Winter is harder on your vehicle than any other season; the extreme cold, water freezing in the seals, and road salt are enough to drive any car owner to reconsider living where the air hurts their face. If you’re like me however, there’s too much to leave, so hunker down and we’ll come up with a plan to tackle the cold that will make a Yeti take notes.
The best thing you can do for your pride and joy is to tuck it away in a climate controlled garage before the snow falls and take it back out when the last flake has completely melted. If walking to work isn’t really your thing and a second car is out of the question, let’s do our best to prepare it for the battle ahead.
When preparing for winter, there are a few different categories of vehicle prep we need to look at. The functionality of the vehicle, safety of the occupants, and protection of the vehicle against the elements are the topics that we need to consider. Let’s start with the functionality of the vehicle.
1. Switch over to winter tires
Many people look for a vehicle with all wheel drive or 4×4 thinking those vehicles are safer in the ice and snow, and while those systems can provide additional traction to pull you out of a snowbank they won’t prevent you from ending up there in the first place.
This is why my number one recommendation for winter prep is winter tires. The rubber is significantly softer with more “fingers” to grab into the surface you are driving on. Winter tires are typically directional so be sure to pay attention to this when installing your winter wheels.
I would also recommend having a separate set of wheels for your winter tires. The upfront cost is higher but having a tire shop swap your tires on one set of wheels twice a year will become much more costly in the long run. You also run the risk of having a tire get damaged by mounting and dismounting so frequently.
2. Test your 4×4 and limited lip differential engagement
I know I just said winter tires are more important than all wheel drive and 4×4 but if you’ve got it, use it and make sure it’s working properly before you need it. The first test is pretty easy – just put your vehicle in four wheel drive and make sure it engages. You’ll know it’s working if you make a turn on dry pavement and it feels like the vehicle is trying to tear itself apart.
Don’t overdo it, back off as soon as you can feel your driveline binding. A limited slip differential is a little more complicated to test without burning off your tires, put your vehicle in park and jack up one tire, remove the wheel, then turn your axle with a torque wrench and compare the amount of torque it takes to spin the wheel off the ground with the specification for your vehicle.
3. Maximize your visibility
To see and be seen will make driving much safer. Make sure all your lights are not only functioning but also bright enough; this might be the day you decide to polish those headlight lenses.
It’s also important to make sure your washer fluid sprayers are working and the reservoir is filled with washer fluid designed to withstand the local temperatures without freezing. Not to mention a trusty snow brush and window scraper.
4. Check your battery or prepare to boost it
Few things make a morning before work more stressful than a car that won’t start. Needless to say, have your battery tested before the cold strikes. Most shops will perform a battery test at no charge.
Even a seemingly perfect battery could have a dead cell and wait for a cold snap to let you know. If the test determines the battery is weak or has a bad cell, replacing it is a safe bet. It also couldn’t hurt to carry a booster pack just in case. Booster packs are made extremely small and lightweight today thanks to lithium-ion batteries.
Some might recommend jumper cables but I vote booster pack instead for two reasons. Firstly your battery doesn’t always crash when it’s most convenient for you. There might not be a second person with a vehicle nearby.
Secondly, boosting your battery with a second vehicle could cause damage to the courteous passerby’s vehicle. Now a friendly gesture turns into a hefty repair bill and that’s no way to make new friends.
5. Make sure your engine is ready
Here’s a tip most people wouldn’t think of: make sure your engine oil is the correct weight. You might think that the oil weight on your fill cap is the proper oil to use, however in some rare cases this is only a general recommendation. Make sure to read your owner’s manual or contact the manufacturer.
They may recommend a lighter weight for the winter if you live in an extremely cold climate. It’s also important to make sure your coolant is up to the task. Over time your engine’s coolant loses its strength and collects contaminants that could plug your heater core, leaving you without heat when it’s most important.
