Winter is a test of endurance for drivers and their vehicles. Sometimes the car door freezes shut or the battery dies; other times moisture builds up inside or windows need to be de-iced. And that’s before you even get on the road and have to deal with slippery snow and ice (➜ Winter driving tips: how to drive safely on snow and ice).
Most problems that winter brings can be avoided with a few preventive measures. While many service partners offer a complete and expert winter car check, you may prefer to do it yourself. If so, here are our tips.
Remember: don’t wait until you see the first snowflakes to winterize your car, as this is often too late. The ideal time to get your car ready for winter is early fall – so for the northern hemisphere around the end of September/beginning of October.
Follow these 13 tips to prepare your car for the cold season:
- Change your tires
- Take snow chains with you
- Check your ski rack and roof box
- Fill your antifreeze
- Change your windshield wiper blades
- Clean your windshield
- Avoid condensation in your car
- Check the tire seal
- Check and charge your battery
- Test and adjust your headlights
- Retrofit your car heater
- Store winter equipment in your car
- Refresh your driving skills
Change your tires sooner rather than later
Winter tires drastically reduce your braking distance and make driving on winter roads much safer (➜ Comparing your summer tires with winter tires). Thanks to their special tread, they provide significantly more grip in snow, mud and icy conditions than summer or all-season tires. Winter tires have deeper and wider grooves that cling to the road. As a result, they have a 25 percent shorter braking distance (at 60 mph) on a snow-covered road than summer tires.
What many people don’t know is that even on dry roads, winter tires offer greater safety during the cold season. This is because the rubber compound used in winter tires remains soft even at low temperatures. The softer the tire is, the better it adapts to the road surface. This gives you the best traction possible, which means greater safety.
At temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius), winter tires fare much better than summer tires. This is why when you do your winter check, you should mount your winter tires early. Don’t wait to change your tires until the first snow falls.
Winter tires are compulsory in many countries, either at certain times (such as during the winter months) or in wintry road conditions.
If you didn’t do so before putting them in storage, you should test the tread on your winter tires. The US legal limit for tread depth is 2/32 of an inch, but in some states, such as Texas, your car won’t pass inspection with a tread depth of less than 3/32 inch. Experts recommend no less than 6/32 inch for winter tires and 4/32 inch for summer tires.
While neither the US nor Canada have any laws requiring winter tires on a national level, they are required in the province of Quebec. All drivers must have four winter tires installed on their vehicle from December 15 to March 15. These tires must be marked with the peaked mountain with a snowflake symbol on the sidewall which guarantees the tires have been tested and certified to meet winter performance requirements.
Take snow chains with you
Even the best winter tires have limits – especially if the road is steep and has snow or ice on it. So if you live in the hills or go skiing in the mountains, make sure you have snow chains in your trunk. Although almost all states have laws on snow chains, they vary from state to state. It’s a good idea then to learn the laws of your state and any that you will be traveling through in winter.
High-quality snow chains give you better traction on snow and ice and improved handling. They are also easy to put on and take off. You should practice mounting and unmounting them before you go on your ski trip because it will be much easier if you do happen to end up in a serious situation and your fingers are cold. Make sure that you also buy the right size of snow chain for your tires (➜ Tire tip: how to measure your tire size).
Check your ski rack and roof box
Your ski trip checklist should include aski and snowboard holder or roof box. Do you have all the pieces you need to mount it, including the instructions? And the key to lock it? Can you easily close the box or do the locks and hinges need a little oil?
While ski racks and roof boxes give you extra storage space for bulky items, they also affect your safety. If they aren’t securely fastened to your vehicle or if your luggage isn’t loaded properly, it can lead to an accident involving other vehicles. If you’re not sure whether your ski rack or roof box is safe, it’s better to buy a new one.
Fill your antifreeze
There are two liquids in your vehicle you must always check before winter arrives:
- Check whether there’s enough antifreeze in the engine coolant. If it freezes, you may end up damaging your engine. Normally your garage will check whether there’s enough antifreeze in the coolant during inspection. But if you’ve added water to it, for instance, then you need to add more antifreeze. To know if you have enough antifreeze in your coolant reservoir, have it checked at your garage or a gas station. The antifreeze should work for up to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 25 degrees Celsius). You also need to use the right antifreeze for your engine. To be safe, use the antifreeze from your manufacturer.
- Check your windshield wiper fluid. If it freezes, you may end up with dangerously low visibility. Road salt that dries on your windshield can completely obscure your view. This is why you should put enough antifreeze in your wiper fluid so the hoses and nozzles don’t freeze. Some winter wiper fluids already contain antifreeze.
Change your wiper blades
Do your wipers leave streaks and smears or do they make that annoying squeaking sound? If so, it’s time to change your wiper blades in order to winterize your car. Good visibility is particularly important in winter. If you have streaks on your windshield, the headlights of oncoming cars could temporarily dazzle you.
Clean both the inside and outside of your windshield
If you’ve changed your wiper blades and you still have streaks, clean the outside of the windshield (not the rubber blades) with glass cleaner. A lot of drivers also forget that the inside of the windshield should be kept clean as well. Dust, fingerprints and cigarette smoke can leave a dirty film that can impair visibility, especially when it’s dark and the glare from lights is intensified. Dirty windshields also fog up faster than clean ones.
