Auto Trader cars

Skip to contentSkip to footer

Winter driving 2021: how to drive safely in snow

Snow covered, slippery roads, damage to the car and poor visibility - all these factors can make winter driving a nerve-wracking experience. Read on for advice on everything from preparing your car for winter to driving in snow and icy conditions.

Winter driving can be dangerous because of slippery roads, poor visibility and increased chances of breakdowns. Driving in freezing temperatures, ice and snow can also make many people anxious to get behind the wheel, but don’t worry, here’s our advice to help you stay safe and sound this winter.
10 tips for winter driving Dangers of driving in snow How to overcome winter driving anxiety Key statistics about winter driving

10 tips for driving in snow and winter

Winter driving is quite different from driving during the other days of the year. You need to be extra cautious and be fully prepared with a winter kit to tackle any situation that comes your way. Read our top tips on what tools to keep handy with you and how to stay safe this winter while on the road.

1. Properly prepare before you set off

Check weather forecasts before you set off. If extreme ice or snow is forecasted, you should avoid non-essential journeys.
If you have to travel, give yourself time to de-ice and clean your car before you set off. This is important as the de-icing salt, sand, snow and moisture can rust your car and decrease its resale value and performance level. Washing your car regularly in winter will help ensure that it remains in a good condition and runs properly. As you’ll likely face delays, make sure you have enough fuel. Set off early and allow extra time for journeys. If possible, consider driving on more major roads, as these are more likely to be cleared and gritted. We also advise you pack an emergency kit. While you may be well-prepared for driving in adverse weather, you could still encounter a traffic accident or a jack-knifed lorry. Winter driving emergency kit: We recommend your winter driving emergency kit includes at least the following: • De-icer • Ice scraper • Warning triangle • Hi-vis jacket • First aid kit • Torch • Jump leads • Shovel • Emergency food (like high-energy cereal bars) • Phone charger or charge pack Make sure you’ve got a breakdown service number saved on your phone, and keep a copy written down in the glovebox — just in case your phone battery dies or you can’t get signal. If you have spare carpet or similar, leave it in the boot and use it to drive over if your tyres are stuck or spinning.

2. Consider winter tyres and check tread depth

Check your tyres for any obvious faults such as cracks or splits, but also check the tread depth. The legal minimum limit is 1.6mm, but in snow and icy conditions, it’s better to have a minimum of 3mm of tread on your tyres as that helps with traction and grip. You can check using a tread depth gauge or get a rough idea by looking at the tread wear indicators on your tyre.
Also, check that you’ve got the correct tyre pressure — you can find the recommended PSI (pounds per square inch) figure in your car’s manual or online. On most cars, these can also be found on a plate located in either the frame of the driver’s door, the frame of the front passenger door or under the fuel flap. If it needs topping up, there’s an air pump at most petrol stations, or you can buy a kit to keep at home. Related: Learn about tyre speed ratings. Improving tyre grip on snow and ice: You could add snow chains to your tyres, but you should only do this if there’s enough snow to prevent damage. You should also remove them as soon as you reach roads which are clear as otherwise, the chains can damage your car as well as the roads. You could also consider using snow socks instead of snow chains. However, if you’re travelling in a large car, travelling long distances or if the roads are icy, then snow socks wouldn’t be a viable option. Letting air out of your tyres won’t create more grip and it’s unsafe. You may want to consider winter tyres or all-season tyres, which provide better grip and shorter stopping distances in cold and wet driving conditions. Just remember that winter tyres need to be changed back to summer tyres when the weather warms up because winter tyres don’t work as well and wear faster in temperatures above four degrees.

3. Check engine

To reduce the risk of engine damage, consider changing your oil. Dirty oil can become more viscous in cold weather (especially diesel), and it may struggle to flow through the engine properly.
Adding anti-freeze can reduce the risk of a frozen and cracked engine. You’ll need a 50-50 mix of antifreeze and water, which is added to the water in the engine's cooling system. You should also check your car’s coolant level is between the min and max mark. Additionally, make sure you’re topped up with screenwash. Make sure it’s proper screenwash rather than just water so it doesn’t freeze, and don’t accidentally put anti-freeze in your washer bottle. While you’re checking the fluid levels, clear all the leaves from the edge of your bonnet. They could block the drains that take away rainwater, which could lead to water leaking into your car. Related: What oil does my car need?

4. Check battery health

Extremely cold weather can affect the performance of a battery, most commonly meaning it’s harder to start the engine. On top of that, running lights, heaters and wipers more frequently in winter weather means there're more demands on your battery.
So, it’s worth taking a look before winter sets in. If your battery is more than five-years-old (the average life expectancy), consider getting it replaced. Your local garage will be able to check the battery health for you. Cleaning your battery: If there’s any obvious damage to the battery, best leave it to a professional to check. If you do want to clean the battery yourself, disconnect the negative first to avoid getting a shock (and reconnect the negative last for the same reason). You can clean the terminals with a strong mix of warm water and baking soda, which will fizz. Use an old toothbrush or wire brush for this and dry the connections after with some paper towels. Applying some petroleum jelly to the exposed metal bits can help prevent future corrosion.

