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A winter road trip can present some challenges as you traverse the highways with your family.  Be prepared with these tips and winter driving safety checklist.
Included in this checklist of winter road trip essentials are a vehicle safety inspection, cold-weather preparation and packing, emergency roadside kit, and tips for driving in the snow.
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How to Prepare Your Car for a Road Trip in the Winter

First up for a safe cold-weather road trip is preparing your car for the winter.  If you live in a warmer climate you may not even know what should be on your winter car preparation checklist.

Or if you are like me – you just choose to forget all about driving in ice and snow during summer.

 

1. Your mechanic should perform a basic tune-up.

Change the oil, if its time, and top-off the reservoirs with cold-weather fluids.  Have the mechanic check the battery for voltage, amperage, and reserve and replace the battery if necessary.  Batteries are less efficient in cold weather.  So a bad battery will become a dead battery quickly.
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2. Have a mechanic ensure your car is in optimal condition for winter

As your mechanic to go through a vehicle safety inspection checklist with you.  Let them know you where you will be going and what type of conditions you might drive through.  They should be familiar with traction laws (see the tips) and requirements for mountain driving.

 

3. Check the lights and blinkers

Make sure all your lights are working and check for brightness. Winter weather makes your lights much less visible, especially when covered in ice.
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4. Check the windshields and wipers are in optimal condition

 

If the windshield has a small crack or star make sure to get that fixed or replaced before leaving in freezing conditions. A small crack runs quickly.    Our insurance plan will send someone to the house to fill a ding or star in the windshield so contact your insurance and ask.
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Put new blades on your windshield wipers and make sure they work.  Peering through a small space of clear windshield in a bad storm is miserable, dangerous, and illegal (not that I would know…)
We like the Rainex wipers here but make sure to measure the length before ordering new ones.
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Expert tip:  turn off the windshield wipers before turning the car off.  If the wipers do not return to the resting position, they may freeze to the windshield.  When you turn the car on, the wipers will be trying to return to the bottom and the motor can actually burn out before your car is warm.

Caution:  Be Prepared with this Winter Driving Safety Checklist

Get Your FREE Copy Now!! Receive the Winter Driving Checklist to prepare your car for your winter road trip as a FREE gift for signing up for the newsletter.  Plus, you will receive inspiration and tips to launch into your next family adventure.   

Snow or all-weather tires are vital to keeping control of your car in the winter.  One time I assumed that my tires had plenty of tread heading into winter, unfortunately, I was wrong.  

I was alone with 4 kids on a 200-mile winter road trip and spun out.  Fortunately, I was able to gain control of the war before hitting someone or sliding off the mountain.  My poor kids were panicked though.  The 4-year old was so scared he threw up when we came to a stop.  Poor little guy. 

 

5. Check the age, tread, and inflation on your tires

Here’s a lesson in physics – when the temperature drops the tire pressure also drops. You don’t want to start out with under-inflated tires and end up with flat tires.  Make sure they’re filled with the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Also, even if your tires seem to have good tread, check the age.  This happened twice to us on trailers (yeah, slow learners here).  The tread looked great but the tires were old and blew after driving a couple of hours.
 

6. Get new snow or all-weather and chains if necessary

Good all-weather or snow tires with sufficient tread are necessary and sometimes required by law.  Through I-70 in the mountains, Colorado enforces a traction law during winter storms.
If you don’t have snow tires or all-season tires, have them installed before you leave. The NHTS recommends 2/32 inch of tread and Colorado traction laws require 1/8 of an inch of tread.  Inspect your tires for even wear and sufficient tread.
 

7. Plan your route, have the information about the roads you will be driving and tell someone where you are going.

Make a plan to check in with them throughout your journey.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left the house in a hurry only be stuck in the snowstorm.  Weather moves in quickly in the mountains.   So be sure to check a couple of days out and then be prepared in case the weather moves in early.

 

8. Check the Weather and Road Conditions

Know the road conditions radio station, phone number and website for the states and highways that you will be traveling.  Each state has a website (Colorado COtrip.org) and the federal highway site it FHWA.dot.gov
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I have been stuck on a highway that is closed with no place available to stay. I could have changed my trip to be at home waiting out the storm or taking a different route had I been watching the weather and checking road conditions.

 

Prepare your car and make sure you are stocked up for winter stocked up

 

You should carry basic snow supplies, as well as supplies to help in case of an emergency, in your vehicle.

9. Brush and scraper

Before setting out on a winter road trip make sure you have a long-handled brush and scraper to clear the windshield.
I keep one like this in my car.

 

 Every autumn as winter sets in, I find myself trying to warm up the car and scrape my windshield with my library card.  Fortunately, I am usually at home, and my fingers take enough of a beating that I remember to buy a scraper.

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10. Winter grade washer Fluid

 Stock an extra gallon (or two or three) of winter-grade windshield washer fluid.  Water or regular washer fluid will freeze to your windshield in cold weather.

The mag chloride sprayed on the roads is like a sticky mess on your windshield.  You will go through more fluid than you can imagine.

