Drivers stuck on snowy highways for hours. Cars skidding on black ice. Poor visibility.
If you were to read many lists of winter driving challenges, you would park the car and not venture out, terrified to be in a horrible accident or trapped in some Siberian-style wasteland.
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Yes, winter — at least in areas with snow and ice — is a challenge on the road. And you need to pay attention to the weather reports to be sure no howler is coming.
But in more-or-less normal winter weather, driving is more about care and attention than fear and loathing. In case the worst does happen, do load the car with special gear.
As author Lee Child and his action hero Jack Reacher say, “Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.”
In that spirit, here are some basics to keep you safe when the roads aren’t.
Get ready for the cold
Good-to-know winter hacks
1. Battery testing is often free. The largest of the auto parts stores nationwide — including AutoZone, Advance Auto Parts and O’Reilly Automotive — will test your battery and charging system for free and give you a printout of its status.
Ask your favorite parts retailer. The store may offer it to stay competitive and get your business if you do need a new battery.
2. Socks warm more than your feet. Keep an extra pair of big socks in the car in winter.
If you become stranded, you can use them to cover your windshield wipers overnight so they’re not iced into uselessness. Heck, go for two pair: You never know when the socks you’re wearing might get wet as you try to get out of a jam.
3. Floor mats provide traction, too. They can be shoved in front of a stuck tire to give a little grip that could get you going.
Those long side-to-side rear mats laid out lengthwise under a no-go tire are especially helpful.
Don’t have somebody place it while the tire is spinning. Halt. Then tuck the mats in place.
Using them that way could damage the mats — less likely if you turn them upside down — but if you get on your way simply and quickly without waiting and paying for a tow truck, do you care?
Make sure the tires have enough tread to grip in snow.
In this case, use a quarter, not a penny, to measure depth. If the top of George Washington’s head is barely visible, you’re OK for the moment, but start shopping.
The distance between the edge of a quarter and the top of Washington’s head is 4/32 inch. On a penny, the distance between the top of Abraham Lincoln’s head and the edge is 2/32 inch, the sign of totally worn-out tread.
Top off your vehicle’s fluids. Windshield washer fluid and engine antifreeze are two you can check yourself.
Brake fluid, power steering fluid and transmission fluid might better be left to a pro.
See that the wipers have good or new rubber blades.
Try the heater. If it’s weak in good weather, it won’t stand the strain when the going is tough.
Check the battery to make sure it’s strong enough and holds a charge.
Batteries weaken over time and in cold. After three winters, yours might need replacing.
Use the correct engine oil for winter. This is probably not a worry.
Most vehicles now have year-round oil that’s typically rated 5W-30 or 0W-20. The “W” is for winter and the low number means it is light oil that flows easily in cold temperatures, making it easier for your engine to crank over and start and to be fully lubricated the instant you turn the key.
The owner’s manual will tell you the correct specification. If you had your oil changed recently, check paperwork from the shop to be sure the right oil was put in.
If it’s been awhile, maybe now’s a good time to get an oil change and ensure you’re using the right oil.
Get set to travel
Before you set out, load up the car with items not always needed in fairer weather.
Assemble winter gear, including battery jumper cables, cat litter or sand to put under slipping wheels if you’re stuck, drinking water and snacks, a flashlight and batteries, a phone charger, a small shovel and a snow brush plus ice scraper. A small candle can throw off a good amount of heat inside a stranded car.
Consider taking a container and tissues for bathroom use in case you get stuck inside the car.
Pack a couple of blankets or those zip-open sleeping bags. A cozy for the pet you’re taking along is smart.
Keep plenty of fuel in the gas tank in case you must run the engine to stay warm during delays. You need not run it continuously, only enough to put some warmth back into the passenger compartment.
Take snow boots, too, to avoid getting wet if you have to step outside the car. Getting wet can drop your body temperature dangerously.
We’re assuming you have winter coats, hats and gloves along for the ride.