Ultimate Winter Driving Guide

Ellie Dyer-Brown, 5 months ago

5 min read

  • Car ownership
Close up of car wheels on a snowy road.

WhoCanFixMyCar covers everything you need to know about driving and caring for your car in winter.

One minute, you’re driving along, listening to your favourite song on the radio, and the next, you feel your car start to skid on a patch of black ice. Your stomach bottoms out as you panic, trying to remember what to do. Are you supposed to brake? (No.) Steer in the opposite direction? (Also, no.) You wish you’d read that essential winter driving guide you saw from WhoCanFixMyCar…

We all know that driving in winter comes with extra risks, from hazardous road conditions to fewer daylight hours. There’s nothing we can do about the weather - unfortunately - but there are plenty of things you can do to prepare for it. This guide covers everything from driving in snow to preparing your car for when the temperature drops.

Contents:

Top five winter driving tips

Driving in the dark

Driving in snow

Driving on ice

Driving in fog

Aquaplaning

Winter car maintenance

What is a winter car check?

Car battery tips for the cold weather

What to include in a winter car kit

Winter driving FAQs


Top five winter driving tips

Follow these driving tips to make sure you’re never caught in the cold. 

1. Plan your journey.

When you’re heading somewhere unfamiliar, it’s worth taking time to plan ahead. The shortest route might not necessarily be the safest one. Minor roads are less likely to be gritted or ploughed, and some areas are more prone to flooding during heavy rainfall. Check for traffic alerts warning about hazards so you can plan your route accordingly.

Programming a car sat nav.

2. Take it slow.

Winter journeys often take longer. You might have to scrape ice off your windscreen, and driving more slowly than usual is sometimes necessary to ensure you get through challenging road conditions safely. Factoring extra time into your journey can reduce your stress levels, especially if you need to arrive at your destination at a particular time. Calmer drivers are safer drivers.

3. Check your fuel level before you set off.

Unexpected delays are likely during the winter, so make sure you have at least a quarter of a tank of fuel, just in case.

A car fuel gauge with orange low fuel warning light.

This blog discusses how far you can drive when the fuel light comes on.

4. Leave extra room between your car and the car in front.

Your stopping distance increases when ice, rain, or snow is on the road. Leaving extra room will give you enough time to stop without hitting the car in front in case of an emergency. 

This tip is also important when tackling a hill. You've probably seen it happen: the road is covered with barely-melted snow, and even a small incline starts to look treacherous. The car in front decides to tackle the hill, and you watch as it slows down, losing grip half way.

It's worth waiting until the hill is clear in case you or the car in front don’t reach the top. Maintain a steady speed and avoid changing gears. 

5. Make sure your car is visible.

Visibility is often reduced in the winter, whether because of fewer daylight hours, fog or snow. Check your lights are clean and working before you set off. Your number plate must also be visible to avoid fines.

Advice for driving in the dark

Driving on unfamiliar roads in the dark is sometimes difficult, particularly if they aren’t well-lit. It’s no surprise that there’s a rise in the number of road users killed or injured each year when the clocks go back. Here’s how to stay safe when the nights start drawing in.

Check and make use of your headlights

Even one broken bulb can significantly reduce your ability to spot hazards, so you should check your lights are in working order before you set off. 

Close up of a red rear car light with a twilight sky in the background.

Use your full-beam headlights on unlit roads to help you see clearly, but remember to dip them when you encounter another car so you don’t dazzle the driver.

Did you know it’s illegal to drive at night without fully functioning lights? If caught with a broken light, you can be fined £100 and receive three points on your licence. 

Avoid staring at oncoming vehicles

Other cars' headlights can temporarily reduce your vision, especially LED lights. Try to keep your gaze on the left side of the road, following the white markings at the edge to check your position. 

If it’s still too difficult to see due to the glare of other headlights, you can slow down slightly, but always check your rearview mirror first to prevent the car behind you from hitting you.

Watch out for pedestrians, cyclists and animals

Children in particular may not yet know the rules of the road, so it’s worth being extra vigilant. Elderly people are also more at risk at this time of the year, as are cyclists. 

Animals can run into the road unexpectedly, and how you should react depends on their size. Animals such as horses, cows, pigs, big dogs and sheep are generally considered large enough to warrant an emergency stop manoeuvre. 

Smaller animals are not big enough to cause significant damage to vehicles, so performing an emergency stop isn’t usually deemed reasonable. The courts are concerned with road safety, and sentimental attachment to an animal is not considered. 

Always check your rearview mirror before performing an emergency stop.

How to drive safely in snow

You can do a few things to stay safe when driving in snow.

  • Wear sturdy footwear that is comfortable and dry.

  • Move off in second gear to prevent your wheels from slipping.

  • Accelerate gently, keeping your revs low and changing up gears as soon as possible.

