Best Ways to Prep Your Car for Driving in Winter

Winterizing your vehicle is an important process that involves changing out fluids, wiper blades, and much more for replacement components that are specifically designed to function better cold temperatures.

Car in Winter

Is your Vehicle Winter Ready?

In this article, we’re going to take a look at all of these, but we’re going to spend most of our time looking at one particularly important component of winterization: tires.

So keep reading to learn about how to get your car ready for winter and how using proper winter tires is the key to driving safely all winter long.

How-to Guide to Prepare your Car for Winter Driving

Check your Anti-freeze

The first thing any driver should do to get their car ready for winter is to check their antifreeze. It’s no secret that engines generate lots of heat, and, even when the temperature outside is very cold, your car’s engine still needs some help cooling.

Modern engines typically use water-based cooling systems. Summarized, the water flows through the engine and absorbs excess heat. But in the winter, the water that your car’s cooling system uses can freeze.

When water freezes, it expands. That frozen water could then expand inside the cooling system, causing all sorts of problems. Antifreeze is designed to prevent this from happening.

How to check your Anti-freeze

How to check Anti-freeze

Ensure your Anti-freeze is ready for winter use.

By mixing with the water in your car’s cooling system, antifreeze drops the freezing point to well below the normal freezing point of water, meaning you don’t need to worry about your cooling system freezing and subsequently failing.

For this reason, it’s important to make sure your antifreeze is full at the start of winter and to check it periodically throughout the season.

Change the Windshield washer fluid

The second fluid you should change is your windshield washer fluid. This fluid is also water-based, meaning it can freeze in cold temperatures.

A variety of manufactures make winter-specific washer fluid that is chemically engineered to have a freezing point much lower than nearly any temperature you’d encounter in a normal winter.

How to fill up your Windshield washer fluid

How to fill Windshield washer fluid

Get your windshield washer fluid filled up ready for winter use.

Change to winter wiper blades

Relatedly, it’s also important to begin winter with a fresh set of wiper blades. Ice, snow, and road salt can all make it very difficult to see out of a dirty windshield, and you’ll likely find yourself using your windshield wipers quite frequently in the winter as a result.

How to change out Wiper blades

How to change out Wiper blades

Switch out your Wiper blades ready for winter use.

Some manufactures also make winter-specific wiper blades, which are designed with rubberized hinges to prevent ice and snow from building up inside the blade.

Winter blades are also constructed from a heavier material to allow them to more effectively clear heavy ice and snow from your windshield.

Check if your brakes work properly

Stopping power is key when driving in dark and icy conditions. Tires are key players when it comes to stopping power, and we’ll explain why in much more detail shortly. Still, stopping ultimately comes down to your car’s brakes.

How to check brakes without removing the tire

How to check your brakes

How to check your brakes are working properly ready for winter use.

For this reason, it’s very important to make sure that both your brake pads and brake rotors are not too worn down.

Switch out Summer tires to Winter tires

Using proper winter tires is the single most important step you can take to get your car ready for winter. You may have heard about some drivers using “snow tires” in the winter.

You may even have thought about putting snow tires on your own car but ultimately decided against it, thinking they’re unnecessary because it doesn’t snow much in your area.

Well, the types of tires commonly referred to as “snow tires” are actually more accurately called “winter tires” because they’re designed for more than just driving in this snow. Rather, they’re designed for driving when it’s cold.

Winter Tires v All Season Tires v Summer Tires

Winter v All Season v Summer Tires

Check out the stopping distance for 3 types of tires.

For this reason, every driver who lives somewhere that it gets cold in the winter should factor the cost of a good set of winter tires into the overall cost of owning and maintaining their vehicle.

All tires, as you know, are made from rubber. But there is an endless variety of mixtures and compounds that tire manufacturers use to tune the performance of their tires. Still, there are a couple of general principles that we can apply to frame our discussion here today.

The Tread of your tires

The tires are your car’s contact point with the pavement. Your tires are responsible for maintaining traction, and a tire’s grip determines how long it takes for the vehicle to come to a stop once the driver applies the brakes.

The performance of standard (i.e. non-winter) tires, as a rule, begins to decrease once the temperature dips below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (around 4.4 degrees Celsius).

How to check a tire tread?

How to check Tire tread

Take a look at how to check your tire thread and switch out your tires especially if you're heading to winter.

We’ll explain this phenomenon in a bit more detail later, but for now, it’s important to understand that the first major difference between standard tires and winter tires is that winter tires are designed to maintain their performance once the temperature dips below this point.

Winter tires’ optimized cold-weather performance is largely due to three key design elements: rubber compound, tread pattern, and tread depth. We’ll look at each one in turn.

Rubber compound

Perhaps the biggest difference between standard and winter tires is the rubber compound. As we mentioned earlier, winter tires are optimized for performance in cold temperatures. This is because when rubber gets cold, it becomes brittle, and brittle rubber cannot grip the pavement as well as soft, supple rubber.

