How to Drive in the Snow


A car driving in a Souther California snow storm in Julian, CA

If you are going to live in the mountains, first, you need an all-weather vehicle, and second, you need to know how to drive in the snow.


The San Diego mountains have a very mild winter compared to other high-altitude locations. We have about three to five snowstorms a year and get anywhere from a dusting to a few feet during a good storm.


Fortunately for us locals, the snow doesn’t stick around for very long. This being said, unless you are able to stay home, you need to learn how to be mobile in less than ideal conditions. We all know the saying “San Diegans don’t know how to drive in the rain.” The same is true for driving in the snow. Whether you live in a mountain climate or plan to visit one during a snowstorm, here is what your driving school didn’t teach you about driving in the snow.


Only drive if you have to.

Avoid unnecessary risks by staying home.


Get an all-weather vehicle today.

I HIGHLY recommend having an all-wheel-drive or 4-wheel drive if you live in a four-season climate. Even though I only use my all-wheel-drive a few times a year, it totally makes up for all the hassle I would face if I didn’t have it. Backcountry roads don’t always get plowed right away. Every time it snows, a large portion of the population is always frantically trying to get mobile. You can avoid much of the aggravation by having an all-weather vehicle.


Preparing your vehicle for a snowstorm

In early fall, you should start preparing your car for the winter weather. During the colder months, I keep my snow chains, a flashlight, blanket, and shovel in my car. I try to keep some snacks in there, too, but they never last very long.


Your vehicle needs all-weather tires. It’s a good idea to get your wheels balanced and aligned so the car will perform better in less than ideal driving situations. Double-check that your headlights are good. The snow and ice shorten the lifespan of your windshield wipers. It’s best to get into the habit of replacing your wipers every year. Test-fit your chains. Tires come in different sizes, which means chains aren’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. The more familiar you are with putting chains on, the easier it will be when you actually need them. Many first-timers find it quite challenging to put them on.


When you are expecting a snowstorm in your area, you will want to park your car in a location that will be relatively easy to pull out of. Avoid having to back up in the snow by parking your car with the front facing the road. For those with two-wheel or front-wheel-drive, this is a must-do. If you have a long driveway, park at the edge of it. Wherever you park, do NOT park in a place that narrows the road and therefore prevents the snowplow or other cars from being able to get by. Do not be that person. Just don’t.


Once your car is parked, prop your windshield wipers up so they don’t get buried. For those who know they will need to drive their vehicle right away, I recommend putting your chains on prior to the snowfall. If the road is completely plowed with no snow on it, though, you do not need to drive with your chains on.


On snowy mornings, it takes twice as long to get out of the door. Definitely set your alarm extra early. You will have to get dressed in your snow gear, warm your car up and dig it out, and the highway speed limit is reduced from 55 to 25 MPH when chains are required. There are all sorts of gadgets out there to help you warm up your car faster, but here’s how to do it without those.


As I mentioned above, I prop up my windshield wipers before it snows. About 30 minutes before I need to leave, using a broom, I brush off the fluffy snow from my car door and side windows. I turn the car on and make sure the heater is off. If you warm up your car too fast, any cracks in your windshield will worsen. After about 20 minutes, I go back out to brush off my windows. I do not use my windshield wipers until the snow on the windshield is soft. Using the wipers on an icy windshield will destroy the wiper blades. When my car is warmed up, I turn on the heat.


When chains are required

When the “Chains Required” signs are flipped, you must have chains for your vehicle on hand, and the speed limit is reduced to 25 MPH.


Driving

Now that your vehicle is ready, let’s talk about actually driving in the snow. Driving in the snow is nothing like driving in the rain. It is way more complicated. Always keep extra distance between you and the car in front of you. Once a car starts sliding, there is very little you can do to stop it. I always try to avoid major hills and backing up when there is snow on the ground. Additionally, the snow on your car changes the weight of your vehicle and how it drives. This will be important when stopping and making turns.


Driving in the snow is tricky. Driving in fresh snow, partially plowed snow, and on refrozen snow are all very different types of driving. You want to drive slowly so you maintain control, but you also need enough speed to keep the vehicle moving through the snow.


In fresh snow, drive in the tracks left by other cars. If you need to slow down, slowly start to drive in the unpacked snow to slow you down with little use of your brakes. When there are no tracks, you will need to drive faster to keep your car moving through the snow. When going up a hill, increase your speed to keep your momentum. When making turns and going downhill, you want to avoid using your brakes as much as possible. Having locked brakes is a situation you don’t want to be in.


It is better to be safe than sorry. Stay home if you are not able or equipped to drive in winter conditions.