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5 Ways to Prepare Your Car for Winter

Winter weather wreaks havoc on your car, from rusty undercarriages to roadside accidents. Protect your vehicle with snow tires, regular car washes, and more.
Winterize Your Car

Well, it's happened: winter has finally come. And you need to know how to keep your car and yourself safe through the long dark.

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Note that some of this article will be regionally sensitive. 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.

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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 Advanced Auto Parts or AutoZone) 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 for a few bucks, or your local parts store will sell you tools for significantly more. Coolant should be changed completely every 2-3 years (but check your owner's 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.

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 high-VOC formulas; 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 owner's 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 owner's manual.

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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 start at about $90/tire, and go up to $125-$150/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:

  • Ice scraper
    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.

  • Jumper cables
    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.

  • Phone charger
    If you get stuck, you'll likely need to make several long phone calls — and you'll need a charged phone to do that.

  • Emergency kit
    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.

  • Snow chains
    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-$50 for a set of two.

  • Lock deicer
    Buy two cans of lock deicer. Keep one in your house and keep the other in your car, so you can save your coworker 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.

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Don't drive with snow on top of your car. Flying snow drifts 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, don't idle your car 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!

Contributing Writer

Sean is a freelance writer and photojournalist working in the Hampton Roads region. He has been a writer, adventure motorcyclist, drag racer, data nerd, shade-tree mechanic, and tornado chaser. Recommend good beers to him on Twitter at @wxgeek.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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