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Winter Driving Tips

The engine
Seeing the road
Special precautions for diesels
Stuck and unstuck
State Patrol requirements to cross the passes
Chains: sometimes the only link to safety
Other equipment

by Chuck Gustafson

I enjoy our winter trips best when the driving portion is routine and I dont see my life flash before my eyes in a white blur.  My idea of a pleasant trip does not include sliding sideways down the road, or driving with chains so loose that the banging in the wheel wells sounds like a tank.

I get really upset with a car that wont start at 10 degrees below zero, especially when we have just skied 20 miles and are exhausted, it is 6 p.m. and pitch dark, and we are 10 miles back on a Forest Service road.

A few of my tips on winter driving are presented here, in hopes that your trips will be routine and thrill-less.

The engine

It goes without saying that your cars engine should be in excellent tune if you want it to start consistently at winter temperatures.  This is even more important for driving in the mountains where the engine must work harder going up grades and where there is less oxygen in the air.

If the car is kept in the mountains for any length of time, it will run better if you have the carburetor (or computer) adjusted for your typical driving altitude.

The engine oil weight is crucial to cold-weather starting. In the Puget Sound lowlands, the typical mechanic may tell you that 20-weight oil will be thin enough for winter driving.

That may be true for Seattle where it rarely falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or even Snoqualmie Pass on a normal slushy day, but when it gets colder (as you approach 10 degrees), your car may fail to startand at zero degrees and below, you will be lucky if your engine even makes a grunt.

Your engine oil at this point is somewhere between the thickness of molasses and epoxy.

To cover the full range of possible Cascade temperatures, your oil should go down to a 10-weight.  In really cold climates like Minnesota, Yellowstone or Alaska, weights down to 5 are often used.

Unfortunately, the lower weights provide poor lubrication at higher temperatures (20 degrees and above) and for long hours of high-speed driving.  This can be resolved by using a multi-weight oil.  Probably the best all-around engine oil weight for Cascade winter driving is 10w30, with 10w40 a close second (the wider the range of a multi-weight oil, the poorer it actually functions at the extremes of its rating.)

I have personally found that 15w40 is good year-round oil, except in really cold weather.  Then I switch to 10w30.

Even with a well-tuned engine and the correct weight oil, the starting motor wont turn over in cold weather if the battery is too small or is weak from age.  At zero degrees, the typical battery will retain only 40 percent of its rated capacity.

When I lived in Wisconsin, we usually knew by November if our battery would make it through the winter. Puget Sound winters are deceptive, however, since they are so mild in the lowlands.

In the 30-40 degree range, an old or small battery may function just fine if the car gets enough highway miles to keep the battery charged.  But take that same battery to the mountains in zero to -10 degrees and you will be lucky to get several slow turns (but no start) of the starting motor.

Several years ago the five-year warranty period ended on the battery in our Suburban.  It was working great in Seattle and tested out a little weak but serviceable on a balmy November day.

New Years weekend at Lake Wenatchee, we awoke to -10 degrees and an engine that sounded like a sick cow.  Total cost of that episode was two days of lost skiing and enough dollars to have purchased five or six new batteries in Seattle.

My rule of thumb now is to deep-six any battery that is at all defective or that has an expired warranty (they are usually designed to self-destruct at this point) before December.

I always buy the battery with the highest cold-cranking ampere rating that will fit in the battery tie-down bracket.  The additional cost of taking these precautions is less than just talking to most tow truck operators!

Anti-freeze may also be serviced inadequately by a Puget Sound basin mechanic if you dont mention your special requirements for mountain driving.  Typically, cars in Puget Sound country have an anti-freeze-to-water ratio that wont freeze until about -10 degrees.

When it is -28 degrees in Twisp or -40 degrees in West Yellowstone, your cooling hoses and radiator will crack as your cooling fluid freezes.  If you are "lucky," only your soft plugs will pop out of the engine block and the block itself wont crack.

Seeing the road

The windshield wiper/washer system should also be winterized.  This system is used extensively in the winter, even in the lowlands, and contributes immeasurably to safe driving.

You havent lived until youve driven in a blizzard at night with glaring headlights blinding you, a smeared windshield and a ripped wiper blade that only clears one-fourth of the windshield.

I check the blades every fall and replace them if necessary.  If the old blades are at all serviceable, I keep them in the trunk as spares.  (Ive lost new blades from enthusiastically pulling a blade away from a frozen windshield and leaving half of it on the glass.)

I also make sure the washer tank is topped off with a good anti-freeze cleaner that wont freeze in the tank or on the windshield.  On long trips, I carry an extra gallon of the stuff.

