How to Prepare Your Car for Winter Driving


It’s easy to take the nice weather for granted in the middle of summer, but it won’t be long before you need to think about getting ready for the winter if you live somewhere that experiences a notable change of weather in the winter months. You’ll probably soon start to see adverts from garages for winter health checks, but do you know how to prepare your car for winter driving?

There are plenty of things you can do to prepare your car for winter driving that you don’t need to pay a mechanic for, such as checking your engine coolant antifreeze levels, using winter windshield fluid, checking your tires and putting together a winter supply box. Here’s a list of steps to prepare your car for winter driving you can do yourself, as well as some others you might want to get your local garage to do for you.

DIY Steps to Prepare Your Car for Winter:

1. Tires:

Your tires are one of the most important things to check before the winter weather arrives, and there’s a little more to it than just checking the depth of the tread. The tread depth is important to make sure the tires are effective and legal, but just having the legal minimum isn’t really good enough. You need to check the overall condition of your tires for signs of wear or damage, and you also have to make sure you have them all inflated to the correct pressure.

If you don’t know what the correct pressure is for your tires and your vehicle, you’ll find all the information you need in the owner’s manual. If you don’t have the manual for your vehicle you can always do an online search or contact your local service center. You will need to know what size and type of tire you have as they could differ on different trim levels of the same vehicle.

For those of you who live in the north where snow and ice can be particularly serious in the winter, you really ought to consider a set of winter tires. Today’s winter tires are a lot more advanced than they used to be, and you really will be amazed at how much difference they make when it comes to stopping on snow and ice. It’s not an exaggeration to say you can even experience tire-squeal when emergency braking on snow and ice with a good quality set of winter tires these days, so they really can be a life-saver.

2. Put Together a Winter Supply Box

You might think keeping a box of winter supply items in your car is going a bit far, and it might be if you live in Southern California, Florida or Texas. However, if you live in the north of the country, there could be occasions when you’ll wonder what you might have done in an emergency if you didn’t have this box of winter goodies in your car when the worst happens in the bad weather.

There’s almost no end to the number of things you could include in your winter supply box, but here are some of the items you might want to consider:

1. Flashlight

2. Road Flares

3. First Aid Kit

4. Fully Charged Cell Phone (for 911 calls)

5. De-Icer

6. Ice Scraper

7. Spare Warm Clothes

8. Blankets

9. Bag of Sand (for traction)

10. High-energy snacks

11. Drinking Water

12. Spare Fuses

13. Shovel

14. Hazard Warning Sign

15. Gloves

16. Radio

3. Engine Coolant and Antifreeze

A lot of people leave engine coolant and antifreeze to their garage and they assume it’s always checked as part of the scheduled service. The truth is that if you usually have your car serviced in the spring or summer, checking the antifreeze might not be top of the list of priorities with some services, especially budget options that could be little more than an oil and filter change.

Most of the time, the coolant in your engine will be water, and water freezes in the cold weather. This is why you need antifreeze as it does exactly what the name suggests, which is to stop the water in your coolant system freezing up. Not only do you need to have the correct amount of antifreeze in your water; you also need to make sure that your coolant isn’t past its best.

You could always replace your water and antifreeze with a water-free coolant that will last as long as your car and won’t need changing so can be forgotten about, but the system needs to be purged of all evidence of water to do this so it’s something you’ll probably need a garage to do for you.

4. Winter Windshield Washer Fluid

If you’re one of those people who still believe that washing-up liquid is as good to use in your windshield wiper reservoir as a more expensive product designed for the job, then you couldn’t be more wrong. Detergent designed to wash your dishes will help to clean your windshield, but it won’t be as kind to your car’s washer system as a proprietory fluid and it won’t do the same job as a special winter windshield washer fluid.

The stuff you can get away with using in the spring and summer can be less than useless in the winter because it doesn’t stop the water freezing. If your windshield keeps freezing up you’re not going to be going anywhere, and if your windshield washer is frozen you’re not going to be able to clear it. A proper winter fluid is like antifreeze, but as well as preventing the water from freezing it will also do a great job of cleaning the windshield.

5. Engine Oil

If you haven’t had your oil changed for a while, it makes sense to get it changed before you put your vehicle through the rigorous driving conditions the winter is going to throw at you, but not all engine oil is created equal.

Although your oil probably isn’t going to freeze unless it’s left for days in Arctic conditions, the very cold weather can make it thicken a little and reduce its effectiveness for protecting your engine. You therefore want an oil with a lower viscosity in winter, and viscosity is represented by the first number in the oil’s specification.