  • Maintain a safe stopping distance - ten times the normal recommended gap.

  • When going downhill, try to avoid braking and use a low gear.

  • When you approach a bend, brake gently before starting to turn.

  • If your car loses grip, stop accelerating immediately.

  • If your car skids, you should steer into it and always keep your hands on the wheel.

  • Your car’s day lights aren’t enough when driving in snow; use your dipped headlights too, and if visibility drops below 100 metres, switch on your fog lights.

  • Allow more time to steer and stop.

A snowy road with a red triangle warning sign for snow/ice.

Check out this guide to driving in snow for more handy tips and tricks.

When and how to use snow chains

Snow chains offer excellent grip in snowy conditions - more than winter tyres or snow socks. However, unlike winter tyres, they take longer to fit than snow socks and can’t be used when the snow clears. They are mandatory in some countries.

A man fitting snow chains to a white vehicle on a snowy road.

In the UK, we rarely get deep snow that hangs around long enough to warrant snow chains. If you fitted them, you’d likely have to remove and refit them several times throughout a journey. Failure to remove them when there is no snow could damage the road and your car.

Your vehicle handbook may have advice on how many chains to fit. The minimum is usually one pair on the driven wheels or four chains if the vehicle has four-wheel drive.

To put the chains on:

  • Lay them on the ground next to the tyres, with the chain hooks facing away.

  • Put the car in gear, apply the handbrake, and switch off the engine.

  • Fit the chains over the top of the tyres, stretching them so they hang down the sides and tucking them around the bottom as much as possible.

  • Drive forward slightly so the two ends of the chains can be attached, and ensure the tension is correct.

When and how to use snow socks

Snow socks are textile liners that add an extra layer between your tyres and the snow to increase traction. They are less hassle to fit than snow chains and much quieter, offering a convenient alternative to the traditional solution. 

They aren’t suitable for harsh conditions and can’t be used instead of snow chains in countries where they are a legal requirement, but they provide a handy solution for the mild snowfall we usually get in Britain. Like chains, they must be removed on roads without snow.

Follow these steps to fit snow socks:

  • The socks must be fitted to the driven wheels of the vehicle.

  • Make sure your handbrake is on, then pull the sock down from the top of the wheel to cover the whole tyre.

  • Drive forward so the bottom section of the sock is now at the top and can be fitted.

What to do if you get stuck in snow

A woman standing next to her car on a snowy road.
  • Clear the area - ideally, use a snow shovel if you have one in your winter car kit. Alternatively, you could use salt, cat litter or a little antifreeze (as long as you clear it up afterwards). The exhaust pipe must be clear of snow.

  • Disengage traction control. 

  • Don’t turn the steering wheel from side to side or spin the tyres; this could dig you in deeper.

  • If you have them, fit snow chains or socks. If not, you can ask people to help rock the vehicle backwards and forwards. Floor mats or carpet pieces can be placed in front of the wheels to help them gain traction.

  • Try to pull away slowly in a low gear. Asking passengers to get out of the car will reduce the weight, potentially making it easier to move.

  • If all else fails, call your breakdown service and stay with your vehicle to wait for help.

Find out what to do in the event of a breakdown.

Are winter tyres worth it?

The common misconception is that winter tyres are only designed for snow and ice. Since we see so little snowfall in Britain, the thought process goes, why bother changing your tyres at all? It’s a convincing argument, but it’s based on misinformation. 

Close up of car tyres in winter.

In fact, winter tyres are designed to be grippy even on a totally dry surface as long as the temperature is below seven degrees, making them safer than summer tyres - they are just as effective in heavy rain as snow, making them a better investment than you might think.

If safety is your priority, it’s worth considering whether to buy a set of winter tyres

The downside is that you’ll probably end up with two sets of tyres, costing twice as much. Technically, you can use winter tyres in summer, but they will wear down much more quickly. A middle-ground for safety and money-conscious drivers could be all-season tyres, offering the best of both worlds.

How to drive safely on ice

  • Look well ahead for hazards so you can spot and react to them early, avoiding skidding or losing control at the last minute.

  • Driving in a higher gear will help your car maintain its grip.

  • Braking distances increase ten times on icy roads, so bear this in mind, leaving plenty of room between you and the vehicle in front.

What is black ice?

Black ice is a very thin layer on the road’s surface that may not be immediately visible. It is transparent and smooth, appearing the same colour as the ground beneath. A strong indication that there may be black ice is if the temperature is very low and the ground looks wet. 

Typically, quieter roads are more likely to be affected. If you hit a patch of black ice, stay calm and don’t hit the brakes. Instead, keep the steering wheel straight, maintaining your speed.

What to do if you skid on ice

Always steer into the skid, avoid braking hard and keep your hands on the wheel.