5.Clear your windscreen view when driving in winter

Legally you must always be able to see when driving, with all snow and ice cleared from your windows (Highway Code – Rule 229).
To make sure you’ve got the clearest vision, clean your windscreen inside and out. Any leftover dirt or snow could obscure your view and result in a fine, so be thorough and remember to clear any snow from the roof (this way it won’t fall onto the windscreen). We also recommend you pack a pair of sunglasses to combat the added glare of snow and wintery skies. Use de-icer: Apply de-icer to break down the ice. If the ice is thick, use your window scraper to score the ice as this can improve the de-icer’s effectiveness. Tip: applying de-icer the night before can prevent ice building up. Don’t use boiling water to clear your windscreen – the sudden change in temperature could cause the glass to crack. Tepid or warm water is less likely to cause cracks but could freeze and result in thicker ice. Demist before you set off: Don’t start driving until your windscreen is fully demisted. If you’re steamed up, try using air-con to clear the screen – it’s faster and results in less condensation. Do not stick your head out of the window and set off. Don’t use old wipers if it’s frosty: If it’s particularly cold or frosty, then leaving your windscreen wipers on auto while parked should be a no-go. If they freeze to the screen you could damage the blades, the wiper’s motor, and even risk small scratches to your windscreen. For those reasons, we also recommend you replace worn or damaged blades to keep the risk of damage down.
scraping ice from windscreen
scraping ice from windscreen

6. Drive slow

Stopping distances can be 10 times longer in snow and ice, so it’s imperative that you drive slowly. You’re advised to drive at a slow speed in as high a gear as possible and be gentle when braking or making manoeuvres.
Keep your speed down, but don’t lock up your wheels. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) can normally handle this in modern cars, but they may struggle in snow and ice. To avoid relying on your brakes, ease off the accelerator early.

7. Lookout for other road users

Keep your distance from other road users, including pedestrians and cyclists who may be less visible in poor weather.
Don’t overtake snowploughs unless the lane you’re intending to use is clear, and be aware they may throw snow out on either side. Similarly, be aware when overtaking gritters or other vehicles spreading salt or de-icer. If nothing else, it could damage your car.

8. Look and listen

This is good advice all year round, but when the temperature drops you should watch the road extra closely to make sure you don’t hit patches of ice — or other drivers suddenly skidding.
Try to keep the sound system at a lower volume than normal, so you can hear what’s going on under the car when there’s snow, ice or slush around. The sound from the tyres will change when the surface underneath changes, so it can serve as an early warning of impending danger. Even when snow and ice start thawing, there are plenty of places where slippery areas can linger, such as under bridges or in the shade of trees. When the snow and ice have melted, you’re likely to be faced with wet road surfaces and potentially even flooding which means there’s a risk of aquaplaning. To get through floodwater safely, drive slowly and keep your steering straight, then check your brakes when you’re on the other side. Read our guide to driving in floods and heavy rain for more.

9. Driving uphill

If driving uphill, leave plenty of room between yourself and the vehicle in front so you don’t have to stop midway. Keep a steady speed and try not to change gear.
Similarly, when driving downhill you should leave plenty of room. Drive slowly to avoid braking where possible and use a low gear.

10. If you get stuck in snow

If you get stuck, straighten your steering and clear the snow from under your wheels. Lay the carpet or sack under the wheels, which will give your tyres extra grip. Don’t forget to pick your carpet back up once you’re moving again.
cars stuck in snow
cars stuck in snow

Five dangers of driving in snow

Even the most experienced drivers can find themselves in a dangerous situation when driving in winter. Find out more about the dangers of driving in icy weather and what to do if you find yourself in such a situation to stay safe.

1. Slippery roads

Snow and ice mean the risk of losing grip and skidding is much higher than normal.
You can reduce this by making sure all your inputs into the car (the brakes, the steering and the accelerator) are as gentle as possible. If possible, pull away in second gear and avoid wheel-spin by gently easing-off the clutch. If you drive an automatic car, then check your handbook for specific advice. Some automatics have a ‘winter’ mode.

2. Poor visibility

It’s difficult to see the vehicles and pedestrians around you when driving in winter because of factors like longer dark nights, dense fog or heavy snow rainfall.
Use your headlights in reduced visibility. You can use fog lights if visibility is reduced to 100m, just make sure you switch them off again when visibility improves. Make sure all your lights are working and that the lenses are clean. Lights may get splashed with snow and slush when driving so ensure they’re clean before you set off. Similarly, make sure your number plates are clean (you can be fined if they aren’t). Related: Xenon and LED car lights explained.

