Fending Off Jack Frost

Fending Off Jack Frost

Preparing your vehicle for winter

Forest creatures and retirees have the right idea. They either sleep through the winter or migrate to warmer climates. Most of us don't have these options, though we may do our best to do both. So, as daylight dwindles down to a few hours, the frost builds up on the windshield and we pull out the parkas and mittens, take a look at the vehicle you assume will carry you through the season and make sure it's ready for the challenge

The best time, obviously, to run a winter check on your vehicle is well before the first night of sub-freezing temperatures and/or snowfall. Winter weather is unpredictable and can arrive early and with little warning, but it's never too late to run a winter vehicle check. Even in good weather, getting stalled or stuck, or dealing with a vehicle that doesn't want to start in the early morning, are all unpleasant situations. But these conditions are made even worse by the possibility of hypothermia and frostbite. So here are a few reminders to keep you out of harm's way when the Siberian Express rolls into town.


The best rule of thumb for changing your radiator's antifreeze is pretty simple: if you didn't do it last winter, do it now. The recommended lifetime for antifreeze is two years or 30,000 miles. There are some exceptions, such as on newer GM vehicles that use a Dex-Cool anti-freeze with a 100,000-mile or 10-year rating. It pays to be familiar with your vehicle's fluid requirements as some fluids, like Dex-Cool, shouldn't be mixed with other products. Even if your antifreeze looks good, it's vital to follow the manufacturer's recommendations on service intervals. Antifreezes include chemicals that lubricate water pumps and inhibit engine corrosion. These chemicals can wear out, often before the anti-freeze starts to show signs of age.


A 10/30-weight motor oil will usually take you from summer heat to winter cold without batting an eye. The key here is to know what weight you're currently running and making sure it's adequate for your driving conditions. In extreme conditions (Death Valley heat in the summer and North Pole cold in the winter), some drivers switch to thicker oils in the summer and thinner in the winter.


The worst time to realize your wipers died some time in the summer is during the first rain or snowfall. Check for signs of wear and install new wiper blades if necessary. In areas where salt is used to de-glaze roads, keep an eye on the condition of your wiper blades. Be sure there's plenty of washer fluid in the reservoir, as you'll be cleaning the windshield frequently when there's mushy snow on the roads. Be sure to fill the reservoir with the correct fluid, as most washer fluids are good to 10 degrees below zero. Also, if your windshield has a few dings, be aware that the combination of very cold exterior temperatures and a toasty-warm interior can escalate dings into full-blown cracks.


A weak battery just can't deliver the amperage for a cold winter start. Make sure your battery has enough life left in it and the posts are free of that hairy-green gunk.


Freezing temperatures put an added strain on all your vehicle's rubber components. Check under the hood to make sure all the belts and hoses are in good shape and replace those that aren't.


Do a pre-winter heater test to make sure it's working well. Don't wait until you really need the warmth.


Check the tread on your drive wheels, and rotate the least-worn tires to where they're needed most. Driving in wet, icy or snowy roads compromises your traction so you'll need all the tread possible. Drivers in extreme winter areas traditionally have a set of snow tires for winter use. In urban areas, that may not be necessary, but good tread is.


Check your exhaust system as well as the condition of your floorboards, especially if you live in area that uses salt to de-ice the roads. Rusty floorboards and even a little leak in the exhaust pipes are a dangerous combination.

Emergency Kit

The contents can vary, depending on the severity of the winter weather you're heading into. Keep a set of de-icing and de-snowing tools in your house or garage, not just in your vehicle. If you have to dig it out of a six-foot snowdrift just to get to your snow shovel, you'll understand why duplicate equipment is a good idea. Even if you've got a 4x4, include chains in your winter emergency stash. Four-wheel drive works for great for blowing through new snow, but can behave erratically on ice. No matter how easy the instructions say it's to install the chains, do a dry run on a flat surface in good weather. Which brings us to the next emergency item: very warm, sturdy gloves, extra clothing and warm, waterproof footwear. Don't worry about what kind of fashion statement you'll be making in the dead of night, on the side of the road in a snowstorm when you're installing chains.

Another useful item is a bag of kitty litter or road sand to sprinkle on the icy surface your tires are spinning on. It's not a bad idea, any time of the year, to carry a box of spare parts and tools. If you've ever spent hours waiting for a tow truck for lack of a fan belt, you'll understand.

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