Winter is an incredible time to explore the great outdoors with your family. Even if it’s colder and conditions are tougher on the road, with good preparation, you can have a safe, exciting family road trip to your favorite outdoor destinations.
There are several benefits to traveling in winter. Whether its a dusting of snow making the most stunning of landscapes even more picturesque, or enjoying your favorite National Parks without the crowds.
If you don’t live in a traditionally cold and icy place, the prospect of driving in wintery conditions can be daunting at first. We’re going to take you through all the preparation steps, packing lists, and the do’s and don’ts for pulling off an awesome family road trip in the winter.
Planning Your Winter Road Trip
Before you head out on the road, there are a few things you should consider.
Choose Your Destination
The first step to planning your winter road trip is choosing a destination. If it doesn’t snow where you live, why not plan a winter road trip to somewhere with fresh powder? Popular destinations in the USA include Yellowstone National Park, Aspen Snowmass, and Mammoth Mountain.
Map Your Route
Now that you’ve chosen your destination, it’s time to map out your route.
Check the weather report for your area and the areas you’ll pass through on your way to your destination. Be sure to check road conditions and avalanche warnings along the way. If there’s too much snow or the roads are impassable, you’ll want to choose an alternate route or delay your journey.
Have several Plan A and Plan B options ready; road closures can be sudden so look out for local warnings, tune into local radio stations and be aware of seasonal closures.
A good resource we have found for the US is iceroadsafety.com – this site has handy links that take you straight to current condition in each state.
Set a Reasonable Itinerary
Winter road tripping is not a race. Set your itinerary with as much flexibility as possible; essential anyway when traveling with children but even more important when you have extreme weather conditions to contend with.
Remember daylight hours are likely to be more limited too. It’s safest to do your winter driving during the day, so you may not cover as long a distance in a single day as you ordinarily would in the summer. We’d highly recommend breaking your journey into smaller sections in winter.
Try to book cancellable accommodation where possible (if not sleeping in your own van) so if conditions change you can flex your overnight arrangements.
Pre-departure Checks-Prepping your Vehicle for Winter Driving
To have a safe and enjoyable winter road trip, you’ll need to prepare your vehicle for the elements. This is especially important if you’re traveling in a place where it snows more than six inches per year or there’s a possibility of ice or heavy rain.
Check Your Tires
If possible, get new winter tires for your vehicle to offer you better traction on snowy roads. If that’s not an option, get your tires rotated so that they wear evenly and get plenty of tread depth on each tire.
It’s essential to keep your winter tires in good condition and properly inflated. You’ll also want to ensure that they’re not bald or show uneven wear that may cause accidents.
Don’t forget to check the tire pressure by using a tire gauge before taking off on your winter road trip.
You should also ensure you have a spare tire that is properly inflated. Proper tire pressure is not only essential for safety, it will improve your vehicle’s gas mileage and performance.
Check Your Battery and Other Fluids
There are plenty of fluids that your car needs to run in cold weather. For example, you’ll need antifreeze that can withstand chilly temperatures and is compatible with the water used in your area. It’s also important to check other fluids like oil, brake fluid, and windshield wiper fluid.
Most car batteries last about four years, so you should check the battery’s age and condition before taking a long road trip. The battery will also drain faster in cold weather, so be sure to have it tested before heading out on your journey.
Check Your Lights
Make sure that your headlights and taillights are clean and working correctly. You might want to add extra lights in your vehicle since visibility can be reduced during the winter months due to weather conditions. You should also get a headlight restoration if necessary and tint your windows to reduce glare on the windshield.
Include Functional Jumper Cables
This point may seem silly, but many people forget to check their jumper cables before heading out. Please make sure the wires are in good condition and have no damage or corrosion on them.
Also, be sure that you know how to use them properly, so you don’t accidentally shock yourself when starting your car up. Additionally, make sure that you have the appropriate cables since not all vehicles share the same types of jumper cables.
Test Your Brake Lights and Windshield Wipers
It’s always better to be safe than sorry when driving in winter weather conditions. You don’t want to find out that your wipers are broken, or your brake lights aren’t working when you’re on the road.
The safest thing to do is take your car out for a test spin before heading out on your winter road trip. Ask a friend or neighbor if they can see your brake lights working and text if the wipers are clearing your screen properly.
Top up your windshield wiper fluid and keep extra windshield wiper fluid in your vehicle as you may find you go through more than normal when tackling sleet and ice (Look for products described as ‘winter’ or ‘all season’, they are specifically formulated to handle ice and beyond freezing temperatures).