11. Start with a Full Tank of Gas

Always drive with at least half a tank of gas in case of traffic jams, slow winter driving conditions or an outright stop on the highway.

 If you are stopped or stuck waiting for help you may need to stay warm.  (Keep the tailpipe clear and run the engine intermittently to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. More on emergencies in at the end)

 

*Pro-tip – Do not rely on your “miles till empty” notifications, especially if your tires are bigger than the stock tires.  The manufacturer calibrated the odometer based on the circumstance of the stock tires. Larger tires will make the odometer and therefore the “miles till empty” calculation inaccurate.   I know because we ran out of gas before that occurred to me.
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12. Pack you tire chains and know how to use them

Make sure to have tire chains with you in the car in case of icy and snow-packed roads. Know your tire size before buying chains.

 

 

Not only chain a good idea, but some also stated such as Colorado and California may require all vehicles to use chains in winter driving conditions.

Pro-Tip: Practice properly installing the chains before you need them.

 Embarrassingly, I borrowed Charles’s car one time and couldn’t get the chains on.  Fortunately, I was a small side street in town and was able to maneuver to another street.

On a winter road trip, you may find yourself on the highway with a chain law in effect. You will need to pull over to the side and install your chains in the snow with everyone else.

 

13. Snow Removal and Traction Supplies

You should not overexert yourself trying to dig your car out of a snowbank or pushing your car out of a ditch.
However, you can get your car going in the right direction with some traction supplies. You will be happy if you are successful at getting back on the road again.
Pack a snow shovel, broom, ice, and sand or kitty litter.  The sand or kitty litter will give your tires enough traction on icy spots.
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Prepare and Pack a Winter Emergency Kit

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A winter car preparation checklist would not be complete without an emergency kit.  You must have some supplies on hand in case of an emergency or if you are stuck and waiting for a tow truck.
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14. Buy a winter emergency roadside kit

 

You can buy an emergency roadside kit with will include first aid supplies or assemble one yourself.  This emergency roadside kit will cover most of the emergencies that you will face.

15. Check the kit for essential supplies and add extra if needed

At the least, keep jumper cables or a jump starter pack,  flashlight, safety vest, and emergency markers and flares in hand.
Your emergency preparations should include supplies to spend the night in your car.

16. Be prepared to survive a winter night in your car

 

We keep sleeping bags, down wool blankets, and extra food in the car.
Our backpacking sleeping bags pack down so small that we keep them under the seats and the kids cover up with small down throws from Costco.
Keep extra food supplies like food and water on hand in case you are stuck on the road past a meal or two.  Think high-calorie food that is compact, won’t spoil and palatable.   Fortunately, peanut butter and chocolate fit the criteria.  Other foods that I suggest are nuts, beef jerky, salami, dehydrated fruits, GORP, beans, and tuna pouches.

17. Pack snow clothes and warm blankets

 

Even if you do not expect to play in the snow at your destination, pack warm clothes in the car.  Getting stuck for hours or overnight is a real possibility when traveling in the winter.   I pack a waterproof duffel bag full of snow clothes.   Hopefully, you’ll just need these to get out of the car and play and not because you are stuck.

18. Keep the cold weather gear accessible

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Just because it’s snowing doesn’t mean the kids won’t get restless in the car so have that snow gear on top in the trunk.
I stop, gear everyone up with snow clothes and send them out to play.
Expert tip: when you’re loading back in the car I layout a waterproof picnic blanket to strip off jackets, snow pants, and boots.   We have a clean place stand in socks before hopping back in the car.  
Then I roll everything up and throw back in the car.

 

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Tips on Winter Driving

 

Once your car is prepared for your winter road trip, it’s time to start thinking about how to drive on snow.   I even need a refresher on driving in the snow for beginners, even though winter has come to Colorado every year of my life.
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You need to know these tips for driving in the snow so you will be prepared if you end up traveling on icy roads or through a snowstorm.
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19. Drive slowly and cautiously, even with 4-wheel drive. 

Leave plenty of room between you and the next car.  Many multi-car accidents close the highways because everyone was following too close and someone began to slide. AAA advises “The normal dry pavement following distance of three to four seconds should be increased to eight to ten seconds.”

20. Know how to use your 4-wheel drive

One time I let an out of state friend borrow my truck to drive to Aspen in the winter.
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When she arrived she was white-knuckled from sliding her way up the mountain.  I specifically gave her the truck with good tires and 4-wheel drive but she didn’t know how to use the 4-wheel drive.  A truck can be much less stable than a car in snow and ice, especially if you do not use the 4-wheel drive.
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If the ground is slushy, snow-packed or icy, shift into 4X4-high, generally a button on your dash.  When 4 wheel drive is = in engaged, all 4 tires are engaged to move the vehicle forward (or backward).  That does not necessarily mean you have more traction to stop.
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In the mountains of Colorado, people know that 4 wheel drive becomes 4 wheel slide when stopping on ice.
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21. Accelerate and decelerate slowly

Starting off on an icy road can be difficult and trying to accelerate fast will only make the tires spin.  Accelerate slowly to gain traction.  Likewise, decelerate, but letting off the gas, slowly to avoid sliding or fishtailing.
If you have to break, AA advises“threshold breaking. Keep the heel of your foot on the floor and use the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.”
With anti-lock breaks press the brake firmly and let the breaks pulse on and off to stop.  In an older vehicle, without anti-lock breaks, you must pump the breaks yourself.  Give yourself a long distance to stop and continuously press and let go of the breaks.
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22. Keep going slow and steady. 

