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No one wants to think about their car getting stuck or breaking down in the winter. It’s a pretty rough scenario, and in many places it can be dangerous due to the extreme cold. That said, a little preparation and know-how can go a long way towards keeping you safe in these sorts of situations.

Winter Prep

You don’t want to be wishing you’d  winter prepped your car from the side of a snowed-over road. Check basic components like your battery, serpentine belt and pulleys, make sure you have working lights and wipers, and check your tires’ tread depth and pressure. If you live in an area that sees snow or extreme cold, winter tires are a fantastic option and provide excellent handing in the cold, not just the snow. A little bit of maintenance and preparation can go a long way to making sure that your car won’t breakdown or get stuck in the snow.

You’ll be better prepared if you winterize your vehicle, but there’s always room for something to go wrong. That’s why you should keep a winter emergency kit in your vehicle to deal with being stranded in cold weather. Bring blankets or additional warm clothing to keep warm, flashlights, flares, and a snow brush. Having a great pair of winter boots can go a long way in a emergency. Last thing you want to do is have to walk a mile in -20 degree temps or snow with dress shoes on. Bring water too. You might have to wait a little while for help to come if your car gets stuck or breaks down.

Turn Off Traction Control When Stuck in the Snow

If your car is stuck in the snow, it means that the drive wheels cannot get traction due to snow between the tires and the ground. In order to get unstuck, you’ll need to get traction. Before you start trying, you’ll want to turn off traction control. There’s an old myth that you should turn off traction control while driving in the snow. Traction control can reduce engine power and apply the brakes to prevent wheelspin, and oversteer, and you don’t want a potential spin-out in the snow while you’re driving. If your car is stuck in the snow, however, wheelspin can actually be helpful.

For this reason, you should turn off traction control in the winter only when you are trying to get your car unstuck from snow. Many 4WD trucks and SUV’s are equipped with an electric locker or “differential lock” that essentially locks either both rear wheels, or all 4 wheels, which is used for off-road conditions. It’s good to know if you have this option on your truck or SUV, and how it properly works. If you do, turning on this feature while you are stuck in snow, or traveling slowly through deep snow can work wonders. This is what it’s made for! If you have a vehicle that has selectable 4WD, meaning, it operates in 2WD normally, switch to 4WD.

Clear Snow From Under Your Car

This is when having a snow brush would pay off. You could also use a something like a shovel if you don’t have a snow brush. Clear a few feet in front of and behind the tires, and dig out any snow that is touching the underside of your car. You’ll want to check the tailpipe(s) too. If your car’s exhaust is blocked by the snow, it could cause poisonous carbon monoxide to build up inside of the cabin.

Once the snow is clear, you’re ready to start trying a few of the ways of getting your car unstuck.

How to Get a Car Unstuck from the Snow

1

Roll Back and Forth Slowly

In low gear, move forward a bit only applying a little gas. Then slowly back up. Don’t rev the engine. This can force down snow that is loose and boost your wheels’ traction. Be sure to listen carefully: if you hear a tire spin, let off the gas right away.

2

Use Gas and Brakes at the Same Time

If you’re dealing with wheelspin while trying to get unstuck, press the brake pedal while pressing the gas pedal just a little bit. If you drive a FWD or 4/AWD vehicle, you might get slightly better traction if you turn the wheels slightly with the steering wheel. Don’t do this for more than a second or two, or you risk overheating your brakes.

3

Get a Little Help from Your Friends

If you can get some friends or friendly folks who happen to be nearby to help push your vehicle, it may just do the trick. Make sure the car is in gear to drive away from the people pushing the car, and gently apply the gas while they push from behind.

