Tips for safe driving in winter weather

As a lifelong Chicagoan, I’ve learned what to expect when it comes to winter weather. Snow, ice, cold, slush, and sleet are typical occurrences – not necessarily in that order, but possibly all in the same day. I like to think that since I am a tough Chicagoan, I can handle anything that’s thrown my way, including dangerous winter weather. About ten years ago, though, I learned a hard lesson. Back then, as long as I was wearing a warm coat, a hat, and gloves, I was good to go. That was until my mom and I were attempting to drive home from work in a heavy snowfall one day. Normally, our commute was about 45 minutes. But on this particular day, it took us 45 minutes just to get up the interstate on-ramp. And then all of a sudden, we weren’t moving anymore. No one was. We were stuck with no idea how long we might be there and with no provisions. We were moving again after some time but the situation could have been disastrous. I vowed then to never venture out in winter weather without being properly prepared. And now with two young children of my own, I really need to make sure we have what we need to survive potential winter driving mishaps. I’m still a tough Chicagoan, but now my kids and their safety are my top priorities.

Tips for safe driving in winter weather

Cars stranded on Lake Shore Drive, Chicago | Credit

That being said, cold and snow do not keep my family from traveling during the winter months. We all enjoy winter activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing and we’ll drive a few hours from Chicago to find snow and trails. Even for these short road trips, though, we need to be prepared. Conditions can change quickly and we could find ourselves stranded for hours. So, how do we prepare before taking off on a winter road trip?

First, The Working Dad gives our vehicle a complete inspection (he’s a total car dude so he knows what he’s doing). The most important things to check are:

  • Fluid levels (antifreeze and windshield wiper fluid)
  • Battery strength
  • Tires (pressure and tread life)
  • Heating system
  • At least a half-tank of gas

Once the car is given a clean bill of health, we make sure we have the following:

  • Spare tire and jack
  • Shovel
  • Tire chains
  • Multi-tool or tool kit
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Jumper cables
  • Windshield scraper and brush

In addition to the basic items listed above, it’s a good idea to pack the following emergency supplies:

  • Compass
  • Wooden matches
  • Warning flares and/or distress flag
  • High-calorie, non-perishable foods
  • Water
  • Cell phone charger
  • Blankets and warm clothing
  • Road salt for tire traction
  • Tarp for sitting/kneeling in snow (to change a tire or perform other exterior work on the vehicle)

Next, even before pulling the car out of the garage, we check the most current weather forecast and road conditions along our route. If the outlook is dicey, we’re not afraid to put our plans on hold. If things still look good, we’ll be on our way. But in the event the weather makes a turn for the worse while we’re on the road, we’re sure to follow these winter driving recommendations:

  • Drive slowly
  • Avoid sudden braking/allow more time for braking when visibility is poor
  • Don’t use cruise control on icy roads
  • Should the car start to skid, release the brakes and turn the wheels in the direction that the rear of the car is sliding (and attempt to stay calm at the same time!)

Thankfully, we haven’t been stranded due to winter weather. In the unfortunate event it should happen to you, remember to:

  • STAY CALM (easier said than done, I know)
  • Pull off the highway, if possible, and turn on hazard lights or light flares, and hang distress flag from antenna or window
  • Call 911 from a mobile phone and give your exact location as accurately as possible. I cannot stress how important this point is. Even with current technology, chances are emergency responders cannot determine your exact location based solely on your cell phone signal.
  • Remain in the vehicle so help can find you
  • Run the vehicle’s engine and heater for about 10 minutes per hour to keep warm
  • Open a window slightly for ventilation and clear snow from the exhaust pipe to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Move around as much as possible to maintain body heat but avoid sweating
  • Drink water or other fluids to avoid dehydration
  • Use lights, heat, and radio sparingly to conserve the car battery

These tips are brought to you on behalf of State Farm to keep you and your family safe on the road during the winter season. To be “a good neighbor”, I have included official advice from State Farm, along with accounts of my personal winter travel experiences. State Farm is also compensating me for this post.


