8 Winter Road Trip Tips

I love seeing my family during the Christmas season!  Between adult jobs and the kids being in school full-time, our opportunities to see extended family has decreased a bit over the last few years.  We always try to make at least one long trip during the winter break.  How do we prepare for a winter road trip?  Here is a complete list of the essential things to know before a winter road trip.

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Know Your Travel Route

Before you begin any trip, it’s important to know exactly where you are going.  In mountainous areas, some roads are closed during the winter months and a GPS might not be programmed to give you that information.  By using a traditional road map or map websites such as MapQuest or Google Maps before you start your journey, you can map a route that will get you from point A to point B.

Check the road conditions by using a state website.  Using an internet browser enter your state’s name followed by “road conditions”.  All states have a different map, but knowing the road conditions before you begin your trip is very helpful.  Don’t forget to tell someone where you are going, when you plan to get there, and which route you will take.

Keep Track of the Weather

Having resources such as the internet, newspaper, radio, and local news channels there is absolutely no excuse to not know the weather before you begin your trip.  I begin analyzing the weather 2-3 days before any trip we take.  What am I looking for?  Big storms, blizzard like conditions, freezing fog, freezing rain, road closures, and even avalanche maintenance (yes, there are occasional avalanches on some of the road we travel).  I look at the weather in all of the areas we plan on driving.  For example, if we were to drive from Boise to Salt Lake City I would look at all of the southern Idaho’s weather along with northern Utah’s.

Most of the time, the weather doesn’t deter any plans we have.  However, if it looks like a big storm is coming, consider changing plans.  I will make the decision to go on the trip or stay home the day before a journey.  Earlier this winter we opted to stay home instead of driving through a snow storm that produced blizzard like conditions and dropped 12″+ of snow over a mountain pass requiring chains.  While I was a little disappointed I missed a fun activity, I definitely do not want to endanger myself or my family.

For the latest weather, use the National Weather Service at weather.gov.  Any active weather alerts will be displayed on their website.

Travel with Plenty of Food and Water

With kids, we usually travel with plenty of water and snacks in an attempt to reduce the amount of stops we take.  In the winter, it’s even more important to bring these items in case you are stranded for a few hours (such as a road closure or car accident).

Pack a Winter Survival Kit

We all like to think that nothing bad will ever happen.  However, the reality of winter driving is roads can close, passes can shut down, vehicles can get stuck in deep snow, and accidents do occur.  It’s very important to have a winter safety kit for any sort of situation.

  • Ice Scraper and Brush (you should have these anyway)
  • Tow Rope
  • Jumper Cables
  • Blankets (enough for all passengers)
  • Gloves and Hats (enough for all passengers)
  • A Working Flashlight and Extra Batteries
  • A Candle
  • Matches
  • A Portable Weather Radio
  • Cat Litter (for traction)
  • Snow Chains (make sure you have a set that fits your vehicle’s tires)
  • First Aid Kit
  • Shovel (to move snow)
  • Cell Phone
  • Water and Food for Emergencies (think pantry items like granola bars, nuts, and other prepackaged snacks)

With all safety gear, it only works if you know how to use it!  Even simply checking YouTube to see how jumper cables work or how to apply snow chains will be infinitely more helpful than not knowing how to use them.

Slow Down

It takes longer to do anything on a snow-packed or icy road.  This includes accelerating, stopping, and turning so give yourself plenty of time safely maneuver your vehicle.  The general rule for summer driving is staying 3-4 seconds behind the vehicle in front of you in order to stop in time.  In the winter, increase the following distance to 8-10 seconds.

Do not use cruise control on any slippery surface such as ice, snow, water, or sand.  Cruise control is designed for dry conditions only.

Check Your Tires

Tire pressure decreases in cold weather.  What does that mean for you?  If you haven’t inflated your tires since the middle of summer, it might be a great time to put some more air in them.

Make sure your tires have enough tread to grip in the snow.  Tire tread depths should be at least 1/8″, but if you live in a snow prone area, I would opt for equipping your vehicle with snow tires.

Backseat Entertainment

Often, winter road trips take much more time than summer trips.  To keep the whole family occupied consider bringing additional entertainment options such as:

  • Books or magazines to read.
  • Coloring pages and plain paper for drawing.
  • Tablets such as a Kindle or Ipad can be loaded with educational apps or games.
  • For the driver, audiobooks or podcasts can provide additional entertainment.
  • DVD player with plenty of movies.

I purchase coloring and activity books from the dollar store.  The price is right and they provide more than a dollar’s worth of entertainment for my kids.  Books, magazines and even audiobooks can be borrowed from the library.  I can even borrow audiobooks from my local library through a few apps that are on my smart phone.  Contact your local library or check out their website to find out if this option is available for you.

Stranded?  Now What?

Finally, if somehow you are stuck in your vehicle, stay there!  Your vehicle will provide temporary shelter and make it easier for rescuers to locate you.  Tie a bright-colored item to the antenna of the vehicle or out of window to signal distress.  Make sure the exhaust pipe is clear of snow since a blocked exhaust can cause carbon monoxide gas to leak into the cab of the vehicle if the engine is running.  Also, try to conserve gas by running the engine just long enough to remove the chill from the vehicle.

This is when all of those items in the Winter Survival Kit will come in handy.  Blankets, gloves, and gloves will help keep you warm.

As with all travel plans, being prepared is essential.  If at any point during your planning you do not feel comfortable going, STAY HOME.  It’s ok to be cautious.  I love to travel, but during the winter about 50% of my travel plans are cancelled due to weather.  Do you have any out of the ordinary winter driving tips?  I’d love to hear them.

"When snow falls, nature listens." -Antoinette van Kleeff