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.

| January/February 2016

  • 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.

If you’re willing to spend a little more, a set of studded snow tires will help you get through just about anything on the road. You can purchase studded snow tires with either rubber or metal studs. Be sure to check your state’s laws, though, as some have outlawed metal studs entirely due to the fact that they can dig into pavement. For the most part, they are permitted for winter months at least.

No time for cruising

Never use your cruise control in icy conditions – or any wet or slick conditions for that matter. Cruise control keeps your tires rotating, and if you hit a slick spot, they’ll keep spinning on the ice and you’ll lose control of the vehicle. Don’t count on your reaction time to be quick enough to tap the brakes or turn it off – and tapping the brakes might make the situation even more hairy. When you are in control of acceleration and feel you’ve hit a slick spot, your foot instinctively comes of the gas pedal and the tires stop accelerating to catch the surface again – without use of the brakes.

A common reaction to any commotion on the roadway is to slam on the brakes. Resist that reaction if you can. Newer vehicles have antilock brake systems that automatically brake and release to keep traction under the tires (be sure to keep this feature in good working condition). But for older vehicles that don’t have antilock brakes, try to keep in mind to pump the brakes. It’s easy to panic and forget this, but keeping a calm head on your shoulders helps in any unexpected scenario.

Also avoid accelerating quickly. It’s another common gut reaction to gun it up hills, but this is the opposite of what you want to do. Going slow gives your tires a chance to grip the surface of the road. When you hit the accelerator hard (“put the hammer down”), it’s just going to spin out in the slush and mud.

Four is not always greater than two

Four-wheel drive is incredibly handy when driving in less-than-ideal conditions, but you still need to exercise caution. Ever been driving in icy conditions and see those four-wheel drive vehicles whizzing by? Ever wondered what gave those drivers the idea that four-wheel drive would help them stop?

When you put your vehicle into four-wheel drive – if your vehicle has this capability – it engages all tires which gives you more traction to get through snow and slush. And whether you have four-, two-, or all-wheel drive, weight and more specifically weight distribution can make a significant difference when it comes to maintaining traction and control.

If your vehicle is front-wheel drive, this means the weight of the engine is over the front tires, and that’s a good thing. If you have rear-wheel drive, you’ll want to place additional weight in the trunk or truck bed. Your best option would be to buy four 60-pound tubes of sand you can find at a local hardware store. Place them evenly over the wheel wells if you can to apply added down pressure to both tires. And if you do get stuck, you can break one or two of the sandbags open and spread sand under your tires to gain traction – but still try and save some for the added weight over the axle.

If you try to drive through too deep of snow, your vehicle can become high-centered. This means that your vehicle is basically sitting on top of a big pile of snow, and the tires have no contact with the road surface any more. This is especially true of lighter vehicles, regardless of drivetrain. In this instance, a shovel can help but in general, you will need a team of linebackers or another vehicle to pull you out. This is where your neighbor with a big truck or tractor can save the day and the cost of a tow truck. Hopefully, you’re the fortunate one that gets the call and gets to help someone else out.

Whoa Nellie!

As always, wear your seat belt, pay attention to the road, and last, but certainly not least, slow down. If you know you’re going to have to drive in winter weather, leave well ahead of schedule to allow yourself extra time to get where you’re going. Leave plenty of room between you and the vehicle in front of you – at least eight to 10 seconds. When the first snow hits, there are often too many vehicles spun out on the highway or stuck in the ditch when all they needed to do was slow down. It’s easy to get caught up in the hurry and worry of getting to our appointments on time or get flustered with the driver behind us riding our bumper. But it’s important to remember that your safety and the safety of others is the most important thing. That’s why we love life in the country – what the heck is the hurry?

In Case of Emergency

It’s always smart to keep an emergency kit packed in your vehicle at all times, and always carry your fully charged mobile phone when going out into inclement weather. Let someone know where you are going and when to expect you. Keep plenty of fuel in your vehicle so that if you do become stuck in a serious situation, you can keep it running to provide warmth – be extremely cautious when running a stuck vehicle and keep a close eye out for signs of carbon monoxide build up. Be sure the area around the exhaust pipe is cleared of snow or debris to allow fumes to safely escape. If you or another passenger feel a headache coming on and begin to feel nauseous, dizzy or short of breath, cut the engine and get some fresh air quickly. Some items to include in your emergency kit are:

• Heavy blankets or sleeping bags
• Space blankets (can find these at camping stores)
• Hats, gloves, heavy socks
• High energy foods that store well (candy bars, granola, nuts)
• Bottled water
• Flashlight
• Road flares
• Brightly colored fabric to tie to the antenna

Kellsey Trimble enjoys getting caught in a snowstorm at her family’s home in rural northeast Kansas. Instead of heading into town, everyone grabs a sled.

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.

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