This article originally appeared on Outside
Are you ready to drive safely this winter? Long nights, cold temperatures, slippery surfaces, and airborne precipitation all combine to make the coming season uniquely challenging. Taking care of some basic maintenance tasks before those conditions set in can boost safety, and help keep you comfortable. Just a few simple tweaks can prepare your car for winter. Most of this stuff is easier than you'd think.
Tires, not all- or four-wheel drive features, provide traction in winter weather. Unfortunately, the tires that come with new vehicles--no matter if they're crossovers, 4x4s, or whatever--are incapable of providing that winter traction. So, if you live or visit places that experience below-freezing temperatures, you need to swap on a set of winter tires.
There is no official standard, stamp, or guidance defining what a winter tire actually is. The Three Peak Mountain Snowflake and Mud and Snow stamps you find on tire sidewalls are meaningless. Instead, rely on tire manufacturer marketing materials to tell you whether or not a tire is designed for winter use. And it can be hard to distinguish realistic claims from outright lies. In the absence of that information, my best advice is simply to select a tire from Bridgestone's Blizzak or Nokian's Hakkapeliitta ranges. The Blizzaks can be found at most large tire shops or even at Costco, and provide reassuring confidence in cold temperatures and winter surfaces. Hakkapeliitta's can be harder to find (especially right now, as the war in Ukraine has shut down some of the Finnish brand's plants and shipping routes), but are also higher performance. I've already got Hakkapeliitta LT3s mounted to both my trucks this season.
I get a lot of questions from readers who want to start using winter tires for the first time, but are confused by all the ins and outs of buying and fitting them. A quick explanation is that in the five years or so most new car buyers keep their vehicles, you'll need to purchase a second set of tires anyways. Bringing that purchase forwards to include a set of winters uses money you were going to have to spend, and potentially saves you the costs associated with a crash. Find a tire installer in your area who can swap your tires around during the fall and spring, use one of Tire Rack's mobile tire installers, or purchase a second set of wheels, mount your winters to those, and swap the wheels/tires yourself. That last option is what enables residents of warm places to safely visit mountain towns and ski resorts.
Every 10-degree change in ambient temperature will reduce or increase tire pressure by 1 pound per square inch. Check tire pressures regularly, especially while traveling.
Cold temperatures can quickly deplete a battery's charge, or even permanently destroy it. Clipping a $70 Battery Tender to the terminals and plugging it into a standard home outlet will maintain a battery's charge, and prevent it from freezing.
Car batteries have a useful life of three to five years. If your battery is approaching that age now, or you're unsure, then replacing it now will ensure your car is able to start this winter. Optima's RedTop range of starting batteries is designed to continue working as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cold temperatures can also damage the batteries in portable jump starters. Carrying one of those is a good idea, but you should transport it in the heated passenger compartment, and store it inside a temperature controlled home or garage when your vehicle is parked.
Changing your engine oil at least twice a year is the easiest thing you can do to extend your vehicle's useful life. And oil flows slowly in cold temperatures, stressing your engine. Consult your owner's manual, and choose an oil viscosity appropriate for cold weather, then change it and the filter while your driveway is still warm and dry.
While you've got the engine bay open, check the coolant and transmission fluid levels too. Your owner's manual will give you maintenance intervals for both.
Also examine the condition of hoses and belts. Cold weather will put additional stress on those components too.
If your vehicle uses reflector headlamps fitted with halogen bulbs, those bulbs will grow dimmer over time, and should be replaced once a year as a result. Despite ample online claims to the contrary, LED bulbs are unable to match the even light distribution of halogen bulbs, and will decrease vision if installed in a reflector housing, even if they do appear brighter.
Consult your owner's manual and follow the prescribed procedure for checking the alignment of your headlamps. New vehicles are often sold to customers without ever having their lights adjusted, and lights can move out of adjustment over time. Misaligned headlights will limit the distance you're able to see at night, and can blind other drivers.
Hydrophobic glass coatings like Rain X can prevent precipitation from sticking to windshields and headlights, but must be applied in above-freezing temperatures, so now's the time to re-apply those as well.
Ice can quickly accumulate on standard windshield wipers. Winter wiper blades feature a shielded blade that prevents ice build up.
Most new vehicles are now fitted with cabin air filters that require regular replacement. These are typically located behind your glovebox. Accessing them can involve a complicated procedure; putting your vehicle's year, make, and model, plus "cabin air filter replacement" into YouTube is the easiest way to figure it out. A clogged filter can slow the rate at which your cabin heats up while putting stress on your climate control system.
On older cars, ensuring the coolant system and belts are in good condition, and have been changed as the vehicle's maintenance schedule dictates will help ensure your heater works when you need it.
If your car has been exposed to road salt for several winters, it may also be a good idea to crawl under it and examine the exhaust system. Those rust easily, and any holes or cracks may allow carbon monoxide to enter your cabin while idling.
Even with winter tires, a steep, icy hill or very deep snow can still cause your vehicle to become stuck. The easiest, safest, and most effective way to get unstuck is with a set of Maxtrax. DIY alternatives like kitty litter or floor mats cannot come close to the reliable efficacy of Maxtrax.
Snow accumulation can also hide road hazards like potholes or debris, and the lubrication water provides makes it easier for for sharp objects to penetrate the rubber carcass of your tire. Make sure your jack and spare tire are in good condition, are actually in the vehicle, and that you know how to use them. Carrying a can of Fix-a-Flat can remove the need to try and change a tire in the dark, on a roadway narrowed by snow accumulation.
Throwing spare jackets and boots, a blanket, and other items you already own in your vehicle can give you not only the ability to respond to an emergency, but also give you flexibility to respond to changing weather conditions in your normal life. Storing water and even non-perishable food items in a cooler may help prevent them from freezing.
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