What Car?'s top tips for driving in winter

Our ultimate winter motoring guide can help you make sure you, and your car, are ready for winter.....

Winter has arrived with a vengeance, with much of the country covered in snow.

BMW rear shot driving in snow

Driving can be dangerous at this time of year. And it doesn't even have to snow to cause havoc. The rain, the cold and the longer nights all make this a riskier time to be behind the wheel.

Over the next few slides, we'll tell you everything you need to know about how to stay safe on the roads this winter:

Slideshow story - please click right-hand arrow above to continue

Get your car ready

Ford Focus front covered in snow

First thing's first - it's vital that your car is in top working order so it's ready to tackle the worst of driving conditions.

We're highlighting these checks as being necessary for winter driving, but if you perform them all year round, you and your car will be prepared for whatever comes your way. And remember, driving with snow on the roof or bonnet of your car is illegal. Always clear it before setting off. 

Tyres

Man checking tyre tread depth

We'll focus on winter specific tyres a shortly, but firstly we recommend you regularly check the condition of your tyres whether winter specific or not. Ensure that they have plenty of tread (1.6mm across three-quarters of the tyre, all the way round, is the legal minimum) as this will help you grip when driving on the white stuff.

You can measure the tread with a 20p piece. Hold the coin in the tread and as long as the rubber comes above the border around the coin, your car's tyres are legal. The recommended tyre pressures for your car will be listed either in the manual or on the door frame.

Battery

Checking battery charge

You don't want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere because of a flat battery, so it's worth taking your car into a garage to have its battery tested.

Make sure the battery is in good condition and fully charged and, if you're concerned, carry a set of 'jump' cables with you, so you can connect to another car's battery and give yours a jump start if needed. Or get a portable car battery charger and stick it in the boot; they are reasonably affordable now, their charge lasts for up to three months, and many have USB outlets that allow you to charge up phones and tablets as well.

Wipers

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, when the heavens open and snow begins the fall, you need to be able to see where you're going.

Oil

Man checking oil level with dipstick

Check oil levels and ensure you use the correct engine oil because cold weather can make it thicken. Information on which oil to use can be found in the manual or it can be obtained from the manufacturer's service department.

Washer fluid

Washer fluid cap

You’ll use far more screenwash in the winter months than normal because of the spray thrown up by damp, salty roads, so make sure you keep it topped up.

Also make sure it's of a high enough concentration so that it won't freeze. If you live in an especially cold part of the country, consider choosing heavy-duty washer instead; it's only slightly more expensive.

Lights & Brakes

Toyota Avensis headlight

In conditions where visibility is reduced, your car's lights make other road users aware of your presence. Check that all lights are functioning as they should, including brake lights and indicators.

Also check your foglights. However, only use them when visibility is poor because they can dazzle other road users and make your brake lights difficult to see. Wet, snowy or icy conditions all increase stopping distances. Check that your car's brakes work effectively and that the brake lights are functioning properly, just having one brake light out massively increases the chances of another motorist failing to see you, potentially resulting in an accident.

Fuel

Fuel gauge

Keep your car topped up with fuel so you can run it to keep warm if you get stuck in snow. If you run a electric vehicle, try and ensure it has plenty of charge.

Radiator

Top up your radiator with anti-freeze - your local garage will be able to check that it's the right concentration. Anti-freeze comes in different colours, but generally red anti-freeze lasts longer than blue, green or orange colours.

What to keep in your car during winter

In-car phone charger

It's a great idea to keep a bag of essential equipment in your car for when the temperature plummets, including tools to keep your car moving, supplies and blankets...

Driving conditions can deteriorate rapidly so it makes sense to keep a few things in your car so you're prepared for the worst. Ideally, no one wants to get stranded in their car but it's worth getting everything ready in case it does happen.

