How to drive in snow

Make sure you’re ready for the worst winter can throw at you with our essential tips for driving in wintry conditions and snow.

Snow and icy roads can understandably strike fear into many a motorist. With slippery roads, limited traction and poor visibility they can be a recipe for disaster, with UK roads grinding to a halt at the first sight of snow.

When temperatures do start to tumble and snow is forecast, there are a number of things you can do to make sure you’re prepared for bad weather and know how to drive in snow and icy conditions safely. 

Driving in snow

Driving in snow is all about getting the balance right. You need to get your speed just right, which means not going too fast as you risk losing control, but not going so slow that you risk losing momentum when it’s needed. 

When setting off in snow, start gently and avoid using high revs. Pulling away in second gear is a good idea to avoid wheel spin, while those driving an automatic should be very gentle on the accelerator. It’s also worth checking if your auto has a ‘winter mode’ that will skip first gear and reduce engine revs. 

If you do lose grip when driving in snow, take your foot off the accelerator and point the steering wheel in the direction of where you want to go. Only use the brakes if you cannot steer out of trouble. 

Bends are a particular problem in icy conditions – slow down before you get to the bend, so by the time you turn the steering wheel you have already lost enough speed.

On a downhill slope get your speed low before you start the descent, and do not let it build up – it is much easier to keep it low than to try and slow down once things get slippery. If you’re going uphill, try and wait until it's clear so you don’t have to stop. 

Think about your braking distance

Try and think ahead and be extra vigilant when driving in snow or icy conditions. Stopping distances are dramatically increased in poor weather, so make sure you leave plenty of distance between yourself and the car in front of you. Coming up to a junction? Slow down much earlier than you otherwise would. 

Should you buy winter tyres?

Before we get to the benefits of winter tyres, the first thing you need to know is that winter tyres aren’t snow tyres. Whereas snow tyres have metal studs that poke out of the tyre tread to claw into the snow, winter tyres simply provide more grip and traction than summer tyres. 

Snow tyres make sense if where you live is blanketed with snow months on end (Scandinavian for example), but not much sense if you live in the south east of England and it snows for a couple of days in January. Winter tyres though are worth considering.

As we’ve touched on, winter tyres provide more grip when driving in snow, but they’re also much better at clearing standing water than standard tyres, giving them a real advantage when you’re driving in heavy rain.

Why then don’t we just chuck winter tyres on all year round? Due to the compound winter tyres are made of (they’ve got more Silica in them), their operating window is at its peak when temperatures drop below 7° Celsius.

That means that if you’re regularly driving them in temperatures higher than this, they’ll wear out much quicker than summer tyres. 

If you can afford it, have a set of winter tyres that you can swap to when the temperatures start to drop in around November before swapping back to summer tyres in Spring.  

Plan your journey

Before even venturing out of your front door, plan your journey. If you can, aim to drive on busier rounds as these are more likely to have been gritted. Councils will give these high-volume roads priority when dispatching gritty trucks. If you can, avoid using shortcuts on minor roads - these are less likely to have been treated, especially quiet country lanes. 

It’s worth remembering though that salting does not mean that the road surface will instantly become ice free. It takes time for the gritting to work and requires traffic to move the salt around, while if temperatures drop below -7° Celsius the effectiveness of the salt diminishes. 

Is your journey completely necessary?

Before you even entertain the thought of driving in snow, ask yourself if your journey is completely necessary. If you can work remotely (and most of us have all had enough practice at that), try and do. If you’ve got plans, see if you can rearrange them. Far better to stay in the safe and warm rather than venturing out onto icy roads caked in snow. 

Before you set off 

Give yourself plenty of time before you set off to make sure your car’s ready for the journey ahead. 

Make sure all your windows are clean and clear - that doesn’t mean just a little hole on the driver’s side of the windscreen. It’s illegal to drive without full vision, so de-ice your windscreen to ensure you’ve got all-round visibility. 

It’s not just about making sure your windows are free of snow - take time to clear snow off your lights as well as you want to both see and be seen, while you should also clear snow off the roof of your car. Snow and ice can come flying off your car once you’re on the move and potentially cause an accident for the car following behind.  

Finally, make sure you’ve got plenty of fuel. While you might have enough to get you where you need to get to, it’s a good idea to have a full tank just in case you get stuck and need to keep the engine running to keep yourself warm. 

You’re not invincible if you have a 4x4

With drive going to all four wheels, a car with four-wheel drive will certainly help with traction in the snow, getting you moving better than a front-wheel drive car with winter tyres fitted will. However, while they can get you moving better, don’t think you’re above the dangers of driving in the snow. 

A 4x4 car with normal tyres fitted won’t have the same levels of grip as a front-wheel drive car fitted with winter tyres will, meaning your braking distances will be longer. That can make all the difference between a slightly heart in mouth moment and one where you’re on the phone to the claims department of your car insurance.  

If you’ve got a four-wheel drive car, our advice would be to get some winter tyres for it, then you’re properly set for driving in snowy conditions, but if not, just remember you're not invincible in snow.

Know what to do if you break down or have an accident 

If you come off the road, try and keep track of where you are. You’ll need to know exactly where you are so you can direct the recovery services, or worst case, let the emergency services know where you are. 

If you’ve lost control, wait away from your vehicle and call for assistance from a safe place. If you’ve come off the road due to tricky conditions, there’s a good chance the next driver coming down the road could do the same. 

Time for some new tyres?

Whether you plump for some winter tyres or invest in a new set of summer tyres, buy the best tyres you can afford. Remember, these are the only points of contact you have with the road, so you don't want to skimp on quality.