Winter road trip tips

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 heading to the next state to visit family 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 Google Maps – which is able to function offline – are also useful, especially if you encounter any unexpected road closures due to the weather.

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 drive 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.

If you’re heading to the mountains, check the guidelines around carrying snow chains. For example, NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) highly recommend 2WD vehicles carry snow chains between 1 June and 11 October when driving the Alpine Way between Jindabyne and Thredbo. Other times it is compulsory to carry properly fitting snow chains if you are driving a 2WD vehicle. For example, from Jindabyne to Ski Rider on the Kosciusko Road.

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 1 November and 14 April.

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.

Visibility can be compromised due to extremely 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 rough guide is that stopping distances are doubled on wet roads and multiplied by 10 in snow and ice, so be mindful of this while driving in less than ideal conditions.

Do you often drive in winter conditions? Do you have any other tips to add?

With PA

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Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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