Here's what we recommend everyone keep in their car when driving in the winter:

Mobile phone charger

Keep a phone charger in the glovebox, complete with a 12v adapter to charge it in the car. Most mobile phones can now be charged via a USB cable, so it might be worth investing in a cable to keep in the car. A working mobile phone is essential in poor conditions.

Warning triangle

If your car breaks down you'll need to set up a warning triangle to warn traffic of your vehicle's presence and to make your car visible to the emergency services. Remember that you shouldn’t use these on motorways as they can get caught up in the slipstream of cars and become a flying hazard.

De-icer and a scraper

De-icer and a scraper on windscreen

Keep these in the car. In low temperatures you can clear the windows in the morning only to have to clear them again when you return to your car in the afternoon.

The Highway Code states you must be able to see clearly out of all glass panels in your car before embarking on a journey - these are essential.

Warm, waterproof clothing

Several thin layers are better than one thick jacket, but a warm fleece is essential. Don't forget a pair of thick socks and gloves. It's also worth keeping a blanket in the car should you get stranded overnight.

Shovel and old carpet

Shovel and old carpet Mercedes stuck in snow

If you are in an area of high snowfall you can use the shovel to dig your wheels clear and then put the old carpet under them should you get stuck. And stop you having to need a lot of help like in this picture.

Sunglasses, supplies

What Car? readers have previously voted low sun as their least favourite driving condition, and in winter, these conditions are inevitable. Sunglasses are a good way to combat it and the glare that it can cause. You should also carry a bottle of drinking water and cereal or chocolate bars. Should you have to spend the night in the car, water and some sustenance are important to help keep your strength up.

Torch

An essential if you get stranded, but make sure you check the batteries once a month.

High-visibility vest

Make yourself stand out as much as possible should you be forced to stop, the last thing you want is a weather-blinded motorist failing to see you at the side of the road. 

Final preparations

Ford Focus covered in snow

Clear all of the car's windows and make sure the wing mirrors are clean, so you have full visibility. Remove any snow or other debris from the car's bodywork, including the roof, so it doesn’t slide off when you brake or accelerate. Make sure the car's windows are demisted properly before driving off.

Lift the car's windscreen wipers, and rear wiper if fitted, to check they're not stuck.

Ensure all snow and ice is cleared from your footwear before setting off, to prevent your feet sliding off the pedals when you use on them.

Remember to pack some essentials, such as a blanket. It's also worth carrying some window cleaner and kitchen roll, which will allow you to quickly clean windows and light clusters.

So your car’s all ready – but how should you drive?

Car driving in snow

Don't rush your journey. Rushing will make you more stressed and potentially less able to concentrate. Leave much, much more time than usual and check traffic and weather reports before you depart. Is your journey avoidable in the first place? Some people are able to work from home reasonably easily, though you must check with your employer first. If you do drive, try and keep to main roads; they are much more likely to have been gritted. Hilly local roads are to be especially avoided.

If you do need to drive, proceed carefully and at a reduced speed when the road conditions require it. Accelerate, brake and steer gently. Rapid, harsh inputs could unsettle the car.

Stopping distances

Skoda Yeti front in snow

Leave much longer stopping distances than normal. In heavy ice and snow, stopping distances are typically 10 times farther than normal. If the wheels lock while braking, release the pedal momentarily then reapply the brakes. Repeat as necessary to bring your speed down.

Don't close up on the car in front when stopping - leave a large gap, in case they get stuck or slide backwards. If you get stuck and your wheels spin, try accelerating away in second gear using a minimum amount of revs and steering.

Try to reduce torque to the wheels by staying in as high a gear as possible while on the move.

Gears

Nissan being pushed in snow

Conversely, if you have an automatic transmission and are at a standstill with the wheels spinning, try manually forcing the car to stay in first or second gear. Many automatics now have a winter or snow mode; if so, make sure it's on.

Locking an automatic in, say, second can also prove advantageous when driving on very poor roads. It can offer some engine braking and helps you control your road speed more easily.