Before going uphill keep your momentum to move the car up the hill.  Nothing is more frustrating than being behind someone who is breaking just before starting up a hill.
Once on the hill continue slow and steady, don’t power up the hill.  The tires will start spinning and you will just slide sideways. And don’t slow down or stop going up a hill, if you can avoid it because you may not get going again.
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23. Do not over-correct if you slide

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If you do slide, let off the gas, and slowly correct.  Be cautious and do not to over-correct.
Many accidents happen even in warm weather and dry conditions, due to the driver overcorrecting.
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24. If you encounter animals on the road, do not swerve.

This rule applies on dry pavement but on icy roads you are much more likely to lose control of your car. Unfortunately, you may hit an animal.  Charles taught be already to be mentally prepared to hit an animal before one jumps out in front of me.  You have to be prepared for this possibility rather than swerving and risking your family being hurt.
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Safety Tips While on the Road in Winter Conditions

Keeping kids safe inside the car is important.

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25. Keep Kids activities and blankets within their reach

This tip actually comes straight from our article – 17 Tips for a Road Trip with a Toddler

Reaching into the backseat to hand young children a blanket or drawing pad is dangerous anytime but especially in winter.  Keep blankets, lovies, and some activities within their reach.   I keep a small basket or backpack at their side that they can reach.

 

26. Dress warmly even inside the car

You don’t need your full ski gear and snow pants on (keep them in the supply bag) but you should dress warmly in the car.
You might be tempted to put the kids in lightweight jammies at night because the car is warm.  However, A couple of layers and footie jammies is a good idea in case of emergency.
If you slide off the road, your car could die and the temperature inside would drop quickly.  In fact, I had a friend who rescued a family from a car that had slid off the road.  Not to be dramatic, but he likely saved their lives since the kids were dressed in short sleeve jammies.
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27.  Beware of the dangers of wearing a coat under the car seat harness

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So I know I just said stay warm in the car, but wearing a puffy winter jacket in the car seat can be dangerous.   Check the straps that they are not too loose or you cannot buckle the car seat properly.   In addition, small children could get overheated with a heavy jacket on.
Consumer reports stated that the best option is to wear a warm layer and then cover your child with a blanket.
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28.  Wear seatbelts properly

Seatbelts and car seats are required by law but you may get tempted to be a little lax on this on a long road trip.
Winter driving can be hazardous so make sure you buckle up and everyone is safely in their seats.   Sit up straight with the shoulder belt resting on your shoulder.
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29.  Keep kids in 5 point harness car seat.

I was in a small fender bender with my son when he was 2 years old.  Fortunately, it was just a small accident but he slept soundly in his car seat through the entire ordeal.

Have the car seats installed correctly before driving?  Check NHTSA’s child passenger safety recommendations.   This car seat is the one we use to get 3 across in a small car.

In addition, although not required by law, I use boosters with side impact protection for kids on long trips.  The high back boosters hold the kid’s heads upright when they sleep and hold their bodies in a safe position in case of an accident.
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 What to do In a Winter Roadside Emergency

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30. Do not leave your car

In an emergency do not, I repeat do not, leave your car and venture into a snowstorm unless you’re in a very unsafe situation such as on railroad tracks or balanced on the edge of a cliff.  The “I shouldn’t be alive TV series” had a couple of episodes where people left the car.

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31. Bundle up and wait for help

.If you do stop,  bundle up, have some snacks and stay hydrated.  Place the bright markers and flares out so emergency workers can see you and calling on your phone.  If you don’t have service, check if your GPS will send an emergency notification on your cell phone or GPS device.

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 32. Run your car with caution

If you do need to run your car, make sure the tailpipe is clear of snow or debris.  The NHTSA advises running your car and heater intermittently to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning and asphyxiation.

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33. Remain calm for you and your kid’s sake

The most important point, especially with kids, is due not panic. If you panic, it doesn’t help the situation and the kids will be even more nervous.  Be gentle but firm with your instructions and reassure them.

We have found our kids are cooperative and understand problem situations but, if we are calm or even playful, they are generally unfazed by the stress.

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Concluding Thoughts

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A winter road trip can be fun and safe.   We have more road trip resources to help you make your family vacation a success.

 

 

Know you know the best tips to be prepared for winter driving conditions for your next road trip.  Don’t forget to have your vehicle serviced and pack the winter road trip essentials listed above. Practice putting on tire chains and maneuvering in the snow before you are caught in a storm.
Please, pass this winter driving safety checklist along to someone you know that is headed out on a cold-weather road trip.
These are essential tips for winter driving and I want everyone to learn from my mistakes – so you don’t have to make them too!

 

Please let me know in the comments if I missed any great advice because I want to make sure this is the most comprehensive list for safety on winter roads.

 

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