How to drive in snow: 15 tips for safe winter travel

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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While the winter snow is ideal for building snowmen, sledding and having snowball fights, it’s not ideal for driving. Heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures result in slippery roads and poor visibility which contributes to a higher risk of losing control of your car and having an accident.

With more than 150,000 auto crashes occurring annually due to icy roads, it’s important to learn how to drive in snow. Keep reading to get essential tips on what to do before you leave and while you’re navigating the snowy roads.

Before driving in snow

Before embarking on your journey, review these tips to ensure you are well prepared for navigating the snowy roads. 

 snow preparation tips

1. Only drive if necessary

First and foremost, you should only drive in the snow if it’s absolutely necessary. If the weather is bad, it’s best to stay put as 17% of car accidents occur during winter weather conditions. 

Even if you’re a pro at driving in the snow, other people may not be, which increases your risk of an accident even if you’re not at fault.

2. Study your route

If staying home isn’t an option, study your route before heading out on the road and give yourself enough time to reach your destination. To be prepared for any potential disruptions, check the local weather reports and traffic updates so you know what to expect while on the road. 

Additionally, choose a route that uses the major roadways in your area, as these roads are more likely to be plowed or spread with grit which makes them less slippery for vehicles during icy weather. 

3. Remove snow and ice

The car hood and windshield are obvious spots for removing ice and snow, but don't forget to clear off all the snow on your car, including the roof, mirrors, lights and back windows.

In some states, it’s actually illegal to drive with snow on your car, so check your state’s regulations and stay safe by clearing off your vehicle before you start driving.

For an unobstructed view in all directions, clear the snow from all areas of your vehicle and use an ice scraper or credit card to remove any ice that may have formed on your windows and mirrors.

4. Warm up your vehicle

While many drivers are convinced that allowing your car to warm up before driving in the cold is better for the car’s engine, experts say it’s only a good idea for defogging your windshield and warming up the cabin.1

This should only take about a minute, so don’t waste gas and emissions by letting your car run for 20 minutes in the driveway.

5. Get winter tires

If you live in a cold area that gets frequent amounts of snow, you should definitely invest in winter tires, also known as snow tires. Even the best set of all-season tires cannot compare to the traction that proper winter tires offer in the snow, slush and ice. 

You might also consider purchasing snow chains for your tires, which can effectively dig through snow and ice. The chains can hold onto the pavement and help keep your car from slipping. Keep in mind that you cannot drive a vehicle at a high speed while it has snow chains installed.

6. Be prepared with an emergency kit

In case something does happen while you are on the road, it’s always a good idea to have a winter emergency kit stored somewhere in your vehicle. Your kit should include basic survival supplies, safety items, car maintenance tools and winter clothing. 

You can find the whole list of items in our guide on what to include in a winter car emergency kit.

Driving in the snow

Now that you have prepared your car for the snowy roads ahead, check out these tips on how to drive safely in the snow. 

7. Drive slow and steady

Being smooth with the steering wheel, accelerator and brakes is the key to driving safely in the snow. You want to drive as if you have a hot cup of coffee in your lap that you are trying not to spill.

Every wheel turn, brake application and throttle movement must be careful, smooth and slow. Jerky motions with the controls can unstick tires that already have a fragile hold on the slick road. 

Here are some tips for maintaining a consistent speed on roads that aren't precisely straight:

  • Curves: When approaching a curve, gently apply the brakes before you start turning the wheel. Try not to worry if your car starts to lose traction; the best course of action is to gradually let off on the gas and keep your wheels pointed in the direction you wish to go.
  • Uphill: If going uphill, allow enough space in front of the vehicle so that you may keep a constant speed without having to shift gears or accelerate.
  • Downhill: Use low gear when going downhill, and try to avoid braking unless absolutely necessary. Pump your brakes instead of slamming them, and make sure there is enough room between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you.

8. Keep extra distance from other vehicles

By maintaining a greater following distance from other vehicles on the road on a snowy day, you can reduce your risk of being involved in a traffic collision.

In order to give yourself adequate time and space to stop on icy roads if necessary, you should raise your following distance to at least 7-9 seconds on days with snow. However, this distance can increase depending on your car’s weight and length, the slope of the road, the amount of snow on the road and visibility.

 following distance

9. Stay alert and focused

Beyond keeping an eye on your own vehicle, it's crucial to pay attention to what the other cars in your vicinity are doing. Make sure you are aware of everyone else on the road, both directly in front of you and in your peripheral vision, as they might not be adhering to the same safe driving practices that you are.

You also want to minimize distractions to stay on high alert at all times. A phone call with a friend or listening to a juicy podcast isn’t worth getting too distracted and missing signs of potential hazards around you.

10. Turn on your headlights

Heavy snow conditions can impact visibility on the roads, so make sure you turn on your headlights so others can see you. 

While you may want to turn on your brights or fog lights to help you see better, it can be blinding to other drivers on the road. Avoid using them unless there is actual fog.

11. Pump the brakes or equip the anti-lock braking system (ABS)

While slamming on the brakes might be your initial reaction to slipping or other hazards on the road, it’s the worst thing you can do when driving in the snow. Instead, pump the brakes where you push on the brake pedal, let up, then push it down repeatedly. 

This method allows your vehicle to both steer and brake on a slick surface. Drivers use it to make an emergency stop when there is little traction to lessen the effect of sliding from road wheels locking up when using the brakes.

However, most modern cars come with anti-lock braking systems (ABS), which prevent brake seizing even when you have to brake forcefully. Applying firm brake pressure is preferable when using ABS; only let up when you've come to a complete stop, as this will activate the ABS and prevent you from excessive slippage.

12. Keep an eye out for black ice

Black ice is a term that describes a batch of thin and slippery ice on the road. If temperatures in your area have fluctuated, this should be top of mind.

Snow and ice can thaw during the day, but if temperatures drop below freezing in the late afternoon or evening, the melted snow may turn into a thin layer of ice on the road. This is especially dangerous since black ice can be hard to spot while driving. 

13. Handle skids with ease

If you do hit a patch of black ice, which can be a very scary driving situation, don’t panic. Use these steps to continue safely on down the road:

  • Don’t accelerate or brake quickly because hydroplaning means you’ve lost traction with the road, and sudden speed changes could cause you to spin out.
  • If you have front-wheel drive (with or without ABS and traction control) or rear-wheel drive with ABS and traction control, look for open space and plan to travel in that direction.
  • Accelerate just a little and steer gently – without sudden movements – in the direction of the open space.
  • If you have a rear-wheel drive without ABS or traction control, you should still head toward an open space, but instead of applying pressure to the accelerator, ease off it as you steer to the open space.
 how to handle skids on icy roads

14. Never use cruise control

In the snow (or even in the rain), never use cruise control. Driving under these circumstances while using cruise control runs the risk of losing control of the car because the system might not react as quickly as you can if you sense a loss of traction.

15. Avoid tire tracks of other vehicles

Packed snow is more icy than fresh snow, so if you are on the road during snowfall, it's best to avoid tire tracks from other vehicles. Tire tracks indicate that the snow is compressed, which means it’ll be more slippery, so drive on the fresh powder whenever possible.

Make sure you’re covered with good auto insurance

To secure your safety and the safety of other drivers on the road, it's crucial to learn how to drive in the snow. Although these tips will aid you in navigating icy roads, accidents can still occur, whether or not they were your fault.

Make sure you have proper auto insurance so you can rest assured that you have protection at all times. If you don’t have insurance or are thinking of switching your provider, use our auto insurance comparison tool to find the best coverage for you. 

 how to drive in snow infographic
  1. Consumer Reports