Snow. Ice. Wind. And sometimes the perfect storm: all three at once. A winter road trip alone can definitely come with a few hazards.
If you're planning to take a winter road trip solo, you need to be extra cautious.
I learned to drive in the winter. Part of the Driver's Ed classes involved going to an empty parking lot and intentionally losing control and learning how to regain it.
Learning to drive in winter gave me confidence and a healthy respect for winter driving conditions. I've driven in whiteouts – not recommended – and in winter storms, which has sometimes been necessary. And I've noticed that many of the vehicles that end up in the ditch are those with four-wheel drive. Over-confidence can work against your safety when driving in winter.
So my first tip is:
- Don't count on technology to keep your car under control. Four-wheel drive is great for accelerating in snow but not for slowing down. ABS brakes (anti-lock braking system) are great for bringing your car to a smooth, non-skid stop but there still needs to be enough road between you and the next vehicle to stop you in time. Tip #1 is drive in control. You need to drive so that you have control of your car at all times. We'll get into how below.
Winter Road Trip Planning
If you drive in snowy weather on a regular basis many of these tips will be familiar but there's no harm in reiterating them here.
- Check the weather forecast. So obvious but so important. Even if you can't change your travel plans by a day or two, changing your driving schedule by an hour or two could make a very big difference to your safety and enjoyment.
- Set a reasonable pace. In summer with clear roads, you may plan for long days of driving. Plan for shorter driving days in winter for two reasons: there are fewer hours of sunlight in the winter and winter driving can be more tiring. Also, a 6-hour day on the road in winter can put you into a whole new weather system. Set reasonable expectations.
- Set a schedule you can enjoy. If it's a road trip covering multiple cities, I’ve found that I need at least three nights per destination. This gives me a travel day and two full days at the destination followed by another travel day.
- Plan arrivals and departures around the traffic. If major cities are on your route, plan to leave and arrive before or after the morning and afternoon rush hours. Navigating a new city can be stressful enough without adding more traffic than necessary and the possibility of bad weather.
- Plan around a theme. Is it family you're visiting? Are you checking out a few ski resorts? Are there winter festivals you want to attend? Will your trip include a combination of themes? Knowing what you want to get out of your winter road trip will really help you focus and enjoy it.
Winter Road Trip Alone: Packing the Car
- Mobile phone and charger for the car. You'll need a cell phone charger that plugs into what was once, and now rarely is, a cigarette lighter, or a USB port. In case of emergency you'll not want to run out of battery in your phone. This charger has two USB ports so it can charge any phone and another device.
- Map and GPS. I think it's important to have both a paper map and a GPS. The latter is great for most circumstances but should the GPS maps be out of date or should it have trouble accessing the satellite, you'll still need to know where you're going and that will require a paper map. Plus, the map with your route highlighted is a great souvenir of the trip.
- Extra windshield washer fluid. Top up your windshield washer reservoir before leaving and have an extra bottle with you. If you hit sleet or a storm of any kind you can go through it very quickly.
- Have an ice scraper handy. A credit card works in a pinch but it's a slow process. Invest a few dollars and buy a good ice scraper.
- Jumper cables. It's easy to wear out a car battery in winter. Leave an interior light on overnight and your car could be dead in the morning. If you have jumper cables with you all you need are the instructions and another car to give you a boost and you'll be good to go. Remember to give your car a good long run to recharge the battery before turning it off again.
- Emergency car kit. The road trip kit from AAA has booster cables, flashlight, air compressor, and a first aid kit.
- Winter survival kit. You can purchase these at many hardware stores. It should include water and a few food items in addition to flares and the like. Here's a winter survival kit on Amazon.
- Sand or kitty litter. Going someplace where the snow will be a real challenge? Pack a bag of sand or kitty litter to put under your power wheels to help you out of a slippery spot.
Prepping Your Vehicle for a Winter Road Trip
- Take your car in for a winter tune-up. You'll need to tell your mechanic that you're going on a road trip alone and to pay special attention to the:
- heater, defroster, brakes, lights, oil levels, and exhaust system.
- condition of the tires. Decide if all-season tires are good enough for your planned route or whether you need proper winter tires. For some trips in the mountains tire chains may be recommended but pay attention to local recommendations on this. Chains are hard on roads and they are often prohibited.
- quality of your windshield wipers. This is important as worn out wipers will smear ice on your windshield rather than clean it off.
- anti-freeze in the radiator. A car traveling in winter can't survive without anti-freeze in the radiator.
- Get roadside assistance. If you have AAA or CAA you'll be fine in North America. If you don’t, you can buy short or long-term roadside assistance from Allstate.
