Driving in winter will test even the most attentive, skillful driver. Heavy snowfall can reduce visibility, and slippery road conditions can send your car sliding off in unexpected directions with no notice. CR’s engineers routinely test tires and vehicles in snowy, icy conditions, and they’ve learned that the safest car trips require patience and preparation. These tips from our track experts can help you make it to spring unscathed.

Clear the snow and ice off your vehicle’s hood, roof, and windows before you drive. Be sure to use a brush with soft bristles, so you don’t scratch the car’s paint. “Your visibility will improve dramatically, and other drivers won’t have to dodge clumps of snow or ice that can become airborne as you speed down the highway,” says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at CR. Plus, ignoring your car’s snow load could cost you. Several states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, can fine you if you don’t clear the snow off before driving. Don’t forget to check your headlamps and taillights; they could be covered in snow, ice, or road salt.

More on Winter Driving

Smooth out your driving style. On slippery roads, tires lose their grip more easily. “The key is to drive as smoothly as possible, avoiding sudden actions or rapid movements of any kind,” says Gene Petersen, program manager for tires at Consumer Reports. “Drive as if you have a full cup of coffee on the dashboard and don’t want to spill any.”

Steer into a slide. When your car’s rear begins to slide during a turn, gently let up on the accelerator and turn the steering wheel in the direction that the car is sliding. This will help straighten it out. If your car is sliding straight ahead when you’re trying to make a turn, your initial reaction might be to keep turning the wheel. That could hurt more than help. Instead, lift gently off either the accelerator or the brake and straighten the wheel—which gives your tires a chance to regain grip.

All-wheel drive isn’t all-wheel stop. “Despite what many drivers think, vehicles with four- or all-wheel drive can slide on slick surfaces,” says Shawn Sinclair, automotive engineer at CR. “Four-wheel-drive and AWD systems provide extra traction only when accelerating. They provide no advantage when braking.”

Don’t pass the snow plows. “Let the trucks do their job,” says John Ibbotson, chief mechanic at Consumer Reports. “The road is likely more treacherous in front of those trucks, and you run the risk of sliding as you accelerate to pass them. Don’t follow too closely—you might wind up with a cracked windshield from flying pebbles.”

Use winter-grade windshield cleaner. It is specially formulated to stay fluid, even in the coldest weather. Slick roads are often treated with a salty solution, salt crystals, and/or sand to provide traction. This “wintry mix” can really hurt your visibility when it’s splashed onto your windshield, especially when you’re driving into the sun. Keep an extra bottle of wiper fluid in the trunk in case you run out at an inconvenient moment.


Don’t Leave Home Without These

road flare

Emergencies on the road can be extra-dangerous and stressful in frigid weather. Here’s what to include in your wintertime car safety kit.

Cell phone. Also pack a car charger because areas with weak reception can kill your battery quickly.

First-aid kit. Many new cars have one; if your car doesn’t, make your own with bandages, gauze pads, medical tape, and antiseptic wipes.

Warning light, hazard triangle, or flares. Make sure that flares are kept dry and out of the reach of children and that they have not expired.

Water and foods with a long shelf life. Think granola and protein bars, which can last through the winter months.

Tire jack and lug wrench, tire sealant, or portable compressor. Whether you have a spare or not (many new cars don’t), know how to fix or change a flat before it happens.

Flashlight. Check it monthly to make sure it’s still working, and pack an extra set of batteries.

Tubes of sand. You can find these at hardware stores in the winter. Spread the sand around your tires for extra grip if you are stuck in the snow.

Jumper cables or a portable battery booster. Make sure to top off and check the charge on battery booster packs every so often.

Foil-lined safety blanket and extra layers of clothing. The blanket’s foil helps reflect body heat, keeping you warmer. Also pack winter boots and socks.

Make sure your kit is safely secured in your vehicle. Store it in the trunk, or pack it safely in the very back of an SUV.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the November 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.