Stay safe in winter road conditions

23 Nov, 2010

Driving in winter conditions is necessary when you love snowboarding but there’s always that chance you’ll be driving in a blizzard or storm to get your latest snow fix.  It also means the liklihood or more accidents/issues on the road.  I’ve been in some sketchy driving conditions from my time in Colorado:  Watched cars go off the road in front of me, watched the SUV in front of me flip over down a major highway and being the last truck to make it through before the highway closed which means driving through some sketchy terrain.  I’ve hit rough snow, black ice and managed to not wreck my truck when I could have many times.  I wanted to give awareness for winter driving in hopes that people can find getting to the mountains a little safer for themselves.

Here’s some of my own tips from driving in winter conditions:

  • Pack your vehicle:  You should always have winter gear in your vehicle.  I always carry a sleeping bag in my truck, blankets, spare jackets plus flares, jumper cables and extra auto stuff just in case.  It’s better to be prepared and find yourself having the stuff you need at your hands.
  • Go slower:  I’ve seen cars/trucks going to the same location as me but hauling to get there.  You’re already losing on gas when you go that fast but you’re also risking a lot more.  When the snow conditions are bad, I’d rather go slow and make it in one piece alive than risk my vehicle and my life to be a couple minutes ahead of time.  There is such a thing as too slow when you hold up vehicles and cause vehicles to brake more often, pull over and let people pass if you can.
  • Watch other vehicles:  There are two vehicles to watch: the ones coming at you and the ones ahead of you.  If you keep your eyes ahead you’ll be able to know when people are breaking and you need more time to stop or if someone coming at you might be out of control.  In snowy conditions, you need more time to break just in case there is ice on the road.  Slow down, watch for break lights and stay a good distance from the vehicles in front of you.
  • Having 4WD does not make you invincible.  It helps in snow but it’s the driver behind the wheel who matters more.
  • Wear your seatbelt:  I shouldn’t need to explain this one.
  • Know your vehicle:  I know my truck has rear wheel drive and needs weight in the back so that I can grip the snow better in the winter.  I know that I can downshift instead of brake on hills and slow my vehicle down without having to brake when I want.  I bought my vehicle for clearance and to have a stick shift in winter conditions.  It’s good to know your vehicle, what it can handle and how it drives in snow.  Take it to a parking lot, brake and gas to get to know how it reacts.
  • Visibility:  The worst conditions are when you lose visibility on the road especially at night.  It helps to use the poles on the side of the road to know that you are still on the road but slow down and take it easy.  It’s scary as hell when you lose sight on the road and have to drive blind.

AAA has some winter driving tips that I wanted to highlight as well…valuable information that will help out if you drive in the snow a lot.

AAA recommends the following winter driving tips:

  • Avoid driving while you’re fatigued. Getting the proper amount of rest before taking on winter weather tasks reduces driving risks.
  • Never warm up a vehicle in an enclosed area, such as a garage.
  • Make certain your tires are properly inflated.
  • Never mix radial tires with other tire types.
  • Keep your gas tank at least half full to avoid gas line freeze-up.
  • If possible, avoid using your parking brake in cold, rainy and snowy weather.
  • Do not use cruise control when driving on any slippery surface (wet, ice, sand).
  • Always look and steer where you want to go.
  • Use your seat belt every time you get into your vehicle.

Tips for long-distance winter trips:

  • Watch weather reports prior to a long-distance drive or before driving in isolated areas. Delay trips when especially bad weather is expected. If you must leave, let others know your route, destination and estimated time of arrival.
  • Always make sure your vehicle is in peak operating condition by having it inspected by a AAA Approved Auto Repair facility.
  • Keep at least half a tank of gasoline in your vehicle at all times.
  • Pack a cellular telephone with your local AAA’s telephone number, plus blankets, gloves, hats, food, water and any needed medication in your vehicle.
  • If you become snow-bound, stay with your vehicle. It provides temporary shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to locate you. Don’t try to walk in a severe storm. It’s easy to lose sight of your vehicle in blowing snow and become lost.
  • Don’t over exert yourself if you try to push or dig your vehicle out of the snow.
  • Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna or place a cloth at the top of a rolled up window to signal distress. At night, keep the dome light on if possible. It only uses a small amount of electricity and will make it easier for rescuers to find you.
  • Make sure the exhaust pipe isn’t clogged with snow, ice or mud. A blocked exhaust could cause deadly carbon monoxide gas to leak into the passenger compartment with the engine running.
  • Use whatever is available to insulate your body from the cold. This could include floor mats, newspapers or paper maps.
  • If possible run the engine and heater just long enough to remove the chill and to conserve gasoline.

