Wintertime is quite an ordeal regardless of where you live. Between scraping ice off your windows in the morning, waking up to a pitch-black, moonlit sky, and trudging through snow and bad weather between your car and the parking lot, you can appreciate just how much prep work that wintertime requires.
Don’t assume that preparation is only inside and outside of your home, though. Your car has been sitting in the nice warm weather every day of the summer, and the cold winter weather can be a shock to its system as well. Save yourself a bundle on auto repairs in the dead of winter by taking precautions today. The more that you prepare today, the less likely that you will be caught in a storm with no resources.
Pack a Survival Kit
Even though it’s a scary idea, the truth is that about 17 percent of car crashes happen during the wintertime. You run a higher risk of getting into an accident in the winter thanks to many contributing factors:
- Icy, wet weather that causes slipping and spinouts, not to mention contributing to poor vision and a clear line of sight while driving.
- Daylight savings time equals an added hour of darkness, making it difficult to see the road ahead of you.
- Other drivers. Just like the most dangerous ride at Disneyland is a parent pushing a stroller, other drivers not paying attention can be a serious danger in winter weather.
With all of this in mind, it’s a smart idea to pack a survival kit in case you find yourself stuck on the roadside after a fender bender. You can buy kits like these at almost any department store or outdoor goods store, but it might be a cheaper idea to pack your own. Use any duffle bag you have at home and leave it in your vehicle, packing items like:
- Warm clothes like an extra sweatshirt, long johns, socks, and a blanket
- A first-aid kit and a spare phone charger
- Flashers/flares and a reflective vest to alert other drivers of your presence
- A tire pressure gauge and jumper cables
- Snacks (protein bars, trails mix, etc) and bottled water. If you regularly carry your furry pal around in your car, don’t forget about water and a bowl for him or her too!
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Fire extinguisher
Remember to check on and restock your kit as needed. Anytime you use something — even if it’s only a Band-Aid — make sure to replace it the moment you can. The last thing you need is to find yourself with an empty kit that you failed to properly stock when a real emergency strikes.
Get a Tune-Up
You run an antivirus scan on your computer, have contractors fix broken things around the house, and call the Ghostbusters when your hotel is haunted. Why should you not give your car the same maintenance and upkeep? Your local auto repair shop will be happy to look at your car and make sure that it’s winter-ready. If you bought your car from a dealership, ask about their services. Many car dealerships offer tune-ups and oil changes for life with the purchase of a car.
This likely goes without saying, but if you choose to take your car to a local Pink Elephant or Pep Boys or a place like that, watch out for scammy sell tactics. Not all shops are the same, but it is a well-known fact that the owners of certain companies like these (especially the larger, well-known ones) tend to push extras onto customers that might or might not be needed. For example, you might be told that your car is in desperate need of auto brake repair or that your filters are “shot.” Take suggestions like these with a grain of salt. If you know someone who does car repair or mechanic work on the side, get a second opinion.
Turn Up the Heat
You’ve been using your air conditioner all summer long, now it’s your heating system’s turn to shine. Remember that this is something that will be working overtime all winter long. If you need to make heating system repairs, now’s the time to do so. Heaters can fail at the most inconvenient times possible, so safeguard yourself.
Check for any warning signs that your heater is starting to act up. Some of these might be:
- Rattling or crackling sounds from the heater or radiator
- Inconsistent temperature; sometimes it’s nice and toasty, other times it’s only lukewarm
- Failure to work at all/spotty functionality
Be prepared that you might have to purchase some automotive parts to make necessary repairs. Parts might not always be cheap, and labor can be ridiculously expensive too. Save room in your budget for this task in case there’s something unexpected under the hood.
Check Your Fluids
Before the cold weather really sets in, you better make sure that your car is good on all of its fluids. Not only wholesale gas, but the other fluids that help it run properly:
Antifreeze. The name itself tells you what the product does, but if you don’t understand how it works, here’s a very quick breakdown: When you add antifreeze to the car’s engine, it helps to circulate the rest of the liquid and keep it from becoming frozen in the cold winter months. Consider it a bit like running hot water through your pipes during a blizzard.
Engine oil. You already know to change your oil every 3,000 to 5,000 miles, but before it starts to get cold, you might consider an early extra oil change just to be sure. Engine oil keeps the whole system moving properly and keeps all of the gears smooth and lubricated.
Brake fluid. Especially important in icy, slippery conditions, brake fluid keeps your brake pedal pressurized to quickly stop the car.
Power steering fluid. Helping to keep the hydraulics in your car healthy, power steering fluid helps to make the pressure that allows your car’s wheels to easily turn.
Transmission fluid. The transmission components on your car — the valves, gears, and clutches — are kept lubricated and easily moveable with transmission fluid.