Driving Tips for a Winter Solo Road Trip
- Slow down. It's not a brilliant tip but necessary to mention. When the roads have snow, ice, slush, or worse, black ice on them, your car will take longer to slow and stop than on clear roads. You will need to drive more slowly in winter conditions than at other times of the year.
- Know the weather forecast. Know what you're getting into by checking the weather forecast. Snow can be handled but it's important that you avoid whiteout conditions. If there is a call for snow, check with a local about where you're planning to drive through snow. There is a road north of Toronto that often goes to whiteout conditions quickly due to wind blowing snow over clear fields, while other routes nearby are not so.
- Fill up often. Don't let your gas gauge drop much below half a tank. I know, this means more stops for gas but should you break down, you'll be glad of the fuel to keep your car and its heater going.
- Always clear the ice off your windows completely. There's less room for error when you drive in winter conditions. Don't compromise your visibility by not completely clearing the ice off your windows. It may be cold. The ice may be thick. But it's worth taking the time to do a good job.
- Clean the snow off your car completely. Some people think that they need to clean off just enough snow so that they can see properly. Wrong. Clear the snow off your hood so that it doesn't blow up onto your windshield and blind you. And clean the snow off your roof so that it doesn't blow off your car and blind the person in the car behind you.
- Stay in your lane. If there's lots of snow on the road it will be difficult to see the lane markings on a highway and to pass safely. You're best to stay in your lane and follow the car ahead with enough distance so that you can stop safely should you need to. The rule of thumb is that in poor driving conditions there should be 4-6 seconds between you and the car in front of you. Think 4-6 car lengths.
- Know how to stop in the snow. There are two basic methods to slow down and stop and the one you should use depends on your vehicle. If you have ABS brakes (traction control) and you have to brake in slippery conditions, push hard on the pedal and leave your foot there until you stop. You'll notice a vibration and noise as the system does the work for you. If you don't have ABS brakes, you'll need to pump the brakes to keep your car moving in a straight line. Here's a video on how that works.
- Turn off traction control when necessary. Traction control is great in most conditions but if you're at a dead stop and stuck in snow it is your enemy. Turn the traction control off temporarily while you get moving. Watch this video.
- Rock, don't spin. If you get stuck in snow, don't spin your wheels. Doing so you'll create an ice slick beneath your tires and make it impossible to get out. Press the gas then remove your foot, repeat a few times until you get a rocking motion going with your car and then enough momentum to move forward.
- Keep your lights on. Always have your lights on for winter driving so that you are more visible from the front and from behind. Visibility helps prevent accidents caused by others.
- Clean your lights. When you stop for gas clean off your front and rear lights. They may have become covered in snow and slush as you traveled.
- Use low beams in storms. If you're driving in a snow storm, only use your low beams. You may be tempted to turn on your high beams because instinct says you will be able to see better but, in fact, high beams will cause a reflection off the snowflakes and make visibility more difficult.
- Never pass a snowplow. If you get stuck behind a snowplow, be patient and stay there. There's no advantage to passing and, given that they are pushing snow out of the way, it can be very dangerous.
- Beware of changing weather and black ice. If the weather bounces above freezing and then below it again you could have snow turning to water and then to ice. This makes for dangerous conditions and possibly black ice, which is a layer of ice so thin that it's transparent and therefore difficult to see.
- Be careful on bridges. Be especially aware of ice on bridges which tend to be cooler than regular roads and can have more ice on them.
- Don't use cruise control. You need total control of your car so don't turn it over to technology when the roads are not clear.
- Don't drive with your jacket in the back seat. It's tempting to shed your jacket in a warm car to be comfortable but should you have an accident or another incident that cuts the heat and prevents you from getting to your jacket easily you'll be glad you kept it on.
- Pull over safely. If the weather gets really bad, find a safe place to pull over, such as a parking lot. Do not pull over on the shoulder of a highway as people may lose sight of the lanes in bad conditions and not see you until the last minute. You do not want to be run into.
- Take a break. Driving in challenging conditions is more tiring than the usual road trip. Know how far it is to the next place you can pull over for a warm drink. Plan to take frequent breaks along the way.
- Kick the snow off your boots. There are two reasons for this. Snow stuck on the bottom of your boots give you less control over the car pedals. Also, the less snow in your car the less melted water there will be and the less vapor to fog your windows.
- Don't wear bulky boots. You want to have a good sense of the pedals beneath your feet so wear footwear that is warm and allows you to feel the pedals.
And, finally, a manual transmission is preferable in winter. It offers much more control so if you have the option of driving stick, do so.
A winter road trip alone can be fabulous. Take care and have fun.