A dry sponge or rag generally just smears the dirt when you try to clean the inside of the windshield with it. To thoroughly clean the windshield, use glass cleaner and a fuzz-free microfiber cloth (waffle cloths are ideal).
Avoid dampness inside the car
Dirty windows aren’t the only thing to make it harder to see – fogged up windows are also a hazard, especially in winter when the colder outside air causes the humid air inside the car to condense. The main reason windows fog up is because the inside of the car is damp. You can prevent this by doing a couple of things while winter-proofing your car:
- Change your cabin air filter as recommended in the owner’s manual (your garage will change it during an inspection). A dirty filter prevents air exchange through ventilation and air conditioning.
- Check the seals around your windows and sun roof. Leaks can make the inside of your car damp.
- Avoid moisture in the car using special equipment such as all-weather floor mats. In winter your shoes often bring snow and moisture into your car. Textile floor mats absorb water and take a long time to dry. This often results in unpleasant odors, especially if the mats stay wet for a long time. All-weather floor mats are made of impermeable material and are easy to wipe dry or just shake off. Trunk mats offer the same advantage – they’re durable and dry quickly.
- Keep water drains clear, especially where the hood meets the front windshield and in the back at the top of the trunk. Water can accumulate in these areas if there are leaves or needles that prevent it from draining.
Safeguard your seals
A defective seal lets moisture seep into your car. For the seals on windows and doors, frost is a strain because it can make them brittle. When you open a frozen car door with force, it can also leave small tears in the car door seals.
This is why you should treat the rubber seals on your car before winter comes. Special rubber care fluid prevents the door and window seals from freezing and extends the life of the rubber. Note: we do not recommend using any products containing silicon or any household items such as Vaseline.
Check and charge the battery
Car batteries are one of the main reasons for roadside breakdowns, often failing in cold weather and leaving you unable to start your engine. In order to avoid this, here are a couple of tips for your winter check:
- Car batteries have a limited lifespan and normally need to be replaced every six years. If you frequently drive short distances, they will need to be replaced even sooner. If your battery is already getting up in years, replace it in the fall.
- Have your garage test your battery in the fall. The special equipment your mechanic has will provide a reliable estimate of how much life your battery still has in it.
- A car battery charger can be plugged into any regular outlet. In just a few hours, you can add more life to your battery. It also runs a diagnostic test, so it can automatically recognize batteries that are getting old.
Adjust your headlights
As it becomes darker earlier, it is especially important to see and be seen clearly. Many vehicles have a warning signal when the headlights are faulty. Have your mechanic fix any such problems right away so you don’t get a ticket.
If your car does have a warning function, you should check your lights yourself (see the illustration below). But this doesn’t tell you if your headlights are properly adjusted, i.e. whether they are optimally set to light the road and avoid unnecessarily dazzling oncoming drivers. You will have to have a professional light test done to find this out, which most garages offer. They will also be able to adjust your headlights for you.
Retrofit a pre-heater
Imagine getting into a warm car in winter without having to de-ice your windows, tussle with frozen car doors and drive with a freezing cold steering wheel.
Pre-heaters make driving in winter much more convenient, as they can fully de-ice and warm up the car by themselves, while newer versions can even heat the engine at the same time. Starting an engine that’s already warm means less consumption and therefore fewer emissions than starting with a cold engine. Although a pre-heater also burns fuel – about a quarter of a gallon per hour – this is reclaimed after just a few miles by the reduced consumption.
A heater can be retrofitted into almost any car. Ask your dealer or your mechanic.
Most e-cars and plug-in hybrids can be pre-heated electrically – ideally while they are still plugged into the outlet or charging station. Pre-heating this way doesn’t wear down the battery (➜ Electric cars and plug-in hybrids explained).
These winter car accessories will come in handy
In addition to the standard equipment such as a warning triangle, first aid kit and reflective vest, these accessories will help you get your car ready for winter:
- Carwindshieldcover or complete car cover – makes it easier to remove snow and ice from your car.
- De-icer – this sprays softens the layer of ice so you can easily take it off with an…
- …icescraper – which you’ve placed somewhere convenient, like in the side-door pocket.
- Carbrush – to sweep the snow out of your car.
- Chamois or anti-mistcloth – to clear up fogged windows, so it’s best to keep it in the driver’s side door pocket.
- Woolblanket – in case you get stuck in traffic for a long time.
- Workgloves – to mount snow chains or to de-ice windows.
- Flashlight – if you need to fix something on your car.
- Towingcable – to pull your car or someone else’s out of the snow.
- Replacement bottle of antifreeze for the windshield – because there is never a gas station nearby when you need one.
- Snowshovel and filled gascan – if you are driving in extremely snowy and sparsely populated areas such as Alaska or Lapland.
- Jumpercables or emergencystarterkitwithbatterypack – this way you can help out drivers who aren't as well prepared for winter as you are (see tip 9).
Refresh your driving skills
Starting your car on a snow covered mountain road, braking on and negotiating icy roads – winter presents special challenges for motorists. To avoid being left out in the cold by the first snow, take the time to refresh your driving skills, such as with a professional driving course.
Illustrations: R. Fresson