Driving in snowy and slippery conditions is an important skill to have as winter rolls in. Here’s what you should do when you’re driving in snowy conditions
Drivers in the UK need to be able to adapt to a range of different weather conditions on the road. That includes being able to drive on slippery, icy or even snow-covered roads during the winter months.
While the safest advice is to stay at home if driving isn’t necessary, you don’t need to shy away from the driver’s seat when the thermometer starts to sink. Stay cautious and follow our tips for driving in snow to become a winter-driving hero.
Preparing to drive on snow or in the cold
Your first step to driving safely in snowy conditions begins before you’ve started your journey. A few simple checks will go a long way to making sure you don’t encounter any issues once you’ve set off.
- Tyres – keeping your tyres in good condition is important all year round but is essential when the roads are slippery. Make sure you have lots of tread left on your tyres, and make sure that your tyres are at the correct pressure – don’t let some air out to increase the contact patch as, for the kind of snow we see in the UK, it’s much safer to run at the correct pressure so your tyres can cut through the snow layer and grip the road surface beneath
- Wipers – if they have become old or damaged, they won’t be able to clear the windscreen effectively, which can dangerously block your view out. We’d also suggest turning off your automatic wipers. In very cold weather, the wiper blades can freeze to the windscreen surface – risking damage to the wiper blades or the wiper mechanism
- Screenwash – almost as essential as wipers is the screenwash that goes with them. Roads during winter tend to be caked with grime and muck, along with salt from gritting lorries. You can always use water in an emergency but the best choice is to buy a ready-mixed or concentrated screenwash from your local car parts store or supermarket
- Footwear – you should wear dry shoes with good grip when driving in the snow to avoid your foot slipping off the pedal. If your shoes are wet from walking through the snow, try to dry them or find alternative footwear
- Emergency kit – there’s always a small chance you could end up stuck or stranded somewhere in your car during the winter months. All-in-one kits can be purchased from most car parts stores and will include things like torches, high-vis jackets, shovels, de-icers, first-aid items and a blanket. We’d also suggest adding additional blankets, bottled water and some snacks to your kit for extra peace of mind
How to drive in snow
Once you’ve checked everything off the list above, you’re ready to venture out. These hints and tips for driving in the snow will help keep your wheels turning and get you where you need to go.
Your engine makes more power the faster it revs. In the snow when there’s little grip to be found, your engine can easily overpower your tyres and cause them to spin in place without moving you forward. The fix here is to keep your revs low to not overpower your tyres, helping you maintain traction.
Pull off in second gear
In especially slippery and snowy conditions, drivers of manual cars might want to consider pulling away in second gear. This will limit the amount of force your engine can apply to your tyres, making them less likely to start spinning freely. Be aware, you might need to ‘slip’ the clutch a lot more than normal to pull away smoothly in second gear.
Leave extra space
You should always be mindful to leave plenty of space between you and other motorists or obstacles on the road. However, in winter, you should substantially increase the amount of space you leave because it can take a lot longer to bring your car to a stop in case of an emergency. This will also give you more time to react and assess potential upcoming dangers before you get to them.
Keep your speed constant
Sudden increases or decreases in speed, via harsh acceleration or braking are dangerous in slippery conditions. Keeping your speed at a constant level that’s appropriate for the conditions can help avoid a crash. This is especially important around corners where your car could skid out of control if you jab the accelerator or brake pedal.
Use lower gears going downhill
In especially bad weather, you might want to consider swapping down a gear or two when going down a steep hill. This will bring your revs up a little, increasing the amount of engine braking being applied to the driven wheels. This can help stop your car from running away from you thanks to downhill momentum and reduces the burden on your brakes, which can lock the wheels if applied too harshly.
Use the accelerator and brake gently
As covered earlier, gentle use of the accelerator and brake pedals is vital in snowy or slippery conditions. The amount of grip available to your tyres from a snowy road surface is already fairly low so sudden braking or acceleration can easily push past this point and lead to a loss of control.
Learn what to do in a skid
You can follow all the advice on this list to the letter and still get unlucky with an unseen patch of black ice, so it helps to know what to do in the event that your car does start to skid.
While this could easily be a guide in its own right, the first thing you should do in the event your car starts to lose grip is to gently ease off the accelerator. In most scenarios, this will allow the spinning wheels to slow down enough to regain grip, then you can gently steer the car back into line. In faster skids where the car’s direction begins to drift substantially from where you’re pointing it, you should turn into the skid to bring the car back into line.
Be mindful of wheel tracks left by other vehicles on the roads. In light snow, these can often be thin enough to cut directly through to the road surface, making them the safest place to position your tyres.
However, in thicker snow, wheel tracks can hide layers of snow packed one on top of the next, which can make them more slippery than the uncompressed ‘fresh’ snow to the side.
Be aware of your environment
In snowy and slippery conditions you need to be even more aware of the environment around you. That can include being mindful of wheel tracks as discussed above, or being aware that shaded parts of the road, or ones with lots of tree coverage, will take longer to thaw out than roads with direct exposure to the sun, which can make them a hotspot for black ice. Keep scanning the road and environment ahead of you as you drive, making any adjustments to speed as appropriate for the conditions.
Driving a rear-wheel-drive car in snow
Driving a rear-wheel-drive car in snow can be harder than driving a front-drive or four-wheel-drive car. You don’t have the heavy engine pressing down on the driven axle in a rear-drive car. Plus, the wheels are pushing you forward rather than pulling, which can create unruly handling. Putting heavy items in the boot can slightly improve grip.
Rear-wheel-drive cars are more likely to slide, so you need to be really careful when braking or going around a corner. It’s worth booking a winter driving course if you feel you need some practice in catching a slide or preventing a skid. You’ll gain invaluable car control techniques that could stop your BMW getting up close and personal with a hedge.
Winter tyres are worth fitting, as they give you much more grip than normal summer tyres – as we mention below.
Do I need winter tyres?
Winter tyres have a handful of differences compared to summer or all-season tyres that help them perform better during the colder months. An obvious difference will be the more ‘knobbly’ tread pattern compared to a summer tyre, which will feature more, deeper grooves to help the tyre effectively clear water and grip snow. In addition, winter tyres are often made with a slightly different formulation of rubber that retains its material properties in cold temperatures, where summer tyres can become somewhat brittle. Read our full guide to winter tyres for more info.
Learn how to prepare your car for winter
We’ve already covered some basic preparation steps to keep your car fit and healthy over the winter months but, if you’d like a more in-depth dive, take a look at our guide to giving your car a winter checkup. If you’re on the hunt for a new set of wheels that will look out for you and the family in the snow, check out our picks for the safest cars for winter driving.