How to Prepare Your Car for Winter Snow and Rain

Stephen Fogel
November 26, 2018

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Winter is a tough time of year for your car or truck. Freezing temperatures tax your vehicle’s electrical system and thicken the lubricants inside your engine, transmission and other components.

Then there's the stuff falling from the sky — snow, ice and sleet. As your tires struggle for traction, you have the additional challenge of keeping your windshield clear so you can see the road. Potholes can damage your suspension, and road salt can rot your body panels.

Getting your car ready for winter is important. Suffering a breakdown in the freezing weather isn’t just inconvenient; it can be dangerous. Here’s how to be ready for the ravages of winter.

Check your coolant

Coolant keeps your engine running smoothly, even in extreme weather. Have the right mix of water and antifreeze keeps the fluid from freezing at subzero temperatures, while still protecting your engine.

Check your coolant level regularly and keep it topped up. Also remember that coolant does not last forever. Check your owner’s manual for information on how often to change it or have it flushed.

Check your battery

Cold winter weather slows down the chemical reactions inside your battery, resulting in a much lower electrical energy output. The cold, thick oil inside the engine also makes it harder for the battery to start your car. This is why a battery that has worked fine during the spring, summer and fall, can fail during the winter as the mercury drops.

If your battery is a few years old, it may be time for a new one. Ask a mechanic to check your battery to see if it’s strong enough to make it through the winter. It’s also a good idea to have the alternator and the rest of the charging system checked at this time.

» LEARN MORE: Find a mechanic near you

Check your tires

Your tires are the only point of contact your vehicle has with the road, so their health is crucial. This is especially true when the roads are covered in snow or ice. Here are three things to consider:

1. Tire pressure: This is a good time to make sure your tires are inflated to the correct pressures. Underinflating will cause a loss of traction and poor handling, which is a danger in slippery winter conditions. The correct pressures can be found on the sticker on your driver’s door jamb, or on the tires themselves. Cold weather reduces air pressure, so check them outside when they’re still cold, and not in a warm garage or at the end of a trip.

2. Tire tread depth: The tires’ tread dictates how well they can handle snow and ice. Worn tires with low tread depth won’t grip the surface securely. Using the back of a penny, and insert the top of the Lincoln Memorial into the tread grooves in several locations. Do this for each tire. If the top of the Lincoln Memorial is covered by the tread, you have more than 6/32 of an inch of tread depth remaining, which is adequate.

3. Winter tires: If you really to maximize safety in the snow, winter tires are the way to go. They give you a tread design that will dig in and grip the snow for improved traction and braking. You can even get special tires that actually grip icy roads, keeping you safer when the road freezes. Winter tires should always be purchased in sets of four. Mount them on a set of inexpensive wheels to make it easier to swap them out come spring.


Check your wipers and your washer fluid

Snow, sleet and freezing rain will make it hard to see out of the windshield. Your wipers and wiper fluid will need to work in tandem so you can see clearly.

Your windshield wipers wear out from both use and daily exposure to sunlight. Minor wiper streaks that you notice during warm weather use can become uncleared areas of snow and sleet that block your view in the winter.

The best option is to get a set of winter wiper blades. These heavy-duty blades are usually made as a single, rubber-covered assembly, without any external metal framework that can clog with ice and freeze solid.

In addition, you’ll need winter washer fluid for below-freezing temperatures. If you’re not sure what’s in your car, have a mechanic swap it out for the winter-ready stuff, or buy a jug and do it yourself.

Never use the wipers to try and clear ice or heavy snow from the windshield. This will wear out the wiper blades and stress the wiper motor. Clear the windshield first, then use the wipers and fluid to keep it clear.

Keep your gas tank full

Condensation inside your fuel tank is a fact of life. As the outside temperature goes from high to low over the course of each day, water vapor from the air inside the tank forms as drops of water on the tank’s walls.

This isn’t a big deal during warm weather, but it can cause starting problems during the winter. Because water is heavier than gasoline, it falls to the bottom of the tank, where the fuel lines attach. If the water freezes in the fuel lines, gasoline can’t get to the engine.

The lower your fuel level, the more empty space there is in the tank, meaning more space for condensation. Keeping your fuel level half full or higher will reduce the risk of a fuel line freeze. It’ll also give you room for error in case you get stuck in a winter storm and have to keep the heater running.

Check your oil

Cold winter temperatures make oil much thicker. This make starting your engine harder, and produces more friction inside the engine until it warms up.

Depending on your vehicle, the manufacturer may recommend that you use a different type of oil during the winter. Check your owner’s manual or ask a mechanic.

Oil also gets thicker from use. If you are close to needing an oil change, have it changed before the winter weather starts — your vehicle will start easier and run better.

Check your hoses and belts

The cold can accelerate the wear of your car’s rubber hoses and belts. Check these items for brittleness, cracks and wear. Replace any hoses and belts that show signs of being close to the failure point. If you’re not sure what to look for, you can have a mechanic take care of it.

» LEARN MORE: Get an estimate for your car repair

Check these other key items

To complete the winterizing process, make sure that these other components are working properly:

  • Heater and windshield defroster
  • Rear window defroster (if you have one)
  • All exterior lights
  • Exhaust system
  • Brakes

Protect your car’s body and interior

Before you send your vehicle into harsh winter weather, it is a good idea to clean it thoroughly on the outside. Add a coat of wax to protect the finish. Wash your car in between storms to clean off any residual salt, gravel, dirt and debris. Be sure that the underside and wheel wells get sprayed clean as well.

Inside your car, a set of all-weather floor mats will protect your carpets from getting wet and salt-stained. Make sure that any mats you add don’t interfere with the movement of the gas, brake or clutch pedals.

Have a winter emergency kit

If something bad happens and you get stuck on the side of the road, having a winter emergency kit can make a huge difference. This includes items you should have in your car the rest of the year, but also things specifically for winter. It should include:

Things to help you survive:

  • Heavy blankets
  • Winter clothing for all passengers, including gloves, boots and hats
  • Bottled water, energy bars and other snack items
  • Garbage bags and antiseptic towelettes

Things to keep you safe:

  • First-aid kit
  • Road flares and a safety triangle
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • Ice scraper and snow brush
  • Snow shovel
  • Traction aids (sand, kitty litter, etc.)
  • Tire chains
  • Cell phone charger or backup battery

Things to keep your vehicle running:

  • Multipurpose tool or basic tool kit
  • Tire inflator
  • Tire pressure gauge
  • Jumper cables
  • Electrical tape
  • Extra coolant and washer fluid
Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.