Winter Is Coming; and with it comes a flood of writers like me repeatedly beating a cliched “Game of Thrones” reference into a bloody pulp. But I hear there should be, like, snow and ice and stuff too. If you live in an area that’s planning to have some winter this season, you might want to take some time to prepare your trusty steed for foul-weather travel. Or you could just winterize your car and leave the steed in the barn. That’s probably a much better idea.
The first step to winterizing the car is making the Snow Tire Decision. Do you need them? Are they worth the extra cost and hassle? Would all-season tires work instead? These are, of course, very individual and personal choices, depending as they do on your own economic situation, automotive situation, driving style and regional climate, and as such they are obviously best made by government bureaucrats.
Just kidding. For help in making the Snow Tire Decision, you can check out What You Need To Know About Winter Tires. In essence, if where you live gets sustained hard winter conditions, snow tires are usually your best choice. The downside, besides the initial cost of four more tires, is the cost of either swapping tires twice a year or buying a second set of wheels for winter use. The upside is in getting superior grip and performance in the most dangerous of driving conditions as well as splitting wear between two sets of tires. The best snow tires out there right now are Nokian’s Hakkappellitta R and Michelin’s X-Ice Xi3, or for more good options, see my Top 5 Studless Snow Tires.
Most so-called “all-season” tires are generally excellent in wet conditions and adequate in light snow and ice, but struggle with true winter conditions. Only one tire stands out from that crowd enough to define its own category and be called “all-weather”: Nokian’s extraordinary WRG2. Continental’s ExtremeContact DWS is also said to be a contender in the snow. For more information on all-season tires, see All-Seasons vs. Snow Tires. (And watch out for the sequel; All-Seasons vs. Snow Tires II: Cold Hard Rubber.)
If you are having snow tires put on for the winter, that’s also an excellent time to have the car checked out as well. A good checklist for winter includes:
- Have belts and hoses checked to ensure that belts are not worn and fittings are tight.
- Replace worn wiper blades and fill the reservoir with fluid. (A drop of dish soap in the washer fluid can significantly reduce wiper blade wear.)
- Ensure that the battery is charged and that contacts are clean.
- Check the tire pressure. Cold weather can reduce tire pressure by 1 psi for every 10 degrees drop in temperature.
- Cold weather also makes tire rubber less pliable, which can cause air leaks. Check your tire sidewalls for signs of damage or cracking.
- If you’re lucky enough to have a spare tire in the trunk, check it for damage and pressure as well.
- Change to the proper cold-weather oil for your car.
- Change to a 50/50 mix of antifreeze and water in the radiator.
An emergency kit is always a good thing to have in the car anyway. A standard kit will usually look something like:
- Jumper cables.
- Tire gauge.
- First-aid kit.
- Tool kit.
For winter driving, some additions can be made:
- A good blanket.
- Boots and gloves.
- Warm clothes.
- Water and food.
- Ice scraper/Snow brush. (If you’re like me and you lose them all the time, keep two.)
- Collapsible shovel.
- Windshield washer fluid.
- A bag of sand, salt or kitty litter for emergency traction.
If you’re expecting especially harsh winter conditions, or if you will be crossing mountain passes, a set of chains used to be a mandatory if completely annoying addition to a winter driving kit. Michelin now makes an excellent set of composite-material tire chains that are definitely not your father’s chains. These chains are a snap to install and store easily in a compact case.
These are all simple and easy ways to ensure that your winter driving is safe, comfortable and maybe even fun. Happy Winter!