How to drive in snow safely: 10 top tips

February 10, 2023 by

Even for the most capable and confident drivers, driving in the snow can be quite tricky.

Snow can lead to slippy and unpredictable road surfaces, while visibility will be greatly reduced as it falls.

It’s easy to see why it can be treacherous, though. If you’re wondering how to drive in snow more safely and to minimise risk though, these 10 tips should help.

1. Avoid driving if possible

OK, so opening a driving tips feature by telling you to leave a car parked up seems counterproductive, but it’s often best to just leave the car at home unless your journey is essential.

Fewer cars on the road mean it’s safer for everyone out there. This works both ways too — if your journey is essential and there are fewer unnecessary drivers on the road, you’ve got a little more breathing space.

2. Check your route before setting off

The last thing you’ll want to come across on a snowy drive is a closed road on your route.

It’s always worth checking ahead to see if any of the roads you regularly drive are closed as a result of the weather. Free services such as Google Maps can show you closed roads as well as suggest alternative routes.

If you don’t have access to an online maps tool, it’s worth having a listen to traffic announcements over the radio.

3. Give yourself more time for your journey

What may be a short journey on a nice, sunny day could end up taking quite a bit longer if the weather is bad.

With that in mind, it’s always worth giving yourself more time for your journey when driving in the snow.

That way you’ve got a little more time to anticipate while you’re driving, plus to deal with potential road closures and detours.

4. Check your tyres

It’s essential to regularly check your tyres, but even more so if you’re driving in the snow.

Lower temperatures will mean less grip in your tyres, so the last thing you want to be relying on is some worn-out rubber.

Though the legal limit for tyre tread depth is 1.6mm, it’ll be better to have comfortably more than that in the snow.

A tyre depth gauge costs a few quid and is a handy little thing to keep in your car. If you don’t have one to hand, a very rough way to measure the tread depth is with a 20p coin.

Sit it flat in the central groove of your tyre and see how far up the coin the rubber comes. If it’s below the solid outer rim of your 20p, it’s most likely time for a new set.

If you’re regularly driving in tricky conditions, it’s worth considering investing in a set of winter tyres. These are better are generating grip in colder conditions, though you’ll need to switch them again for a seasonal set in the summer.

5. Make sure your wipers and screenwash are in check

Give your windscreen wiper blades a quick visual inspection before setting off. If the rubber is beginning to crack or peel away from the wiper arm, you should get yourself a new set.

It’s worth giving them a test as well. If they’re leaving milky streaks across the windscreen, it could be time for a new set.

You should try your screenwash in case the fluid has frozen. It might be worth buying a bottle designed to cope with sub-zero temperatures — it’ll be useful all-year-round too.

6. Pack an emergency kit

It’s worth keeping an emergency kit in your car in case the weather catches you out.

Some car essentials include: a high-vis jacket, de-icer, a blanket, a first-aid kit, a warning triangle, jump leads and a battery pack to charge your phone from.

It’s worth making a flask of your choice of hot drink and tucking a few snacks away too.

7. Wear appropriate footwear

If it’s particularly bad in the snow, you might be in big boots to get your car. While they’re good for safely walking, they might not be the best for driving in.

It could be a good idea to bring a more comfortable set of shoes to drive in. Regardless of how you do it, make sure you’ve dried your shoes off if you’re walking in the snow as well. You could find your feet slipping on the pedals otherwise.

8. Focus on anticipation

Anticipation is key when driving in the snow. Your car’s stopping distances will be increased greatly as a result of the slippier surfaces, increasing the risk of an accident.

Begin braking earlier than you normally would in order to account for any slip, as well as allowing yourself time to brake more progressively.

Anti-lock brake systems work less effectively in slippery conditions, so there’s an increased risk of locking your brakes if you’re having to slow down suddenly.

9. Be gentle with the throttle

Slippery surfaces make it easier for your car’s engine to spin the wheels when you press the accelerator.  It’s essential to be extra careful with the throttle in snowy conditions.

A more gentle application will minimise the risk of wheelspin, keeping you firmly in control. You can shift up to a higher gear to help prevent this too.

10. Know your car’s limits

Above all, make sure you’re not pushing your car beyond its limits of capabilities. It’s not worth plunging through thick snow if you’re not wholly confident your car can handle it.

This is especially worth considering if you drive an SUV. Though there’s a huge range of them available now, not all are dedicated 4×4 vehicles and may struggle in slippery conditions.

Driving in snow: step-by-step guide

Driving in snow brings with it many more risks than driving in good conditions, so taking a methodical approach can help you stay safe.

