What to do if you get stuck in snow, sand, or mud

Consumer Reports News: January 31, 2011 02:21 PM

Getting stuck in snow is annoying at best. And in addition to being inconvenient and uncomfortable, it can also be dangerous.

If you’re stuck along a busy roadway, you and your car are at risk of being hit by other vehicles, and if you’re not dressed for the weather, the exposure to the elements risks hypothermia. As wind increases, heat is carried away from your body faster, driving down your temperature. Frostbite, which is damage to body tissue caused by extreme cold, can occur in as little as 30 minutes with a wind chill of -20-degrees Fahrenheit. And after dark, the danger is even worse. (See our Guide to Safe Winter Driving.)

With record-breaking snowfall in much of the country this year, the odds of getting stuck are even higher. But you can often drive yourself out of trouble if you know what to do. Here are some tips to help keep you from getting stuck in the first place, and things to do if your vehicle gets hopelessly in a jam. Just keep in mind that if you’re in too deep, calling a tow truck is probably the safest thing to do.

Plan ahead. Keep your tires in good shape, properly inflated and not too worn. If you live in an area where it snows a lot, consider investing in winter tires. Also, carry a cell phone and sign up with a roadside-assistance program, such as AAA or Better World Club. Some car insurance companies also offer programs; check to see if yours is one of them. Another option becoming increasingly available are telematics systems such as GM’s OnStar. (See our tire buying advice and ratings.)

If you’re stuck, rock out. Keep the wheels straight, and using a very light touch on the gas pedal, rock the car forward and back by switching between drive and reverse. If the tires start to spin, stop and change direction. In deep snow, and especially in soft sand and mud, spinning the tires just digs you in deeper. If your transmission has a winter mode, use that. If you have a manual transmission, use second gear. Once you get going, don’t stop until you reach solid ground. But if you get nowhere after eight or 10 attempts, try the next tip.

Dig deep. Create a path several feet long for each wheel. It’s a good idea to make a folding shovel part of your winter emergency kit, along with a blanket, safety flares, reflective triangles, and rock salt or other snow melter. If you don’t have a shovel, use what you can—a hubcap, a piece of wood, the base of the car jack, or the spare-tire cover.

Add traction. Spread sand in your tracks, especially near the drive wheels. Cat litter might work, too, but some clay-base litters are useless when wet. You can try the car’s floor mats (laid nap-side down), a trunk liner, or a commercial traction aid. Traction mats or grids might also help in snow, sand, or mud. If you need to jack up the car to position a traction aid, consult the owner’s manual. The jack has to be on firm ground. If it isn’t, place something flat and solid beneath it.

Let out some air. If you’re stuck in sand, first try digging out paths for your tires and lining them with small stones, twigs, planks, clothing or carpet scraps. Also try letting air out of the tires. Use a tire pressure gauge to reduce pressure to no less than 10 pounds, then reinflate the tires when you get back on solid ground. 

Fill in the ruts. Mud can be a special challenge because it’s easy to
spin the wheels and sink axle-deep in it. If a tow truck isn’t available, you might have to jack up the car and fill the depressions made by the tires with planks, plywood, rocks, or gravel.

Also read: Roadside emergency kit: What to carry with you

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