How to drive safely in fog

Driving in fog is tricky. Visibility is significantly reduced; if you’re unfamiliar with the road, it can feel like you’re almost driving blind. Here’s how to handle the situation safely.

  • Use fog lights when necessary.

  • Use wipers, demisters and dipped headlights.

  • Be aware that some other drivers may not be using headlights (though they should be), and drive with extra caution.

  • Make sure you are driving slowly enough that you’ll be able to stop within the distance that you can see.

  • Slow down if you need to.

  • Always check your mirrors before adjusting your speed.

  • Allow three seconds between you and the car in front rather than the usual two.

  • If you can’t see traffic clearly at junctions, roll down your windows and listen.

What are fog lights?

Fog lights are extra lights designed to make it easier to see in foggy conditions when visibility is severely reduced. They are fitted at the front of vehicles below the headlights, where they are white or yellow, and/or the rear, where they are red.

What’s the difference between headlights and fog lights? 

Fog is full of moisture, which reflects in regular headlights, making them glare. Instead, front fog lights are angled down to cut through the fog, illuminating the road below it. 

When should you use fog lights - what are the rules?

According to The Highway Code, you must use headlights when you can’t see 100 metres in front of you. Using fog lights is optional; you should turn them off when visibility improves so you don’t dazzle other drivers. If you use them when visibility is clear, you can be fined £50.

Check out this guide for more information about driving in fog.

How to avoid aquaplaning

Aquaplaning is a reasonably common issue faced by drivers in the UK - unsurprisingly, given the amount of rainfall we see each year. It happens when a layer of water builds up between a car’s tyres and the road, causing them to lose grip and the driver to lose control, unable to steer, accelerate or brake. Water has to be at least 2.5mm deep for aquaplaning to occur. 

The following advice will help you avoid aquaplaning:

  • Check your tyres regularly - worn tyres are far more likely to aquaplane.

  • Understand the road conditions - check the forecast before you set off and look for signs ahead.

  • Don’t drive too fast - the faster you go, the less grip your tyres have.

  • Drive smoothly - abrupt actions such as braking or turning can cause your car to start aquaplaning.

What does aquaplaning feel like?

There are several signs your car is aquaplaning:

  • The car's rear may begin swinging side to side, known as fishtailing.

  • Your engine may suddenly become louder.

  • The steering may become light.

  • You may feel like you’ve dropped the clutch down the gears while driving quickly, making the revs increase.

How to keep control when your vehicle is aquaplaning

Follow these steps:

  • Ease off the accelerator slowly.

  • Don’t brake hard.

  • Keep the steering wheel straight.

  • Switch off the cruise control if you have it turned on.

  • You can brake once the car begins to gain control.

Driving in the rain may feel like a commonplace occurrence, but it’s worth remembering that it can be hazardous if you’re unsure how to react to situations like this. Now you know!

Winter car maintenance

How to prepare your car for colder weather

1. Inspect your tyres.

When there is ice or snow on the road, it’s more important than ever that your tyres are in good working order. Inspect them for any signs of damage, such as punctures or cracks, and check your tread level. The minimum legal depth is 1.6mm.

Man's hand pointing at car tyre tread.

Buying a set of winter tyres might be worth it if you live in an area badly affected by snow.

2. Check your car’s fluid levels.

Making sure fuel is in the tank is a given, but when was the last time you checked your oil level? A third of broken-down vehicles attended by an RAC patrol have dangerously low oil levels, which could cause severe engine damage. It’s far too cold to be waiting by the side of the road in a broken-down car!

Engine oil and fluids image

Antifreeze is another vital liquid that keeps your engine at the right temperature. Top up as needed according to your owner’s manual.

Or, if you don't feel comfortable checking and topping up your car's fluids, you can book an interim service instead.

3. Test your battery.

Low temperatures affect the chemical process that creates and stores energy in car batteries, making them slower and reducing their ability to hold a charge. That’s why you should test your battery at the start of winter to ensure it’s ready for the season.

Car Battery Test

If your battery dies, you could try to recharge it, but the damage may already be done, resulting in the need for a replacement

This guide has more information on what to do when your battery dies.

4. Make a winter car kit.

Winter weather can be unpredictable, so it pays to be prepared for every eventuality. Keeping a winter car kit in the back of your car containing helpful items like jump leads and a blanket is a great way to do this. 

5. Check your brakes.

Have you noticed an unusual noise when you brake or that the pedal doesn’t quite feel how it should? Now is not the time to ignore these symptoms because they could soon develop into a more serious fault when the harsh winter weather hits. 

6. Keep your windscreen clear.

When there’s salt and grit on the road, your windscreen will get dirty much more quickly. Top up your screen wash regularly and check your wiper blades are in good working order, replacing them as required. The last thing you want is to find yourself driving on a busy road with a dirty windscreen you can’t see through!

Find out how to choose the right screenwash & top it up in this guide.

