10 Tips for Preparing Your Car for Winter

Aaron Brzozowski
by Aaron Brzozowski

We have put together a list of 10 things that you can buy or do ahead of the first snowfall to make your driving experience safer.

Temperatures are dropping all over North America and in some parts of the United States and Canada, snow has already fallen. In the next few weeks, there will be more snowfall across the northern half of the continent, leading to slippery streets and overall poor driving conditions, often in a cold car that is covered with snow.

If you are one of the many drivers in North America who has always lived in an area that gets heavy snowfall, you are surely familiar with preparing for winter. On the other hand, if you recently moved to an area that gets snow after spending years driving in a warmer, snow-free climate, you might be concerned about driving in the ice and snow. Frankly, you should be concerned, as Old Man Winter can cause driving to be considerably more difficult, creating road hazards on streets that are otherwise perfectly safe. Add in poor visibility during a heavy snowstorm and winter weather truly can be a nightmare for someone who is new to driving in cold climates.

Fortunately, there are many steps that you can take to prepare your car for a safer season of winter driving. We have put together a list of 10 things that you can buy or do ahead of the first snowfall to make your driving experience safer, but most of these items can be used repeatedly, even into the warmer months.

Table of Contents

1. Buy Good Snow Tires

It doesn’t matter if your car has – if you live in an area that gets heavy snowfall, you should have proper, dedicated snow tires. While many tire manufacturers will insist that their all-season tires will get by just fine, there is no question that good snow tires offer better grip on ice and snow during acceleration, cornering and braking than any all-season tire.

Bridgestone Blizzaks are regarded by many as being the best snow tire on the market. Offered in a variety of models, there is a Blizzak tire for pretty much every car, truck and sport utility vehicle sold in North America. The thick block system creates a strong inner and outer edge for solid handling, but the microsipes running through every block in the tread leads to incredible grip on slippery surfaces. The microsiping allows the individual sections of rubber and move just a bit as the tire contacts the road, acting as scores of tiny edges that dig in. There are also thick grooves running from the center to the outer edge, allowing these tires to move water and slush out from under the tread.

These are the kinds of tires that you do not want to drive on all year long, as the softer rubber compound will wear quickly on hot, dry roads, so you will want to swap to a different set of tires come spring.

2. Carry a Good Tire Pressure Gauge

If you have a newer car, truck or SUV, you likely have a built-in tire pressure monitoring system that conveniently displays the tire pressure on the dashboard, but with older vehicles, you need to check the tire pressure yourself with a handheld tire pressure gauge. When outside air temperatures drop dramatically, your tire pressure drops as well. This is true with very new tires, but it can become an even bigger issue as tires age. With newer tires, the drop in outside temperature causes the air in the tire to become less dense, effectively decreasing the tire pressure. With older tires, the cold temperatures can cause older tires with aging, hardened rubber to crack. When coupled with the normal drop in pressure due to temperature changes, cracks in the sidewall and tread can lead to rapid air pressure loss. In any case, having lower air pressure in your tires can lead to all sorts of drivability issues and in the most extreme issues, the tire could come off of the wheel.

Fortunately, that can all be avoided by regularly checking your tire pressure. Some people suggest a digital gauge that looks like a thermometer because they are easier to read, but we prefer one like this unit from Rhino USA. This has a big, easy-to-read gauge that goes up to 75 psi, so it will work for just about every consumer vehicle and some smaller commercial vehicles. The hose design allows you to get the head of the gauge on the valve stem while the gauge it out away from the wheel, making for easier viewing.

3. Install New Wiper Blades

Winter weather is the worst on wiper blades, so as we head into periods of snowfall, it is a good idea to install new wiper blades now. When the blades sit against the hot windshield all summer long, baking in the sun, the rubber gets hard and brittle. When the cold temperatures hit, the rubber becomes more brittle , causing it to not flex to contact the windshield as effectively. In the most extreme cases, the rubber can get so hard that it will crack and break off in small pieces, leaving gaps in the contact patch on the glass.

Fortunately, wiper blades are inexpensive and easy to change yourself, so there is very little cost involved with this measure of winter driving preparation. In most cases, you only need to measure the frame of the blade assembly and buy the same size. From there, you can find videos online for changing wiper blades on almost every modern vehicle, but even the most elaborate wiper assembly systems only require a small screwdriver to change the blade.

There are many wiper blades on the market, but the Bosch Icon wiper blades are our first choice on all of our vehicles. They are towards the upper end of the price scale, but they will generally cost you less than $50 for two, so as car parts go, they are relatively inexpensive.

