Driving in snow and ice: top winter driving tips
Winter driving requires careful handling; our guide will help prevent you from coming unstuck on snow or ice
While you should most certainly bear weather conditions in mind no matter what time of year, safe driving in the winter requires special consideration. When there’s snow on the roads it’s obvious that driving conditions will be challenging, but extra precautions should still be taken, even during dry winter spells.
Snowy and icy conditions are some of the most dangerous in which to drive, as the risk of losing grip is much higher than normal. Fresh snow is actually quite grippy, but as soon as it gets compacted or starts turning to slush, it can get very slippery. Patches of ice can cause your car to slide if you’re not careful, and black ice is often hard to spot.
If you’re unsure about driving in snow or ice or if the conditions are too dangerous, stay safe by not taking your car. All the main weather apps show local weather warnings when they’re in place, and give advice about driving in inclement weather.
In case you get caught out by snow or have to make a journey on potentially icy roads, we’ve compiled some tips to remember that should help you get to your destination safely.
Keep your speed low
The best and easiest way to avoid a crash when driving in snow, ice and rain in winter is to slow down. When grip is reduced, all your manoeuvres and inputs should be slower. Travelling more slowly also gives you longer to react and you’ll need to leave a far bigger gap to the car ahead (at least twice as far) because braking distances are much longer.
If the snow is quite deep, it’s often better to drive on fresh snow than the compressed tracks left by other vehicles, as you should find more grip, with better control over braking and steering. Be mindful of how deep this is, however, as you don’t want to sink into a snowdrift or hidden gutter.
When grip is reduced by snow or ice, all of your inputs should be smooth and gradual. Any sudden inputs with the accelerator, brakes or steering can cause the tyres to lose grip on the road surface, and you could lose control of the car.
A larger gap to the car in front will give you longer to react to problems ahead and allow you to brake much more gradually. In snow it’s also advisable to change down through the gears to slow the car, rather than solely using the brakes. Treat the steering sensitively, too – sudden manoeuvres can cause you to go straight on instead of turning (understeer) or even spin, where the back of the car tries to overtake the front (oversteer).
What to do if you slide in the snow?
Firstly, never panic at the wheel. It’s usually possible to recover from a slide on snow or ice, as long as you do the right thing. If you try to turn a corner, but the front tyres are slipping, straighten the steering wheel and take your foot off the brake and accelerator. It might sound odd, but this is the best way to regain grip, at which point you can regain control.
If the tail of the car starts to slide, steer towards the direction of the skid and gently ease off the accelerator and brake. If you start to slide, never brake or accelerate sharply, as this will exacerbate the slide.
Improve grip by using higher gears
Driving in higher gears than usual can make it easier to make progress in snow and ice, because less pulling power reaches the wheels, making them less likely to spin. Try pulling away in second gear instead of first and then change up slowly and steadily. You’ll need to be cautious, though – cars can pick up a lot of speed in higher gears, even without pressing the accelerator pedal.
A few severe winters and improved tyre technology have made winter tyres more popular in the UK. There’s a good reason why: even a front-wheel-drive family car fitted with winter tyres is safer and more capable in snow and ice than an all-wheel-drive SUV fitted with normal tyres.
Winter tyres are specially designed to work when the temperatures is seven degrees Celsius or lower, so they’re not just for snow and ice. They improve stopping distances in wet and slippery conditions but don’t provide as much grip as normal tyres when temperatures are higher, so we don’t recommend keeping them on all year.
The biggest hurdle is the cost of another set of tyres, but if you spend a lot of time on the road, or live in a rural area, they could make the difference between making safe progress, getting stuck or even worse, having an accident. Of course, while your winter tyres are fitted, you’re not wearing out your regular tyres, so they should have to be replaced less often. It’s worth remembering that winter tyres will need storing in summer, and vice versa.
Make sure to read our guide to winter tyres if you’re thinking of getting some.
Driving in poor weather conditions
Snow and ice is pretty rare in the UK, at least compared to some other parts of Europe. Winter isn’t just about freezing temperatures; fog, heavy rain and wind can all cause problems and make driving more difficult, while roads may be slippery due to leaves and mud. Glare from a low sun can be dangerous too. Read our guides to driving through fog and flooding to make sure you know how to face these conditions.
Preparing your car for the winter
It’s never worth skimping on car maintenance but during the winter months its condition is all the more important in giving you the best chance of beating the elements. Our winter car checklist is a step-by-step guide about what to check on your car, whether you’re a beginner or an expert.
The key areas to check are tyres, screenwash, antifreeze, oil, wipers, lights and the battery - the guide gives all the information you need. If you’d like some extra piece of mind, many garages offer a ‘winter health check’ for about £15-20.
You’ll also want to remember your car will get far dirtier in winter. While a full clean might seem futile – as the car instantly gets dirty again – it’s a good idea to carry a cloth or paper towels to ensure your side windows, headlights and number plates aren’t covered in grime. If they are, it’ll impair your safety and driving with obscured number plates is an offence.
You may also want to give the door sills a wipe, as there’s nothing worse than getting in or out of the car only to find a smear of mud on your trouser leg or dress. With so much mud around, it can also be handy to buy a set of durable car mats just for winter use.
Carry an emergency kit
While carrying an emergency kit might seem over the top, if you ever need it you’ll be very glad you had the foresight. Once prepared, you can also keep the same kit for many years, only replacing perishables and batteries. We recommend including:
● A warning triangle to alert traffic if you break down or have to stop● Hi-vis vests or coats for all occupants, not just the driver● A first-aid kit● De-icer spray and an ice scraper● A small shovel● A tow rope● Wellington boots● A torch and fully charged batteries● Warm clothes● Food and drink● Screenwash and engine oil