Keeping an ice scraper and de-icer liquid in your car will help you get going faster on cold mornings. Click here for more tips for de-icing your car.

7. Test your lights.

The nights are drawing in, and with the approach of winter comes the threat of dark grey skies and heavy snow. You’ll be relying on your lights more than ever, so they need to be in good working order - functional and clean.

If one or both of your headlights aren't working, you could be fined up to £1000. If the police stop you due to a defect to your vehicle, such as a broken rear light, you may be issued a ‘vehicle defect rectification notice’. When this happens, you must have the defect repaired within 14 days and provide proof, such as a receipt from a mechanic.

8. Keep your car clean.

Not only is it a legal requirement that all your car’s lights be functional and clean but it is also essential to keep the main body of the vehicle clean during winter when it's exposed to harsh weather conditions. Salt from the road will corrode the bodywork over time if it isn’t washed off.

Cleaning a windscreen wiper with a soapy sponge.

9. Don’t ignore dashboard warning lights.

If you’ve been driving around for a while with a warning light on the dashboard and nothing terrible has happened (yet), that doesn’t mean you should keep ignoring it - especially as winter approaches. 

Warning lights are there for a reason, and even if yours is showing due to an electrical fault with the system rather than the problem it’s supposed to indicate, you should still get it fixed. Otherwise, how will you know if that problem really does develop? It’s better to be safe than sorry.

This guide covers everything you need to know about engine warning lights.

10. Book a winter car check.

A winter car check, or health check as it is sometimes known, is the best way to ensure your car is fully prepared for the season ahead. 

What is a winter car check?

A mechanic or trained professional checks various parts of your car to make sure they are in good shape for winter. Booking a winter car check allows you to drive with confidence, no matter the weather.

What should a winter car check include?

Below is a checklist of things a winter health check should include.

Winter car check
Battery☑️
Tyres (tread depth and inflation)☑️
Lights☑️
Windscreen wipers☑️
Engine oil☑️
Cooling system/antifreeze☑️
Screenwash☑️

Check out this guide for more information about winter car checks and why they matter

Car battery tips for the cold weather

1. Test your battery

The first thing to do is check whether your battery is in good working order.

2. Drive regularly

The alternator recharges the battery as you drive. As a result, cars that are driven regularly have healthier batteries than those that are rarely used or only used for short journeys.

Restarting a car that hasn't been used for a long time isn't always straightforward.

3. Buy a trickle charger

This is a handy device that slowly recharges the battery (as the name suggests). It's a good investment if you plan on leaving your car unused over the winter.

4. Keep your car covered

Either invest in a winter car cover (discussed in the FAQs of this guide) or, if you have access to one, park your car in a garage to keep it out of the cold.

What to include in a winter car kit

Here are some ideas of what you might include.

  • Torch

  • Folding snow shovel

  • Ice scraper

  • De-icer

  • Blanket

  • Spare warm clothing

  • Non-perishable snacks and drinks

  • Map

  • High-visibility vest

  • Sunglasses

  • Portable phone charger

  • Jump leads

  • Spare empty fuel can

  • Warning triangles

  • Work gloves

  • First aid kit

  • Tow rope

  • Tyre inflator

  • Snow chains or socks

  • Spare bulbs

Winter driving FAQs

Can you be fined for de-icing your car?

Tabloid newspapers love sensational headlines that twist the truth, and the idea that you could be fined simply for de-icing your car is an example wheeled out almost every year. The act of de-icing your windscreen will obviously not get you into trouble - it’s how you go about it that could be the problem.

Leaving your car unattended with the engine switched on to defrost the windscreen goes against rule 123 of the Highway Code, enforced by the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986

The Highway Code says you may receive a fixed penalty notice of £20 for failing to switch off your engine when instructed, rising to £40 if unpaid within a specified timeframe. If you are repeatedly caught doing this, the fine may increase to £1000. 

Is it illegal to drive with snow on your car?

It is not illegal to drive with snow on your car. However, the Highway Code states that when driving in adverse weather conditions, you must be able to see out of your vehicle's windows. This rule is reinforced by the Road Traffic Act 1988, making it a legal requirement.

Learn more about how to ensure you’re driving legally in winter here.

Can you drive on summer tyres in the winter?

You can drive on summer tyres in winter and vice versa; however, it isn’t recommended. Summer tyres are designed for optimal performance in warmer weather - they aren’t designed to withstand cold temperatures and won’t grip as well on snow or ice.

What are winter car covers & are they worth it?

Winter car covers help protect your vehicle from ice, snow, rain, frost and general knocks and scratches. They are useful if you're not planning on using your vehicle for an extended period; you can leave it outside without worrying about it being exposed to the elements.

However, if you use your vehicle every day, removing and replacing a car cover is a time-consuming task; if done incorrectly, it may be more hassle than it's worth.

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