Winter Driving - What You Need to Know

Are you wondering how to drive in Winter conditions? Are you considering moving to a snowy location from a sunny locale? Or, are you visiting a snowy destination in Winter? Don’t worry. Once you know a few basics of Winter driving you will be able to maneuver the roads like a pro. These recommendations are geared towards Montana Winter driving conditions, however they can be adjusted as needed for any state.

If you prefer to watch a video with this information, click here.

#1 Equipment

The first necessity for Winter driving is the right equipment. Here in Montana some basic necessities for driving in Winter are as follows:

A 4WD or AWD vehicle is of utmost importance. The most common vehicles seen in Montana are pickup trucks and Subarus. We don’t own either, however, both of our vehicles have either 4WD or AWD capabilities.

You will also want a vehicle with semi-automatic transmission (If driving in Montana or a mountainous state. If you’re driving in Indiana, this is not a necessity) Most rental cars in Montana have this feature. If you are moving to the area, practice in Summer on a road near you with a decent grade change and tight turns. In Flathead County, Big Mountain Road is a great road to practice on.

Many locals swear by snow tires. They put them on before the Winter season and switch them out before Summer. We use all-weather tires and leave them on year-round, however snow tires do come highly recommended.

If you live or travel out of the city often you will also want to have studs put on your tires for the Winter season, or you will want to purchase a set of chains to put on your tires. Chains are quite easy to put on and often you will see pull offs designated as chain up areas.

Purchase All Weather Wipers - Winter Driving - What You Need to Know

It is also vital to have all-weather wipers on your vehicle. Poor wiper performance can be very dangerous and delay your journey. 

And, don’t forget to have a good ice scraper / snow brush combo in your vehicle during the Winter months.

#2 Braking

When driving on snow or ice, braking is not a great idea. However, it’s impossible to drive without braking so what can we do? Basically, when driving in Winter you want to start braking sooner and brake a lot smoother than you normally would. You also want to leave a greater following distance between you and the vehicle in front of you.

I also recommend doing a brake check as you leave home.

I also recommend doing a brake check as you leave home. First, be sure no one is behind you and that you have sufficient space around your vehicle. Then, when driving around 20-25 miles per hour slam on your brakes and see how the vehicle reacts to the environment. If you are new to driving in Winter it would also be a great idea to find an empty parking lot and practice driving circles and handling your vehicle in the snowy conditions.

Winter Driving Road Conditions - Winter Driving - What You Need to Know

#3 Speed

In Winter driving conditions you will need to drive slower. If you aren’t sure of the appropriate speed, join the majority and adjust as necessary for your equipment and experience level. If you need to go slower than the majority just be sure you’re in the slower lane. If you’re on a one lane road and start to see a line of vehicles piling up behind you, it's polite to pull off at the next pull out and allow the vehicles to pass. This will also relieve pressure from you and allow for a much safer driving experience.

Additionally, you will need to slow down a bit more than normal to turn corners. And, you must allow extra time for pulling out into oncoming traffic and for making left hand turns in front of oncoming vehicles.

This is a very frustrating experience!

Once in a while a driver won’t allow the extra time when pulling out or turning left in front of you. This is a very frustrating experience as it puts you in the position of running into them or slamming on your brakes in less than desirable conditions. In this situation, you will feel the jittery action of your anti-lock brakes hopefully doing their job. This should only be something you feel in an emergency (someone turns in front of you, deer, etc.) or when you are doing your brake check. If you experience this at other times you aren’t braking soon enough.

Snow drop in Helena Montana - Winter Driving - What You Need to Know

#4 Emergency Bag

In Montana, when driving from any major city to another major city there will be lapses in cell service, wide open sections of roadway with blowing and drifting, and more than likely some sort of pass. Because of this, we pack an emergency bag to help us survive 24 hours in the cold without help. 

Our bag has the following items:

Wool Blanket

Hand & Foot Warmers

Axe (to cut up wood for a fire and/or bust out a window in case of emergency)

Steel & Flint

Fire Starters

Knife (could cut strips of the wool blanket and use to tourniquet a wound)


Small Shovel (to dig the vehicle out or make an area for a fire)

Energy / Survival Bars


First Aid Kit

Additional Items Suggested from Viewers on my Youtube Channel

Duct Tape & Zip Ties (in case you hit a deer and need to temporarily fix a light or bumper)

Kitty Litter (to help give traction if you slide off the road and need to get back out)

Candles with a butane lighter and/or matches

Road Flares

If you have other item recommendations please leave them in the comments below and I will add them to the list.

Stopping at a pullout to get the ice off of our windshield wipers - Winter Driving - What You Need to Know

#5 Plug-in Vehicle, Don’t Lock, Leave Running

On my Youtube channel, viewers have left comments suggesting the need to plug-in your vehicle during Winter, leave the vehicle unlocked, and leave it running during short stops. I have never had to do any of these things, but I researched a bit further to find out if indeed they are good ideas.

Will you need to plug-in your vehicle?

Apparently, when temperatures drop below -13 degrees fahrenheit (some say 5 degrees) it is not recommended and/or possible to start your car. When assessing temps, remember that an attached garage can raise the temperature inside by about 15-20 degrees from the outdoor temperature. Since moving here 6 years ago, the lowest temps I can remember were around -6 for a few days, which explains why I’ve never had to worry about this.

However, if you will be in an area where temperatures fall in this range (and many parts of Montana do) you have several options. When people refer to plugging in their car in colder weather they are not actually plugging in the vehicle like a hybrid but plugging in one of the following items. Each is quite affordable ($30-$60).

Block Heaters 

(keeps the engine block warm - often factory installed - great for warming the car faster but not necessarily for starting it easier)

Oil Pan Heaters

(heating element attached to the bottom of your oil pan, warms the oil, helps it circulate faster, good for starting your vehicle in colder temps)

Battery Blankets 

(blanket around your car battery that warms it when plugged in. Helps prevent the battery from freezing and helps with startup)

Each of these can be put on a timer. 4 hours seems to be the prime amount of time needed.

Winter in Montana - Winter Driving - What You Need to Know

Should I Leave my Car Unlocked?

When temperatures drop, sometimes vehicle owners will find themselves locked out of their automobile due to freezing door locks. Again, this is not something I’ve experienced, however if you are concerned about the possibility of getting locked out use a spray lubricant such as WD-40 to lubricate your locks before Winter hits.

If you do find yourself locked out you can...

If you do find yourself locked out you can use your breath to try to thaw the lock or a common 2020 item, hand sanitizer. The ingredients in hand sanitizer can lower the freezing point of water allowing you access. Simply coat your key with the sanitizer, gently slide your key into lock wiggling as necessary, allow the key to sit in the lock for approximately 30 seconds, then try turning the key to unlock.

With remote locks sometimes only one lock will stick so try the other doors if you find yourself locked out.

Don’t use hot water! While it may grant access temporarily, it can permanently damage the lock once the water cools and freezes. 

Should I Leave my Car Running in the Cold?

A quick google search reveals this is a bad idea both for the health of your vehicle and the environment. However, if you have a differing experience or opinion I would love to hear it. Leave a comment below to enlighten us.

I hope this guide was helpful. Driving in snow can be stressful, but with the proper equipment, preparation, and experience you can maneuver the conditions like a pro. If you have any further questions feel free to leave a comment below.

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