How To Prepare Your Car For Winter Conditions

December 10th, 2019

One of the biggest challenges of winter driving is making sure that your car remains both safe and functional on the road. Residents of some states are lucky enough not to experience extreme winter weather, but much of the country has to deal with torrential rain, dramatically reduced temperatures, and snowfall. 

Winter weather extremes introduce extra safety and functional hazards for car owners to contend with, and it is vital to take steps now to get your car ready for winter. This article helps you prepare your vehicle to better handle whatever challenges the winter weather throws at you this year. 

winter driving maintenance

Image via Flickr by Massivekontent

Windshield Wipers

Change Windshield Wiper Fluid

The problem with using conventional windscreen wiper fluid or water during winter months is that it quickly freezes in very cold weather when it comes in contact with your windshield. The last thing you need while driving in hazardous conditions is a layer of ice building up on the windshield and distorting your view of the road. 

Thankfully, you can easily replace your existing windshield wiper fluid with any of the several dedicated winter fluids that do not freeze as easily. Winter windscreen wiper fluid typically contains high concentrations of methanol and ethylene glycol so that it freezes at significantly lower temperatures. 

Paying a mechanic to change your windscreen wiper fluid is unnecessary because it is quite a simple job. Here are the steps to replace your wiper fluid with a winter wiper fluid:

  1. Open the car's hood and locate the washer fluid reservoir, which is typically a white container. Consult your owner's manual if you need help with finding this reservoir. 
  2. Remove the cap and draw any remaining wiper fluid from the reservoir using a siphon which is a bent tube or pipe that uses air pressure to draw liquid. 
  3. Pour the winter washer fluid into the reservoir until it reaches the fill level.
  4. Replace the cap and close the hood.

Check Windshield Wipers For Damage

Windshield wiper blades typically remain functional for about one year before they lose functionality due to wear and tear damage. During winter months, the windshield wiper blades need to work extra hard to keep your windshield clear. Having damaged wiper blades is likely to lead to compromised visibility during winter weather. Inspect your wiper blades for damage at the start of winter and replace them if you notice any damage. (This article will help when it's time to replace your wipers.)

Wheels And Brakes

Service Your Brakes

Your car's braking system is probably the most important safety component that can help you avoid serious accidents during winter weather. If your brakes are worn down or not working properly, you are putting yourself and others in grave danger. Check your brake pads, brake discs, and brake fluids to get peace of mind that your brakes won't let you down. If you don't know how to service your brakes, you can always get a mechanic to do it for you. 

Consider Snow Tires

If you live in an area that experiences high levels of snowfall, it is probably best to invest in dedicated snow tires for your car. Snow tires are specially designed with larger tread gaps than normal tires, which compacts the snow inside the gaps and improves traction on the road. A reassuring safety aspect of snow tires is that they need to pass specific winter performance tests to be sold as snow tires. 

Regularly Monitor Tire Condition

Monitoring the condition of your tires means checking their pressure and the tread depth. Maintaining the minimum legal tread depth is vital at all times but in winter weather, the minimum tread depth is probably not enough to ensure road safety. Wet, snowy, and icy conditions all reduce grip, which can increase braking times and increase the chances of careening off the road.  Try to maintain a tread depth of at least 3 mm on your tires during winter months. 

Not having enough tire pressure reduces traction between your car and the road. Poor winter weather conditions often reduce traction further, which means that having adequate tire pressure can make the difference between staying in control of your car or losing it. Tire pressure drops as the temperature drops, so it's prudent to regularly check it during winter. Consider getting your own tire pressure sensor so you don't have to pay a visit to a mechanic every time you want to check it. 

Interior And Exterior


Prepare And Pack Emergency Winter Supplies

Having an emergency supply kit stored in your trunk is a potentially life-saving bit of winter driving preparation. Being ready for the worst is always a good idea and you need to ask yourself, would you be ok if your car broke down during a blizzard and you became stranded?

An emergency winter supply kit for your car can contain as many items as you deem necessary. Make sure you at least pack a couple of blankets and a few extra pairs of gloves in your kit to combat cold temperatures in case your car breaks down. Another useful item to pack is a fully charged throwaway phone that you keep only for making 911 emergency calls. A first aid kit is also a smart addition to your emergency supply kit because you can treat basic wounds and injuries with it. 

In terms of essential items to pack that can help you safely get back on the road after a breakdown during winter, definitely include a flashlight, an ice scraper, windshield de-icer, jumper cables, and some salt.  A high-visibility jacket is an often overlooked essential that makes you visible to other drivers during poor weather. You can also consider packing a couple of flares in case you become stranded for a long time. 

Buy All-Weather Floor Mats

Taking extra steps to protect your car's interior is a good idea during winter months. Snowy weather, extra salt or grit on the roads, and more rainfall mean that your car's interior is much more prone to get dirty when you or your passengers enter and leave the car. Buy some all-weather floor mats and liners if you want to limit potentially costly damage to the inside of your car during winter.  