Stock an Emergency Kit
You never know when something will happen, so it’s essential to be prepared for anything. A basic emergency kit should include jumper cables, flares, a tow rope, and a first aid kit. You might also want to keep a flashlight, extra blankets, and some snacks in your emergency kit.
You should also keep some essential survival gear if you’re stuck outside for a while. These include coats, hats, and boots that will protect you from the cold.
Pack a Shovel and Ice Scraper
When winter weather hits, you never know how long it will take to clear away the snow. A shovel is a must-have in case you get stuck and need to dig yourself out.
It’s also helpful if you need to dig your car out of a snowbank or clear away the ice that has formed on your vehicle. You can use an ice scraper to clear the snow off your roof if it’s causing a buildup that can damage your car.
Pack Tire Chains
If the road is completely covered in ice and snow then snow chains are recommended to give your tires extra traction. Many mountainous areas will stipulate that road chains are a requirement to use certain roads.
Kitty Litter, Salt or Sand
Have you though about packing Kitty Litter for a road trip?! No, we’re not suggesting taking your cat on your winter vacay, but to help get your tires moving out of snow and ice.
Also referred to as grit, both salt and sand can also common be used but tend to be more expensive. Over the years it’s been proven good old Kitty Litter can do the job just as well at a fraction of the price – though note it will not melt the ice like salt can.
A car traveling in winter conditions needs anti-freeze in the radiator (along with water, making a pre-mixed coolant). The key ingredient, ethylene glycol lowers the water’s freezing point which stops your radiator from freezing in cold temperatures.
Take Your Car for Servicing
Give your car a check-up before winter rolls in; you should give your vehicle a thorough checkup to ensure everything is working correctly. This means checking the suspension system, wheel alignment, heater, oil levels, cooling system, exhaust system, brakes, tires, windshield wipers, and lights.
These components are essential for ensuring that you and your passengers can have a safe ride during the winter months. You might need to take your car to a mechanic to replace some of these parts if they aren’t working correctly.
Pack a Paper Map and GPS
Although tech has come a long way in the last decade or so, absolutely nothing can beat an up to date paper map in an emergency!
By all means, pack a GPS (many modern vehicles now have these built in) and have Google Maps downloaded on your cellphone (make sure you have downloaded an offline version that covers your area), but pack that paper map too!
Learn Essential Winter Driving Skills
Not all driver’s education courses or driving classes will teach you how to drive in snowy conditions. It’s essential to learn how to safely navigate the roads during the winter to avoid getting yourself and others into an accident.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) offers a Winter Driving School where you can learn some basic skills, such as changing a tire, doing a basic check of your car’s fluids, and driving safely in the snow. It’s good practice to take a course like this before heading out, but if it isn’t offered in your area, search for some instructional videos on YouTube.
We cover more driving safety tips below!
Get Road Side Assistance & Travel Insurance
Things can and do go wrong no matter what time of year you’re traveling but winter always brings with it more unforseen circumstances.
Even with all the best preparation of your car as we have outlined here, if something DOES go wrong, you want to knwo there’s someone on the other end of the phone who can be sent to help.
In the US, AAA is the obvious choice, but don’t rule out other providers such as Allstate Roadside Assist and Geico Emergency Road Service.
Additionally, take out travel insurance. Road side assist may be able to help with your vehicle, but what about travel interruption, delays, medical? We explain all the great reasons to take our road trip travel insurance here.
Double Check the Weather
Continually make checks on the weather conditions before you head out, and before taking on any particularly challenging legs of your trip.
Avoid traveling during snowstorms completely. It is undeniably satisfying to see the mountains blanketed in fresh powder but remember, most mountain passes will be closed because of avalanche danger or impassable roads when there’s too much snow.
Winter Road Trip Packing List
Use this winter packing list to ensure you have everything you need for a safe and comfortable winter road trip:
- Emergency vehicle kit
- Extra windshield fluid and antifreeze
- Pocketknife or multitool
- A phone charger and car adapter for your cell phone
- Paper Map and GPS
- Extra clothes, including pants, sweaters, coats, scarves/hats/gloves, sunglasses, and shoes that don’t skid (Don’t forget to dress in layers, you’ll want those outer coats off again before strapping everyone into the car & car seats)
- Cash and credit cards – don’t rely solely on your debit or credit card during your trip
- Snacks to keep everyone energized while driving (make sure they aren’t all perishable)
- Sunglasses – yes snow glare can hurt the eyes as much as sunglare!
