What to Do if Your Car Gets Stuck in the Snow

Stephen Fogel
December 3, 2018

car stuck in the snow

Driving in the snow can be tricky — especially when there’s a lot of it on the ground. No matter how many tips for driving in snow you read, there’s always a chance you could get stuck in it. 

It’s not a fun thought, and what’s worse is that it can be tough to get back out. The lack of traction makes it hard for your car to get a grip on the road, either because it’s too slippery or because the vehicle gets high-centered. 

Let’s look at how to be prepared for this bad scenario, and go over the best ways to get your car free from snow and ice. 

How to avoid getting stuck

Getting stuck in the snow is often the end result of deciding to drive in unsafe conditions. To stay safe, don’t drive when the weather and road conditions are really bad, and stay off the roads until they’re clear. If it’s a matter of life or death, call the police or paramedics for assistance.

If you can’t avoid the snow, all-wheel drive can help you get more traction, but it’s no guarantee. You can still get stuck — maybe even in a more inaccessible place.

A better preventative measure is winter tires, or snow tires. Every vehicle can benefit from winter tires, even ones with all-wheel drive. Winter tires should always be purchased in sets of four.

» LEARN MORE: How to buy the right tires for your car

Winter tires shouldn’t be confused with “all-season” tires, which aren’t designed for serious winter conditions. If you live where the temperature rarely goes below freezing, and it doesn’t stay there very long, all-season tires should be fine. But if you have to regularly drive on snowy roads and highways, you need the safety and security that only winter tires can provide. 

Buying a set of winter tires and switching them out each fall and spring, may seem like a hassle and an extra expense. But keep in mind that both sets of tires will last much longer when you do this. 

To cut the cost, have your winter tires mounted on a set of inexpensive wheels. This will protect your regular wheels from exposure to the harsh winter environment, and save you the cost of having to mount and rebalance the tires twice a year. When the weather changes, you simply unbolt one set of tires, and bolt the other one on.

Be prepared for the worst

There are some things you can do to be prepared in case you get stuck in the snow:

  • Keep your gas tank at least half full at all times; this way, you have plenty of fuel to keep the heat on if you get stuck
  • Carry snow chains, and know how to put them on
  • Carry a snow shovel, in case you need to dig out
  • Carry a large bag of sand, salt, dirt or kitty litter in your vehicle, to use for better traction
  • Pack a winter safety kit, in case you have to wait for help
Get your car fixed by a professional

What to do if you get stuck

If you do get stuck, don’t panic. You have options. If you have phone reception, or can get to a place with a landline, your first step should be to call someone:

Roadside assistance: If your car is under warranty, you’ll typically have roadside assistance included. Your insurance might also provide this, or if you’re part of an auto club like AAA, they can send someone to help. Call the designated phone number, or use your in-car system, to summon help. 

Phone a friend: If you know someone with a four-wheel-drive truck, they may be able to get you free with a push or a pull. If their vehicle has a winch, that’s even better. Make sure they use equipment that’s safe for this process.

Call a tow truck: It may cost a few bucks, but getting a tow will get you out of a tough spot, without damaging you or your vehicle. 

Ask bystanders for a push: If there are people around, ask them to give your vehicle a push. That push may create enough momentum to get you unstuck. Just be very careful as you do this — roll your windows down and communicate as you try to get free. 

If you have to get yourself out

If you’re in a more isolated area, you might not be able to call for help. Again, don’t panic. You'll just have to get a little more proactive.

If there’s clearance between the car and the snow

  • Using your snow shovel, clear a path in front of and behind your tires. Make it as straight as possible, going in the direction of the road.
  • Remove as much snow as you can. Break up any patches of ice.
  • Spread some sand, salt, dirt or kitty litter along the path.
  • Make sure the area around tailpipe is clear.
  • If you have chains, put them on.
  • If your car has traction control, turn it off. Check your owner’s manual if you’re not certain how to do this. 
  • If your transmission has a “snow mode,” use that. Otherwise, start in second gear.
  • Engage all-wheel drive, if you have it.
  • Straighten your front wheels.
  • Move forward slowly and gently, without spinning the wheels. Then back up gently the same way. Repeat this process, always avoiding spinning the wheels.

You may be able to get out after doing this. But if it doesn’t give you enough momentum to break free, it’s time to try the “rocking” technique. This replaces the last step listed above:

  • Move forward as quickly as possible, without spinning the wheels excessively.
  • As you lose forward momentum and begin to roll back, shift into reverse and use the momentum to move farther back than your starting point.
  • As the reverse momentum fades and you start to roll forward, shift back into second gear and use the momentum to move farther forward.
  • Repeat the process until you’re free.
  • Don’t stop moving until you reach a clear area where you won’t get stuck again.
  • Don’t overdo the rocking process, especially with an automatic transmission. It could overheat. If you’re still stuck after five minutes, take a break.

If there’s no clearance 

If you’re stuck in deep snow, all the way up to the bottom of your car, you have a little more work to do:

  • Use your snow shovel to remove the snow from under your vehicle.
  • Clear a straight, full-width path back to the road from your car’s location, if necessary.
  • Follow the steps listed above.
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.