Winter driving in the PNW ranks among some of the trickiest in the nation thanks to our widely varying topography, changeable weather and drivers who don’t get a lot of practice driving in the snow. It’s so challenging that in a trucking podcast, professional drivers named Washington and Oregon among the states they’d most like to avoid from December to March!
So how can you keep your usual winter commute or holiday trip from turning into a white-knuckled ordeal? Our claims and safety experts weighed in to separate winter driving lore from proven techniques.
Here’s what to know about navigating slick highways, choosing the right winter tires, putting on tire chains and – if all else fails – abandoning your car in a snowstorm if you get stuck.
Winter driving tips for snow and ice
Even if you have winter tires or 4WD, our experts agree: If possible, postpone your trip to give road conditions a chance to improve. Your safety on slick roads depends not only on your vehicle and skill, but the choices of other drivers – something you can’t control. Delaying trips gives road crews a chance to plow the highways and allows daytime warming and other traffic to help clear a safer path for you.
Once you’re on the road:
Slow down. Way down. Posted speed limits are meant for optimal driving conditions, not snow and ice. Don’t use cruise control. The automatic acceleration or downshifting of cruise control can cause you to lose traction in slippery conditions and it slows your ability to recognize and react to changes in the road.
Increase following distances and brake gently. It’s a snow-driving myth that hard braking can “jolt” your car out of a slide. It’s more likely to land you in the ditch.
Keep your low beam headlights on. Their reflection may help you spot icy pavement ahead – especially helpful when snow is beginning to melt and road conditions can change in a matter of yards.
Do as little as possible if you hit black ice. Because black ice usually occurs in short patches (often less than 20 feet long), the best strategy may be to try to allow your car to coast over it safely. Keep your steering wheel straight and take your foot off the accelerator. Hard braking or swerving will make things worse. “Black” ice isn’t black at all – it’s perfectly clear and can look like a harmless stretch of wet roadway. It tends to form overnight and early in the morning when temps are hovering right around the freezing mark.
Steer strategically if you start to skid. Ease off the brake or accelerator and gently turn your wheel in the direction you want the front of the car to go. For example, if your rear tires are sliding right and pushing the front of the car to the left, steer to the right. (Sometimes you hear it called “steering into a slide.”) Once the car has started to respond and the front is nearly centered again, gently straighten the wheel so you don’t inadvertently overcorrect and send the car sliding in the opposite direction. If your car is sliding, it may be a sign you’re driving too fast for the road conditions.
Change to a flatter route. Even if it adds a bit of distance, choose routes without hills that could leave your wheels spinning, especially if you get stopped mid-hill at a red light.
Which winter tires are best?
The right tire depends on the conditions you’re most likely to drive in. Sometimes it helps to think of tires as shoes:
All-season tires = tennis shoes. They may be fine west of the Cascades in urban areas and when drivers can avoid being out in the worst conditions.
Winter tires = boots. Marked with “mud and snow” or a mountain and snowflake symbol, these tires are good east of the mountains and in hilly areas. They have softer rubber that helps the tire stay pliable in the cold and keep more of its surface in contact with the road. They also have deeper treads to push away water and snow buildup, and they have “sipes” or small slits in the tread that help the tires cut deeper into the snow. (Because they’re softer, they wear out faster, and you’ll want to extend their life by using them only during the coldest months.)
Studded tires = boots with crampons. Once the gold standard for winter tire traction, studded tires (that is, tires with metal pegs embedded in the tires) have been largely replaced by newer-generation winter tires that perform better in a wider range of winter driving conditions. That said, studded tires still may be the best choice if you often drive on clear ice that’s at or near the freezing mark, have a steep icy driveway or live on an unmaintained private road where ice is a problem. They’re also good if you have a rear-wheel drive vehicle.
If you decide to go the studded route, know that they’re only allowed between Nov. 1 and March 31 because of the damage they inflict on road surfaces. They’re also illegal in some states (surprising ones include snowy Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin), so if you’re planning a cross-country trip, your out-of-state license may or may not save you from a ticket.