Tips for driving in the snow:

  • Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Applying the gas slowly to accelerate is the best method for regaining traction and avoiding skids. Don’t try to get moving in a hurry. And take time to slow down for a stoplight. Remember: It takes longer to slow down on icy roads.
  • Drive slowly. Everything takes longer on snow-covered roads. Accelerating, stopping, turning – nothing happens as quickly as on dry pavement. Give yourself time to maneuver by driving slowly.
  • The normal dry pavement following distance of three to four seconds should be increased to eight to ten seconds. This increased margin of safety will provide the longer distance needed if you have to stop.
  • Know your brakes. Whether you have antilock brakes or not, the best way to stop is threshold breaking. Keep the heel of your foot on the floor and use the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.
  • Don’t stop if you can avoid it. There’s a big difference in the amount of inertia it takes to start moving from a full stop versus how much it takes to get moving while still rolling. If you can slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do it.
  • Don’t power up hills. Applying extra gas on snow-covered roads just starts your wheels spinning. Try to get a little inertia going before you reach the hill and let that inertia carry you to the top. As you reach the crest of the hill, reduce your speed and proceed down hill as slowly as possible.
  • Don’t stop going up a hill. There’s nothing worse than trying to get moving up a hill on an icy road. Get some inertia going on a flat roadway before you take on the hill.
  • Stay home. If you really don’t have to go out, don’t. Even if you can drive well in the snow, not everyone else can. Don’t tempt fate: If you don’t have somewhere you have to be, watch the snow from indoors.

What are some of your own tips for winter driving?  What do you recommend to others when driving in snow/ice?

About the author


From the beginning of time, I was Shannon. From the beginning of snowboarding, I was Shay. From the beginning of online communities, I was Shayboarder. In the end, I’m the writer, photographer, editor, publisher, guru of sorts, product tester, curvy girl, and most importantly the snowboarder behind it all. Follow me on this journey through snowboarding, mountain biking, traveling and fun experiences!


  1. Sean
    November 23, 2010

    That’s a fantastic, detailed read. I’ll definitely recommend pass this along — even print it — to refer to when the weather gets inclement.

    Since you asked if there are any tips to pass along, I just read a related blog that offers such tips as how to handle a skid by turning into it to get the vehicle right.

    Great stuff!

  2. November 23, 2010

    Awesome and very comprehensive post. Thanks! I’m the social media manager for AAA Colorado and the first big storm of winter is always a pretty busy time of year for our roadside assistance crews.

    AAA has a free brochure about winter driving techniques and safety, which includes the tips you mentioned and lots more. Colorado drivers can pick it up at any AAA Colorado office (you don’t have to be a AAA member).

  3. November 23, 2010

    In California, the CHP will issue a R1 driving conditions at the slightest sign on snowfall. They do this to keep people from speeding, yet people still speed but I digress. If your car doesn’t have 4WD/AWD with the proper tires please put on your chains in the designated areas. DON’T be that guy that puts on their chains after realizing they’re sliding on the road. Basically if you’re going to Big Bear, Ca this applies to you!!

  4. Deepak
    November 23, 2010

    Let me stress the following:

    Don’t ride the brakes. Slow down by coasting and if possible downshift and use a lower gear to slow down.

    Which leads to my biggest pet peeve, don’t ride the brakes when going down steep downhills. As soon as anyone’s brakes lock, their car is going to slide. You need to go fast enough so everyone can coast if possible.

    If you are turning, turn on your signal way in advance so everyone behind you has time to slow down.

    If you are scared, pull off at a turnover or anywhere there’s space and let cars behind you go. Slowing down 5 cars behind you because you are terrified and driving 15 mph makes everyone get irritated.

    Turn the steering wheel very smoothly, even if you need to turn it faster. Less chance for losing grip.

    The name of the game is smooth and slow not jerky and quick.

    Test your car in a parking lot to see how it really handles in snow or rain. This is the only way you’ll safely know how to drive your car. (I don’t know why DMV doesn’t require this for a license)

  5. November 24, 2010

    check your tires. bald tires are horrible in the snow. purchase snow tires if you drive in snowy conditions often. the friction from your tires is the only thing keeping you on the road.

  6. November 24, 2010

    Great article with great info! I’m gonna pass this along to everyone I know. I’ve been in some pretty sketchy driving situations but thankfully haven’t had an accident yet. It’s amazing how stupid some people can be when it comes to driving on snow, just because they are uninformed.

  7. Brek Leines
    November 24, 2010

    Buy a manual subaru and put studded snow tires on it… absolutely the best thing to drive in the snow, I was passing up the police!

    And deapak great info, test driving your car in the snow and on ice is a great thing to do. Learn how your car handles in the snow and then learn how to handle your car in the snow…

  8. Larry J
    November 29, 2010

    Great article! I would only add – do not usew cruise control. It can cause the vehicle to spin out if it catches ice, snow or dry spots.

    Great job S!