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31 Responses to Tips for safe driving in winter weather

  1. Susan January 13, 2015 at 8:04 am #

    These are so helpful! Thank you so much. There is almost no snow in London so I am always ill-prepared when I drive anyplace with the white stuff!
    Susan recently posted…Guest Bit: A Bit of….Turnipseed TravelMy Profile

  2. Working Dad January 13, 2015 at 12:21 pm #

    A friend asked me not long ago if I had checked my spare tire. I said sure I always take a peek to check it and the jack. He told me to check the amount of air in it. I said yes I hit it with my hand and it’s not flat. He then told me to check it with a tire gauge. It only had 15lbs of air, far below what it should have been.
    The moral of the story is, add air to your spare with every oil change. When you are traveling or coming home from work you will be glad you did!!

  3. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer January 13, 2015 at 8:13 pm #

    Wow! That is some serious snow on Lake Drive!
    Chanel | Cultural Xplorer recently posted…A Basic Guide To Exploring Santorini, GreeceMy Profile

    • Francesca January 22, 2015 at 9:53 am #

      It was epic, Chanel – and I never use that word. Lake Shore Drive was completely shut down thanks to Snowmageddon. Or the Blizzastrophe. Or whatever name was being thrown around then.

  4. Jolanta aka Casual Traveler January 14, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

    One of my friends says her father taught her that if she looses control of the car completely, to repeatedly honk the horn to alert the cars around her, and especially in front of her.
    Jolanta aka Casual Traveler recently posted…Period Clothing at the Victoria & Albert Museum in LondonMy Profile

    • Francesca January 22, 2015 at 9:51 am #

      Eeek, that’s kind of scary. I don’t know if I could remember to do that if my car was out of control!

  5. the lazy travelers January 16, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    such good advice to recommend having road salt on hand. a friend of mine got stuck on a steep driveway last week, and she had to improvise and use KITTY LITTER for traction! we feel your pain over here on the east coast! xo
    the lazy travelers recently posted…#LTselects: gordon’s wine barMy Profile

    • Francesca January 22, 2015 at 9:48 am #

      Yes, kitty litter also is recommended! Who’d have thunk it, right??

  6. Traveling Ted January 19, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    I have been pretty fortunate to not have any emergencies while driving in the winter. It is always good to be prepared.
    Traveling Ted recently posted…Carefree RV Resorts a great base for Florida adventureMy Profile

    • Francesca January 22, 2015 at 9:46 am #

      And you do a lot of winter driving & travel!

  7. Raul (@ilivetotravel) January 21, 2015 at 3:32 pm #

    I think you could make tons of dough teaching this in Atlanta! (Pray no more snowmaggedons here!)
    Raul (@ilivetotravel) recently posted…Essaouira: A Surprise on the Atlantic Coast of MoroccoMy Profile

    • Francesca January 22, 2015 at 9:44 am #

      Bahahaha!! Poor Atlanta…. But hey, that’s a good idea!

  8. craig zabransky (@StayAdventurous) January 21, 2015 at 8:35 pm #

    Another tip, drive south… way south, all the way south until you escape the cold winter weather and stay away for the season. I am thinking like Florida Keys south (smiling as I am heading there soon).

    Seriously, some great tips on there, (love that cruise control got mentioned too), so thanks for sharing. I recently was caught in a snow storm on rural roads close to my destination, the 15 minutes drive took an hour and so many cars were stuck, sliding, totally not safe… I watched people do some dumb things outside the car… I hope they read this post.

    Stay tough, (yes, you are a tough Chicagoan), Craig
    craig zabransky (@StayAdventurous) recently posted…Should You Attend Travel Shows for Travel Inspiration and Information?My Profile

    • Francesca January 22, 2015 at 9:44 am #

      Nah, I’m not a snowbird. It’s nice to visit the beach and warmer temps but I still enjoy winter.

      PS – You leave the best blog comments. #stayawesome

  9. Lance | Trips By Lance January 27, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

    I hate winter weather with a passion. Living in the South we don’t deal with this too often. Great advice for if I ever decide to drive where hell does indeed freeze over.
    Lance | Trips By Lance recently posted…Elvis Presley Birthplace Honors the KingMy Profile

  10. Harriet May 27, 2015 at 8:18 am #

    It is really important to be prepared in this kind of weather! Thanks for the post! We also like to go to trips in the mountains summer and winter so the tips are really helpful! 🙂 Thanks!