This will save you sometime when your tank runs dry on a slushy, cindered winter road, or when a service station on the interstate tries to charge you $10 for a pint.

Special precautions for diesels

I owned a Rabbit diesel in 1980 and thus learned several tricks to keep a diesel operating all winter with only minor inconvenience.

First, install an engine block heater.  Plug it in whenever the car is outside and you will have nice fast starts.  When it gets below -10 degrees, this may be the only way you will start.  Carry a long extension cord when youre on the road and youll be surprised how ingenious youll become at plugging in your car.

When we stayed at a Wenatchee motel to ski Mission Ridge, I plugged the car into our room when I first woke up (no outside outlets there).  By the time we were dressed and had eaten breakfast, the engine was nice and toastyready to start.

Engine block heaters work on gas engines, too, but are only really necessary if you are going to be in very cold country (consistently -20 to -40 degrees or worse).

Remember that a big, big battery and correct engine oil are doubly important with the diesel.

Finally, a little-known fact for gas-oholics:  Diesel fuel starts to turn to a jello-like consistency at about 20 degrees.  As the temperature drops, the fuel gets thicker until finally it cant flow through the fuel lines.

We experienced this firsthand in Winthrop one New Years weekend when it reached -20 degrees one night.  Despite winterizing the fuel (obviously not enough) and doing everything right (except plugging in), the engine would run at only about 200 rpm, as the fuel pump desperately tried to squeeze molasses-thick fuel from the tank.

How do you winterize your fuel so that this wont happen?  You can buy it premixed during the winter in areas where it is consistently cold.  This premix may not be sufficient if the temperature drops below norms of the area where you bought the fuel (e.g., Wenatchee-winterized fuel may thicken in Winthrop).

In the Puget Sound area, where we all know it never gets cold, none of the diesel is winterized.  This means you must winterize your own fuel by adding up to 10 percent by volume (see your owners manual since it may differ slightly) of gasoline, alcohol or kerosene.

Gasoline is probably the best way to thin diesel, but is harder on the engine and can even be dangerous if mixed at too high a concentration.  Alcohol is also somewhat hard on the engine, but is safer.

If obtainable, kerosene is the best choice, since it is the closest to diesel fuel in flash point and lubricating qualities.  It is also less critical if the mix is a little off and it will affect mileage only slightly.  Kerosene is harder to find, but goes a long way.


The first rule of rain and snow driving is to have a good tread.  With that, you will stop and start quicker and dramatically reduce hydroplaning.

For more traction on snow than a normal street tire, you can buy what are called "all-season tires."  These tires have a tread pattern that is somewhere in between a mud or snow tire and a summer or street tire.  They will be slightly noisier and will wear out faster than a street tire, but will have better traction in snow and mud.

The best traction is obtained with a true snow tire.  These come in a variety of tread patterns, some of which are very similar to an all-season tire.  Snow tires are normally only mounted on the drive wheels, although they will improve stopping power if put on all four wheels.

Snow tires are noisier than the all-season tire, ride rougher and wear out even faster.  This is because of their wider tread pattern which is also what gives them superior traction in severe conditions.

Adding studs to a snow tire significantly improves its performance on hard-packed snow and ice.  It also ruins the roadway, is very noisy and provides less traction on dry and rainy pavement because the tread is not in full contact with the road surface.  And putting studs on the drive wheels of a front-wheel-drive car can transmit an uncomfortable vibration up through the steering column.

If you drive a lot on snow or in the mountains, one of the better options is the sticky or soft-compound tire.  These tires have an all-season or snow tread using hydrophilic rubber.  The tread usually gets sticky in cold weather.  This is the type of tire used by the Washington State Patrol and many police departments.

Their advantages are several:  They dont wear out the roads; they dont go clickity-click; they dont send vibrations up the steering column of a front-wheel-drive car and they give excellent traction in the rain or on dry pavement.  Their only disadvantage is that they dont perform quite as well as studs on glare ice.

I have used two different types of sticky tires on two different vehicles over several years of winter driving and I think they are great.  An additional plus with sticky tires is that you arent constrained by the official state season for studded tires.

If you rarely drive on snow, you could skip snow tires as long as you have plenty of tread.  But I would always carry chains in case conditions changed beyond what my street tires could safely handle.

If you want better traction for those few Puget Sound snow storms and perhaps for some mountain driving, but seldom need ultimate traction and dont want to hassle with seasonal tire changes, I would select an all-season tire.  Put them on all four wheels so you can rotate them front to back as wear dictates.

