Consider this your crash course—or anti-crash course, we should say—in handling any problem on winter roads with nary a skid, spinout, or freak-out.

By Yolanda Wikiel
Updated January 03, 2018

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Illustration: person driving in snowstorm
Credit: Federica Bordoni

It’s Practically a Whiteout.

Before you venture out, refill windshield washer fluid, clear snow from the roof, windows, windshield wipers, and front and back lights, and turn on low-beam headlights (high beams reflect off the snow and into your eyes). Once you’re on the road, don’t tailgate. “It can take up to nine times as long to stop in ice and snow, compared with ideal weather,” says Robert Sinclair, media relations manager at AAA. Your rule of thumb: When the car ahead of you passes a road sign, start counting; if you reach that sign before you get to 8, you’re too close.

OMG, I Need to Pull Over!

Whether you’re facing engine trouble or treacherous weather, pull over onto the right shoulder, as far off the road as possible while remaining on level ground, and turn your hazards on. So you don’t freeze or waste fuel, run the heat for 10 minutes every hour—first check that the exhaust pipe is clear of drifting snow to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Stock the trunk with a collapsible shovel, an ice scraper, water, granola bars, and a windup flashlight for situations like this, says Kurt Spitzner, a driving instructor at Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

My Car Is Stuck in the Snow.

Gently reverse the car a bit, then slowly move forward a little. Continue this rocking motion, occasionally wiggling the steering wheel to help the tread gain grip, until you make progress. Still nothing? For added traction, shovel out the tires, then sprinkle sand or nonclumping kitty litter in front of and behind the tires (or use the floor mats as a last resort). That should do it. Sinclair recommends investing in winter tires and swapping them in once cold weather begins, to prevent this situation.

RELATED: Safe Driving Tips for Bad Weather

The Car Is Skidding!

The old rule to “turn into a skid” is from the days when most vehicles were rear-wheel drive. Today, new advice applies to all: Look where you want the car to go and steer in that direction. To avoid scary skids and spinouts in the future, never stomp on the gas or brake pedal, and slow down dramatically well before making a turn or heading down a hill. “To prevent fishtailing when you know you’re about to go downhill, instead of braking, select a lower gear and let the engine manage the speed for you,” says Spitzner.

I’m Worried About Black Ice.

That notoriously slippery stuff usually forms when the temperature fluctuates above, then below, 32 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing snow to melt and refreeze to a clear glaze on the road. Be extra careful on bridges, at the bottom of hills, and in shady areas, where ice tends to accumulate. “If you encounter a patch, ease off the gas pedal to reduce your speed, and maintain smooth, steady steering,” says Spitzner. Fair warning: Driving an SUV doesn’t give you license to be a hot shot. “All- or four-wheel drive isn’t a magic technology that allows you to have traction no matter what,” says Sinclair.