Winter driving can be trying on both the vehicle and its pilot. As with many other things in life, preparation is the key to success. A few cold-weather parts and preparatory procedures can make the difference between being stuck in a drift and making it home.
Routine vehicle care is the best way to keep from being left out in the cold. This includes tune-ups and inspection and replacement of worn belts and hoses. Cold weather makes pliable materials stiffer and more brittle. It also makes fluids thicker. With this in mind, people who live in extreme climates often use light-viscosity synthetic lubricants, which work across a wider temperature range than conventional oil. Those who don't want the added expense sometimes use lighter-weight oils in the winter, such as 5W30 in the engine and 75-weight in the axles.
Antifreeze should be kept at approximately a 60:40 coolant-to-water ratio. In extreme conditions, too little antifreeze in the mix can allow the coolant to freeze and crack the engine block. Installing a higher-temperature thermostat-say 195 degrees-will help heater performance and help the engine burn off condensation.
Battery maintenance will also improve cold-weather performance. For batteries that require maintenance, make sure that all cells are full of water. Keep all battery terminals and cable ends clean, and make sure the battery is well grounded.
Several engine-block heating systems are available, both on the OE level and from the aftermarket. Most new vehicles sold in cold country come with factory-installed block heaters that replace one of the engine's freeze plugs or connect to the heater hose. These heaters keep the coolant warm overnight so that the engine fires more easily in the morning. Aftermarket block heaters are available both as 120-volt plug-in units and use-anywhere propane-powered models.
The aftermarket also offers a variety of engine-oil heaters. Most rely on 120-volt AC power, and models include magnetic heaters that stick to the oil pan and heated dipsticks that replace the stock units overnight.
Diesels especially don't like the cold. Owners' manuals give cold-weather start-up tips, which might include cycling the glow plug two or three times, depressing the throttle slightly at start-up and keeping the vehicle at a fast idle after it fires. Using ether and starting fluid generally isn't recommended on diesels. Below about 10 degrees F, diesel fuel starts to gel. Aftermarket anti-gel additives are available to combat this. Another option is to look for #1-grade diesel instead of the thicker #2, or thinning #2 with about 20% kerosene.
Cold weather also decreases battery output-when it's needed most. For starters, consider buying a battery with the highest cold-cranking-amp (CCA) rating your wallet can handle and that will physically fit in the battery tray. Dual batteries connected in parallel series will theoretically send twice as many cranking amps to the starter.
Realize that dead, frozen batteries can explode when jump-started. The jolt of juice can cause hydrogen gas to form, and things get ugly as gas attempts to escape through a shell of ice. Immobilized-electrolyte (captive-acid) "six-pack" batteries use a recombinant design to limit gassing and a sealed case for added safety.
Warm batteries maintain their charges better than cold ones. Plug-in battery warming blankets and tray plates are two aftermarket solutions. Another alternative is to remove the battery and take it inside at night, being careful not to touch or spill the acid.
Many year-round tires bear the M+S (mud and snow) stamp. However, tire manufacturers are now designing tread patterns and rubber compounds specifically for snow-and-ice traction. Typically, winter-tire tread patterns capture some snow-snow-to-snow contact improves traction. As friction melts the snow, tread siping and lug grooves channel away water to minimize hydroplaning. Snow tire treads aren't designed for longevity on pavement, so all-weather tires should be used during the non-winter months.
Tire chains can cut stopping distances in half. Many styles are available, which makes chain selection a story unto itself. However, here's a quick overview.
Maximum traction can be had by putting the heaviest chains that'll fit on all four corners. When only one set of chains is available, the California Highway Patrol specifies that it should be on the drive wheels. Other experts recommend putting single sets in front because the engine weight provides added traction. Front-wheel-drive vehicles usually have fender-clearance concerns, so low-profile cable-type chains were developed. Metal chains are available in a variety of styles. Some prioritize ease of installation (diamond-pattern) while others are geared toward ice traction (bar-reinforced at the crosslinks). Keeping the chains tight with rubber straps or bungee cords improves their effectiveness.
> Perform a general check of brakes, lights, defroster/heater, fluid levels, belts, hoses and exhaust system.
> Check the condition of wiper blades and consider upgrading to winter/snow blades. Always "park" blades before turning off the vehicle to minimize chances of sticking to the glass. Better yet, lift blades off the glass overnight.
> Check the coolant level and make sure that the radiator has the proper mixture of antifreeze and water.
> Check tire inflation to verify optimal tire contact with the road.
> Keep the gas tank at least half full. This limits the amount of condensation that can enter the fuel system and also can improve traction-especially in rear-wheel-drive vehicles-by adding weight. Adding gasoline antifreeze to the fuel tank will help protect against fuel-line freezing.
> Consider adding weight to the trunk or pickup bed in rear-wheel drive vehicles. Bags of sand both add traction-improving weight and can be dumped on ice to improve traction further. Make sure to secure the extra weight to the vehicle with motorcycle straps or other suitable restraints.
> Before departing, scrape ice and snow from the roof in addition to every window, mirror and light. Never splash hot water on glass to melt ice.
> Lube door locks and latches and coat weather stripping with silicone spray to help keep doors from freezing shut.
> Prepare for the worst. Put extra winter clothes, blankets and even a sleeping bag in the trunk, take water and food (such as energy bars), pack a flashlight, extra batteries, matches and a first-aid kit.
> Take along a cell phone if possible. Also consider purchasing a CB radio and GPS.