For the best traction, I would select a sticky snow tire for the drive wheels at least, and perhaps for all four wheels.  I would select a studded tire only as a last resort, if none of the sticky tires will fit your vehicle.


Whatever type of tire you use, you should always carry a set of chains, since they provide the ultimate traction and braking performance.

We only use our chains an average of once or twice a year, but when we need them, nothing else will substitute.  From late September to May, we carry our chains when we go to the mountains even though the roads are clear.  This is an especially important precaution when the snow tires arent mounted.

One early October, it snowed all night on our camp at Harts Pass. Even with chains, we wondered whether we could negotiate the twisty road with its thousand-foot drop-offs.  Luckily, the morning sun melted enough snow so that we didnt have a crisis driving out after all.

There are three basic types of chains.  Plastic chains are cheap and break easily.  They are helpful in soft snow if you dont have snow tires, but are almost worthless on ice.

Cable chains are specifically designed for radial tires.  Compared to reinforced chains, they are relatively easy to put on, cause less damage to the tire and are quieter with a smoother ride.  They provide good traction on snow and ice.

Reinforced chains provide the best traction on both snow and ice, and the ultimate in braking performance on glare ice.  This type of chain is very noisy and produces a rough ride, particularly on packed snow or dry pavement.

They are also the hardest to install, are hard on the tires and can damage both the tires and car if installed improperly.  Despite all their drawbacks, I personally prefer reinforced chains.  Since we already have good snow cars with excellent snow tires, when we need chains, we really need help, not half-way measures.

When using reinforced chains, first try them on at home, fitting them on the tires which you will be using.  Practice a couple times, until you feel confident.  You may even want to keep notes in case you forget the most successful method by the time the snow is falling around you in the freezing night.  You would be surprised how many people do not practice this.

It can be harrowing to find out in a blizzard at night with cars sliding off the road that your chains actually dont fit your tires or a cross link is broken, ready to wreak havoc around your wheel housing, brake lines or shock absorbers.

If the chains are too short or too narrow, you will need a different set.  If they are too long, the extra links or perhaps an entire cross-link (this shouldnt be necessary on new chains of the correct size) may have to be cut out with a hack saw or bolt cutters.

Remember to be conservative:  It is easier to take links out than it is to insert them.  You should end up with three to five loose links on the end opposite the hooks.  You need the extra links because on your first try with cold hands, bad light and frozen chains, you wont be able to fully tighten them.  Be satisfied with hooking the third or fifth link, depending upon your dexterity, type of chains, roughness of tire tread and access in the wheel housing.  But dont put anything away yet; you are not through.

Drive on the shoulder for 100 feet or so and then tighten up one more link.  Now put on your rubber chain tighteners.  Remember, these are no substitute for a chain with too many links.

Finally, wire or tie off any loose links.  Short shock cords with hooks are a fast way to secure loose links.

Drive a while, then take off the rubber chain tighteners and see if you can tighten up one more link.  The tighter the chain, the easier it is on the chains and tires, the quieter the ride and better the traction.

To avert installation of chains in the snow, some may keep two extra tires in their vehicle that are permanently chained.  When chains are then needed, the vehicle is then jacked up and the chained tires are mounted.  However, this method can be dangerous on a slippery surface, especially with a grade of any kind.  Equally, jacking up the car to wrap the chains onto the tires can be hazardous on such road conditions.  And if the road conditions are not such, why are you putting on chains?

When I was a teenager in Wisconsin learning to drive on snow and ice, my mother told me to drive with a feather touch and pretend I was in a china shop.  This advice has proven sound over the years.  You will have few problems if you handle the car with slow, gentle and deliberate motions.  If you push the car hard with a jerky technique, you are inviting skids, spinning tires, collisions, and the ditch.

The more slippery the road surface, the more critical your technique.  Steering should be slow and smooth.  As you start to lose "feel for the road," you will notice that the steering will become easier and you will have less sense of friction between the tires and the road surface.  This means that either you have increased your speed too much or that the road surface is slicker.  In any case, you should slow down until you have a good "feel for the road" again and confidence that your car will go in the same direction that you are steering.  Dont assume you can match the posted speed limit; these only refer to same maximum speeds on dry pavement.  Stopping distances on ice or snow can be 3-5 times or greater than those on dry pavement.  Ignore other cars going faster.  They may have better traction or may be more foolhardy.  Allow extra space between yourself and the next car; drive extremely defensively.

