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Advice for driving in snow and ice

Driving in snowy conditions isn’t much fun – in fact, it can be a nerve-racking and dangerous experience. To help minimise the risk of an accident or breakdown, here’s our advice for driving in snow and ice.

Driving in snowy conditions isn’t much fun – in fact, it can be a nerve-racking and dangerous experience. To help minimise the risk of an accident or breakdown, here’s our advice for driving in snow and ice.

Written by
Rory Reid
Car and technology expert
Last Updated
9 min read
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Driving in snow and ice

While the first flurries of snow can be thrilling for some – especially the kids – driving in snowy conditions isn’t always fun. Slippery roads, freezing temperatures and poor visibility could make for a nerve-racking and dangerous journey – even for the most experienced driver.

When it’s snowing, the best advice would be to stay at home and avoid driving altogether. But if you have to make an essential journey, here are our top tips for keeping safe out on the roads.

Before you set off

A few flurries can quickly turn into a heavy snowstorm, so make sure you’re prepared for the worst. Even if it’s a short journey, venturing out in just a T-shirt or thin jumper isn’t very wise. Wear warm clothes and sturdy shoes or boots that are comfortable to drive in.

Pack a winter emergency kit

Always carry these things in your car during winter:

  • Ice scraper
  • Can of de-icer
  • Spare screenwash
  • Torch with spare batteries
  • First-aid kit
  • Shovel
  • Jump leads
  • Warning triangle
  • A piece of old carpet or even some cat litter – these can be used to give you traction under the tyres if you get stuck in the snow
  • A phone
  • An in-car phone charger.

Before you set off on a longer journey in snowy conditions, it’s also a good idea to pack:

  • An extra jacket, waterproofs and a warm blanket
  • A hot drink (in a flask) and a bottle of water
  • Snacks.

Most important of all:

Make sure your phone is fully charged before you leave, and ensure the number of your breakdown provider is stored in it, should you need to call for help. Don’t rely on being able to access the internet to google their details as you may not always have a good signal.

Some providers now have apps that can help guide the mechanic and recovery vehicle to you, and tell you how far away they are or how long it will be until they reach you.

Check your car

It’s essential that your car is in good working condition and properly maintained and serviced so it’s fit for the harsh winter weather.

Read our essential winter safety checklist to prepare your car for winter.

Before you set off:

  • Check your tyres – make sure they’re inflated at the right pressure and have at least 3mm of tread, 4mm in very wintry conditions
  • Check your wipers are working and that the blades are in good condition
  • Top up your screenwash
  • Clean your mirrors and headlights – make sure all the bulbs are working
  • Clear all snow from the car’s roof, windscreen, mirrors and windows. Snow on the roof could slip down onto the windscreen and obscure your vision.
  • Give yourself time to de-ice your car; and not just the windscreen – by law, every window must have full visibility
  • If you have an automatic car and a ‘snow mode’ feature on your gearbox, use it to gain more traction – if not, some manufacturers recommend selecting ‘2’ in icy conditions.

Plan your journey

Before you set off, check the weather forecast and make sure you have access to the latest traffic reports during your journey.

Where possible, plan your route around major roads – they’re more likely to be gritted and cleared than minor roads and small country lanes.

Avoid hills if you can. Gaining enough traction to get up steep slopes can be very tricky during winter, and you might even find yourself sliding backwards.

Ensure you have enough fuel – snowy conditions often mean traffic jams, diversions and delays, which could make your journey much longer than anticipated.

Allow more time

Give yourself more time than you normally would for de-icing and for the journey itself. Driving in snow and ice is nerve-racking as it is – the last thing you want to do is rush.

How to drive in the snow

Drive more slowly than you would normally. The key is to drive as smoothly and carefully as possible for the conditions. Speeding on frozen roads is an accident waiting to happen, but too slow means that you might not have enough power and traction when you need it, particularly on uphill sections. Doing a hill start from a stationary position might be nigh on impossible, so momentum could be your friend.

Keep your distance

As a rule of thumb, you should allow at least four car lengths or 10 seconds between you and the vehicle in front depending on the conditions – this should give you plenty of room if you need to brake. Better still, it gives you time to ease off the accelerator rather than having to brake at all. Just remember that stopping distances in the snow are up to 10 times longer than in normal conditions.

Brake gently

It could help your confidence to use the brakes firmly in a safe place at low speeds in order to gauge how much grip is available, but don’t try this whilst going quickly. By suddenly slamming on the brakes, you risk skidding on the icy surface and losing control of the vehicle. Easy does it and if your vehicle isn’t stopping quickly enough gently press down on and off the brakes until you reach a slower speed or a controlled stop. Also make sure you brake early enough for hazards and junctions, roundabouts and traffic lights.

Turn your headlights on in daytime

Yes, even if you’re driving during the day. Your lights will help you see the road ahead in grim conditions and make you more visible to other road users.

Avoid cruise control

Handy on the motorway in dry conditions, cruise control could be hazardous on snowy roads. When the automatic feature is enabled, you might not be able to pick up on a change in traction if the road conditions change – for example, if you hit a black ice spot.

