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Car Winter Checklist: Basics for Driving on Wisconsin Winter Roads

Car Winter Checklist: Basics for Driving on Wisconsin Winter Roads

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Another Wisconsin winter is right around the corner. Though the professional weather prognosticators may be making predictions of pending blizzards or above average temperatures for the snow season, in reality no one ever knows for certain until the snow arrives. Still, there are some precautions we should always consider once the leaves start falling and Jack Frost comes calling – get your car and emergency road kits ready. Believe me, getting stuck in a snowstorm in the middle of the night on some forgotten back road is not an entertaining way to spend the evening. Been there, done that, and yet I still refuse to move to warmer climes where snow is but a distant memory. Now, every year I go through my preparations for a winter snow emergency for myself and my vehicle. These are some of the considerations to take in prior to venturing out on the roads into that winter wonderland.


Let’s Start with the Car

Keeping your car in top running condition greatly decreases the chances of a roadside emergency. Plan on scheduling a full servicing before the first puddle ices over. Key areas to have inspected, corrected, or replaced are:

  • Tires If you are like me, it is a common practice to switch over to winter tires if you are not running with four season treads. Regardless of the type of tire you have, check the tread for any abnormal wear patterns. If you notice the tread is low or non-existent, schedule for replacement. Throughout the season, ensure that your tire pressure is good prior to any road trips. This also means checking to ensure your spare tire is ready if needed.
  • Oil Levels and Changes Regular oil changes are an important preventive maintenance check which can easily be completed without you having to leave the car. While the oil is being replaced, the techs will also check the other fluid levels and make recommendations of replacements you may want to address to prevent any car troubles during winter driving.
  • Heat and Defrost Windows that are clear are safe. Having a functional defroster is critical during those early mornings when you get out to the car and find all of the windows are frosted over. It is just as important to be sure that you are able to drive comfortably in a warm, cozy car. Shivering during the drive is distracting and can result in an accident.
  • Amp up Those Cranking Amps Sub-zero temps play havoc on your battery’s ability to provide the amperage your car needs to turn over the starter. Get your battery fluid levels, charge levels, cables, and terminals all checked prior to hitting those winter roads.
  • Winter Wipers Did you realize there is a difference between rain wipers and winter wipers? The winter wiper for your car is built to handle the heavier load of snow on the wind shield. New wipers will also remedy the streaking patches you put up with all summer long.


Your Car Kits

Once you have run the car through all of the pre-winter preps, the next step is to determine what items should be included in your roadside emergency kits, both for the vehicle and the folks inside the vehicle. Seven items to consider include:

  1. Filler ‘er Up! Keeping the gas tank full during this time of rising fuel costs can be a daunting task. Still, you should keep as much fuel in the tank as possible for a couple of very sound reasons. First, if you find yourself snow bound, keeping the car running until help arrives can literally mean the difference between life and death. Secondly, if you allow the tank to run too close to empty, condensation may build up in the tank which may lead to frozen, and possibly cracked, fuel lines.
  2. Jump Starting Cables Jumper cables seem to be used more often in winter than any other time of the year. Sub-zero temps sap the life out of a battery quicker than you can say “I hate snowmen!” Even if there is a neighbor or friend coming to your rescue to give you a jump start, they cannot do so if neither of you has a set of jumper cables. Get a set of jumper cables. Stop reading this and go get a set now. You will thank me later.
  3. Ice Scrapers I recommend two ice scrapers; one with an extra-long handle and another shorter version for when you really need the extra leverage. If you have ever found yourself confronted with a car covered with ten inches of snow and realize you will have to scrape it all off with a credit card, you will regret not being prepared.
  4. Get a Grip Sand, kitty litter, or even a box of cheerios can be a live-saver if you ever find yourself stuck in the snow (having a shovel also helps). The additional traction under the tire may be all you need to get unstuck.
  5. Flashlight In addition to providing much needed light on that dark and frigid night, a flashlight can be used to help flag down other motorists or to light your path if you decide that you have to walk out for assistance (not recommended, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do!).
  6. Bag ‘o Tools Sometimes a simple repair may mean the difference between completing the journey or remaining stranded. Some handy tools to include are: screwdrivers, crescent wrench, hose clamp, zip ties, duct tape, sockets and pliers. You may also want to keep the phone number for your mechanic in the bag.


