6 essential tips for safe winter road trips

Sarah Marshall shares guidelines for getting to grips with winter conditions.

Watching snowflakes settle on the windscreen is undeniably magical, but driving in unfamiliar conditions can be challenging. If you’re hitting the road this winter, you should be well-prepared for the weather you’re likely to encounter.

Whether you’re driving home for the festive period or doing something more adventurous, winter can be a wonderful time to hit the road. Follow these top tips to ensure your winter drive is safe, stress-free and memorable for all the right reasons.

1. It doesn’t hurt to plan

Although it’s tempting to leave everything until the last minute and simply jump in the car, planning always makes life easier. When it comes to the actual journey, always map out your route before you set off. Navigation apps like HereWeGo and Google Maps – both able to function offline – are also useful, especially if you encounter any unexpected road closures due to the weather.
For example, when driving in certain regions in Norway, visitors will find that some of the country’s most famous routes, such as the Trollstigen mountain pass and Gamle Strynefjellsvegen, will occasionally close, as it’s hard to keep them free from snow.

2. Be mindful about the vehicle you choose

If you’re thinking of heading off on a winter road trip or going skiing this year, you’ll want to choose your vehicle wisely. When hiring a car in such climates, make sure the type of car is suitable for the adverse conditions – a four-wheel car with high road clearance is ideal if you come into contact with thick snow or ice.
If you’re travelling with additional luggage, such as sporting equipment, it’s worth assessing the size of vehicle you’ll need – and it’s important to shop around in advance for a competitive price. What’s more, upgrading the size of your vehicle doesn’t always have to break the bank.

3. Take the right gear

When hiring a car over winter, you’ll often see the term ‘winterisation’ being used. It applies to the addition of winter tyres, snow chains or snow socks to the car, which help to keep the driver and passengers safe. In Iceland, for example, there is a mandatory requirement for vehicles to have winterised tyres, usually between November 1 and April 14.

If you’re driving from a milder climate to one with harsher conditions, you can ask for winterisation equipment as an optional extra. It’s easy to request your winter kit at the time of booking, but supplies are often subject to availability.
In your own car, make sure you have essentials for a winter breakdown or traffic jam, such as blankets, ice scraper and anti-freeze.

4. Check your breakdown cover

Breakdowns can be a frequent occurrence during winter. Before setting off, it’s worth checking the roadside rescue cover that you have.

If you’re renting, check what level of cover the rental company provides and find out what you should do in the event of a breakdown. Whether or not you have to pay to be rescued depends on whether roadside assistance was included in your final cost at the time of booking.

5. Keep tabs on the weather

Keep your eye on the weather before you set off, and while you’re on the road, so you won’t be caught out if the conditions suddenly change. Download a free app such as WeatherBug.

When travelling to countries such as Canada, where temperatures can often drastically change and hit lows of -15°C in some regions, it may be necessary to consider plugging a block heater into your vehicle overnight. This will help to warm up the engine and mean an easier start up the following morning, saving you the time and the hassle of trying to restart it, as well as eliminating the cost of unnecessary fuel consumption.

Occasionally, visibility can often be compromised due to extreme cold weather, snow or fog. In this case, you’ll want to slow down gradually and switch on your hazard lights while you wait for conditions to improve. Likewise, sight can also be restricted if the sun is shining. The only way to reduce sun glare (particularly when it’s reflecting off the snow) is to ensure your windows are clean. Polarised sunglasses are also a good idea for extra protection.

6. Take your time

During the winter you’ll want to ensure your driving is as steady as possible. Gradual accelerating, braking and steering will help your car to grip the road. If you do start to skid, immediately engage the clutch to cut off the engine, and you’ll feel the car coming back under control.

Starting in a higher gear can help reduce wheel spin when you’re pulling away from a standstill – and when slowing down, remember that stopping distances are greatly increased if roads are wet or icy. The AA specifies that stopping distances can take up to 10 times longer in British winter conditions, so you’ll want to be mindful of this if driving at home.

For more car hire guides and inspiration for driving abroad, visit Rentalcars.com.