  • Clear your car of snow and defrost it thoroughly. Leave extra time to let the car and its engine warm through before setting off, thoroughly clearing the car of snow and ice, including removing any snow from the roof, as this could slide off onto the rear window, obstructing your view, or fly off onto another car, obstructing theirs or causing them to swerve. You also want the cabin to be warm: cold, juddering hands are not as effective at steering a car as warm, stable ones. Don’t operate your windscreen wipers before the car has defrosted, either: the rubber could rip if it is frozen to the screen.
  • Use high gears. If you have a manual car, consider setting off in second to avoid wheelspin, and change up early when on the move. If your car has an automatic gearbox it may have a dedicated ‘snow/ice’ mode, which should be selected, or it will likely give you the ability to choose your own gear.
  • Leave lots of extra room. Stopping distances in snow and ice can be 10 times higher than in normal conditions, so leave plenty of space between you and the vehicle in front. Also bear in mind you won’t be able to stop quickly if a pedestrian walks out into the road.
  • Reduce your speed. With stopping distances increased, the roads slippery, it’s essential that you keep your speed down. Corners need to be taken slowly, lest the tyres lose traction and the car skids, while cruising speeds should also be reduced. Make your accelerator inputs gentle, too.
  • Use the brakes carefully. The chances of your wheels losing traction and locking up are greatly increased if you are heavy on the brakes, so use them gently. Try to use the gears and engine braking to slow down, too.
  • Hills require special care. There is a risk when going up a hill that you lose traction, with gravity pushing you back down. Keep your speed constant, avoid changing gear if possible, and make sure you have room to ascend the hill completely without having to stop or slow.
  • As do corners…Brake before you approach so you do not have to brake and steer at the same time, as the more you ask of the car at any one time, the greater its chances of skidding are.
  • And if you do skid, turn gently into the skid, taking your foot off the accelerator and brake to increase the car’s chances of regaining traction.
  • Try to drive on fresh snow. Snow other drivers have driven on can become extra slippery, so try to plough your own furrow on fresh snow, which will offer more grip.

What should you avoid when driving in snow?

Don’t drive fast

Driving hard and fast in the snow is a recipe for disaster. Though you may feel confident doing so in the dry, you’ll have much less grip and margin for error in the snow. It’s not worth the risk.

Don’t leave your route to chance

Always check your route before driving in the snow. There’s a chance adverse weather could cause closures up ahead, and it’s not worth assuming all will be clear.

Don’t take a risk just because someone else has

You may have seen a driver up ahead plunging through some deep snow or taking a corner quickly.

Just because they’ve managed it safely doesn’t mean you will. Don’t push yourself beyond your or your car’s limits, it’s not worth the risk.

Tips for driving in snow FAQs

What gear is best to drive in snow?

It’s best to drive in as high a gear as possible in the snow as this will reduce wheelspin.

Try pulling away from a junction in second gear rather than first if you’re getting wheelspin, and shift up sooner than you normally would.

Is front-wheel-drive good in snow?

Front-wheel-drive cars tend to have better grip in the snow as more weight sits over the front axle of the car.

This doesn’t mean you’ll be completely immune to a loss of traction but it can mean you’ll have more grip.

How do I drive uphill in snow?

When driving uphill in the snow, be gentle on the throttle and use as high a gear as you’re comfortable with. Patience is key.

Am I insured to drive in snow?

Your car will be insured to be driven in snow. Take it easy though, if you’re purposely driving erratically and have an accident, your insurer could question your claim.

What should I do if my car starts to skid?

Turn into the skid – IE if the car is skidding right, turn the steering wheel to the right, and vice versa. Take your foot off the accelerator and brake, waiting for the car to find its traction again.

How do I drive an automatic car in snow?

If the gearbox has a snow/ice mode, select this. Alternatively, some auto boxes have a ‘comfort’ setting that will see the car set off in second gear, while if the gearbox has a manual option, use this to select a high gear, early.

Do I need winter tyres or snow chains?

Winter tyres are specially designed to give you better grip in slippery conditions but, unlike some continental countries, we have no law mandating their use. Winter tyres can be a great investment, but you’ll have to be prepared to pay for them, and either have somewhere or rent somewhere to store your summer tyres. All-season tyres are a good compromise. As for snow chains, these are worth considering as they greatly increase grip, but  they are fiddly to fit and can damage the vehicle if installed incorrectly. Consult your car’s handbook for specific instructions about snow chains.