Your Personal Emergency Kit

Having a bag of goodies to see you through the time waiting for help to arrive will do a lot to relieve the stress of everyone stuck in the car. Some things you will want to squirrel away before leaving the warmth of hearth and home may include:

  • Cell Phone, Charger, and External Battery Bank Today just about everyone carries a cell phone). Not only can it be used to photo update all your peeps on the dire circumstance of being stranded, but it can also be used to call for help. To do that, you need to make sure your phone is charged and that you have reception. While you may not be able to control how many bars you have available, you can ensure that you are charged up or have the means to do so. A plug-in charger, as well as a back-up battery pack, can make all the difference in the world in your ability to continue to have communications while waiting out the storm.
  • Dress for the Weather and Then Some Coat, hat, gloves, and extra seasonal clothing should be a given. Having winter boots and a couple of blankets or sleeping bags packed away in the truck can also come in handy if needed. Warm clothing should never be underrated. Whenever we would travel any distance during the winter, the kids would all have their blankets and pillows along to stay warm and cozy during the ride. Thankfully, though we were prepared, we never had to rely on them to save our lives.
  • A Small First Aid Kit A first aid kit can come to the rescue in the most unexpected of ways. If the sushi you purchased at the gas station is starting to swim upstream those antacids can be a lifesaver, if you scraped your knuckles worrying off a stubborn lug nut that antiseptic and band-aid will provide immediate relief. Throwing in some cleaning wipes, aspirin, ibuprofen and an Ace bandage will resolve most minor injuries until further medical attention can be provided.
  • Don’t Get “Hangry” Snacks like granola bars, cheese sticks, chips and pretzels are a real comfort when things go sideways. You and the kids may not really be hungry, but this will keep everyone’s mind off the amount of time it is taking for either the tow truck to show up or the parent to figure out how to get the trip back on track. Don’t forget water or some other drink (remember, teas and coffee are diuretics and may result in a very chilly potty break!).
  • TP and Wipes If you are traveling with a little one, chances are you have already taken the precaution of having diapers and wipes prepacked. After munching out on all the snacks listed above, toilet paper may become are real handy item. When nature calls, you may have to answer quickly, and sometimes remote rest areas are not as well attended or stocked. Having your own TP comes in handy.
  • Disposable Hand Warmers If you are changing a tire, digging yourself out of a snowbank or even simply cleaning snow and ice off the windshield, cold hands are not fun and can be painful. Modern disposable hand warmers are a great improvement over the old charcoal filled warmers of years gone by. They warm up in just seconds after being taken out of the wrapper, the heat lasts for quite a few hours, and it makes more sense than keeping a smoldering fire in your pocket! These will keep your hands (and feet if need be) toasty warm while you’re facing down Mother Nature at her worst.
  • A Pencil and Paper I recommend a pencil instead of a pen for one simple reason, there is no ink in a pencil to freeze up after it has been left in the car all winter. Having something to write with and on will be useful for jotting down the contact info for the tow truck driver, or if you unfortunately end up in an accident, the other driver’s name, and license plate numbers.


My Best Advice? Don’t Go if You Don’t Have To!

All the vehicle pre-checks are done, the road kit and personal kits are packed, the family is dressed as if they are heading to the South Pole. Suddenly, the weather app on your phone alerts you to the pending arrival of the first major snowstorm of the year. Should you go or should you stay? Really now, how important is the trip? Bear in mind that the first major snowstorm is guaranteed to be a complete mess. The snow crews may be responding for the first time of the season, some to those same folk may be new to the job, and most importantly, everyone – you included – have forgotten how to drive in the snow. If you don’t have to go, don’t go. Throw on the jammies, snuggle up with the kiddos or pets or both, and enjoy the time in the warmth of your home while the blizzard rages on outside. Stay warm, stay safe, and who knows, you may have saved the cost of getting towed out of a snowbank!


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