With fall right around the corner, now is a good time to think about what is coming up very soon. You know, the time where everyone knows that no one knows how to drive in snow except for themselves, drivers of 4×4 trucks feel entitled, and your uncle complains that the “damn snow plow won’t get out of the way!” on his morning commute. Yep, winter!!!
The wintertime is magical; unique in its place among the seasons. But the freedom found in an undisturbed lawn after a fresh snow can quickly turn into a nightmare when driving to the nearest Redbox for a warm night in. How do you avoid turning even the smallest driving trip into a frost covered nightmare? By getting ready beforehand, of course!
Actions Prior to Winter
Check The Electrical System
The next time you get an oil change, have the technician check your battery and alternator. Even if your battery is working just fine in the warmer weather, this does not ensure proper function during cold weather. Batteries die more often in winter due to two reasons
- The cold weather slows down the electrochemical reaction that produces the electricity needed to start your car.
- The oil and lubricants inside of your car are thicker and take more energy to move in the cold weather, requiring more electricity from the battery to start the engine.
These two factors make winter performance double tough for batteries, with many of them not being up to the task when required. If you are not due for an oil change before the cold weather, you can always check the battery on your own with this handy, dandy battery checker.
No matter if you are having a service center check your battery or if you DIY, make sure to check the electrical connections in your system, especially the connectors to your battery. While today’s batteries are “sealed”, they are still a focal point for acid leakage and connector decay. If you find the connection is bad, use a small battery terminal brush and protectant to clean it up.
Last but not least, you need to check that your lights are operating properly. This is best done with a second person standing around your car as you flick the right switches. Brake lights, turn signals, headlights, high beams, fog lights, reverse lights. It only takes 5 minutes, but it is critical that you have every light working to inform the motorists surrounding you.
1000bulbs.com is a great, inexpensive resource for finding all the light bulbs you need for your car.
Check The Engine
Cold weather makes your car parts more brittle and prone to breaking. Sometimes, a worn part that is pliable in the summer can snap in the winter, resulting in catastrophic consequences.
First and foremost, check your engine belts. There are 3 main types of belts in a car
- Drive belt or V belt – These drive the main components in your car, such as the alternator, the air conditioning compressor, the power steering pump and the water pump. There were 2 or maybe 3 of these in older cars.
- Serpentine belt – This single belt performs the same functions as the multiple V belts in older cars. The serpentine belt is basically standard on any car in the past 15 or so years.
- Timing belt – This belt replaced the timing chain, and it “times” your engine valves and piston and powers the the crankshaft to the camshaft. If this fails, you are in big, big trouble.
After the belts, you need to make sure your engine hoses are working.
Hoses are used in many systems on every vehicle. They carry liquids such as fuel, oil, coolant and transmission fluid. They transport gasses such as the refrigerant used in the air conditioning system. And, they route engine vacuum to numerous parts, which may include the cruise control actuator, power brake booster, exhaust emission controls and electronic sensors for the engine management system.
Examples of hoses includes the lower radiator hose, upper radiator hose, turbo hose, and PCV hose. If one breaks, you are in for a very bad day. Check to make sure all the hoses are whole, with no cracks, gaps, or leaks.
The photo below shows a customized engine with brightly colored hoses. This is for illustration purposes only to show you the variety. Your family car will probably have only black hoses.
However, oftentimes the hose itself is fine while the hose clamp is broken or loose. Double check that both ends of the hoses are firmly sealed, so whatever gas that is passing through them does not leak.
Tires can be considered the most important part of a car. This quote is from an excellent article about the crash that killed Paul Walker and Roger Rodas.
“…the four small patches of rubber connecting your two-ton manslaughter machine to your city’s lowest-priced asphalt are, if you ask me, the best way to improve your car, or, the quickest way to f*** it up, crash, and even die.”
Most common tires are “all-weather”, meaning that they are adequate in a four-season environment. Remember that these tires are not tailor made for the snow and ice, so use your judgment.
Snow tires are usually an option only for areas with consistent snow and ice throughout the entire winter. Having snow tire studs run on concrete or asphalt will only wear out the studs and tear up the road you paid for with your tax dollars.
Wipers and washer fluids
Winter is hell on windshield wipers. Just like with your belts, the freezing cold makes the wipers brittle and prone to breaking, especially when they have already had to survive the heat of the summer. It is a good practice to replace your wiper twice a year.
The most important thing for you to do in regard to windshield washer fluid is to make sure your reservoir is consistently filled. In all but the most extreme climates, you really don’t need to switch to a different blend. However, if you live in northeastern Montana or a similar place, adding a little bit of antifreeze will help prevent the fluid from freezing on your windshield.
At the same time you are changing your windshield wipers, get your car into the shop and have your brakes checked out. Make sure they are not warped or worn down. Otherwise, it will not matter if you have the best snow tires in the world if you can’t slow them down. If you are handy with a car, you can change out your brake pads in 30-60 minutes.
The last part of your engine check should be the various fluids that make the car operate. As mentioned in the Battery section, the fluids in your car tend to get thick and sluggish in the cold temperatures, so make sure they are a) topped off and b) changed if necessary.
The top fluids to check in are engine coolant/antifreeze, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, and brake fluid. While all of these can be checked and changed at home, if you are not familiar or comfortable with the process, please have a professional service your car.
Even if you perform steps 1-6, there is always something that can go wrong. It is best to subscribe to AAA or another roadside car service just in case. Things can go wrong (like hitting black ice) that you just cannot prepare for.
Supplies For The Car
All cars need to have a basic car emergency kit, regardless of season. You can buy a pre-packaged kit from most any store nowadays, or you can build your own to suit your needs.
The baseline items to have include:
- Jumper cables
- First aid kit
- LED flashlight (with extra batteries)
- Food and water
- Water can be tricky in the winter. Best to just have a Nalgene water container.
- Tow ropes (2)
- LED flares
- Paper towels (I like the select-a-size)
- Basic toolkit
- Work gloves
For the wintertime, it is best to add a few items to deal with the cold and snow. Those include
- Ice scraper
- Fleece blanket (2 if there is room)
- Snow shovel or snow tool
- Extra clothes, hats, and gloves.
I do not recommend wool or cotton blankets, as they will absorb the water produced by snow that is melted by your body heat.
Below are some extras to include on top of the blankets and outerwear. They can be old and shaggy but need to be usable and actually protect you against the cold.
- Boots, or at least rubber overshoes
- Thermal underwear
- Traction/abrasive for putting under your tires if you are stuck in the snow.
- Waterproof sleeping bag (this is for big time emergencies)
The last thing I would recommend, but is not a requirement, is a portable battery jumper. This is a battery powered unit that has a small air compressor that can jump a car, blow up a tire, and charge your cell phone. It needs to be charged every 1-2 months, but it can be and has been a lifesaver when you are stranded.
Winter can be a very tough time, for both drivers and cars. However, if you are fully equipped with the right tools and the right knowledge, you can rest assured that you are able to handle any emergency.
These are the tools and techniques that I use to prepare my car for the winter in Northern Indiana. Is there anything that I missed? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll let you know if I have added them to my winter car kit.