4

Add Some Traction

If the wheels keep slipping, it might be easier to add some traction beneath the wheels. The easiest way to do this is with cables or snow chains. They are the best way to build traction, but they can be hard to put on after you get stuck, making them not always the ideal way to achieve traction. Also, many states prohibit their use altogether other than emergency situations. You can do this with a lot of other things, including:

  • Sand
  • Kitty litter or Oil Dry
  • Cardboard
  • Floor mats
  • Ice melt or Water Softener Salt

The basic idea here is that all of these can give some traction for your wheels by providing a friction surface that the tire can grip more easily than the snow. Just place one of the traction-adders from the list above and put it under the wheels.

Ice melt is ideal to use here because it will help increase traction and melt the snow at the same time! If you don’t have ice melt, one of the other options can work. If you use your floor mats, this will probably ruin your them. That said, new floor mats may be cheaper than a tow truck.

No matter what you use, there’s a risk that the object could launch out when the wheel turns, so watch out!

5

Let Out Some Tire Air

This is not ideal and you should only do it if these two statements apply:

  • You’ve tried the other options
  • You are near a pump at which you can refill your tires

Less air in your tires will increase the amount of rubber that touches the ground. While this increases your traction, it is bad for your tires, so only do it if you’re near a pump where you can top them back up after getting unstuck.

What If You Can’t Get Unstuck or Your Car Broke Down?

If your car broke down or you can’t get it unstuck, you’ll need to call for help. The bad news is that if bad weather got you stranded, there are probably other folks stranded in the area too, so it might take a while for help to arrive. That means you’ll need to stay in your car for a while, and where your emergency kit is vital. If you prepare and handle the situation calmly, it will be okay.

Get to The Right

If your vehicle breaks down, the best practice is to move your vehicle as far right of the road as safely possible. Stay calm and get your vehicle off of the road, then call for help. Make sure you turn your hazard lights on. Try to stay on the phone until you have spoken with someone and know what will happen next.

Be Seen and Stay Put

As said before, turn on your hazard lights so other drivers see your vehicle and know that you have broken down and do not leave the area unless you are absolutely certain you can walk to safety.

  • If you have a roadside emergency kit with flares, use flares to alert other motorists as to where you are.
  • Wipe snow and ice from your headlights and taillights to increase visibility.
  • Stay in your vehicle with your seat belt buckled, accidents can still happen even though you’re not moving, especially in white-out conditions. If you are approaching a white-out accident or pile-up of cars on a highway, many experts believe this is the one time you want to get out of your car and as far away from the pile-up as possible, to prevent injury from more vehicles hitting your car from behind. Use absolute discretion here and be on the lookout for other motorists who may be gathering in a safe area.
  • Turn your dome light on at night, but ONLY when the engine is running, having the light on without the engine running can drain your battery.

Keep Warm

Make sure your tailpipe is clear of snow and ice so that you’re able to run the engine about 15 minutes every hour to stay warm and keep your battery charged. Crack your window periodically to circulate fresh air and keep poisonous gasses from lingering.

Cover yourself in the blanket you packed in your kit and change into your extra clothes if you are wet, and keep your arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers and toes moving to keep your circulation going. Frostbite is a very real and dangerous situation when stranded in the winter.

Advice, how-to guides, and car care information featured on AutoZone.com and AutoZone Advice & How-To’s are presented as helpful resources for general maintenance and automotive repairs from a general perspective only and should be used at your own risk. Information is accurate and true to the best of AutoZone’s knowledge, however, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes.

Be sure to consult your owner’s manual, a repair guide, an AutoZoner at a store near you, or a licensed, professional mechanic for vehicle-specific repair information. Refer to the service manual for specific diagnostic, repair and tool information for your particular vehicle. Always chock your wheels prior to lifting a vehicle. Always disconnect the negative battery cable before servicing an electrical application on the vehicle to protect its electrical circuits in the event that a wire is accidentally pierced or grounded. Use caution when working with automotive batteries. Sulfuric acid is caustic and can burn clothing and skin or cause blindness. Always wear gloves and safety glasses and other personal protection equipment, and work in a well-ventilated area. Should electrolyte get on your body or clothing, neutralize it immediately with a solution of baking soda and water. Do not wear ties or loose clothing when working on your vehicle.

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