4. Carry an Ice Scraper and Brush

Once you have good tires that are filled to a proper pressure level and a good set of fresh wiper blades, the next most important item for winter driving is a good ice scraper and snow brush. Even if your car lives in a garage, preventing snow from piling up overnight, it is inevitable that you eventually have snow and ice caked to the glass. Some people are fine with waiting for the combination of the windshield wipers and the defroster system to melt everything away, but others aren't that patient. Some of those impatient people will try to use the wipers to scrape the windshield, but that is generally ineffective while also contributing to excessive wear to the wiper blades.

If you have lived in a snowy area for a long time, the odds are good that you have used all sorts of items to clear snow and ice, from CD cases to empty drink bottles, even though you can get a good scraper/brush combo for less than $10.

The unit shown here has a 4-inch scraper at one end of the telescoping handle and on the other end is a 10-inch brush. The scraper will loosen ice and snow from the glass, while the brush will sweep it off of the vehicle. The handle extends to up to nearly 24 inches, but when not in use, it collapses down to 16.6 inches for easier storage.

5. Replace Your Cabin Air Filter

If you live in an area with cold winter temperatures, the odds are good that you are about to spend the next few months driving with your windows up. Between the heater and the defroster, your interior fan system works most of the time during winter driving and it isn't just about comfort – a strong-flowing defroster will clear the windshield more quickly, making for safer driving conditions. The problem is that some vehicles have cabin air filters that get clogged up and, over time, the clogged filter will negatively impact air flow through the ventilation system. A dirty filter is also less effective when it comes to cleaning the air, so the impact of a clear filter is two-fold, improving the safety of the vehicle for occupants and everyone else on the road.

In most cases, the cabin air filter is simple to change and the replacement filter is relatively inexpensive. In some very new vehicles, the cabin air filter might only be available from the dealership, in which case they will be a little more expensive, but interior filters for most popular models are readily available on eBay for less than $20. The new filters are often better than the OEM unit, so they will filter better, but there are plenty of OEM filters available on eBay as well.

6. Check and Replace or Top Off Your Engine Coolant

One fluid that is often disregarded in the course of routine maintenance is engine coolant. As coolant ages, it breaks down and gets dirty, leading to higher freezing temperatures, low boiling temperatures and less ability to pull heat from the engine under extended periods of driving. The easiest way to avoid running into those issues is to change the coolant, but for those who aren’t sure whether or not the coolant needs to be changed, there is an inexpensive, easy-to-use tool.

It works like a turkey baster, sucking coolant up through the tube into the body of the tool. On the side of the tool is a gauge of sorts which shows you the freezing point of your engine coolant. The clear body of the tool also gives you a good look at the condition of the coolant, in addition to showing you the freezing point is too high, your engine is more likely to freeze over and in the worst-case condition, that can be very expensive. By using this simple tool, you can prevent that from happening.

While checking the freezing point of your coolant, you can also check the fill level to make sure that the reservoir is as full as it should be. Along with buying the tool online, you can also get a good price on good coolant. Check your owner’s manual to what type of coolant your engine takes, but the odds are good that Prestone makes a coolant for you.

7. Get a Good Set of Headlights

In many areas around North America, the sun is down, and the roads are dark during the morning and evening rush, so most commuters spend all winter driving around in the dark. Some newer vehicles have headlights that provide loads of light with high tech LED systems, but if you drive an older vehicle with the original headlights, you will likely benefit from a new set of headlights.

There are many options for replacement headlight bulbs online, most of which will offer at least similar lighting to the OEM bulbs, but if you are going to buy new headlights, you should buy the best. For the best forward lighting possible, Sylvania Silverstar headlight bulbs are one of the best options. These headlights bulbs are regarded by many to be one of the best product lines in the industry, offering bright light and better projection patterns that most OEM bulbs.

Due to the popularity of Silverstar headlights, Sylvania makes these bulbs in many different sizes, so there is an option for most cars, trucks and SUVs in North America. They generally cost around twice as much as a standard bulb, but the quality of the light beam is well worth the cost.

8. Buy a Portable Jump Start Box

For many people who commute each day to work, the winter work schedule requires them to drive from home to work and from work to home in the dark. As a result, the lights are on during most of the drive time, along with other electrical features such as the heating system, the window defrosting system and the sound system. This constant, heavy electric usage load is hard on the battery, but making matters worse, batteries don’t work as well in frigid temperatures.

If you have a battery that is going bad, or an alternator that isn’t doing the job, the odds are good that you are going to find out at the first hard cold snap of winter. If you are lucky, you will have a dead battery at home, where it is a bit easier to charge or change the battery, but if you park in a heated garage, there is a good chance that your battery will die in a cold, open parking lot. When that happens, you can wait for roadside assistance to come jump start your vehicle, or you can wait for a tow truck to tow your car to a shop while you wait for a ride home from a friend or family member.