Traction control systems can have an adverse effect when driving on ice and snow. Sometimes switching it off and allowing wheelspin from rest can give you more forward motion.

If you do get stuck and can’t move, call for assistance. Run the engine for around 10 minutes every hour to run the heater and keep warm, but ensure that the exhaust pipe is clear of snow or poisonous gases can be forced into the car.

Downhill

Car driving downhill

When travelling downhill, gently bleed off as much speed as possible and engage low gears to maximise engine braking. If you need to brake, do so in a straight line if possible - and gently.

Only attempt to drive up steep hills once you know the route is clear. Try to avoid stopping on an incline; remember that you'll need some run-up to get up a snowy hill - if you're going too slowly you could stop and slide back down.

If your car begins to skid, remember to steer into the direction of the skid - if the tail of your car steps out to the right, for example, you'll need to turn right to try and get the car pointing the right way.

Losing control

Crashed Fiat 500

Should you feel you are losing control, if possible keep your eyes fixed on where you want to go and steer in an effort to get there. Staring into an oncoming obstacle will usually result in a collision.

Try to get all braking and accelerating completed in a straight line. Try to avoid both while turning. If fog and snow is causing glare during night driving on main beam, use dipped beams instead. Just because you have four-wheel drive doesn’t mean you can take corners more quickly.

Should I choose winter tyres?

Winter tyres on Skoda Yeti

Winter tyres work better than normal tyres when temperatures are below 7 degrees - offering more grip and stability when show and ice hits. But are they worth the extra cost?...

Generally speaking, British motorists haven't tended to go for winter tyres. A notion that British winters aren't harsh enough means that cars stay on the same rubber all year round. However, it's important to realise that winter tyres don't just work better on snow and ice, they also perform better than summer tyres on wet roads when the temperature falls below 7 degrees celsius - which means they're effective at certain times of the day - and night - from November through to around February.

On test

Golf stuck in snow

What Car? tested winter tyres against summer tyres and the results could make you a winter-tyre convert.

When braking on snow, winter tyres stopped our test car in half the distance that summer tyres managed. A massive difference that could reduce accidents at junctions dramatically. When braking on ice, the summer tyres needed an extra 6.5 metres to bring the car to a complete halt from just 12mph.

Grip

Winter tyre

It's not just about stopping the car safely, it's also important that a tyre can provide sufficient grip for the car to pull away without its wheels spinning. Winter tyres also help in this area. In our tests, they handled nearly 2.5 times as much force than the summer tyres before losing traction.

For all these reasons we’d urge drivers to consider swapping to winter tyres for the coldest months of the year – the six months recommended by many tyre manufacturers is sensible only in colder parts of the UK. Depending on the severity of the winter, drivers in more temperate regions – such as the south of England – may be better off on summer tyres for up to nine months of the year.

Costs

Costs

At an average of £500 for a set of winter tyres – plus storage costs during the summer if you don’t fancy the tyres eating up space in your garage – we recognise that they’re another hefty cost for Britain’s motorists. If you need them for only three or four months a year, though, you should get several seasons out of them.

It's also worth mentioning that you need to tell your insurer of any modification you make to your car and that includes tyres. Since they're designed to make your car safer, it should have a positive impact on your insurance.

Given the safety benefits, it’s a price worth paying. A set of winter tyres could be the difference between life and death when it comes to driving this winter.

Final checklist

Subaru driving in the snow

1: Do you need to do the journey?

2: Ensure you have the right equipment, especially a mobile phone and charging cable, a torch, and warm clothing.

3: Ensure your car is clear of all snow before departure.

4: Take it real slow. Expect your journey to take much longer than usual. Stopping distances are up to 10 times longer. Do not get close to the car in front. Be especially aware of slide dangers going up and down hills, not just of your car but of the need to avoid others too. Cars sliding uncontrollably downhill are very common in heavy snow.

5: Don’t panic if you do get into difficulties. Call for help, and wait.

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