Let’s face it: Canadian winters can be brutal, with snowstorms, freezing rain, and other conditions making for slick roads and dangerous driving. While it’s best not to drive in the worst of these conditions, avoiding them is not always possible.
The second-best option is to understand how to prepare for and handle these precarious driving conditions. Below, we offer 11 tips for driving in snow and ice in Canada to help you safely get where you need to go.
The most important tip for winter driving when road conditions deteriorate due to snow and ice is to drive as smoothly as possible. Accelerate slowly and smoothly with very light throttle. When braking, give yourself ample time to stop smoothly.
In other words, try not to press the accelerator too quickly or jam on the brakes too hard when driving in snow or on ice. This can cause the tires to lose traction and your car to skid out of control. A good trick when driving in poor weather conditions is to imagine you have a bucket of grape juice in the passenger’s seat and spilling it will ruin your beautiful interior. The smoother you drive, the less likely you are to spill that juice!
Building off our first tip of driving in snow as smoothly as you can is to look far ahead while driving on snow-covered roads or icy roads. By looking farther ahead than you otherwise would, you can better prepare for stops or slowdowns without pressing the brake pedal too hard and risking losing traction. A keener eye into the distance allows you to gradually slow down to take a turn or come to a complete stop safely.
The general rule of thumb when driving is to have a three-second gap between you and the car in front of you. In snowy or icy conditions during cold weather, increase this gap to five to six seconds. This gives you extra time to stop your vehicle if you encounter a slick patch when the person in front of you suddenly stops.
You may be tempted to pick up just a set of good all-season tires and be done for the entire year. If you live in a big city like Toronto or simply never drive when snow is threatening, then those all-season tires may be OK. However, most Canadians should have a good set of winter rubber on their cars during the wintertime.
Winter tires feature special tread patterns that include more aggressive tread blocks and interlocking sipes — small slits in the tread — to bite the snow and ice, providing more grip. Plus, they often include a special rubber compound with grip enhancers for driving in snow, like silica and crushed walnut shells.
Finally, a snow tire’s rubber compound is specifically designed to retain its flexibility in sub-zero temperatures. This means they grip dry roads better and resist chipping and cracking due to the rubber hardening in cold winter weather.
Most modern vehicles have traction control and stability control systems that warn you if you lose traction on slippery roads when driving in snow. This is typically an amber light with squiggly lines on it. If you see this light flashing, your vehicle is telling you that you’ve lost traction and are at risk of losing control.
Your car has safety features like an antilock brake system (ABS) to help you, but these features aren’t designed to overcome poor driving decisions. Instead, heed the warning lights and slowly decelerate by easing your foot off the accelerator, but resist the urge to hit the brakes, as this can cause further traction loss.
Once that light stops blinking, ease back to the accelerator and use more care when pressing the accelerator.
A common adage among racecar drivers is to look where you want to go rather than where you are going. The same more or less rings true when driving in snow or icy conditions. If you start sliding and are trying to regain control of your vehicle, look where you want the car to go, not where the car is sliding toward.
You will always tend to push the car toward where you’re looking, and if you focus on where the car is sliding, there’s a good chance you’ll make things worse. Trust your peripheral vision to see where you’re heading and put your focus on the area of the road you want the vehicle to get to.
Look, the fact is that you’re going to skid in winter conditions, especially if you encounter unexpected black ice. The key is to know how to manage those skids so you can regain control of the vehicle.
There are two main types of skids in icy and snowy conditions: front-wheel skid and rear-wheel skid. You’ll manage these situations differently (see below), but in both cases it’s important to resist the urge to smash the brake pedal, as that’ll only lead to total loss of control.
In a front-wheel skid — which is when your front wheels lose traction and the car begins making a wider turn than anticipated — let your foot off the accelerator immediately. As the car decelerates, the front wheels should quickly regain traction and allow you to aim the vehicle in the direction you want it to go.
In a rear-wheel skid, when the rear tires lose traction and it feels like you are spinning out of control, immediately turn the steering wheel in the direction the rear wheels are heading. So, if the rear wheels are sliding toward the left, turn the steering wheel left. Then, take your foot off the accelerator and don’t press the brake pedal. The rear wheels should quickly regain traction, allowing you to regain control of the vehicle and steer it in the direction you want.
AWD is a wonderful thing in bad weather, providing virtually slip-free acceleration and giving you extra confidence on the road when driving in snow. But don’t let that confidence lull you into forgetting safe winter driving habits.
While AWD helps you accelerate quickly and get up steep, snow-covered roads with ease, it does not help you steer or brake any better than any other vehicle. Avoid the urge to drive faster just because you have AWD, as your vehicle will slip on ice and snow when turning and stopping like any other vehicle.
Remember to heed all the normal winter driving tips when driving on snowy roads in your AWD car, truck, or SUV.
Understanding how to read the road when driving in snow and ice is critical to remaining safe in wintertime driving conditions. Look at the road ahead and evaluate it as you approach. Is it shiny? That is generally bad because shiny means it’s either ice or water, which can leave you with limited traction.
However, just because the road is dull and clear (indicating no snow or ice), doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drive carefully in the winter. In the absence of visible snow or ice, you may want to speed up, only to encounter some a little bit later after you’ve increased your speed. So, even if you are in a clear area, maintain a safe speed and anticipate any bad patches that may come up.
Finally, understand that fresh, soft snow is a better driving surface than slush. Sounds odd, right? But with the right winter tires, they will bite into the soft snow — much like your snow boots biting into the snow as you walk — and provide better traction. Slush, on the other hand, acts like dense water, potentially causing hydroplaning.
Preparation is half the battle in wintertime travel, so ensure you’re prepared with all the right supplies. Some of the supplies you should always have with you include:
Sure, your uncle’s cousin’s girlfriend’s father says lowering the tire pressure will increase the amount of rubber contacting the road and enhance traction when driving in snow—but the engineers at the tire companies and automotive companies say differently. And they spend a lifetime studying this stuff.
Your vehicle is designed to operate at peak performance in all conditions when you follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, including tire pressure. With proper tire pressure, the sipes and grooves in the tires are at their optimal flexibility, allowing them to grip the snow and route slush and water away from the tread pattern, maximizing your grip in snow, ice, and slush.
You know all about winter tires, but did you know there are also winter wiper blades? Like tire rubber, wiper rubber can also become hard and brittle in the wintertime and not properly clean your windshield in a snowstorm.
Winter wiper blades have a rubber compound and construction designed for optimal performance in cold weather. Having these wipers ensures you have clear vision in even the worst conditions.
While you’re at it, invest in some wintertime windshield washer fluid too. This clears your windshield more effectively in cold weather and resists freezing, which can damage the washer fluid reservoir and pump.
Now you know the critical tips for driving in snow in Canada, it may be time to invest in a reliable, winter-ready used vehicle. That’s where Clutch, Canada’s premier 100% online automotive retailer, can help. We stock tons of high-quality, winter-ready, and affordably vehicles for you to purchase without ever having to set foot in a dealership.
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Check out our inventory of quality used cars today and choose a model suitable for your family this winter. You can even set up financing, delivery, and get your trade-in vehicle appraised entirely online. It doesn’t get any easier than this.