Speaking of heat, installing a block heater might be something to think about if your car is parked outside overnight. The block heater doesn’t have to run all night either, it only needs a few hours to warm the block so putting a timer on the outlet you use for the block heater will significantly reduce your electricity bill.
Having a block heater comes with a few benefits: it reduces wear on your engine due to cold starting and will heat up the cabin faster.
6. Prepare for your passengers
Even the best laid plans go wrong from time to time, having a backup plan never hurt anyone. Suppose the worst has happened and you find yourself stranded. You’ll be relieved to know we have an emergency kit for just this scenario. We made sure the spare tire was well inflated in case of a flat, we also made sure there was a roadside kit with safety triangles, road flares, and a tire change kit.
Also in our emergency kit are less obvious items, such as a cell phone charger, window breaker, seatbelt cutter, blanket, matches, candles, and non-perishable high protein foods such as nuts and granola bars.
Make sure you wear clothing appropriate for the weather regardless of how short your trip is. A hat, gloves, boots, and warm jacket could be the difference between a minor inconvenience and hypothermia.
7. Rust prevention
Whether you’re a baller daily driving a GT-R all winter or a practical SUV or crossover don’t let winter eat away at your vehicle more than absolutely necessary. If you have a garage, always park inside for the night. A garage might not be feasible for everyone so a temporary carport might be a viable option for you.
Regardless of how you store your vehicle, there are a few other ways to care for your car during this less than pleasant season. Make sure you give your car a thorough cleaning before winter and add a layer of protection to your paint and anything else you can protect as well as wash your vehicle frequently to prevent salt from dwelling on your vehicle.
Ceramic coatings will shine here – a coating can be applied to your paint as I’m sure most of you are aware of. Less known however, are coatings for glass, wheels, trim, and even tires. Ceramic coatings are by far the best way to easily and affordably protect your vehicle’s exterior.
Another thing to think about is the underbody of your vehicle. Just because you don’t see the salt and road grime doesn’t mean it’s not there. Investing in an underbody sprayer like this one can make cleaning the underside of your vehicle a breeze.
There’s also a unique product on the market from AMMO NYC called boost winter wash which neutralizes salt and leaves behind rust and corrosion inhibitors.
Now, this might sound controversial to some of you out there but I vehemently oppose rustproofing and undercoating products. Hear me out before you send in your angry messages and dismiss me as an asylum patient gone missing.
Undercoating is a thick rubber-like coating applied to the underbody and frame rails, this in theory provides a barrier of protection to the underbody but in reality, can do more harm than good.
Any moisture that manages to penetrate the undercoating has nowhere to go so while you intended to keep moisture and salt away from the metal, it now dwells between the undercoating and the metal eating its way through the frame of the car without you having any knowledge of this event. Not to mention all the electrical connections and fasteners under the vehicle are going to be much more difficult to access.
What about rustproofing or oil guard products? Those must be better for the vehicle right? Perhaps they are, but only slightly. Rustproofing causes dust and smaller contaminants to stick to the underside of the vehicle. What do you think happens when salt becomes one of those contaminants stuck to your vehicle? It’s going to eat away at anything it comes into contact with.
Think of it like your vehicle’s paint. Would you want to add a contaminant trapping and attracting product to the paint or would you prefer something like a sealant or coating that encourages grime and debris to take a hike? I theorize that a car with a clean underbody is less likely to rust. Feel free to test both theories and let me know what you find after a few years.
It’s important to prepare your vehicle ahead of time, before the weather gets bad. Don’t wait until the first snowfall to try to book an appointment to have your winter tires swapped. Chances are, you’ll be at the back of the line and have to wait for days, maybe even weeks if the shop is a popular one.
Don’t wait until you’re freezing on the side of the road to check to see if you’ve packed some warm clothes or a blanket for emergencies. Make sure you always have a phone with you any time you head out into winter weather. Unfortunately, we can’t plan for every single scenario so that phone is your lifeline for help.
Remember, if you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail. Do your best to be ready for anything winter has to throw at you, and make sure to get out there and practice your winter driving skills!