Most people take their cars for granted. After all, they’re simply modes of transport to get us from A to B, aren’t they?
They are, but as winter hits, it’s important to remember that we have to look after our cars if we don’t want them to let us down. People often neglect their cars throughout the year, so when winter comes along, the cars aren’t able to cope.
The easiest thing to do is see if a local garage is doing something called a ‘Winter Check’ – this is a full check over of your car and making sure that it’s ready for the colder weather.
If you don’t manage to get your car in for a winter check, there are some things you can do yourself to make sure your car is ready and willing, even on a freezing cold morning. And with this uncertain weather in the Northern hemisphere, there are some things that you should carry with you to make winter driving a little easier.
Check your tyres
Total no-brainer, and you should be doing this weekly anyway. Check your pressures (yes, you’re going to have to read your manual) and the tread depth to make sure that your tyres are up to winter driving. If you’ve put winter tyres on your car, make sure that your summer tyres are stored properly. If you can get hold of a set of cross-climate tyres, which are a hybrid between winter and summer tyres, this is perfect – they’re excellent in the wet as well, so perfect for those of us who live in rainier countries.
Don’t run out of fuel
Again, obvious, but with winter comes darker evenings and for some reason worse traffic. You’re going to be sitting in jams for longer at this time of year with your headlights on and your heating on, all of which burn fuel, so make sure you keep your car’s tank at a sensible level. Don’t ever rely on the ‘range’ feature of many modern cars – it lies horribly and I’ve been caught out before. If you do have a ‘range’ feature, set a sensible number at which to fill up or just fill up when you get to a quarter of a tank. It’s not advisable to let your tank drop much below a quarter anyway, especially in this season of bad weather and bad driving. Keep fuelled, keep safe.
Check your fluids
Wiper fluid, oil and water. Lift your bonnet and check them with a cool engine. If you don’t know how to do this, use your manual or ask the internet. Check your wiper fluid weekly and be sure you’ve got the correct mix in there for the time of year. By ‘mix’ I mean dilution of the wiper fluid – in winter you’ll need a slightly less diluted mix. Read the back of the bottle, or buy the pre-mixed stuff from your local Halfords (or equivalent car maintenance centre if you’re not in the UK). The staff in there should be able to point you to the winter mixes.
Learn how to handle a car in poor weather
Driving in snow and ice is wildly different to driving on normal roads – even driving on very wet roads is different. See if you can get a session on a skid pan to learn how to control a skidding car. If you can’t, know that you should turn gently into the skid – if your back end is going right, turn your wheel to the right. Do not brake hard if you’re skidding. You could lock the wheels and make the skid worse.
When driving on snow, accelerate gently – don’t rev the nuts off your car, you’ll wheelspin and won’t get anywhere. Move off in second gear to reduce wheelspin. If you drive an automatic, check if you’ve got a Winter mode. If not, then set your gearbox to a higher gear rather than just D (2 or 1, you know your own cars best, readers) and off you go. Release the brake slowly and let the car find her grip on her own, then accelerate gently. I’m not sure about hybrids or electric cars because you can’t do that with gears – this is our first potentially snowy winter with a hybrid, so if anyone can help, please do. And I’d love to hear from any electric car owners!
And above everything else, make sure you keep enough space between you and the car in front. That’s common sense, but so many people tailgate in bad weather. Stopping distances increase massively in snow and ice. Pay attention and don’t fixate on the bumper in front of you. Look well ahead to see what’s going on.
Get some snow socks
Snow socks are fabric ‘chains’ for your tyres – they only work on snow and ice, so you’ll have to pull over and remove them when you hit properly treated roads. Be sure to buy the right ones for your tyre size! The Internet knows more than me about them, so have a look around for advice on how to fit them and how to drive with them on.
Put together a Winter Car Kit
This is for you and your passengers, not the car, but it should be kept in your car until the poor weather is over. If the worst happens and you get stuck out on the roads in the snow, you’ll need this. It’s a ‘just in case’ kit.
- A thick blanket – a fleece throw is ideal (check big Sainsburys stores if you’re in the UK, they have some really nice ones right now).
- Bottles of water – make sure you’ve got at least two with you. Get the big bottles (one litre or more).
- Spare screen wash – you should really carry this anyway, so pop a bottle in your boot.
- Cereal bars/biscuits – you’re going to need food if you get stuck out in the snow overnight. Cereal bars are perfect, so pick up a box of your favourite kind and stash them in your glovebox.
- Toilet paper – you gotta pee, right? And are you really going to wipe with your gloves? Stick a roll of TP in the boot. It’s useful to have in there at any time of year.
- A fully charged mobile phone with the number of your breakdown service in it and a phone charger – get a spare phone as well, a cheap non-smartphone handset with a Pay As You Go sim card (make sure there’s always at least £10 credit on it), and keep it charged up and take it with you if you’re driving in bad weather. Smartphones are fragile creatures and don’t like the cold, so having a spare phone if your normal phone lets you down is an extra layer of reassurance.
- A torch and spare batteries for it – It’s dark. No further explanation needed.
- Ice scraper to clear your windscreen.
- Jump leads – everyone should have a set of these anyway.
- First aid kit and warning triangle – you should have these in your car all year. If you don’t, why not? Get them, right now.
- A pillow – You have a blanket, why not a pillow? May as well be comfy if you’re sleeping in the car.
- A shovel – if you’re stuck in a snowdrift up on the moors somewhere, you want to be able to dig yourself out.
- Strong rope – This is so you can either tow or be towed. If you’re lucky enough to have a 4×4, you’re going to be pulling everyone else out of the snowdrifts they’ve slid into. Get some rope.
- A piece of carpet – seriously. You can use this to create grip to get yourself out of wherever you’re stuck.
Tell someone where you’re going
Tell whoever you live with, or whoever you’re going to visit, what route you’re expecting to take, and if you have to divert, call them and say you’ve had to divert. That way they have an idea of where you are in case you don’t arrive, or something else awful happens.
Check the travel news
Check what’s going on with the traffic on the route you’re travelling, and any alternate routes you might take. And if you’ve got a traffic-report-enabled radio in your car, make sure the feature is switched on so you can pick up any reports as they come through.
And finally… check the weather!
If the weather is really, really bad, or predicted to get significantly worse from what it already is, ask yourself if you need to make your journey in the first place. Can you work from home, and will Aunty Mabel really be mad if you’re a day late to visit her? I’m sure she’d rather you arrived in one piece than hear you were taken to hospital because you slid off the road. Be sensible and realistic. Winter driving is not the time to be stubborn or ‘brave’. Stay home.
Some of what I’ve written might seem obvious, but how many of us actually do it? How many of us have a winter kit in our cars, or even remember to check our wiper fluid every weekend? With sketchy, unpredictable weather, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Drive safely, everyone!