Snowpocalypse: Winterizing Your Car the Right Way

Snowpocalypse: Winterizing Your Car the Right Way

by David Zipf

As the holiday music fills the air on every freakin' street corner in the United States, the weather begins to turn cold and the populace begins to cower in fear of the dreaded flakes of solidified water that fall from the atmosphere.  If you’re like most of the MotoIQ staff, you live in southern California where you have to drive hours to find a hint of the fluffy white stuff.  Not all of us are so lucky unfortunately, and if you live in the northern part of the world, you will at some point have to deal with snow.  And since we live in the age of the internet, there is tons of advice out there on how to prepare for winter, some of it good, some of it questionable, some of it horrible.  So let’s do what MotoIQ does best and cut the crap and help you prepare for the winter the right way.


Because you don't want your friends to try this.

Step 1: Check your tires.  The first job is the easiest, but not necessarily the cheapest.  Tires are the absolute key to surviving the winter unscathed and unstuck.  Your tires are the only contact with the road your car has and their quality will determine everything about how your car will deal with the wet mush.  Generally, a good set of all-seasons will handle anything up to about 2” of snow.  If you only receive a light dusting or coating, the expense of dedicated winter tires may be unnecessary.  But having good tread and even wear will make a night and day difference.  Most daily drivers are FWD, so put your best tires up front.  One thing to keep in mind: below 45 Fahrenheit or 7 Celcius the rubber compound that makes up an all season tire will be less flexible/grippy than that of a dedicated winter tire so an all season tire still represents a compromise even without the presence of snow.


A set of BFGoodrich A/Ts turned our pedestrian CRV into a perfect snowmobile.  Obviously BFGs are not in the cards for everyone, but a good set of tires is your best defense against winter accidents.  Make sure you get this done early: you don't want to fight the crowds the day before a snow storm (the one winter I worked at a tire shop, we changed 200 sets of tires the day before a blizzard and had to turn people away an hour after we were supposed to close).

Step 2: Check your tire pressures often.  The cold will drastically lower your tire pressures.  A good temperature swing can lower tire pressure by 10 PSI overnight.  Keep a digital gauge in your glovebox and keep an eye on your tires.  Potholes can bend rims and cause leaks.  The snow will also hide road debris making it easier to get a puncture.  Tire Slime makes a simple kit that includes an air compressor and tire repair goo.  Or if you’re an avid MotoIQ reader, you can carry a plug kit and follow our handy Wrench Tip to make roadside repairs.  Make sure the pressures are nice and high: In many cases maxing out the rated pressure is the best way to go for winter.  It’s counterintuitive, so hear us out.  In off-roading you lower tire pressures to give flotation over mud, dirt, and sand so the tire doesn’t sink in and get stuck.  However in snow, the snow cannot hold up your vehicle and you will just sink.  It’s better to actually cut through it and get to the harder packed snow beneath, or better yet, the pavement itself.  This is one reason rally cars use such skinny tires in the snow and ice rallies.


Normally you would want lower tire pressures for flotation, but in the snow, higher pressures are better for cutting through the fluff and getting down to the grippier asphalt underneath.  Even in dirt like in the above pic, the higher pressure is better (since the dirt and mud underneath is also frozen).  And make sure you keep air in your spare!  A flat spare is useless.  Also, make sure it's in good shape.  You don’t want to be like us

Step 3: Check your battery.  Winter is tough on batteries.  The cold will lower the cranking capacity of your battery.  A weak battery that was fine in the fall may not start you when it gets below freezing.  Also remember you will be running all of your accessories: wipers, lights, defrosters, and fans will all put a strain on your charging system.  A weak battery will actually drain itself instead of charging and a car that started fine at home may be dead by the time you reach your destination.  Make sure your battery is up to snuff.  If you have a home charger, it’s best to give your battery a desulfate cycle or at the minimum, run a charging cycle on low amperage.  This will give your battery its fullest charge and will charge it better than your alternator does.  Make sure you pack a pair of jumper cables too (this should be year-round gear anyway, but if you don’t carry jumper cables, now would be a good time to buy some).  Better yet, put one of these portable jump starters on your holiday wishlist so you’ll never be stranded.  Remember red on red, black on black: it’s that easy.  Many auto parts stores and some workshops will run your battery and alternator through a free or cheap diagnostic to determine their health.  Ensuring your car starts every day is the first step to making sure you get to work or family on time and in one piece.


If you live in a cold climate, or own a car that sits for an extended period of time, an Optima battery is a smart investment.  We went with a redtop as it works perfectly well in near stock and daily driven applications (if you run lots of accessories or let your car sit for a long time, a yellowtop Optima is a better option).  This battery is an AGM type, so it will hold its charge better in the cold.  Be sure you get the right capacity for your engine and electrical system: undersizing a battery will kill it very quickly.  Odyssey batteries, like in Project Silvia, also work well in the cold.

Step 4: Check your lights, wipers, and washer fluid.  People often forget that the exterior lights of a car are not just meant so YOU can see the road, but also so that others can see your car.  Make sure they are all in working order.  Getting hit because you were unsighted because your lights were off or broken is a dumb way of getting into an accident and easily preventable.  Next, make sure your wiper blades are still in good shape.  I would avoid the “rail” type wipers as they can suffer from slush and snow packing under the blade which make them useless for clearing your windshield.  A traditional blade works quite well.  Finally, make sure you keep a bottle of winterized windshield wiper fluid/de-icer handy.  Normal washer fluid can freeze in the winter.  Winter washer fluid has more alcohol, and therefore a lower freezing point.  Plus, it will help thaw and de-ice your windshield before the defroster kicks in.  Finally, when it’s snowing out make sure your wiper arms are standing up.  This will prevent them from freezing to your windshield.


This is why I personally don't like rail type wipers.  Once the slush builds up, the wipers are useless.  Clean windows are second in importance to good tires.

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