Your local tire shop can offer advice on the best tires for your car. But whatever kind you buy, get four. Using the same tires on all four wheels reduces your chance of skidding. Also, inflate them to manufacturer-recommended pressures and ignore the myth that underinflation improves traction; it’s more likely to lead to a blowout.
Do I need chains if I have 4WD?
While all-wheel (AWD) or four-wheel (4WD) drive will help you get traction in fresh snow, don’t assume you’re “ice safe.” Regardless of your vehicle, ice leaves your tires with nothing to grab onto. When it comes to the law and chains, however, “chains required” may not mean “chains on” for AWD and 4WD vehicles – but you still need to carry them.
In general, vehicles with 4WD and AWD don’t need to chain up, as long as all wheels are in gear and they have approved traction tires with adequate tread. That includes studded tires and all-season, all-weather or snow tires (look for the M+S or mountain/snowflake symbol on the sidewall). However, those vehicles still must carry chains for at least one set of drive tires. You’ll find more detail in these guidelines for Washington (toggle “Traction Tires”) and Oregon.
If you don’t have 4WD or AWD, front-wheel drive vehicles need to have chains on the front tires; rear-wheel drive vehicles need them on the back. Important to remember: Chain design varies by manufacturer, so always refer to the instructions that came with your chains even if you’ve used other types of chains before.
How do I put on tire chains?
For general tips, we like this simple two-minute video that shows how to install cable chains on a front-wheel drive car.
We’d also add these reminders for chain-up success:
Ask a tire professional for help with buying the right size and type of chains for your car.
Practice inside your garage. It’s better to learn there than crouched on a snowy shoulder of a road, likely with freezing fingers, adverse weather conditions and other cars around you.
Get as far off the road as safely possible before installing your chains. That reduces the chance that another car could slide into you as you’re working.
If you’re traversing mountain passes, look for state Department of Transportation chain-on and chain-off locations.
Stop and check the chains after you’ve driven for a few minutes. They may need to be tightened.
Never exceed 25 mph with chains (or the speed recommended by your manufacturer).
Don’t use chains on wet or bare pavement. Remove them once you’ve left the snow and ice behind.
Once you’re home, let your chains dry out in the garage before packing them away. That will help prevent rust.
What should I carry in my car for winter driving?
One of the most surprising things is a full tank of gas! If a snowy commute snarls traffic for hours, you don’t want to run out of gas on the road. Or, if you get stuck, the gas in your tank will allow you to run your engine for heat. We recommend that you never let your tank dip below half full once we change the clocks back to standard time.
You’ll also want to pick up a couple of bags of old-fashioned non-clumping cat litter and keep them in the trunk. The cat litter will give you emergency traction if your tires start to spin. (If you don’t have cat litter, you could sacrifice your floor mats to help you get unstuck.)
Also, buy a lidded plastic container (the type you use to store holiday decorations) and make it your “snow box” to carry in your trunk. It should include a sleeping bag or blanket, snow boots, warm gloves that you’ll use for putting on chains, water, granola bars and a car phone charger.
What do I do if I get stuck in the snow?
In most cases, it’s best to stay with your car if you’re safely off the road and you think help will come soon. If your car can still move, get as far off the road as safely possible before you call it quits. You’ll reduce the chance another vehicle will hit your car or that you’ll get an abandoned-car towing fee if road crews must have it removed. Turn on your emergency flashers and put out warning reflectors if it’s safe to do so.
If you decide it’s best to get out and walk (you’re physically fit, dressed appropriately and your destination is nearby), put a note in your window with your cell phone number so authorities or a towing company can contact you. Take your valuables and personal information (like your car’s registration) that would allow a thief to locate your home or steal your identity. Set the emergency brake and lock the doors. Towing professionals will still be able to safely tow your car.
PEMCO offers affordable Towing and Labor coverage that can give you peace of mind if you’re stranded. It’s available as a low-cost add-on to your policy if you have Comprehensive and Collision coverage. Costs are minimal – about $10 per year, per vehicle, when you opt for $100 in emergency towing reimbursement.
Call 800-GO-PEMCO or ask your local PEMCO agent for details.
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