If you want protection against being stranded in a cold, dark parking lot, a portable jump start box is a great place to start. This compact unit holds enough power to provide a blast of juice to jump start your vehicle without the help of another vehicle. Best of all, come summer, when you aren't as worried about having a dead car battery, you can use this handy device to charge your personal devices when on the go.

9. Add Ballast Sandbags for Traction Help

Many people will avoid driving a rear-wheel drive vehicle in the snow, but for those who have no choice, there are ways to make your car, truck or SUV a bit more capable. The first is to buy a good set of tires, like the Blizzaks mentioned at the top of this piece, but when you are spinning only the real wheels, sometimes you need some weight over the drive wheels. This is especially true with trucks and SUVs, which have cargo areas with little weight distribution over the rear axle.

One way to address this issue is to add ballast over the rear wheels. There are lots of options to add weight to your vehicle, with many pickup drivers going so far as to carry around a small load of cinder blocks or stone, but there is a tidier option – especially for those folks with a rear-drive car who don’t want loose stone in the trunk.

A set of sandbags serves as the easiest way to add weight over the drive wheels of your rear-drive car, truck or SUV. These sandbags are actually made to hold a tent in place, but they are designed to be filled with sand and sealed neatly, so they can go in a carpeted trunk or unpainted bed without making a mess or doing any damage. There are also some heavier options for those who want more weight, but if you want to add a little over a hundred pounds over the drive wheels, these bags are a great option.

10. Carry Microfiber Towels

If you love your car, truck or SUV, you likely have microfiber towels on hand for cleaning the exterior, but they can also be handy in the winter, when you are looking to clear up the window glass. Due to the condensation that comes with the temperature contrast of the cold outside air to the warm inside air, your windows might be hard to see out of, leading you to frustratedly wipe the window clean with your hand. That might help in the short term, but once the glass is warm, dry and clear, the area that you wiped will be a dirty mess.

In some cases, you can park your vehicle in the garage and when it is warm, you can clear the glass correctly, but many cleaning agents don’t perform as well in bitter cold temperatures. Also, you generally don’t have cleaning supplies when driving around in the dead of winter, but when the windows are a touch damp from condensation, a clean microfiber towel is often the best tool for getting clean, clear glass.

These inexpensive microfiber towels are small enough that you can easily fit a couple of them in the center console or glove box. If you find yourself out and about, with a foggy windshield that is hard to see through, cleaning it with one of these will clear the fog and remove any dirt.

Feature Photo by By Jaroslav Moravcik/Shutterstock

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Aaron Brzozowski
Aaron Brzozowski

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2 of 8 comments
  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Dec 13, 2021

    My brass ice scraper arrived this week for evaluation (since I can't count on any of you). Tsk, tsk. Will be sure to not let you know how it works out.

  • Tassos Tassos on Nov 28, 2022
    Most of these are utterly unnecessary. Winter tires especially, they cost $, take too much space to store, and if you have a good set of all season tires, you sure do not need them. I have driven in MI for 45 years, never had winter tires, the last 20 years I drove only RWD cars, and still never needed them. If you own a flagship German car, like I did for many years, air filters can be very expensive. I tried to replace mine this fall, but they asked 4 times what I paid for the exact same part overseas (I own identical 2007 and 2008 E320 Diesels). You can always roll down a window by 1 inch or less in the winter and refresh your cabin air. Wipers are rarely used during winter, you can clean the snow with your scraper, use wipers only when it rains hard. I keep mine for at least two years. Microfiber towels may be good. I never used them. Are they washable in the washing machine? ANd how 'cheap' are they exactly?
    • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Kwik_Shift_Pro4X on Feb 10, 2023
      Winter tires in winter conditions will always be superior to "all seasons". Its a night and difference between the two. To say you don't need them means you never used them.
  • ToolGuy Personally I have no idea what anyone in this video is talking about, perhaps someone can explain it to me.
  • ToolGuy Friendly reminder of two indisputable facts: A) Winners buy new vehicles (only losers buy used), and B) New vehicle buyers are geniuses (their vehicle choices prove it):
  • Groza George Stellantis live off the back of cheap V8 cars with old technology and suffers from lack of new product development. Now that regulations killed this market, they have to ditch the outdated overhead.They are not ready to face the tsunami of cheap Chinese EVs or ready to even go hybrid and will be left in the dust. I expect most of their US offerings to be made in Mexico in the future for good tariff protection and lower costs of labor instead of overpriced and inflexible union labor.
  • MaintenanceCosts This is delaying an oil change for my Highlander by a couple of weeks, as it prevented me from getting an appointment before a business trip out of town. Oh well, much worse things have happened.I also just got a dealership oil change for my BMW (thanks, loss-leader prepaid plans!) and this didn't seem to affect them at all.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Gonna need more EV fuel.