Winter driving

Anyone who's going to drive at high latitudes or over mountain passes should consider the possibility of snow, ice, or freezing temperatures. On icy and snowy roadways, friction is low and you cannot drive as if you were on bare asphalt. During blizzards, enough snow to get you stuck can fall in very little time. Visibility may also be restricted by falling or blowing snow or by condensation or ice on vehicle windows. On the other hand, icy and snowy conditions are normal in many countries, and traffic goes on mostly uninterrupted all year round.

Sliding off the road and collisions are much more likely than in good conditions. Cold weather is hard work for the car. A weak battery, ice on electrical parts or in fuel, frozen diesel, or a frozen cooling system may cause your car to break down. If you get stuck, you may be at risk for frostbite or hypothermia; see cold weather for discussion.


Winter driving conditions

Winter in the province of Ontario, Canada (how many trucks do you see?).

If you have never driven in freezing conditions before, it's easy to underestimate the variety of driving challenges that winter weather can throw at you. Consider taking an advanced drivers education course, especially if you have no or little experience driving on snow or never learned how to recover from a skid or similar conditions.

Blowing snow can limit visibility even in sunlight.

Risks of winter driving


Choosing the right vehicle

A small quite normal car is often good enough. Here a Fiat of the Austrian police.

If you have more than one car to choose from, then think about the points below. If your own car is not equipped for winter conditions, it may be cheaper and easier to rent a car at the destination. Then you are able to choose and hopefully get one suitable and already equipped for the local conditions.

Preparing your vehicle

Have a good mechanic check over your vehicle with a view to winter, or do it yourself. Among the things it may need:


A studded winter tire

In Finland and Sweden winter tires are mandatory in winter and possibly in winter conditions outside the set dates. In Norway tires must have a minimum of 3 mm in winter (November to Easter); however, vehicles must always have enough friction, for instance by using special winter tires. They do not have to be studded, though. "All-weather" tires may be enough legally, but unstudded "Nordic" winter tires are much better. The tread depth must satisfy a minimum in e.g. Scandinavia, much more than regular tires wearing out, but varying between countries.

In Germany, if you have an accident in the winter and do not have winter tires on the car, it is your fault and the insurance company will not cover damages. Note this applies to cars you hire as well as your own. Winter tires are mandatory when needed, while studded tires are not permitted at all.

In the province of Quebec, Canada, winter tires are mandatory from December 15 to March 15. Winter tires are also required on certain mountainous routes in the province of British Columbia. Canadian winter tires have the mountain snowflake logo on the sidewall. Except for Quebec, Canadian rental (hire) cars do not routinely come with winter tires, but vehicles with winter tires are often available by request.

Tire and cable chains

Mounted snow chain

In the most difficult winter conditions winter tires may not be enough. Especially in mountains and on less maintained roads, chains or cables should be considered. Note however that for instance in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Canada, on public roads good quality winter tires are generally sufficient for light vehicles. Chains are not an alternative to good quality winter tires for longer distances, nor should they be used when driving at highway speed. Rental car companies may not permit you to put chains on their vehicles, because improperly attached chains may damage the vehicle's paint or dent the body.

Tire chains give better traction than cables, but are more difficult to install and remove. Know your tire size (e.g. P195/60R-15) before purchasing. When needed, install on the drive wheels (i.e. front for front-wheel-drive, rear for rear-wheel-drive). If unsure about drive wheels, every rear-wheel-drive vehicle has a black sphere-shaped thing (the differential) on its rear axle between the tires. Note that 4WD/All-WD vehicles will have one there also. For 4WD/All-WD usually the front is best, but check the owner's manual. Only use chains in snow or icy conditions, and remove them as soon as they're no longer needed. Don't even try them on for size on a hard, bare surface such as concrete. They might spin out and damage the chains, concrete, and/or wheel well of the vehicle, and possibly injure someone.



In addition to the above, these things can be helpful for any winter trip, even a short drive in the city:

Winter Emergency Kit

For trips outside of cities, put together a winter emergency kit. It will help you stay safe or even recover from many winter road emergencies, including being stranded in your car for several hours or overnight. Here are some of the things that you should consider putting in your emergency winter kit:

A spade is often useful.


NOTE: It is always best to avoid driving when road conditions are poor or the forecast is bad.
Sunshine and around -20°C, could be worse

Weather and road conditions




Finnish national road 192 in Masku covered by snow and ice in December.

Controlling your car

Stopping distance and speed



Especially slippery conditions

Deep snow


Get off the road. Now.

Things you may encounter

Change of route

Winter road maintenance

Meeting a snow plow.

Convoy driving

Convoy driving is used routinely in Norway and other countries in difficult weather, particularly through mountain passes but also on other roads exposed to strong wind. Convoy driving means that drivers have to wait for a number of vehicles to line up and then follow a snow plow across the particularly difficult stretch of road. Only a limited number of cars are allowed, and each driver must never lose sight of the car ahead and never leave the convoy. In particularly difficult conditions only heavy vehicles (above 3.5 or 7 tons) are permitted. Waiting and slow driving means an hour or more is added to the trip. Convoys may run on a fixed timetable or departure may depend on the number of cars waiting.

Ice roads

Ice road in Estonia with a "bridge" over a crack and young trees marking it.

In some regions there are roads made over the ice of lakes and rivers, even the sea, in the winter. Some provide road access to places otherwise inaccessible by car and some replace ferry connections. Locals may drive on the ice just for fun.

Official ice roads are usually well maintained and secure at least in good weather, but do respect speed and weight restrictions. Speeding will cause cracks in the ice. Stopping on the ice is often a bad idea, as the weight of the car causes a local depression. In the worst case you will have water flow in and too steep a grade to easily get out. Check instructions for using the roads, there may even be peculiarities such as self service ferries over shipping lanes.

For unofficial ice roads, always get local advice. There will probably not be any obvious warning signs.

Driving on the ice where there is no road at all requires judgement and knowledge of local conditions. Having a ship open a lane between you and the mainland is no fun (and wind or a raise in water level can cause similar situations). Have a good big scale map and a compass. Snowfall or snowdrift can cause you to see nothing but snow.

Other advice


Accidents on trafficked roads

Car crash on a wintry road, Sweden

Stranded in a vehicle

At 2,500m (8,200 ft) above sea level you might get a white surprise even in the summer!
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