We're in the middle of winter, and parts of the U.S. have already dealt with heavy snow and frigid temperatures. So you need to know how to keep your car and yourself safe through the long dark.
Note that some of this article will be regionally applicable. What works for Key West drivers could be severely negligent in the mountains of Colorado. If you're wondering how much you need to do, remember that it rarely hurts to over-prepare.
With that out of the way, here are five ways you can make sure your vehicle makes it to spring.
Do Some Basic Maintenance
Take care of your basic maintenance. If your brakes or tires are shot, you're a danger to yourself and others.
SEE ALSO: How Often Should You Do Car Maintenance?
Make sure your heater, defrost blower, and rear window defrosters work. They're essential for seeing out of your car (and keeping you warm).
Examine your windshield wipers and replace them if you see cracks or deterioration. Your local automotive parts store (such as Advance Auto Parts or Pep Boys) can sell you the wipers you need and install them for free.
Check Your Fluids
Make sure your coolant is still good. As coolant ages, its freezing point rises. Test strips are available on Amazon and start at just a few bucks. Your local parts store may have the strips, too, or will sell you tools for significantly more. Coolant should be changed completely every 2-3 years (but check your owners manual for specifics).
Check your windshield wiper fluid. That summertime anti-bug fluid could freeze up when you need it most; get some deicing fluid that's rated for your winter conditions. Avoid formulas with high levels of volatile organic compounds; other versions work fine, and don't include environmentally harmful chemicals.
Get your battery tested. Cold weather is hard on batteries, and it's better to preemptively recycle a fading battery before it strands you. Your local parts store can test your old battery, and, if you need to buy a new one, install it for free and recycle your old one.
Make sure you've got the right weight of oil. This is a must if you've got an older vehicle; check your owners manual for details.
Don't Go on Old Tires
More than any other item in this article, proper tire repairs and maintenance are likely to be the difference between a close call and a bad accident.
Check your tire pressure on a cold day. For every 10° F drop in temperature, your tires lose 1 psi. Low air pressure means increased stopping distance, worse gas mileage, and faster wear and tear. Recommended tire pressures should be printed on a card inside the driver's doorjamb, or in your owners manual.
Also make sure your tires have enough tread. Use the penny test: If you insert a penny upside down into your tire tread, your tire should cover the top of Lincoln's head. If you can see where his hair ends, drive (carefully!) to the tire shop. Online retailers like Tire Rack often have better deals on tires than retail locations, and will ship to an installer of your choice.
If you frequently drive in snow or on ice, consider studless snow tires for their dramatically increased traction in those conditions. Some people mount their snow tires on a separate set of wheels, and change tires when the seasons change. A good set of name-brand studless snow tires starts at about $90 per tire, and goes up to $125-$150 per tire for trucks or SUVs.
Carry the Essentials
Every time the weather cools, you'll want to make sure your car is stocked with these essentials:
Spend $10 on an ice scraper, lest you find yourself trying to scrape your windshield with a credit card, or pouring hot water over a cold windshield. (Don't do the latter; you can crack your windshield.) Even Floridians will occasionally use a small ice scraper, but if you live further north, consider a scraper with a long pole and a broom, for pushing snow off your car.
Even if your battery is strong, you'll probably run into someone with a flat battery this winter, and you can be a hero — if just for one day. If you already have jumper cables, make sure they're unkinked and rust-free.
If you get stuck, you'll likely need to make several long phone calls — and you'll need a charged phone to do that.
If an accident makes your car undriveable in a rural winter storm, help could be hours away. Make sure your kit has a reflective blanket, chemical warmers, flares, and tow rope.
If you frequently drive through mountainous terrain, keep a set of snow chains in your vehicle and know how to use them. Local statutes (and signs) will tell you when to use chains; do your research. Snow chains run $30-$85 for a set of two.
Buy two cans of lock deicer. Keep one in your house and the other in your car, so you can save your co-worker who didn't buy lock deicer. (Reminder: Keyless entry may not work if your battery is dead.)
Winterize Your Driving Habits
Winter conditions present unique driving challenges that require additional caution.
Increase your following distance, and let aggressive drivers pass. You'll need more room to stop in wintry conditions. The person behind you might not be thinking about that, so brake conservatively.
Don't drive with snow on top of your car. Flying snowdrifts impair other drivers' visibility, and could injure nearby pedestrians, cyclists, or motorcyclists. It's also against the law in some states.
If you live in a state that salts the roads, wash your car regularly. Salt is great for eliminating ice on the road, but it will turn your car's undercarriage to rust. Regular car washes will delay hundreds of dollars in exhaust repair.
Finally, unless your car is decades old, don't idle the vehicle to warm it up. Idling doesn't warm your car up as fast as driving. If you want your car to get warmer faster, then get in and drive.
Readers, what are your favorite tips and tricks for getting your car through the winter? Share them with us in the comments below!