Accelerate smoothly and slowly without spinning the tires.  Slow down or stop by very lightly tapping and pressing the brake pedal with your toes (heel on the floorboards) to prevent locking the brakes.  Never slam on the brakes or let off the accelerator quickly, for this may send you into a skid.  One trick is to pretend that you have a fresh egg between your foot and the brake pedal.   Break the egg and youre in big trouble.  This is the one time that lightly riding the brakes is an acceptable driving technique.

If you have anti-lock brakes (ABS), use the heel-and-toe method, but do not pump the brakes.  In an emergency, apply pressure firmly and continuously.  The ABS will pump the brakes for you.  Pumping ABS brakes is the worst thing you can do.

If you have a manual transmission, be careful downshifting.  A rough downshift is just like slamming on the brakes, since it causes the drive wheels to suddenly slow down.  I can remember one snowy morning in Wisconsin as a neighbor came roaring down the hill in his unmuffled hot rod.  With a roar, he popped the clutch as he downshifted into second gear.  As if in a dream (nightmare), we watched as he spun off the street into a neighbors living room.

If you do go into a skid caused by braking, first remove your foot from the brake.  If the skid was caused by excessive speed, first gently decelerate by easing up on the gas pedal.  If you have a manual transmission, push in the clutch.  If you have an automatic and you can do this quickly without lessening driving attention, put the shift into neutral.  Steer in the direction you want to go in a controlled easy motion.  As you regain control slowly turn the wheels back to the normal direction of travel and gently re-engage the transmission and accelerator.  If you must stop, apply brake gently to prevent another skid.

Front-wheel-drive cars have unique problems with skids.  Because so much weight is over the front wheels, suddenly letting off the accelerator slows down the front end much faster than the rear.  This can cause a rear wheel skid or worsen one in progress.  This tendency is greatly exaggerated if you have snow tires or chains on the front and summer tires on the rear.  To diminish this problem, you should mount snow tires on all four wheels.  This is the law in Canada and is recommended by the U.S. National Traffic Safety Commission.

Stuck and unstuck

You can get stuck after a skid or from being forced off the road.  Ive found, though, that when I became stuck, most often I drove right into my predicament.  Dont drive off the plowed road unless you know what is under that pretty white stuff.  It may be a 5 deep drainage ditch or an unfrozen marsh or lake.  One of the leading causes of drowning in the Midwest is guess what cars falling through lake ice.

Quit driving when the snow gets deep enough for snowshoeing or skiing.  Going farther ruins the tracks for non-motorized winter travelers and only gets stuck.  Deep snow over the axles can cause you to become "high centered," a real risk with our Cascade cement.  Even four-wheel drive wont work if your wheels arent touching the ground.  Consider the exposure on the down slope of mountain roads if you slide off.  Ive learned the hard way that another 100 yards in the car isnt worth an hour of shoveling.

Well, you did everything I told you and you still got stuck.  Now we need to get you out.  First rock the car forward and backward using the gears and/or by pushing.  Try to avoid spinning the wheels, because that digs you in deeper and turns the snow to ice.  This is when the shovel, the sand or the screen is invaluable.  Check to see that your steering wheels are straight.  Put some weight over the drive wheels if you have rear wheel drive.  Dont volunteer to help by standing on the rear bumper since that is a good way to get run over.

State Patrol requirements to cross the passes

The first level is "no requirements."  The second level is "approved traction devices recommended/advised."  This means chains or tires with an M&S (mud and snow) rating on the drive wheels.  The third level is "approved traction devices required" (again, approved tires or chains).  The next level is "chains required."  This means a set of chains must be installed on one set of wheels.  The only exception is for four wheel drive vehicles, which can skip the chains if they have both axles engaged and carry a set of chains in the vehicle.  I treat "chains required" the same as "pass closed," the last level, unless I dont have any other options.  Why spend all day fighting to get over Snoqualmie Pass (and run the risks), if you can go skiing in the Greenwater or Mountain Loop Highway areas without crossing a pass.  When the chain signs are up, the avalanche conditions are also unusually very high.

Remember these are only State Patrol advisories, sometimes based on very old information.  They often dont reflect real conditions on the road.  I have put chains on when the official advisory was "traction devices recommended."

Now you know that you can take some of the thrills from winter driving.  Remember to be a good samaritan and stop to help a driver who didnt plan or drive as well as you.  It might be me.

Chains: sometimes the only link to safety

Laying the chains out from the car (forward for front-wheel drive, backward for rear-wheel drive) is a method that works in a variety of conditions.  Lay them neatly with the sharp edges away from the tire or face down into the snow.  Stretch them to their limits and make sure the adjusting hook is on the outside of the car.  Drive over the chains to a spot where they can be draped over the tire and still reached and fastened on the inside.  Now fasten the inside hook (easier written than done) with no loose links.  Then fasten the outside hook as tight as possible.  Dont let go of the outside hook and links until they are fastened, because they like to flip over the tire and around the axle.  When this happens you get to crawl on your back in the slush to retrieve them.