Driving uphill

Keep your distance from the vehicle in front so you don’t have to slow down or stop halfway up the hill. Stick to the same speed and try not to change gear, if possible.

Driving downhill

Again, leave plenty of room between you and the car in front. Stay in a low gear and drive slowly. Avoid braking, as this might cause your wheels to lock and slide.

What if I get stuck in the snow?

If you’re stuck in a snow drift, don’t keep revving the engine to move – it will only make the wheels spin and dig you in deeper.

  • If it’s safe to do so, get out of your car and use the shovel (from your winter emergency kit) to clear the snow out of the way – a few feet in front of and behind your vehicle. While you’re at it, make sure your exhaust is clear so it doesn’t filter back in the cabin.
  • Lay the carpet or cat litter (that we also mentioned earlier) or, at a push, your rubber car mats under the wheels – this will give your tyres extra grip.
  • Start in the lowest gear, gently press down on the accelerator and shift from forward to reverse and back again.
  • Ask for help – get others to push the car such as your passengers or helpful passers-by if there’s anyone around. Be careful not to run anyone over as they push you.
  • If your tyres are just spinning and you can’t move your car, stop straight away as you’re just digging yourself further in the snow. Stay with your vehicle, keep warm and call your breakdown provider for help.

Do electric cars have any particular advantages or problems in snow?

Yes, you may find that the cold temperatures might make your battery less efficient, meaning your range could be reduced by as much as 20%, particularly if you’re using the heating to heat the cabin more than usual, so make sure you’re fully charged if you have a longer drive ahead of you.

But there’s a few steps you can take to eke out the miles further.

  • Drive in an efficient way and keep your momentum up. Use your anticipation skills to avoid heavy braking and acceleration - best avoided in the snow anyway.
  • Keep your car in the garage or cover your car to keep it warmer when it’s cold outside – this will keep your car (and the battery) warmer so it will keep its charge longer.
  • While your car is still plugged into your home charger, you can precondition it to warm up the interior so it’s ready for you when you get in – without taking any power from the battery. In some cars this can also warm the battery to help it operate more efficiently and give you more range.
  • If you notice that you’re beginning to run out of power faster than you’d like, switch to eco-mode, if you have it. This will divert power away from your radio or music system, other gadgets and the heater, while you head for a charge point.
  • Remember that your electric car may take longer to charge when it’s very cold too.

On the other hand, electric vehicles do have some advantages over diesel and petrol cars in snow. Because the battery is generally underneath the car, and EVs are heavier than their counterparts, this low centre of gravity and extra weight can give better traction when it’s snowy. Most electric cars also have anti-lock braking and stability control systems, which provide additional steering in wintry conditions.

Should I get winter tyres or snow chains?

If you live in an area where it snows a lot every year, it may be worth buying winter tyres to get you through the cold season. These have a deeper tread than standard tyres and could give you more traction in heavy snow.

You can get them for electric cars, but check your manufacturer’s handbook to make sure you choose suitable tyres for your vehicle and its weight. You might need to look for tyres with low rolling resistance to help maintain your range as these have lower friction with the road surface. However, this type of tyre may not have as long a life as a standard tyre – but good tyre care could help here.

Snow chains are really only suitable in extremely snowy conditions – for example, if you live in a remote, rural area in the Scottish Highlands. They should only be used on roads that are covered by a thick layer of compacted snow or ice. You’ll also need to know how to fit and remove them correctly.

Snow chains must be removed when you get to a cleared road, otherwise they’ll seriously damage your tyres.

Another alternative is snow socks. They’re easier to fit and remove than snow chains and are cheaper to buy than a set of winter tyres.

Did you know?

In many European countries, it’s a legal requirement to carry snow chains in your car or have winter tyres fitted during the winter months. If you’re driving to Europe for a winter break, check which laws apply to the country you’re visiting or driving through before you go.

Frequently asked questions

Does Pass Plus teach you to drive in winter?

If you’ve just passed your driving test, the Pass Plus Scheme could give you the skills and confidence to drive in adverse weather conditions like snow. Obviously, it’s not possible to always have the practical session for the ‘in all weathers’ module in adverse weather conditions, so there will be extensive discussions and explanations about what to do to stay safe in rain, snow and ice.

Some insurance providers might also offer a discount for new drivers with a Pass Plus Certificate.

What type of car is better for winter conditions?

All-wheel drive and 4x4 vehicles tend to give you better grip and higher ground clearance making them ideal for use on icy roads, rough terrain and snowy conditions.

What should I do if I have an accident when driving in the snow?

If you’re involved in an accident when it’s snowy, no matter how minor, you should report it.

  • If it’s a minor prang and you don’t need an emergency response – for example, you slid into a parked car – call 101
  • If someone is hurt or vehicles are blocking the road – call 999.

Even a minor incident should be reported to the police within 24 hours. You should also let your car insurance provider know (whether you want to make a claim or not). 

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