With airfare costs on the rise — and airlines cutting back on space and services — you may want to consider spending Thanksgiving and the upcoming holidays closer to home. In addition to higher airfares, lower gas prices inspired 90% of travelers to travel by car for the holidays, and that number is expected to hold steady this year.
But there are more driving dangers this time of the year than others. Freezing temperatures, snow, and ice are beginning to settle across most of the country, and elsewhere wet leaves and early sunsets can make driving less-traveled roads a little more dangerous. To ensure the safety of you and your entourage as you embark on your holiday travel plans, it's smart to take steps to winterize your car now.
Prepare Your CarChange Your Oil
Choosing the right motor oil can make all the difference in cold weather because oil varies in viscosity, or flow property. Thick oil flows like sludge; thin oil moves like maple syrup. The "10W30" on an oil refers to the flow rate; the lower the number, the thinner the oil. In winter, low temperatures lower the flow rate of oil, so you might consider using a less viscous oil, such as 5W30. This 5-gallon jug Castrol GTX 5W-30 Motor Oil ($25.99 with in-store pickup, a low by $10; also available from Amazon for $35.99 with free shipping via Prime) will get you through the winter. If you're hesitant to change your own oil, Pep Boys currently offers a Standard Oil Change for $24.99 of you make an appointment online; alternatively, you can bring this printable coupon to your local Pep Boys. Note that winter-optimized oils may cost extra.
Flush and Fill Your Radiator
Radiator fluid degrades over time. For the winter the mixture should contain at least 50% radiator fluid, which should keep your coolant moving down to -34 degrees Fahrenheit. An inexpensive device called a coolant tester, like the Peak Antifreeze and Coolant Tester ($2.98 with in-store pickup, a low by $8), can get the job done. Now is also a good time to inspect hoses for leaks and replace them as needed.
Fill Your Windshield Wiper Reservoir
Not all windshield wiper fluid is formulated with enough non-freezing ingredients to keep it flowing in cold weather, so check the label to make sure your solution is made for winter conditions. Try picking up a gallon of Rain X 2-in-1 Windshield Washer Fluid ($4.09 with in-store pickup, a low by $1) before the salt hits the roadways.
Consider Winter Wiper Blades
If you deal with a lot of snow and icy road spray, you may want to upgrade to winter wiper blades, too. Winter wiper blades have a rubber coating that keeps ice from building up. The Car Talk Radio guys warn though, that it's a bad idea to keep winter wiper blades on year-round because they are heavier and could prematurely wear out the motor on your wipers. These ANCO 30-22-OE Winter Wiper Blades are under $20 for the pair ($9.20 each with free shipping, a low by $1).
Buy Snow Tires
If you're destined to deal with heavy snowfall, invest in a set of snow tires. All-season tires, which are also popular, are a compromise between high-mileage tires for summer and snow-gripping tread for winter. A winter tire, on the other hand, is made specifically for traveling in the snow, with more aggressive tread patterns and a softer compound that won't get hard and glassy in cold weather. Swap out your tires during one of TireRack's sales, and you'll be eligible to win a Reebok Performance Jacket when you buy four Blizzak winter or snow tires.
It's also important to keep an eye on your tire pressure when the weather is foul. An overinflated tire won't grip as well, and an under-inflated tire dangerously compromises a car's handling.
Check Your Battery
Batteries run by a chemical process, and that process is slowed when the temperature plummets. Have your mechanic check your battery to make sure it's putting out enough juice. If not, now's a good time to replace it. And if your car battery isn't a sealed battery, check the water level in each compartment while you're at it. Also examine the cables, especially where they attach to the poles of your batteries — they should be firm and free of corrosion. If not, tighten the connection and use a wire brush to remove the corrosion.
Stock Up on Winter and Emergency Supplies
A little advance planning can minimize the dangers of winter driving. Part of that also means stocking up on the right equipment to deal with breakdowns.
A spray can of glycerine can help thaw those pesky frozen locks that result from melting ice trickling in. You can pick up a de-icer at your local auto parts or big box store, but if it's already too cold to make the trip to a brick-and-mortar store, order the Victor Lock De-Icer ($2.29 with in-store pickup, a low by $1) from Autozone.
Blanket or Tarp
In the event of being snowed in inside your car, you'll want an emergency blanket on hand. Cotton blankets lose heat when wet, so opt for a synthetic or wool blend blanket. A plastic tarp to kneel on while changing a tire might also come in handy.
Boots and Gloves
Get a good grip on the situation with a spare pair of boots and work gloves. But again, not cotton gloves. A good work glove is the Dewalt All Purpose Synthetic Work Gloves (from $11.86 with free shipping via Prime, a low by $6), made from a combination of leather and spandex. It also features a Velcro closure.
Make sure your ice scraper is long enough to reach the middle of the windshield and sturdy enough knock snow off the roof. This Hopkins Subzero 22" Scraper ($3.99 with $5.15 s&h, a low by $1) has a sizable reach and 4" scraping edge.
Every once in a while there's situation where you'll need to shovel yourself out of a snow bank. A small utility shovel like the Mallory Emergency Shovel ($16.57 with free shipping via Prime, a low by $1) is just the ticket.
Pack some spare batteries for a flashlight that's bright enough in case you have to change a flat tire in the dark. The Focus Zoom Lens Flashlight Torch ($3.65 with free shipping, a low by $2) features an adjustable 300-lumen focus in a pocket-sized, waterproof casing.
On the coldest of mornings, even reliable car batteries can fail, and if you want to get going, you'll need a jump from someone; finding that someone is much easier if you have your own jumper cables. Keep the Hopkins BC0860 Juice Performance 20-Foot Ultimate Power 4-Gauge Booster Cable ($41.01 with free shipping, a low by $12) on hand for just such a scenario.
In the deepest snows, tire chains — which fit around tires providing additional grip — are especially useful. Tire chains come in a variety of sizes to fit different vehicles and wheels. They can get pricey if you're buying for all four wheels, but Amazon has a variety of discounted tire chains that are at least 50% off.
Bag of Abrasive Materials
Sand or salt tossed under your wheels can help with traction to get unstuck. Even a little cat litter can help get you moving. If your car has rear-wheel drive car, carrying this weight over the rear axle could help the car's handling, too.
A few minutes of preparation today can save you from grueling hours of frustration when the snow begins to fall. If this winter is worse than last (and it likely will be), you'll appreciate the forethought.
This feature has been updated since it was originally published last year.