  11. Cassandra Surette June 19, 2015 at 7:14 am #

    White knuckle driving is par for the course for winter. It goes without saying when you enter dangerous driving situations increase your focus and uses of your senses. Turn the radio down or off. This will allow you to hear the road noise: slush or water.

  12. Veronica Marks September 17, 2015 at 5:28 pm #

    I recently moved to the mountain west from Florida, and I’m really grateful for such a descriptive article! I’ve driven in the snow before, but am getting ready for the winter to come this year. I especially appreciate the list of things to check on and have in your vehicle. Hopefully we can all have a safe winter!

  13. Jenn December 9, 2015 at 2:59 pm #

    That’s a really good idea to pack blankets and warm clothing in your trunk. Just in case you get stranded and your car won’t start, you can still stay warm without a running heater. My mother-in-law got stranded in a canyon in the snow, and then the tow company said that they don’t go out there! She was stuck out there for a few hours, until my father-in-law got to where she was.

  14. Sam December 14, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    We just had a massive storm hit here. As I was driving to work on the freeway, visibility was really low. I saw a truck that had this LED light bar, which I think is for off-roading or camping, but that was how I saw they were completely turned around, facing backwards, in my lane. Slow down, keep your lights on, and be hyper-vigilant about your surroundings! The more aware you are of everyone around you, the more likely you are to avoid an accident.

  15. Tracy January 7, 2016 at 4:00 am #

    It’s really hectic living in a mountainous region during winter especially when it comes to driving. Although I wish I could hibernate through the whole season, I gotta do something and I always make more regular maintenance. Thanks for the post Francesca, I will use this as a reminder to keep checking on what I haven’t.


  16. Kenneth Gladman March 14, 2016 at 6:08 pm #

    I would agree that checking your tires before the winter months are key, especially if you are in an older vehicle. I was recently in an accident due to winter conditions, it is super inconvenient. I was without my car while body work was being done and it was super expensive. Great post.

  17. Jim Smith March 16, 2016 at 10:30 am #

    Being able to see in really snowy conditions helped me a lot when I got some LED lighting. I’ve got everything else covered, so now that lighting isn’t an issue I’m much more comfortable driving.

  18. Aa March 22, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

    These tips are so helpful! I live in Nashville, and while we don’t get a lot of snow, the city and its people are not really prepared for even a few inches of snow.
    Aa recently posted…How to Clean Rubber Car MatsMy Profile

  19. Autozik March 26, 2016 at 10:00 pm #

    Oh, Francesca! Nice post! Your tips for safe driving will be very helpful in winter weather. I am sure that I will apply all of them in the next winter to don’t meet the case like in your first picture.

  20. Petunia Evans April 22, 2016 at 1:31 pm #

    I haven’t inspected my car in a while, so I think that I should do that before the summer starts. I think I need to get a new car battery in a month or so. I don’t have many of the emergency supplies you’ve listed, so I think I should get an emergency kit for my car put together. Thanks for this help!

  21. Amy @ Andy1st driving school Leicester May 20, 2016 at 8:17 am #

    Great tips, Falling snow can be picturesque, but it can also wreak havoc on the roads. While no one enjoys driving in snowy or slippery conditions, These tips can take to help improve safety with winter driving tips.

  22. Kaitlyn November 16, 2016 at 9:24 am #

    Luckily, I’ve never been in a major snow storm. I imagine preparation is key. I did find this article helpful. You provided so many great tips!

  23. Christina December 20, 2016 at 9:37 am #

    It’s unfortunate that you found yourself in such a difficult position. You seem to have made the best of it by making a plan for the future.

  24. Brian December 20, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

    Winter weather can be super scary to drive in if you have never driven in it before. I know my first time on icy roads I was freaking out. Staying calm and aware is the most important thing for sure.

  25. Joe Gray April 14, 2017 at 4:23 am #

    When winter strikes the door, almost all the drivers face out of the ordinary challenges when they get behind the wheel. Ya, it is a fact that snow or icy roads are one of the major cause of weather related car crashes. Here, your blog gives some tips for driving safely during the cold winter. I think everyone should keep these in mind before going to drive in a snowy road. Apart from these if one is going to travel during the cold winter then he must have to prepare his car in advance for the winter drive, check the weather forecast and drive carefully according to road conditions. Thank you very much for such useful tips.

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