When you are installing the chains, try to park in a level spot off the road and out of the traffic.  Whatever you do, dont get close to the traffic lanes.  Every winter I see people under cars with their legs sticking into the road.  If possible, park with a few cars or better, a big truck behind you to provide a safety barrier.

Chains are normally installed on the drive wheels of front- and rear-wheel-drive cars.  Our previous ski car was a front-wheel-drive Rabbit.  With Michelin sticky snow tires on all four wheels, it was almost unstoppable until the snow was above the headlights.  Chains added very little to our forward traction in most situations.  When we needed stopping power instead of traction we put the chains on the rear wheels.  This helped keep the rear end of the car from skidding out, especially going down steep hills and on ice.

Although four-wheel and all-wheel-drive vehicles have less need to chain up, they are almost as vulnerable as a two-wheel-drive vehicle to skidding.  In extremely icy conditions, chains mounted on at least the rear wheels provide an additional safety margin.  This is particularly important for vehicles high above the pavement with large tires or raised suspensions.  Their high center of gravity makes them more likely to roll over in a skid.  Even four-wheel-drive vehicles can get stuck; then chains can save the day.  A four-wheel-drive with chains on all wheels has the traction of a tank.  On our current four-wheel-drive Explorer, we carry a set of reinforced link chains and a set of radial chains, giving us several different options.

Equipment that makes chaining up easier includes:  a mat, an old jacket or coverall, a wire hanger (to retrieve the chains from under the car), rubber gloves, spare wire to tie off links, rubber tighteners and a bucket to store the chains.

Your chain directions will recommend a speed limit.  Believe the recommendation.  Generally, driving more than 25 mph is very hard on the transmission, suspension, tires and chains.  This is particularly true on dry pavement.  Let those morons driving 50 with chains go by.  Like the turtle, you will get to your destination.  Some of those who pass you will end up in a ditch, break a chain or wrap or fuse it to their axle.

Other equipment

Personal survival gear.  If you dont have a trip pack with the 10 essentials.  Dont run the engine to keep warm, except in short spurts with a window cracked and the tailpipe clear of snow.  Assign someone to "motor-watch."  Many blizzard victims have died of carbon-monoxide poisoning in their cars.

Jumper cables.  Never jump a frozen battery or stand over a dead battery being jump started because it may explode.  Turn off all electrical switches except the heater fans in both cars (fan motor should absorb damaging voltage spikes).  Hook the cables up in the following sequence:  positive of the dead battery to the positive of the good battery; then negative of the good battery (or safer, the grounded metal frame) to the grounded metal frame of the dead car.  Start the good samaritan car and charge the dead battery for a few minutes.  Then try to start the dead car. Disconnect the cables in the reverse order.

Battery charger.

Shovel, broom, scraper, windshield de-icer, spare wiper blades.  When you install new wiper blades, keep your old blades as spares (hint:  when leaving the car, flip your blades off the windshield and do not start the wipers until the windshield is thawed).  A butane lighter is also good for thawing frozen locks.  As preseason preparation, spray your locks with WD-40 or equivalent to prevent most lock freeze-ups.  Store the broom under the car while skiing.  Then you can clear the car without dumping a ton of snow inside.

Tool kit, duct and electrical tape, fuses, spare belts.

Metal screen or sand, kitty litter, etc.  Any of these is good under the drive wheels if you get stuck.  I like the screen because it can be reused, is light, and works in deep snow.

Flashlights, flares, etc.

Radiator cover.  This shields the radiator in very cold weather (usually below 0 F.) so that the engine and heater will operate in the proper temperature range.  You can use pre-cut cardboard, thin plywood or purchase a snap-on outside cover.  Remember to monitor your temperature gauge to prevent overheating.

Snopark Permit.  This pays for plowing the trailhead parking lots.

Tow rope.  By the time you finish this article, you shouldnt need this, but then again...

Longtime Mountaineer Chuck Gustafson is a backcountry ski leader, alpine scrambling instructor and sailing instructor with the club.  He has 25 years of driving experience, spanning from 38-degrees below zero in Wisconsin to the mayhem of a snowstorm in Washington, D.C. to the heights of mountains in the Rockies and most recently the slush of the Cascades.

Article used by permission of Chuck Gustafson.

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