3. Car breakdowns because of damaged batteries in winters

The cold weather affects your car’s battery and reduces its life significantly. The cold weather slows down the battery’s performance which is why it takes more time for it to charge fully. Winters will affect your car’s battery even more if it’s old and weak.
If your engine doesn’t start, wait at least 30 seconds between attempts and turn off electric-dependent features like lights, window heaters and wipers. If you’re having no luck, it may need charging. With batteries, prevention is better than a cure – just keep your battery topped up. A short journey will allow the battery to recharge itself effectively. If you don’t use your car very often, a regular overnight trickle charge will help maintain battery health. When your car isn’t in use, consider keeping it in a garage or under a cover — which can help prevent fluids freezing, protect the car from salt being spread nearby, and save you time in the mornings by removing the need to de-ice. Related: How to jump start a car.

4. Frozen engines

The snow or icy weather sometimes freezes the radiator which can cause your car to overheat or make unusual noises.
Should this be the case, you should pull over as soon as it’s safe to avoid causing serious damage. If you hear a prolonged squealing sound, the water pump could be frozen and will need to thaw out — again you should stop as soon as it’s safe to prevent serious damage.

5. Running out of fuel

When driving in winters, you’ are likely to find yourself amidst congestion and delays on the road. This is because snow and icy conditions make the roads challenging to drive on thus, slowing down vehicles.
Besides the longer journeys, winter essentials like winter tyres, heater and window defroster also use more fuel which make you more vulnerable to running out of fuel. That’s why you should make sure that you have enough fuel in the tank to last what could be a long and stressful journey. You should avoid idling or ‘warming up’ your car before heading out as it uses a lot of fuel and damages the engine. If your car is due a service, consider getting it done before winter weather sets in properly — and ask if your garage offers winter-specific services. This will help in ensuring that you get the best mileage on your car and that it’s running on its peak efficiency.
congestion in winter
congestion in winter

Reduce anxiety when driving in snow and winter driving

Dark gloomy days, chilly weather, slippery roads and heavy traffic – all these factors are enough to make you feel anxious when driving in winter. But you can tackle your fears with the help of some tips to make you feel more confident on the road in winter.

1. Pack your winter kit

As mentioned above, the winter emergency kit includes everything that you might need in case your car breaks down or gets stuck in snow, from an ice scraper to warning triangle, first aid kit, shovel and so on.
Make sure that you carefully pack all the essential items in your kit and that you refresh the items from time to time, to replace any old, broken or used item. Knowing that you have a fully stocked winter emergency kit with you will help give you peace of mind when driving in winter.

2. Check and recheck

Before you head out for your journey, check twice that your car is prepared for the icy roads.
Make sure that car has enough fuel, the tyres are fitted with snow chains if you’re driving in snow, the headlights are clean and working properly, your antifreeze is topped up, you’ve kept your winter emergency kit in the car and so on. This will help you in leaving the house feeling confident and ready to drive in winter. Related: Winter checklist: car preparation essentials

3. Remain calm

Driving in winter can mean longer journeys than usual because of the congestion.
Once you’re on the road, try and remain calm. Make sure that you’re taking all the precautions for staying safe like maintaining a good stop distance, using your headlights and indicator, and driving slowly so that you feel safe when driving. Listen to soothing music to keep yourself from worrying or talk to other passengers in the car, if any, but make sure that you don’t get distracted.

4. Prepare for the worst

The number of car accidents and breakdowns increase in winters because of the snow and slippery roads. Thus, it’s important to know what to do if you find yourself in such a situation.
Having a winter kit with you isn’t enough. You should also learn how to use these items properly to get your car back on the road. Be prepared by learning things like changing a flat tyre, jump-starting a car, putting on snow chains and so.

5. Get a Pass Plus certification

You could also consider getting help from a professional to learn how to drive in snow and icy conditions by getting a Pass Plus certification.
This six-hour training prepares you for driving in different situations including bad weather conditions. This can help you in feeling more confident, not just when you’re when driving in winter, but also to tackle other challenging roads such as motorways and driving at night.
a saloon car driving in snow and winter
remain calm when driving in snow

Facts and figures about winter driving

Our recent survey of the UK public showed that more than a quarter of drivers (28%) are scared to drive in the snow, and that 80% of drivers didn't know the correct safe stopping distance for driving in icy conditions.
stopping distances in winter statistics
Stopping distances can be 10 times longer in snow and ice
Learning about driving in snow and icy conditions is very important for your safety. Our data shows that people still don’t know about the essential items that they should carry and how to prepare for winter driving.
Other data shows that: • 67% own a window scraper • 56% keep de-icer in their car • 25% clear their windscreen with boiling water when it snows • 21% start driving despite my windscreen being only partially demisted • 11% start their journey with their head out of the window if the windscreen is too icy • 54% know for certain where to put coolant and anti-freeze in their car • 50% keep their car topped up with anti-freeze • 8% have never opened their car bonnet • 6% add winter tyres when it snows • 5% use snow socks when it snows • 5% use snow chains when it snows Download Auto Trader's free winter driving study.

Search Auto Trader for...

New carsUsed cars

Other articles related to Handy guides

Related Topics