Image: Winter driving
Doug Dreyer  /  AP file
If you’re contemplating a road trip during the colder months, heed the following advice to keep your journey smooth.
By Mark Sedenquist Travel columnist
updated 1/25/2007 11:13:15 AM ET 2007-01-25T16:13:15

Winter has arrived, and it’s a good idea to remember that even otherwise balmy locales like southern California and Florida can experience freezing weather. If you’re contemplating a road trip during the frosty months, here are some lesser-known tips for keeping the journey smooth.

Carry a tarp
When traveling in regions where snow and ice are a possibility, save some room for a waterproof tarp. Smart folks always use such a tarp when kneeling on the ground to make a quick auto repair or to put on chains. One less-than-balmy February morning in Indiana, I was lying on my back underneath my truck in icy snow while repairing a holding tank. I was using a propane torch to warm a frozen water line when I made the interesting discovery that the melting snow had formed a shallow puddle underneath my parka. No worries. I was still quite warm and toasty. Then I attempted to roll over. Oh, no! I was frozen in place by the rapidly forming ice, and I couldn’t even reach my jacket zipper. Passing pedestrians found this quite entertaining, but eventually someone stopped laughing long enough to use the torch and a hammer to chisel me out. The memory lingers, and these days I carry a tarp even when there’s no snow in the forecast.

Carry a spare key
Modern cars and trucks have certain security enhancements that can sometimes out-think mere humans. Many vehicles are designed to lock all the doors within a minute or two when the engine is running. So, if you get out of a warm car to put on tire chains, slip a spare key into your pocket, or else you may find your plan to thaw out in your nice, toasty car has been replaced by a bone-chilling lockout.

Wash, wash, wash
Wintertime travel usually means dirty road conditions, and your car’s windshield is going to show it. If you have faithfully put together your “Go Kit,” you will have topped up your windshield washer’s reservoir with cold-weather washer fluid (rated to minus 40 C) and you will have packed an extra jug of washer fluid for the trip. That’s all good, but before the weather dips below freezing, be sure to run the window washers for two or three minutes. Otherwise, the remainder of the summer solution may still be in the line, and it will freeze solid. You won’t be able to use that fancy wiper-mounted spray system until spring thaw.

Turn off the wipers
Speaking of wipers, when you go to park the car for the night or at the ski area, remember to turn them off — and make sure they are fully retracted — before shutting off the engine. No windshield wiper motor is powerful enough to unstick a wiper that has frozen to the windshield. The motor will burn up trying, and you’ll find yourself without wipers in a snowstorm.

Lose the cruise control
Your new hot ride has all the latest electronically controlled traction aids; you’ve put on your winter tires; and you’re on a road you know. You put the car into cruise control and settle back into your heated leather seat, relaxed even though it’s snowing and the road is a tad slippery. The car handles like a dream until you hit that first sweeping hillside curve. As programmed, the automatic transmission downshifts when the speed drops below the preset threshold. The sudden surge of power causes the wheels to break traction, and the car begins to skid. If your ride is as awesome as advertised, that new failproof electronic traction system will work, but why test it? Leave the cruise control off. Human control is still the better choice in slippery conditions.

Skid school, Lesson 1
If you do lose momentary control and start to skid, there are two time-tested ways to regain control. Most skids are caused by an “oversteer,” in which the rear end of the car breaks loose and starts to swing either left or right, usually on a curve. When this happens, gently let up on the accelerator or the brake. Look where you want the car to go — down the road — and gently steer the front of your car in the direction you are looking. If you see a tree or other obstacle you want to avoid, don’t look at it. Your attention can cause you to aim for the exact thing you want to miss, and your car is all too obedient. Concentrating on the direction you want to go can help avoid disaster.

Skid school, Lesson 2
Much less common is an “understeer,” in which the front wheels have lost traction (in fact, they have stopped rolling and are acting like sled runners), but the drive wheels are still chugging along. Rather than turning around a curve as you intended, your vehicle continues in a straight line — which in my experience is always right toward a cliff. There are two things you need to correct pronto. First, you have to shift some of the car’s weight from the rear to the front, to give the steering wheels some traction. Do this by letting up on the accelerator relatively quickly and — this is the scary part — turning the wheels so they are running straight (which is usually directly towards the cliff). Hopefully you are going slow enough to enable the front wheels to start rolling again and then you can gently steer the car back down the road.

In general, the best policy is to drive in a calm, deliberate manner, and to go easy on the speed. For more about winter driving, check out these 10 easy-to-follow tips.

Driving in a winter wonderland of softly falling snow can be truly magical, but it’s much more enjoyable if you take the challenge seriously and prepare for the unexpected situations that can develop.

Mark Sedenquist is the publisher of RoadTrip America, a Web site providing expert planning, advice and suggested itineraries for road trips. He's spent 30 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America. Also, visit Tripso's forums!


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