- Books, tablets, playing cards, travel-sized board games, or other things to keep everyone entertained during long hours of driving
- A blanket or sleeping bag to stay warm in case your car breaks down at night
- Hand warmers
- A small cooking stove and utensils with enough fuel for a day
- Matches or a lighter to start fires in case you get stuck outside during freezing temperatures
- Water bottles filled with water to keep everyone hydrated
- A first-aid kit with all the essentials, such as bandages, antiseptics, ibuprofen /acetaminophen, gauze, and tape
Never leave and important item behind again! Grab our complete family road trip checklist here
Winter Driving Safety Tips on the Road
So now that you’re planned and packed, what exra saefty measures do you need to take driving your car in winter?
Quit the Cruise Control
You want as much control over your vehicle as possible when driving in icy conditions. You will frequently need to adjust your speed to the conditions which cruise control does not allow as it wants you to keep a consistent speed.
Do Not Tailgate
Whilst it can be wise in difficult conditions to stick behind another vehicle and be guided by their tail lights, don’t stick too close. The person in front of you may have to hit their brakes quickly at any time to avoid an obstacle or crash.
If you are tailgating them, the chances are much greater than you will crash into them because there isn’t enough time to stop their car if they need to take evasive action. Where you’d normally leave a 2 car length gap, think 5 to 6 car lengths.
Watch Your Headlights
Avoid your high beams in the snow. Whilst you may think this makes you more visible to other drivers, high beams reflecting off the snow can temporary blind drivers coming the other way.
You will also find if you are driving through a snow storm the light refracts back so low beams are always best.
Don’t Drive Too Slowly
It’s essential to be a courteous driver and not speed, but driving at a snail’s pace makes it difficult for other drivers to see your vehicle in the snow.
You should also make sure that other drivers can see you; if you are going too slowly, they might think that it is their opportunity to overtake you. This factor can lead to an accident if they hit black ice or another obstacle.
Beware of Black Ice
Black ice can be lethal to the inexperienced winter driver as it is difficult to see. It is thin and transparent so can have you hydroplaning in seconds.
Most prevalent in the early morning, it’s usually formed when there has been overnight rains and temperatures have dropped to below freezing. Bridges are particularly susceptible to black ice as they have cold air circulating above and below.
Lower your speed and keep a safe distance when there are black ice warnings. If you do start to skid, steer into it rather than braking hard and try get your vehicle straightened back up.
Don’t Forget about Fog
Fog is another challenging winter driving aspect to be prepared for. Increase your braking distance and keep your windshield as clear as possible. Just like snow, avoid using your high beams, be guided by the road reflectors if lines aren’t visible and try to maintain a consistent speed and lane to help other drivers too.
Don’t Slam on the Brakes
A sudden panic stop is just as bad as speeding during winter driving conditions. If you need to unexpectedly brake, try to do it gradually instead.
Cars fitted with ABS (Anti-lock braking system), you need a long continuous braking action, whilst those without traction control should look to pump the brake.
(If you’ve never driven in snow before, see if you can find yourself an empty car park somewhere to test how your brakes work!)
And when to turn traction control off
Great for breaking, not so great for getting out of tricky spots. If your wheels are a bit stuck it helps to rock the car back and forward gently. Turn off your traction control and use some sort of grit so your wheels can get some purchase.
If you don’t have any grit, another quick solution can be to place the car mats that are normally at your feet under the wheels. This again helps give some traction to your tires.
Fuel Up More Often
Even though it means more stops, we highly recommend you take the opportunity to fuel up on winter road trips when you can. In the case of an emergency and if you are stuck on the side of the road, you’ll want enough fuel in the car to keep the engine running for heat.
Pay Attention to the Road
It should go without saying but pay attention! It’s easy to get caught up in the scenery especially when everything is new and exciting, and we love pointing things out to the kids.
Always stay alert to the road conditions and other vehicles around you – things can change suddenly. Schedule in regular breaks if you need to and use the correct turnouts for making scenic stops.
The main reason for accidents is because other drivers make poor choices behind the wheel. After all, they didn’t expect you to do what you did. Be prepared for anything and drive cautiously at all times.
Final Thoughts on Winter Driving
Don’t entirely dismiss winter travel because of the extra precautionary steps. Creep out from under those blankets, get your vehicle serviced and get your road trip planner out – you might just find your families adventure of a life time can be found in the mountains or the snow dusted plains.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’re looking for tips driving in extreme heat, pop over here for our desert driving advice.
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