How to drive in winter

heycar editorial team

Written by

heycar editorial team

driving in winter snow
  • Our complete guide to driving in winter
  • How to prepare your car for cold weather
  • Winter tyres - yes or no?

Cold weather isn’t just a challenge for drivers, it can be arduous for cars too. Starting engines from cold requires a lot of effort from a battery. And driving on slippery surfaces needs a great deal of care, attention and skill from drivers. Here are all the things you should know about winter driving.

Preparing your car for cold weather

Winter is a tough time for car batteries. Not only do they need to supply more current to start cold engines, they must also run things like heating, lights and wipers. Most batteries last for around five years. If you’re not sure how old your battery is, have it checked by a professional. Most garages will do this for free.

Anti-freeze is vital for your engine. Some cars are filled with anti-freeze that will last for years; others need the solution changed every couple of years. If you’re not sure, it’s best to be cautious: repairing a frozen engine can cost hundreds of pounds.

Good visibility is vital in winter weather so make sure you’ve got plenty of screen wash and renew your wiper blades at least every two years to ensure they clear water and dirt as efficiently as possible. You should also use dipped headlights when visibility is bad so clean your lights before long journeys.

Check your tyres. They should be inflated to the correct pressure for peak performance in poor conditions. Safety experts from tyre company Continental say drivers should change their tyres when the tread depth has got down to 3mm rather than waiting until they are down to the 1.6mm legal limit. This is because stopping performance drops off the more worn tyres become.

Starting your car in cold weather

To give your battery as much of a chance as possible, turn off everything you don’t need before trying to start the car. That’s wipers, lights, heater and sound system.

Try the starter motor in five second bursts. If the car doesn’t start, wait for 30 seconds after each go and try again.

Once you’ve got the engine going, you can turn the ventilation on. If you have air conditioning, use it. Make sure it’s set to demist and turn it on to recirculate the air. It’s the quickest way to get rid of condensation inside the car. Don’t leave a car unattended, unlocked and with the engine on when you’re doing this.

While it’s demisting, you can scrape the ice or snow off outside the car. Remember to clear all the windows; you can be fined if you can’t see out properly. The quickest way is by using a purpose-made ice scraper. Don’t use boiling water. The rapid temperature change can crack windscreens.

If you leave snow on your roof, it may slide down over your windscreen during heavy braking or even fly off when you accelerate, dangerously blinding drivers behind.

Don’t use the windscreen wipers to clear a frozen screen either. Turning them on if they’re frozen to the screen can tear the blades. Using them on ice can damage them too.

Winter driving tips

The most important thing to remember about driving in cold, damp conditions is everything takes longer to happen. Leave plenty of space to the car in front; stopping distances on a wet road can be double those in the dry. In snow they can be 10 times greater.

The slipperier the conditions, the more important it is to be gentle with a car’s controls. Pull away gingerly in second gear and try to avoid your wheels spinning.

Slowing down and changing direction can cause tyres to lose traction. Slow down before corners so you’re not braking and steering together. Remember that heavy braking and violent steering movements can cause a car to skid out of control.

If you’re driving up a hill in snowy or icy conditions, leave plenty of space to the vehicle in front so you don’t have to stop on the hill. Try to avoid changing gear: you don’t want to break the traction of your tyres on the slippery surface. Going down a hill, again, leave plenty of room so you don’t slide into the vehicle in front.

Plan your route before you go. It’s pointless trying to make a journey if you’re just going to join a road blocked with conked out and stranded cars. Use major roads. They’re far more likely to have been cleared than back streets.

Car checklist for winter

There are some items that you should carry in your car when the weather is at its worst.

Make sure you’ve got a:

  • Fully charged mobile phone
  • Reflective jacket
  • Torch (the one on your mobile will eat the phone battery)
  • Blanket, rug or sleeping bag
  • Snack (such as chocolate or energy bars) and water
  • Shovel (so you can dig out snow from around a car’s wheels)
  • Tow rope
  • Warm jacket, sensible shoes and gloves

What are winter tyres?

Tyres are made out of a mix of ingredients called a compound. In normal tyres the compound gets harder as the weather gets colder. Winter tyres have a compound designed to stay soft when temperatures drop below 7 degrees C. Combined with a special tread pattern, this helps tyres bite into slippery surfaces, finding grip even on ice and snow.

Do winter tyres work?

Companies invest millions to make efficient winter tyres. The best ones by well-known brands such as Continental, Michelin and Pirelli are very good indeed. They’ll enable you to drive on snow or ice where summer tyres would just spin helplessly.

In tests, a two-wheel drive car on winter tyres is often better at finding grip on snow than a four-wheel drive car on regular tyres.

See also: 

Cars that are good in snow

Best all-wheel drive cars

Cheapest 4x4s