Winter driving guide 2024: how to prepare your car for winter

Short days, long nights, wet and cold weather can all make driving more hazardous. We show you how to prepare and what to do if your car is not starting in the cold...

Cars on a snowy street

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail, as the saying goes. And when it comes to driving in the depths of winter, it’s particularly true.

Over the coming pages, we’ll reveal the essential checks you must make, what to keep on your car, how to drive in the snow and what to do if you get stuck.

What Car?’s guide to driving in winter

What to carry in your car during winter
How to drive in winter
What to do if you get stranded
Should I fit winter tyres?

How to get your car ready for winter

The cold and damp weather will immediately expose any underlying issues with your car which could put you, your passengers and other road users at risk. It’s also worth noting that many drivers use their cars differently over the Christmas and new year period. Taking unusually long journeys or leaving a car parked up for longer periods can both bring their own challenges.

Below are the simple steps anyone can make with the most basic tools and a spare few minutes.

Car not starting in the winter? How to check a car battery

Car battery being checked

If a car battery is likely to fail, it’ll probably do so when the temperature drops because of the increased drain of headlights and heating systems, and that they need to work harder to turn the car’s starter motors. Additionally, the physical make-up of most car batteries is simply less suited to the cold.

If you’ve noticed your car is taking a little longer than usual to start, don’t wait to get stranded. If the battery is old, your local garage, fast-fit centre or main dealer will be able to swap it for you. It’s a job you can often do yourself with basic tools, but call in the pros if you’re not sure.

A battery charger will help keep your battery conditioned if it’s parked up for longer periods of time. The NOCO Genius5 UK was named our favourite when we tested the best car battery chargers on sale.

If your car battery fails why you’re out and about, a jump starter is an invaluable piece of kit. You can think of them as a powerful battery in a small case – simply attach the clamps to the battery terminals and start the car as normal. Some also feature torches and hazard warning lights, and even tyre inflators. The Noco Boost Sport GB20 is currently our best car jump starter.

How to check car tyres

What Car? winter driving guide 2018

Winter is a double-whammy for tyres. Wet and damp conditions means it’s vital you’ve got plenty of tread left, and for the majority of drivers who use summer tyres all year round, you might find the rubber compound simply provides less grip. That makes it absolutely essential you ensure your tyres are safe and fit for purpose.

The first thing to do is check your tyre pressures. You can do this using a tyre pressure gauge. Our favourite is from Draper, costing around £12, but you can find the best tyre pressure gauges in our product test. Alternatively, most petrol station forecourts will have one, or you can speak to your local tyre fitter.

Simply remove each tyre’s dust cap in turn, press the gauge’s tip onto the valve and take the reading. The correct pressure will be outlined in your car’s handbook or on a sticker, either behind the fuel filler flap or in one in the door jamb. Remember that pressures may vary depending on wheel and tyre size, and according to how many passengers you’re carrying.

If required, use a tyre inflator or pump to ensure the tyres are at the correct pressure. Again, you can visit a petrol station or as a tyre fitter to do this, or you can buy your own to ensure you don’t get caught short. Our favourite is the Ring RTC6000, but you can find the best tyre inflators in our product test.

It’s important to check your tyres’ tread depth. The legal minimum is 1.6mm, but 3.0mm or more is strongly recommended by experts. You can use a tread depth gauge to take a reading. Alternatively, the outer rim of a 20p coin measures 1.6mm – pop the coin into the tread and if you can see any of the coin’s rim, replace your tyres immediately. 

You should have at least 1.6mm of tread all round the tyre. While you’re there, look for slices, lumps or gouges on the sides and the tread of the tyre – any damage should be properly inspected, and the tyre replaced if necessary.

How to check your car’s lights

What Car? winter driving guide 2018

Because of the long nights and the likelihood of visibility-sapping rain, mist or fog, lights are essential. Flick your side lights, dipped and main beam headlights on to make sure they all function, and don’t forget your fog lights, indicators and rear lights. You might need some help to check reverse and brake lights.

Give them all a wipe if they’re covered in road grime – and run a cloth over your number plates while you’re at it.

Bulbs can be really easy or really tricky to replace. YouTube is a good place to find out how to change yours, although some high street car spares shops will swap them for a few pounds.

How to check and replace windscreen wipers

10. Windscreen wipers

Check your windscreen wipers; they shouldn't smear dirt across the screen. If your wipers aren’t clearing the screen properly, clean them first, then replace them if that doesn’t work. Perished or split wiper blades should also be replaced immediately.

Cars tend to vary, but as a general rule to replace your wipers, lift the blades away from the windscreen and locate and release the clip and remove the blade. Simply reverse the process to refit the blade.

Remember that wiper blades come in a variety of fitments, so get the right one for your car. And while you can replace them individually, it’s better to do it in pairs – if one blade has worn, the other won’t be close behind.

How to check windscreen washer fluid

You’ll use far more screenwash in the depths of winter than you would at other times because of the amount of spray and grime thrown up from damp and salty roads. Yet it’s not enough just to fill the windscreen washer bottle with tap water because it’ll likely freeze when the temperature really drops.

Dedicated screenwash is essential. You can buy ready-mixed or concentrated solutions which you need to dilute. Whichever you choose, take a look in your owners’ manual to locate the screen wash lid and carefully fill up the reservoir.

How to check your car’s antifreeze

It’s not hard to check your car’s antifreeze, although doing so requires a specialist tester so it might be worth speaking to your local garage.

Take a look in your owners’ manual to help locate the antifreeze reservoir (also known as the coolant tank). First check that the fluid is on the ‘max’ marker. If not, it’ll need topping up.

Secondly, you’ll need to check the effectiveness of the antifreeze, so that it protects against both low and high temperatures. A reusable coolant tester or single-use coolant tester strips are cheap and easy to use.

You need to ensure you use the correct antifreeze for your car, so speak to your local dealership. If you need your antifreeze replaced, speak to your local garage – the job isn’t particularly complicated, but it can be messy and you’ll need to dispose of the old fluids properly as they can’t be flushed down the drain.

Next: What to keep in your car during winter >>

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