The first step to driving carefully during the winter season is to always be aware of changing weather conditions from your starting location to your destination. We offer a variety of weather tools and products to make sure your winter road travel is safe.
Planning a drive during winter weather conditions? Check out our Road Trip Planner, a helpful tool that provides helpful weather information for your drive, including forecasted conditions and severe alerts along the road.
Whether you are using Road Trip Planner or any other Weather Underground product, there are some important winter weather terms that you should get yourself familiar with.
Watches and Warnings
Winter Storm WATCH: This product is issued by the National Weather Service when there is a potential for heavy snow or significant ice accumulations, usually at least 24 to 36 hours in advance. The criteria for this watch can vary from place to place.
Winter Storm WARNING: This product is issued by the National Weather Service when a winter storm is producing or is forecast to produce heavy snow or significant ice accumulations. The criteria for this warning can vary from place to place.
Blizzard WARNING: Issued for winter storms with sustained or frequent winds of 35 mph or higher with considerable falling and/or blowing snow that frequently reduces visibility to 1/4 of a mile or less. These conditions are expected to prevail for a minimum of 3 hours.
Winter weather driving can be a challenge for even the most experienced drivers. Use these tips to help you drive safely during the winter season.
Make sure to prepare your vehicle before the winter season begins. The following handy steps will help you ensure that your vehicle is safe to drive during winter weather.
- Check your brakes and tires.
- Check for wear and fluid levels of brakes.
- Make sure the tires have adequate tread - minimum tread is 1/16" for adequate traction. All-weather radials are usually adequate for most winter conditions. However, some jurisdictions require that to drive on their roads, vehicles must be equipped with chains or snow tires with studs.
- Check that your battery and ignition system is in top condition, and that battery terminals are clean.
- Check radiator coolant and sturdiness of hoses and belts.
- Check your anti-freeze and thermostat. Ensure that they are sufficient to avoid freezing.
- Check your windshield wipers and de-icing washer fluid. Keep spare window washer fluid in the trunk and make sure the washer blades are in good working condition.
- Check your headlights, tail and brake lights, blinkers and emergency flasher.
- Check your exhaust system, heater and defroster.
- Check for leaks and crimped pipes and repair or replace as necessary. Carbon monoxide is deadly and usually gives no warning.
- Ensure that your heater and defroster work properly.
- Check fuel and air filters. Replace and keep water out of the system by using additives and maintaining a full tank of gas.
- Check your oil. Refer to the vehicle's manual to see if a lighter grade oil is recommended for winter driving. Heavier oils tend to congeal at low temperatures and do not lubricate as well.
- Properly lubricate door locks that may be prone to freezing.
- Before beginning your trip, check the current road conditions and weather forecast. For statewide highway information 24 hours a day checkout your state's Department of Transportation. For the best weather information all day everyday, check out wunderground.com
- Keep your car's windows, mirrors and lights clear of snow and ice.
- Always wear your seat belt.
- Leave a few minutes early.
- Start out slowly in the lowest gear recommended by your vehicle's manufacturer.
- When accelerating on snow or ice, take it slow to avoid slipping and sliding.
- Be aware of sleet and freezing rain.
- Be aware of potentially icy areas, such as shady spots and bridges.
- Brake early, brake slowly, brake correctly, and never slam on the brakes.
- If you have anti-lock brakes, press the pedal down firmly and hold it.
- If you don't have anti-lock brakes, gently pump the pedal.
- Either way, give yourself plenty of room to stop.
- Keep a safe distance of at least five seconds behind other vehicles and trucks that are plowing the road.
- When driving on ice and snow, do not use cruise control and avoid abrupt steering maneuvers. When merging into traffic, take it slow. Sudden movements can cause your vehicle to slide.
- Don't pass a snowplow or spreader unless it is absolutely necessary. Treat these as you would emergency response vehicles.
- Keep an emergency winter driving kit in your car. See our Preparedness Kit page for more information.
- Maintain at least a half tank of gas during the winter season. This is good for emergency preparedness and it keeps the fuel line from freezing.
- Most importantly, drive smart!
Be prepared for winter season driving by keeping these items handy in your vehicle.
A minimum of two blankets or a sleeping bag
Flashlight or battery-powered lantern, with extra batteries
Jumper or booster cables
Extra clothing, such as boots, hats, and mittens
A steel shovel and rope to use as a lifeline
Bottled water or juice, and nonperishable high-energy foods
First-aid kit with necessary medications and pocket knife
Road salt, sand, or non-clumping cat litter for tire traction
A cell phone and car charger
Ice scraper and snow brush or small broom
Spare tire, tire repair kit, and pump
Fluorescent distress flag
The Department of Transportation applies several materials to roads to assist with snow removal or to improve vehicle traction. While these materials may vary from state to state, they generally include the following.
Special Note: De-icing chemicals such as sodium chloride and calcium chloride are very detrimental to gravel-surfaced and surface-treated roads. Chemicals are used very sparingly on these types of roads and only when absolutely necessary.
Sodium Chloride: For snow and ice control, sodium chloride ("Salt") is the most plentiful and inexpensive de-icer. When salt is applied, it creates brine, which keeps snow and ice from bonding to the pavement. Salt is effective to temperatures of about 27 degrees F and above.
Calcium Chloride: A more expensive de-icing chemical, calcium chloride is most often mixed with salt to provide some moisture so the chemical reaction that causes melting can take place. This chemical is used when temperatures fall into the low 20s because at those temperatures, moisture isn't present to help salt start the melting process. In liquid form, calcium chloride provides quicker action.
Abrasives: Small gravel or sand that can't melt snow or ice, such as non-clumping cat litter. Often, abrasives are mixed with salt to provide additional traction and lessen the cost of applying chemicals. Abrasives can be used on roads generally not treated with chemicals.