Whether you live in a place where snow and ice cover the roads 3-5 months of the year, or you just want to visit them, winter driving safety should top your priority list.
I’m an old hand at road trips and winter travel—when you live in Montana, you have to be! Unless, of course, you plan to snuggle under a blanket and watch Netflix nonstop for 6 months (or more) of the year. Even going to the grocery store can be a slippery adventure!
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page…–St. Augustine
My best tips
for winter driving safety:
1. Layers, Layers, Layers! Even if you plan to end up somewhere warm, make sure your wardrobe includes clothes suitable for nasty weather. Always pack layers, rather than just one heavy coat. That way you can adjust as needed. I often wear just a light fleece jacket while driving, but my winter boots, yak trax, a coat that will block the wind, and something really warm, like a packable down coat are always within reach.
2. Make sure your vehicle is in good working order. You don’t want to risk getting stranded on one of those days where the frost keeps creeping in from the edges, making your windshield smaller and smaller, despite having the defroster turned up full blast. Check the oil and other fluid levels. A preventive-maintenance trip to the mechanic before you head out on a longer trip can save you a lot of money and headaches. If you are traveling solo, it will also provide some peace of mind.
3. Consider what your car needs: a spare quart of oil, jumper cables, a tow rope, and, depending on where you are going, maybe even tire chains or cables. Even if you don’t know how to use them, the kind person who stops to help you might. I have used sand, cheap clay cat litter, cardboard, and even smashed plastic milk cartons to create traction to get out of a “stuck” spot. Collapsible shovels can be handy, too. Don’t forget your ice scraper!
Safe winter driving means packing and preparing a bit more than in other seasons.
4. Make sure you have a Roadside Assistance plan, know what it covers, and keep contact information handy. There’s nothing quite as nerve-wracking as finding yourself stranded along the side of the road in a strange place, fumbling around in the dark for the phone number for roadside assistance. If your car insurance doesn’t include it (many policies do these days), invest in something like AAA.
5. Do your research. In my 20’s, things like the Internet, Google Search, and Pinterest didn’t exist, so I often just made things up as I went along. Now, it’s so easy to get information and advice, it would be silly not to take advantage of it. For example, I’m taking my dogs along for the first time, so I searched for info on traveling with pets. I found several things I hadn’t thought about. bringfido.com helped me find pet-friendly, no-fee motels, as well as dog parks and beaches where dogs are welcome
6. Prepare for delays–even overnight.Though I’m from Montana, I didn’t realize this until I started heading east in my travels: during inclement weather, roads sometimes (or often, depending on location) close due to storms and blowing snow. Across eastern Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, you’ll see fences and barriers used physically close roads. This happens many other places, too.
7. Check the forecast, both where you are, and where you’re headed. Look not only at current weather, but average temperatures and snowfall, online. As I researched possibilities for the Great American December Road Trip, I ruled out parts of Route 66, which initially looked like a lot of fun, due to winter road conditions. I also discovered many attractions and lodging choices shut down in the winter. Make some Plan B’s (and C’s) in case things don’t go as planned. Don’t forget to check road conditions frequently as you travel on Department of Transportation websites.
8. Invest in paper maps. Nothing is worse than getting lost in a place with no cell phone signal, and no backup plan! Each state puts out a free highway map that covers both main and secondary roads you can get them through the mail, or pick them up in visitor centers along the way. These are invaluable, and have saved me more than once. Note: make sure your maps are current. Don’t rely on that 1992 Rand McNally road atlas on the bookshelf! It may be fine for getting a general idea of the route you are going to take, but change happens, so you don’t want to depend on it in a crunch! While Google Maps are great, and I love my “friend,” Doris (the Google Maps voice that serves as my guide), there’s nothing like spreading out a paper map to get the “big picture” of where you are going, options in case of road closures, and the location of little towns should road conditions feel too dangerous.
Another issue: though I love Doris, she has a singular focus on getting there using the shortest possible route, which may not always be the safest. Recently, she took me down a desolate, dry stretch of desert on the reservation in Arizona. I saw more turkey vultures than other cars. Luckily, I didn’t end up on this road at night, as originally planned, or during a storm. It was even posted “Warning: this road is not plowed or patrolled at night or on weekends during storms.” It may have been shorter, but sometimes staying on the interstate is smarter, even if it takes a little longer. Had I looked at a larger, paper map, I would have overruled Doris and chosen a different route.
9. Plan for significantly fewer daylight hours. This is especially important if you don’t like driving in the dark. Look on the bright side–less time spent behind the wheel gives you the opportunity to actually read that new book you downloaded to your Kindle!
10. Pack water, snacks, and some chemical handwarmers. If you get stranded, whether in a hotel in some dinky town or in your vehicle, you’ll be glad you did. If you brought Fido, don’t forget snacks and water for him, too!
11. Be prepared for anything. Toss a blanket (or two) in your car. I keep extra gloves, wool socks, and toilet paper in my car at all times.
12. Be prepared, but don’t over-plan! Leave yourself time and energy to enjoy being able to make those spur-of-the-moment stops. Sometimes places I find along the way turn in to my favorite parts of an adventure. The best trips are not mad dashes, but leave a little room to discover the unexpected.
13. Especially if you’re traveling solo, let someone know your travel plans. Check in often–it will provide peace of mind, not only for you, but for your friends and family. It’s also a good idea to arrange for someone to make an occasional check at your house. You don’t want to come home to a burst pipe that had an entire week to flood your house!
14. Do NOT use cruise control on snowy, icy, or wet roads. Using cruise control gives you less control, and a slower response time in adverse conditions. If you even THINK the road might be slick for any reason, turn off the cruise!
If you only remember one thing from this list, let it be this one…..
15. SLOW DOWN!!!! If you only remember one thing from this list, let it be this one! If the roads are icy–even if they don’t LOOK icy, but you can feel your car fishtail a bit or just act differently, slow down. The same advice applies to poor visibility–slow down. More times than I care to count, I have driven 10-15 miles per hour, searching for the metal markers at the edge of the road so I knew for sure if I was even on it. I have followed the tail lights, barely visible through the blowing snow, of a semi creeping down the road, to keep me from landing in the ditch. Even experienced winter drivers consider this white-knuckle driving, particularly in the dark. The good news: most weather-related accidents can be prevented if you slow down.
The most important tip of all:
What about you? Do you avoid traveling on winter’s icy roads? Have you had any scary or unique winter driving experiences? I’d love to hear.