Let’s say you normally use engine oil that’s a 10W-30, you’ll be better off using a 5W-30 during the winter. A lot of people leave oil changes to their garage, but don’t assume they’ll use a different oil if you don’t ask them. At least make sure you ask the question before they do the oil change. They might not use the lower viscosity oil if it works out more expensive if you don’t ask them about it beforehand.

6. Keep it Clean

Cleaning your car thoroughly inside and outside might not sound like an obvious thing to do before winter, but there are good reasons why you should. First of all, your windows are likely to fog up a lot in winter, and clearing them will be easier if they’re clean to start off with. You might think they are clean on the inside, but just try cleaning a small area and you might be amazed at how much filth can build up on the inside of your windows without you even realizing.

The sun can also be very low in the sky during winter, and a windshield that’s dirty on the inside can make it even harder to see out in those circumstances.

The exterior (and underneath) your car can accumulate all sorts of dirt, filth, grime, salt and other contaminants during winter, so you’ll be doing your car and yourself a favor if you clean away what’s already there before you add to it in winter.

7. Check Your Battery

You probably don’t give a lot of thought to your car battery most of the time, but you sure will give it some thought if it fails on you and leaves you stranded. Your car’s electrical system works a lot harder in winter than in summer, powering things like your heater, lights, heated seats, and starting your engine in the cold. You need to check that it’s delivering enough charge and that the alternator is recharging it properly.

You can check the level of fluid in your battery yourself, but you’ll probably need to go to a service center for the electrical checks. As a rough rule of thumb, if your battery is five years old or older, it’s probably about time to fit a new one.

8. Check Your Lights

As I just mentioned, your lights are going to be doing a lot more work in the winter as you’ll be using them more, so it’s a pretty good idea to make sure they’re working. You can get someone to help you check them as you’ll need one of you to step on the brake pedal while the other one checks they’re working, but also remember to check turn signals, fog lights and daytime running lights.

As well as making sure you can see when you’re driving, checking they’re working can also save you from an unwanted brush with the law. Cops can always use a faulty light as a reason to pull you over, but they’re much more likely to take a dim view (get it?) and pull you over for a faulty light in the winter than in the summer.

Garage Winter Car Checks

If you’re a bit of a part-time gas monkey on the quiet, you might be able to do the following work yourself. For the rest of us though, here are some things you should get your local service center to check out for you before the winter weather descends upon you.

1. Brakes

It’s impossible to overstate how important properly working brakes are at any time, but they’re especially vital to have in full working order in the winter. Several component parts of your brakes need checking over, which include the shoes, discs, calipers and the brake fluid. Some very modern vehicles have warning systems that include a brake wear indicator, but that won’t warn you about all the aspects of your braking system so make sure you have a proper brake service if your brakes haven’t been checked over for a while.

2. Fluids

Although possibly not essential, if you haven’t had some of the vital fluids in your car checked for some time, it might be a good idea to have them looked at now. Your transmission fluid, brake fluid and steering fluid might not have been checked for years, so it’s better to be safe than sorry when winter is looming on the horizon.

3. Tracking and Wheel Alignment

You don’t want driving in the snow and ice to be any harder than it has to be, so just before winter is a great time to get your tracking and wheel alignment checked to make sure the geometry is correct. If you’re going to be swapping your tires over for some winter rubber, which you should if you live somewhere that experiences really serious winter weather, you can get your tracking and alignment checked at the same time as part of a package deal that could save you some money.

Are “Free” Winter Checks Worthwhile?

As summer eases into fall and winter begins to loom large, most garages and service centers will start to advertise free winter checks or low-cost winter service packages, which you could be forgiven for being a little cynical about, and in some cases, rightly so. However, you shouldn’t completely ignore these offers and assume they’re just an exercise in getting you into their business to confront you with a load of jobs you need doing they’ll charge handsomely for.

I’d say that if you don’t know a shop or its reputation, I might be tempted to give these offers a miss. On the other hand, if you do know the shop or you know that it has a good reputation you should definitely consider taking them up on one of these offers.

Some will offer to just do a winter check that will include checking all the stuff I mentioned above, whereas some will offers an actual winter service package that will include actually doing some or all of the above at a discounted rate. You could end up paying more for the work doing at a place that offers a free winter check, so going with a garage or service center that lists the actual work that will be carried out is probably the way to go.

Regardless of how much of the work mentioned here you carry out or have someone else carry out for you, any checks you do before you start driving in the snow and ice will be a benefit and could help keep you safer than you might have been otherwise. Don’t leave things to chance; check your vehicle over before winter. The safety of you and your passengers could depend on it.

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and now an automotive writer and journalist for the last 7 years

Recent Content