For this reason, winter tires first and foremost are made from a very soft rubber compound. But on top of that, winter tires are also made with a rubber compound that is specifically engineered to retain its supple character in cold temperatures instead of becoming brittle.

Second, many winter tires are built with a hydrophilic rubber compound. This means the rubber likes interacting with water on a molecular level. This feature is intended to help the tire excel when driving on ice and snow because even though winter tires are, in general, designed for driving when it’s cold, they, of course, need to be able to handle ice and snow as well.

Studded winter tires

“Studded” winter tires, for the most part, are a thing of the past. Modern winter tires, on the other hand, use a specialized rubber compound to increase traction on ice and snow instead of relying on metal studs to dig into the surface.

In this respect, winter tires are engineered to work according to the same physical and chemical principles as ice skates.

When a skater wears ice skates to glide over a frozen surface, the pressure of the blade on the solid ice causes the ice to transform physical states from solid to liquid.

This places a very thin layer of liquid water between the blade and the solid ice beneath it. The blade then slides across this layer of liquid water. Winter tires do the same thing.

When your vehicle drives across a patch of ice, the weight of the vehicle causes the top of the solid ice to transition into a thin layer of liquid water. The tire’s hydrophilic rubber allows this layer of water to penetrate the tire, causing the tire to essentially “grab on” to the solid ice below.

This phenomenon does not happen with non-winter tires. For this reason, winter tires offer superior traction and stopping power when driving on ice.

Tread pattern

The next key difference between standard and winter tires is the tread pattern. Winter tires use a very aggressive tread pattern that is designed to maximize the tire’s contact path with the pavement.

After all, more tire touching the pavement equals more grip, and maximizing grip is the main objective when driving on slick roads in the winter.

To do this, winter tires use zig-zag shaped “cuts” in the tire’s lugs. Known as “siping,” these cuts increase the tire’s surface area and help increase the tire’s grip when driving on both loose and hardpacked snow.

Think about it this way. Place your hand on a piece of paper but keep all your fingers together. Then trace the outline of your hand. Now do the same thing again, except this time spread your fingers apart and trace the outline again.

It doesn’t take a professional engineer to realize the path around your spread fingers is much longer than the path around your closed fingers. Well, the extra distance between your open fingers is the increased surface area caused by the tire’s siping.

Tread depth

The depth of the tread is the last key difference between standard and winter tires. By using a deeper tread, winter tires are able to dig in more effectively to loose surfaces such as snow.

Winter vs All-Season vs Summer Tire Tread Comparison

Winter vs All-Season vs Summer Tire Tread

Take a look at the difference in tread depth for these 3 types of tire.

The deeper tread also helps increase the overall surface area of the tire, meaning that even on clear roads, there’s more tire contacting the pavement, which is key, especially when temperatures are very low.

Drawbacks of winter tires

You may be thinking, if the traction offered by winter tires is so great, why don’t I just use them all the time? That’s a great question, and the answer is because winter tires wear faster than standard tires.  Because winter tires use such a soft rubber compound, they do not last as long as standard tires that are made from a harder rubber.

Second, everything about the design of a winter tire is intended to increase the amount of friction the tire creates with the pavement. This increase in friction means your engine must work harder to spin the wheels, resulting in a slight decrease in fuel economy.

Still, a slight decrease in fuel economy is a small price to pay for the peace of mind provided by knowing you’re driving with very sticky tires that you can be sure will help you stay on the road regardless of the harsh conditions that winter may throw at you.

Frequently asked questions

When should I winterize my car?

This depends on how early winter starts in your area. But as a general rule, it’s a good idea to make sure your car is ready to go at least a couple of weeks before your area sees its first freeze.

When should I de-winterize my car?

This, too, depends on your area. But again, it’s better to be safe than sorry. So, it’s typically a good idea to wait to change out your winter-specific components until at least a couple of weeks after your last freeze.

Can I just use winter components all year?

Technically, you could. But like all specialized components, winter components are designed to be used when it’s cold. This means they either will function poorly in hot weather, or will, at the very least, wear out much faster than they need to.

Final thoughts

Taking the time to winterize your vehicle can go a long way toward getting the most out of it. Not only will winterizing your car help it perform better in cold weather (and therefore keep you and your passengers safe), but winterizing will also help your car last longer.

Specifically with respect to winter tires are not intended only for those drivers that live in places with very snowy winters or who constantly drive through the mountains. They’re intended, rather, for all drivers that live in places where it gets cold in the winter!

True, winter tires are an extra expense, and they do require drivers to make an extra trip to the auto shop to have them switched out each season. But winter tires are well worth it for the security they provide.

We highly encourage all drivers to use a dedicated set of winter tires once temperatures start to drop.