraper and a working cell phone.
Look at road conditions. Find out about driving conditions along your journey and research the weather forecast during your trip. Just because your ski resort has sunny weather now does not mean you won't have to drive in a blizzard on your way home. Check the weather report periodically during your trip, too. Make sure you have a map and know the locations of bridges and curvy roads. Road surfaces on bridges freeze quickly, as do areas of mountain roads that are in the shade all day.
Winter Driving Techniques
You can basically break winter driving skills into three areas: braking, steering and accelerating. Rain, snow and ice all reduce the friction between your car and the road, making skids and spins more likely. If you focus on braking, steering and accelerating slowly and carefully, you'll be able to maintain control of your car.
Braking. Allow lots and lots of extra room to slow down, and always brake slowly. Don't "slam on" your brakes; if you do, you will probably skid. If possible, brake while driving in a straight line. In other words, brake before driving into a curve or onto an icy patch. If your car has an anti-lock braking system (ABS), you do not need to "pump" your brakes to slow down. Older cars without an ABS will need to have their brakes "pumped" (repeated application of your foot to the brake pedal) in order to slow down quickly.
Steering. If you are driving on snow and ice, always steer gradually. Don't jerk the wheel or make rapid changes in direction. If you feel your car losing its grip on the road (hydroplaning or skidding), resist the urge to steer sharply to get out of danger. Instead, steer slowly and gradually into the skid. If you are hydroplaning, steer in a straight line. It's far better to skid, even if you go off the road, than to overcorrect and flip your car.
Accelerating. Never "floor" your gas pedal in winter driving conditions. Always speed up gradually in order to keep your car in contact with the pavement. Slow down carefully, too.
Safe Winter Driving - The Bottom Line
If you are traveling during the winter, driving may not always be your best option. You may know what to do, but you may end up on a road during a blizzard with drivers who have no idea how to drive in snow. Follow the recommendations of local authorities during ice and snow events. When in doubt, stay home. Spending an extra day in your living room or hotel is far preferable to risking your life in a winter storm.