Windshield fluid. If you’re not a car person, this is the one you likely recognize the best out of the whole list. Windshield fluid protects your front window and keeps it clear if it starts to get dirty or streaky. It’s not only a cosmetic feature — it’s a safety feature.
Give Her a Good Wash
If it’s been a minute, give your car a good deep cleaning. Beyond taking her to the car wash to have the unicorn puke (tri-color) soap, there are plenty of ways to deep-clean your car:
- Vacuum and wash any car mats. You and your passengers are rubbing your shoes all over these bad boys, so try not to imagine how germy they must be. The jury is out on whether or not you should wash your mats in the washing machine or hand-scrub them, so that’s your call.
- Dust off and spray off your dashboard, stereo system, and everything visible like knobs and buttons. The gunk and oil that collects on these over time is astounding, and you can really appreciate the concept of “squeaky clean.”
- Clean the windows really, really well. Don’t just Windex them; first, clean any gunk or grime off the inside and outside of the windows. Use an all-purpose cleaner like Dawn and water in a spray bottle and get between the seals and along the tops of the windows. Next, clean them with glass cleaner. Use a microfiber cloth to prevent streaks, buffing them until they’re dry. Again, this is more than a cosmetic feature — it’s a safety concern.
- Use a toothbrush to clean out between the cracks and crevices that you can’t reach with a cleaning cloth. This includes anything caught inside the steering wheel, your cup holders, in the seams of the dash, etc.
A clean car is more than aesthetically pleasing; it’s a sanitary car. Winter is flu season already, and you don’t want to get sick. By giving your car a good, hearty scrub down, you are killing any potential sickness-causing bacteria.
Put Emergency Numbers in Your Phone
Now that everything is in place in case of an emergency, now you need the right people to contact if something were to happen. Most phones these days have an ICE (In Case of Emergency) contact option, so check your carrier to see. Mark people like your partner, your parents, your best friend, etc. that you want first responders to notify in case something happens to you.
Beyond your ICE contacts, think about the professionals whose help you would need most in case there was an accident or emergency:
- Roadside assistance providers that you might subscribe to, such as AAA.
- Your car accident attorney or the name of a legal professional that you trust.
- The number of your insurance provider’s 24-hour service
- Any towing services that you know of/trust. Remember that you should always be the one to choose a towing service; if a tow truck magically shows up at the scene of an accident, don’t believe that the “cops sent them.” They could be ambulance chasers looking to make a quick but small fortune off of your situation and are likely not affiliated at all.
- Any other emergency numbers you can think of beyond 911: Park rangers, the forestry commission, your emergency veterinarian, etc.
Double and Triple Check Your Tires
Think about it: The only things really separating your car from a sled are its tires. Can you imagine conquering the black ice and snowy terrain with improper tires? Daddy always tried to drill into your head that your tires need good tread, now’s your opportunity to show him that you were listening all along.
Proper tire pressure is essential. Overinflated tires will pop like a balloon under stress, but underinflated tires will be flat and can cause damage to your axles and wheels. Buy a tire gauge — they’re cheap, only about $5 at any auto parts store — and check your tire pressure. The ideal pressure is around 32 psi to 35 psi.
How much tread do your tires have? Quickly use the quarter test as a guide: If you stick a quarter into one of your tire treads and it’s held in place, your tread is okay. If your tires are basically roller skates at this point, then you are not being safe. Bald tires have ZERO traction, so imagine trying to roller skate in the ice while coming to an abrupt stop. Doesn’t bode very well, does it?
For places that get a super-lot of snow, consider tire chains. These act as snowshoes for your car, preventing the risk of tire slippage by firmly rooting your tires into the ground. It’s a fantastic precautionary measure for all drivers (but an added sense of relief to parents of teen drivers too).
Charge Up Your Battery
Cold weather drains batteries like a hole in a bucket. When the cold weather starts rearing its ugly head, then it’s time to make sure that your car’s battery is in the best condition. A rule of thumb is to replace yours every three to five years, so if it’s starting to creep up on that time, a second look might not be a bad idea.
If you have a battery tester, see what kind of charge yours has. Some danger signs of a dying battery include difficulty starting, a slight “whining” sound when you try to turn over the engine, clicking, or simply nothing at all. Remember to shut off any lights and close doors and glove boxes completely to prevent accidentally draining the battery.
Check also for signs of corrosion. Part of the job that antifreeze does is to help prevent corrosion inside the car’s engine. Ensure that battery acid hasn’t spilled and that everything is clear and clean.
Nobody likes the idea of getting into a bad situation on the side of the road this winter — it’s a scary thought. But as the Boy Scouts of America say: Always be prepared. The better that you prep your vehicle this winter, the less of a chance that you will be stranded in a snowy ditch somewhere without a charged phone. Take all the precautions that you can to ensure that the only reason this winter is memorable is for the snow, not for a car wreck.