Unless you enjoy living dangerously, getting behind the wheel in a winter storm probably isn’t your idea of fun.
“Road surfaces can change quickly between dry, snow-packed and icy — all of which require a different approach to steering and stopping,” says Leslie Kasperowicz, a Minneapolis driver who edits CarInsurance.org, a car insurance website.
The trick, pros like Kasperowicz say, is to stay ahead of the weather, pack the right gear, and make sure you understand the fundamentals of bad-weather driving.
If you’re driving in winter conditions, what should you pack in the car? For a list, I turned to Jess Larsen, who grew up snowboarding in northern Alberta and is a vice president for an ad agency in Provo, Utah. He’s driven in whiteout conditions many times, and he still gets a chance to practice his winter-driving skills on the way to Utah’s ski resorts.
Here’s what Larsen carries:
Extra shoes or boots to wear while pushing yourself or others out of a snowbank. If you’re wearing nice work shoes, Larsen says, “you’ll freeze within 10 steps in the snow.”
A little fold-up shovel so you can dig yourself or others out of the snow. Make sure it is metal in case you have to chip away ice under a tire. “In the cold weather, everyone snaps the inexpensive plastic one they got a deal on and then starts feeling overwhelmed about what they’re going to do now,” Larsen says.
A small blanket, a water bottle and some snacks. Take extra snacks if you have kids, because they’ll get anxious in the cold — and hungry.
If you’re planning to do a lot of winter driving, stow a box of cat litter in the car. It’s a cheap way to give your tires a little traction on snow or ice.
One more item you shouldn’t leave home without: a roadside-assistance program.
"Shell out the cash to AAA or something like that," Larsen says. "Then make sure everybody in your family programs the number into their phone."
All of which brings us to the best strategies for winter driving. Assuming you’ve downloaded the right apps and packed the car with everything you need, what now?
Practice your winter driving. Larsen recommends finding an empty parking lot after a snowstorm. "Try getting yourself into a spin and seeing how fast you can recover," he says. Also, practice turning at various speeds and stopping. Get a feel for how your car responds in snow.
"As far as driving itself, nothing can compete with meaningful repetitions," Larsen adds.
And, finally, slow down, experts say. Kamrowski, who grew up in Fargo, N.D., says that all too often motorists will pass you on an icy highway and then "you drive a few miles down the road and see them in the ditch."
If you must drive, you will want to have a smartphone app to help with traffic conditions and finding the best route.
Offline Survival Manual (Android only): This worst-case-scenario app includes helpful information on how to make a fire, build a shelter, and find food, as well as other information you might need in an emergency. True to its name, once you download it, you don’t need a cellular connection to access the information.
Waze (Android/iOS): Waze is a navigation app that provides turn-by-turn directions and user-contributed information on traffic, travel times, and route conditions. Joe Gast, CEO at Truck Driver Institute, a driving school, recommends it to his drivers. “Waze allows you to leverage traffic insights from other drivers so you can stay on safe and clear roads,” he says.
Weather Underground (Android/iOS): This app offers drivers hyperlocal weather data. During the winter, it highlights weather-related traffic hazards. “Weather Underground issues ice alerts and warnings for other problematic conditions that can affect your driving during the cold winter months,” says Jared Kamrowski, who founded Thrifty Traveler, a travel website.
There are also state transportation agency apps — such as Pennsylvania’s 511PA Mobile App — that can help. Pennsylvania’s app reports road conditions and enables drivers to monitor the state’s plow trucks. If you’re driving in a blizzard, that can mean the difference between getting there and spending a night stuck in a snowbank.
But the best advice for driving in severe winter weather is: If you can avoid taking the car out while it’s snowing, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist, and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Contact him at elliott.org.