Add A Fresh Coat Of Wax

Car wax protects the car's paint job from surface damage. During winter months, local authorities often lay down salt and sand on the roads to improve driving safety and reduce accidents. However, the extra salt and dirt can cause aesthetic damage to your car if it is not properly protected by wax. 

It is a smart move to add a fresh coat of car wax to your vehicle at the start of winter. To add a fresh coat of wax to your car, bear in mind some of the following tips:

  • It is best to apply wax to a clean, dry surface because the wax sticks better to such surfaces. 
  • You should apply wax to your car when it receives direct sunlight. Even if the temperature is getting colder, the sunlight warms up the car's surface, which makes it easier to apply wax.
  • Use a sponge to apply wax and don't rush it. Apply wax to a small area of your car's surface at a time and use circular motions. 
  • Let the wax dry, perhaps by placing the car in direct sunlight or near a heat source.  Use a soft cloth to buff the car's surface. 

Clean Your Car's Lights

A crucial part of staying safe while driving during winter is having fully functional headlights and tail lights. Modern headlight and taillight bulbs provide more than enough visibility to stay safe in all types of weather, however, the lens can easily get dirty due to extra salt, mud, snow, and grit on the roads. 

Most cars do not have their own headlight or taillight wipers, so it is important to regularly clean your headlight and taillight lenses using a soft rag or even some paper towels. To further prevent a loss of visibility, you can consider applying special cleaning products that prevent slush from sticking to the lights. 

Shelter Or Cover Your Car

if you have a garage or other type of shelter for your car, always use it. Keeping your car sheltered protects it from the coldest winter temperatures, which lowers the chances of the engine coolant freezing. If you have to leave your car exposed to the elements outdoors, it is wise to at least invest in a good windshield snow cover. Snow quickly covers an exposed windshield, and it can be difficult to clean. Furthermore, a cover protects the paint job on your car from snow damage. 

General Maintenance

Switch To Thinner Oil

When temperatures plummet during winter months, the oil that lubricates your car's engine thickens. In normal temperatures, having a certain level of viscosity in your oil is not such a problem. However, when the cool weather strikes, the oil becomes too thick and it has a harder time keeping the moving parts of your engine lubricated. Furthermore, higher levels of oil thickness mean that your car requires more energy to start, which is certainly less than ideal during those cold and wet winter months.

Look through your car owner's manual and check what oil viscosity your car manufacturer recommends. Choose winter oil in line with your car manufacturer's recommendations. You can get a mechanic to change your oil for you, but it is also possible to do it yourself. Assuming you have access to a car jack, here are the steps to perform a DIY oil change:

  1. Park your car on a flat surface, put it in the parking gear, and let the oil cool down for at least ten minutes.
  2. Locate the jacking point on your car, using the owner's manual for assistance.
  3. Insert the metal crank of the car jack into your car's jacking point and elevate your car by rotating the jack clockwise until the front of the car is approximately 18 inches from the ground. 
  4. Put a piece of wood or another type of wheel block behind both rear wheels. 
  5. Place a drain pan underneath your car engine's oil drain plug, remove the oil cap, then unscrew the oil plug with a crescent wrench. 
  6. Wait approximately five minutes for the oil to drain, then after replacing the oil plug, pour your winter oil into the fill hole. Replace the oil cap, and the fill cap, and then lower your car back to ground level. 

You can buy a car jack here if you would like to change your car's oil yourself. 

Get Your Battery Tested

You don't want your battery to fail to hold its charge in the middle of a blizzard. Being stranded in freezing conditions with a battery that doesn't have enough power is a winter driver's worst nightmare. You'll become reliant on someone stopping to help jump start your car, which could take hours. 

It is a good idea to have your battery inspected by a professional who can check whether the battery is in good condition and has enough fluid. Car batteries are particularly prone to the impact of cold weather. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's fuel economy website, battery performance decreases in cold weather, making it harder for your alternator to keep your battery charged.

Inspect Antifreeze Levels

Antifreeze is a special chemical that lowers the freezing point of any water-based liquid. The engine's coolant is a mixture of both antifreeze and water. During cold weather, having an incorrect ratio of coolant in which there is too much water increases the chances that your engine will freeze up. 

The correct ratio for engine coolant in winter is 60 percent antifreeze to 40 percent water. Adjusting the coolant ratio to the correct level is quite a precise and technically demanding job that is probably best left to a qualified mechanic. 

Preparing your car for winter weather means thinking about several important areas. You need to consider safety, how well prepared you are for emergency situations, and how to protect the car's exterior and interior from the elements. If you take the time to apply the detailed tips here, you will ensure your car copes with whatever this year's winter weather has in store for it.