Depending on where you live and how much you've done it, winter driving can be quite an emotional experience. But whether you're far too cautious or not cautious enough, absolutely terrified or reveling in the rally-esque fun of it, pretty much everyone could use a little help with their skills -- yes, even if you learned to drive in snowbound Northern Michigan.
We covered how to prep your car for winter. Now, here's how to actually drive it once the weather outside is frightful.
First of all, go engage in some good old-fashioned tomfoolery. Seriously.
Find a nice empty parking lot covered in snow -- preferably one without light posts and parking curbs (so you don't end up like this guy) -- and go do some donuts. Is it fun? Fuck yes, but if the mall security guy asks, that’s not why you’re doing it. You’re calibrating your senses. The more you get a feel for your car in these extreme conditions, the better you'll be able to handle it and react instinctively when things get a little sideways out on the road.
Don’t believe me? This is Formula One World Champion Nigel Mansell doing exactly that, to test out his new race car when he switched race series back in 1993. Winter driving is a lot like performance driving on track, actually -- the fundamental principles of car control are the same. So brush up on these pro-racing tricks, they will serve you well when roads turn to hockey rinks.
Slow. The hell. Down.
Would you break into a run, or even walk like you normally do on an ice-skating rink? Of course not. You’d walk really slowly, shuffle your feet, put on bobsled shoes, or do whatever else you could to avoid falling on your butt.
The same should be true about driving in wintry conditions. You’ve got much less traction than normal -- a lot less if it’s actually an ice storm -- so the key is to slow down until all perceivable road hazards are further away than the distance it’ll take you to stop. That distance will vary by conditions of course, but it's at least double or even triple your normal distance.
Drive like the world is in slow motion
This isn’t about how fast you’re (hopefully not) driving. Fast movements -- like jerking the wheel or stomping on the gas or brake pedal -- are a surefire way to lose control in slick conditions. Pretend you’re watching instant replay of a lion hunting an antelope, and moooooovveeeee sloooowwwllllyyy.
If you begin to skid, do. Not. Brake.
Let off the accelerator. Gently. Do not apply any braking force as you start to skid or you’ll make the situation much worse. Only when the car is back in a straight line should you hit the brakes. Or when you’re already so far gone that you’re absolutely, positively going to hit something. At that point, braking won’t prevent the collision, but it'll help you in the first few milliseconds after the impact.
When you do finally brake, let your ABS do its thing
The antilock braking system (if your car is less than two decades old and your ABS light isn’t on, you've almost definitely got it) pumps the brakes faster than you possibly can to help prevent lockup and loss of control under braking. Your parents might be in the habit of pumping brakes if they learned to drive back when ABS wasn’t a thing. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.
Press the pedal lightly but firmly until you just barely feel the ABS begin to engage, vibrating the pedal. That’s the maximum amount of braking power you have available, and pushing any harder on the pedal won’t help the tires grip the road any more.
As you start to lose control, keep your wheels parallel to the road
You’ve heard this phrased as “turning into the skid,” but that only serves to confuse people. Keep the wheels pointed as close to the orientation of the road as possible. If your car is starting to rotate clockwise, turn the wheel counterclockwise, but only enough* to get things back in line. Overcorrection is all too easy to induce, and once you’ve done that, it's a hell of a lot harder to regain control.
*Don’t forget to straighten them out as the car comes back in line!
Do not look at the the side of the road during a spin or skid
You want to focus your eyes wherever you want the car to go. For a lot of people, this is the hardest part, because it feels natural to stare at the object you’re approaching during your slide. But all you’re doing there is picking the exact spot that you're going to hit, so keep your eyes straight on the road and your reflexes will follow to help get the car there.
Use your momentum to your advantage
Hills, especially steep ones, are particularly awful in bad conditions. You don’t want to go fast before a hill, per se, but it's good to have your momentum counter gravity as you climb the hill, when the alternative is spinning your tires and horrifyingly sliding back down. It’s the same principle as a ski jumper going up the ramp, just without the launch afterward.
If it’s remotely possible, don’t stop, even if there’s no hill. If you’re on a sheet of ice, and you don’t have sufficient traction to get going again with ease, you’ll risk sliding around a bit after the light turns green. If you can, get slowed down as early as possible, and crawl, literally at just a few miles per hour, toward the intersection in the hopes it turns green before you get there and have to stop.
Now, some important questions you should ask yourself/Google
How you drive on the road with icy or snowy conditions will vary depending on what kind of car you're in. So before you head out, know your car, and know your conditions. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Is your car RWD, AWD, 4WD, or FWD?
... And do you even know what those mean? For a full explainer on the differences, check this out. Depending on which one your car has, you'll approach situations differently. But the biggest thing to remember is that all-wheel drive does not help you stop faster in the snow. Period.
Do you need to buy special tires?
As a general rule, the stickiest and most badass high-performance tire (sometimes called a summer tire) will be absolutely fantastic during a snowstorm... when set ablaze and used for warmth. A set of all-season tires will do alright, in, well, every season, but if you live in an area where snowblowers are just as common as lawnmowers, you really need a second set of wheels, with tires made specifically for frigid temperatures, snow, and ice.
Is your vehicle front-heavy or back-heavy?
If your car is well balanced, that’s a good thing. But if you’re in a front-heavy pickup truck that only puts power to the rear wheels, you’re going to want to put some weight in back to help with traction. Traditional logic dictates that you should use a big bag of sand or kitty litter, so if you happen to get stuck, you can use it to help get you out, as well.
Do you have electronic stability control, and is it any good?
Some cars have stability systems so advanced you’d have to be downright negligent to get into serious trouble. Others have truly awful systems that cut in too late and too abruptly, and can even make things worse. When they're that bad, some people, myself included, tend to turn them off altogether. No matter what, though, don't turn it off in mixed conditions. Why? Because even the worst systems are forever vigilant. It’s one thing to know the roads are bad, but if you’re cruising along and everything seems fine, you can be lulled into a false sense of security and relax your guard. Hit black ice at that moment, and you’ll be glad the engineers in virtual dungeons in Detroit, Tokyo, or Stuttgart didn’t fail you.
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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter. The only way out from his childhood neighborhood was up a 30-degree hill leading directly to a busy street. To leave in an ice storm, you had to check that traffic was clear, back up about 50ft, get a running start, and inevitably spin once you reached the top.