Contributing Author: Craig Fitzgerald
If you drive a vehicle anywhere it snows, people like your dad will now try to convince you that the only way to survive certain disaster is to drive a vehicle with four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Meanwhile, the vehicle they’re driving hasn’t had a new set of tires since the Lake Placid Olympics, and they’re much more interested in buying a triple espresso than investing any money in pre-winter maintenance. A capable vehicle is great, but you need to winterize a car to truly prepare it for the freezing cold.
The truth is, it really doesn’t matter much what you drive, or which wheels it sends power to, as long as you prepare yourself and your vehicle to survive the winter months. And this is true whether you live in Maine or Texas. As many in the Lone Star State learned in the winter of 2020, preparation is the key to survival in a winter storm.
In the checklist below, you will not only find maintenance items. We’ve included information on how to improve what you’re driving, how to put together some gear to help in a bad situation, and how education and experience can help get you through the winter months.
It’s ironic that we’re talking about engine coolant in a season where temperatures dip below freezing, but the coolant flowing through your radiator, hoses, engine block, and heater core is made from ethylene glycol (in most cases – we’ll get to that in a minute) and it has two jobs. The first is to simply run through the engine and the radiator, dissipating the heat caused by combustion as it moves. You can theoretically do that with straight water, but as we all know, water turns to a solid at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and when it does that inside your engine block you’ve got big problems.
While it’s eliminating heat, engine coolant also resists freezing. A 50/50 mix of water and ethylene glycol antifreeze lowers the freezing point to -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Unless you live north of the Arctic Circle, that level of antifreeze protection is generally enough to protect your engine from the ravages of frozen coolant.
So, if a 50/50 mix protects to -30 degrees, why not run straight coolant? Because you get better heat absorption when the weather turns warmer with a 50/50 mix.
Depending on what you drive, you might be running Dex-Cool instead of ethylene glycol. GM developed this stuff in the late 1980s, and it’s been in use in GM vehicles ever since. You don’t want to mix the two types of coolant.
Finally, most people don’t follow the recommendations regarding coolant flushes in their maintenance manual. You should. Coolant carries all kinds of crud built up inside the coolant passages, and it’s good to have it expunged on a schedule. Check with the service advisor at your retailer to find out when you should have the coolant flushed. You can do it yourself, but the mess required and the potentially harmful effects to animals and the environment isn’t worth it.
Belts and Hoses
While you’re thinking about a coolant flush, it’s also a perfect time to replace the drive belt and the hoses.
Since the 1980s or so, vehicles have used a single serpentine drive belt which steals power from the crankshaft to turn things like the alternator, the water pump, the A/C compressor, and the power steering pump. Modern vehicles can have electric power steering pumps and water pumps, but they still rely on a belt to spin the alternator. If that belt fails, you can instantly overheat the engine and cause a blown head gasket, so preventative maintenance is key.
If your service advisor doesn’t mention it, you also want to have the idler pulley replaced at the same time. The idler pulley is a spring-loaded wheel that keeps constant tension on the belt, and it will take the least opportune time to fail. Replace it when the belt is replaced, and you won’t have to worry about it.
The upper and lower radiator hoses carry coolant between the engine and the radiator, and should be replaced either every three years, or if they appear damaged or swollen around the hose clamps.
Heater hoses carry hot engine coolant to the heater core, which is what provides cabin heat in most vehicles. These hoses are smaller diameter than the engine hoses and should be replaced with the same frequency. All the clamps should be replaced when the hoses are replaced.
Replace your wipers twice a year, whether they need it or not. Think about them like setting your clocks for Daylight Savings Time or changing your smoke alarm batteries. They’re what allows you to see when the weather turns bad and the thin rubber they’re made of takes a beating from environmental contaminants, snow, ice, salt and UV rays all year long. After about six months, they’ll be useless.
There are winter-grade wiper blades, and they can work well, but if we can get you to just change to the stock blade twice a year, that’s progress. You’ll notice the difference immediately and wonder why you haven’t done it sooner.
At the base level, just make sure all your exterior lights are working properly. It’s also important to have your headlights adjusted to be sure you’re not blinding oncoming traffic.
But if you’re driving an older vehicle with sealed-beam headlamps and you’re having trouble seeing at night, consider switching to LEDs.
This is rather controversial advice because we’ve all crested a hill only to be vaporized by someone in an oncoming vehicle with an LED light bar illuminated. We’re not talking about those, and we’re not talking about the $27 LED replacements you see on Amazon. Those are garbage.
Last winter, our 2003 Jeep Wrangler was an absolute hazard at night. The lights all functioned properly, but even from the factory, the halogen bulbs provided insufficient light. We swapped them with a quality replacement from Quadratec, at about $300 for the set. The difference was dramatic, providing clear, white light at night, with a sharp cutoff that avoided blinding oncoming traffic.
If you’re considering a set and live where it snows, look for a set with supplementary heat, because LEDs don’t put out enough heat to melt the snow on the headlamp lens.
You’ve probably heard it from BestRide at least a dozen times, but the tires you choose will make all the difference in the winter. Summer performance tires lose their grip below 50 degrees. A damp morning in the 40s feels like driving on a hockey rink. If you’re planning on using those tires all winter, make sure your insurance and roadside assistance is paid up.
All-season tires should be renamed “Three-season” tires because they’re pitiful in the snow and ice. Even all-wheel-drive vehicles will climb hills sideways with all-seasons mounted.
Dedicated winter tires have rubber compounds that provide grip at temperatures below 40 degrees, plus they have aggressive tread patterns that bite through snow and ice to the pavement below. A set of winter tires on spare wheels is mandatory if you live in places where it snows.
Splitting the difference, newer “all-weather” tires blend the softer rubber compound of a winter tire with less aggressive tread patterns than a pure winter tire. If we can’t convince you to buy a set of winter rubber, all-weather tires are a good compromise.
Despite doing all the maintenance and selecting proper tires, things can still go haywire. In such a case, it’s good to have an emergency kit in the cargo area with jumper cables, a flashlight, a hat and gloves, a folding shovel, and a tow strap.
At least ten states – mostly in the Northeast – have laws on the books about clearing snow from your vehicle. In 2020, a driver in New Hampshire – typically known as a bit of a Libertarian paradise – was charged with vehicular assault after a sheet of ice blew off the roof of the box truck he was driving and injured another driver.
Buy yourself an ice scraper with a long-handled snow brush and take 10 minutes to clean the snow off. You’ll be able to see, and you’ll be less likely to kill another driver.
Education and Experience
There’s nothing that beats time behind the wheel, whether it’s snowing or a brilliant sunny day. People tend to get petrified to drive in the bad weather, but the more time you spend doing it, the less frightening it becomes.
Even for those of us that have been driving for decades, though, winter can be an all-new experience. The first time it snows, it always takes a little time to remember how the car reacts. And we’ve all had to relearn how to drive with new technologies like anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control. If you’ve recently purchased a new car, allow yourself some time to get a feel for how it works in the bad weather. That experience will pay dividends if you find yourself caught in a snowstorm this winter.
Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at AutoSite.com, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.