Advice for Driving in Snow and Ice

Driving in snow and ice is never completely safe, but follow our advice for getting out when the weather hits and there’s no other choice.

  • Van on a snow covered road in Presqu'ile Provincial Park, Brighton, Ontario.
    Photo by Ron Erwin Photography
  • Tire chains are fairly inexpensive and work well in snowpacked areas.
    Photo by
  • When you can avoid it, try hunkering down when the roads are bad instead of getting out into the elements.
    Photo by Paul T. McMahon
  • Gritty packs plenty of sandbags in his pickup.
    Illustration by Brad Anderson

During and after a winter storm can be a dangerous time to be out on the roads. Places accustomed to large amounts of frozen precipitation generally have the infrastructure and manpower available to treat roads prior to winter weather, and clear them after the storm hits. But when you live “out in the sticks,” sometimes it takes a while for the county to make it to you. Even then, dirt and gravel roads can remain a mess of slush and ice, especially when the daytime temperatures reach just high enough to melt some of the ice, only to refreeze into a slick, solid mud slab by evening.

The first rule of thumb is, do not drive unless it is absolutely necessary. I can’t stress that enough. Often it’s just worth it – and very satisfying in a way, when the homestead is fully prepared – to hunker down and wait it out. When you drive on icy roads, not only are you worrying about managing your own vehicle, you don’t know how experienced and safe other drivers are. All of these elements can make for a dangerous situation. That said, many of us will persist and make that daily commute to work, take a drive down the road to care for livestock, or get caught needing something from town. Or better yet, maybe you have to get out and about should a neighbor need help. A little know-how can ensure you arrive at your destination and return home safely.

Plenty of tread

Tires are a great place to start. How old are they? How much tread is on them? And are they fully inflated?

Keep an eye on the tread wear bar of your tires. When they are worn even with the rest of the tread, it’s time for new tires. You can also use the old penny test to gauge the tread on your tires. Simply place a penny between the tire tread with Lincoln facing you, upside down. If the tread covers his head, you are good to go. If it barely covers his hair, you are likely due for a new set of tires. New tires are a hefty investment, more so for larger vehicles or if you opt for snow tires, but if you live on country roads that don’t get a lot of TLC, it’s a worthwhile investment.

Be sure your tires are inflated to the recommended PSI for your vehicle. It is a common misconception that underinflated tires gain more traction. In general, a tire can’t do its job properly when underinflated. The recommended PSI for your tires and vehicle should be on the inside of your driver-side door or in your driver’s manual – and on the tires themselves.

In the most snowpacked climates, tire chains are a good option and don’t have to cost a fortune. They fit right over your tires to provide extra gripping action on the ice. Tire chains can be found at the hardware or farm store. Keep them in your trunk or in the bed of your pickup, and when you arrive at deep drifts or mud in the road, be sure to put them on before attempting to drive through the trouble spot.

1/5/2018 11:40:33 AM

Since we have cats I always used cat litter bags when adding weight to the trunk of a vehicle for traction. Works just like the sand bags and if I don't need to spread it under the tires I can use it in the litter boxes after it warms. A clarification on tire pressure; the number on the sidewall of tires is the maximum safe inflation pressure for that tire and is generally higher than the vehicle manufacturer recommended pressure. The manufacture recommended pressure is the pressure that gives the best combination of safety, tire wear, gas mileage, and comfort for driver and passengers. While you should not run on tires below the manufacture recommendations you can run them a little over up to the max. pressure for the tire. I always run mine about half way between for better gas mileage.

1/2/2016 1:45:40 PM

Generally good advice, thanks. But the winter tires part could have been better, especially the studs section. See the Vermont Highway Safety Alliance safety tip at the link below. Or for folks who don't have the time or inclination to head over there for the complete story, I'll copy and paste the key sentence here: Metal studs do improve stopping performance on ice, but make little if any difference on snow, none on bare roads, and are actually worse when roads are wet.

1/2/2016 12:10:30 PM

For additional traction in snow or mud, deflate tires to 25 lbs. but kepp speeds below 45 and reinflate when conditions improve. Add to emergency supplies in your cars trunk, chocolate bars for calories to keep warm, and candles plus a lighter. Amazing how much heat is produced if you are stuck in a ditch or drift.

Live The Good Life with GRIT!

Grit JulAug 2016At GRIT, we have a tradition of respecting the land that sustains rural America. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing to GRIT through our automatic renewal savings plan. By paying now with a credit card, you save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of GRIT for only $16.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of GRIT for just $22.95!

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters