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I have never driven a car in a region where it snows. I am planning on a vacation to states where it snows and would want to be prepared to drive in snow. What necessary steps/precautions can I take. I will be travelling from southern USA to up North the East coast in a F 1/250
Please look at this question for even more information.

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An F150 or F250 are not great choices for winter driving at all, the lack of weight over the drive wheels makes handling sketchy at best. I would consider renting a small FWD car, the difference in fuel economy might even make up the cost and it would be safer and easier to drive. –  draksia Sep 5 '13 at 19:00
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A 4x4 is a little different, you have to remember though having 4wd or awd makes accelerating much easier in low traction situations but stopping and turning it doesn't affect at all. Cars generally have better esp then trucks as well. Something small and awd like a subaru would be the best option. –  draksia Sep 5 '13 at 19:39
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4x4 or rear wheel drive? –  Brian Knoblauch Sep 5 '13 at 20:14
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@BrianKnoblauch 4x4 –  happybuddha Sep 5 '13 at 21:17
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Is this really a travel question? –  DJClayworth Sep 5 '13 at 21:18
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closed as off-topic by Seminecis, Gabriel Mongeon, Larry Sep 6 '13 at 14:04

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5 Answers

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I posted a piece on Being Prepared in the snow on my personal blog a couple of years back. I didn't think of the Carbon Monoxide problem @mac mentioned, but there are some useful snippets there:

With this winter in Scotland already a repeat of the freezing conditions of last year we are still astonished at how many people leave themselves at risk by being entirely unprepared. Not only does this cause them problems, but it also causes some impact to those who are prepared. So here are a few notes on how to minimise the impact from adverse weather and foolhardy unprepared individuals on the roads.

Obviously the simplest solution is don't go outdoors - get stocks of food and drink in and batten down the hatches. Cosy, but not always a workable solution, so lets have a look at what you can do if you do need to go somewhere.

Practice: Okay, so I'm is a petrolhead, and so I take any opportunity to go out on a racetrack, but knowing how to handle ice is within anyone's grasp. While the Andros Trophy could be a little excessive, having at least one skid pan session under your belt will get you through a lot of ice. You'll learn how to use the right amount of torque - unlike the many people we have seen over the last couple of weeks trying to drive under full power, wheels spinning and sliding - resulting in some interestingly stuck vehicles! The driving test in Finland requires a test on a slippery course - is it any wonder they do so well in the World Rally Championship?

Planning the route: Look at an OS map to understand the hills. Last winter I had a very tense hour driving the last couple of miles to Drumoak in Aberdeenshire as I didn't prepare his route (but trusted a Tom Tom... mistake!) - I ended up descending a very steep slope using the ditch on the right hand side of the road as a runner to stop the car sliding off the left hand side of the road, which had no barrier other than some trees further down the slope. Learnt that lesson now, but wouldn't ever want to go through it again.

Avoid motorways - you would think they would be fine as the inclines are minimal, and they are wide, but unfortunately they are not sheltered, and when conditions deteriorate it is all too easy to be caught out, or get stuck behind someone else who does. When the inevitable crashes happen, you can't get off a motorway easily, and being stationary in heavy snow can lead to being stuck there for many hours.

Mechanical: Defrost/de-ice your car every day. Not only will this help you avoid having to call out the AA/RAC/equivalent for your country, but you will avoid the doors freezing solid, ice buildup inside (which can easily damage wiring.) In addition you'll find it much easier to keep all your windows and lights clear of snow and ice - this doesn't seem to be understood by many road users. Personally we like to be able to see everything around us, and ensure they can see us - don't want to be anywhere near another car with the windows all frosted up and just a small patch on the windscreen for them to peer out! Minimising risk here is a good thing (tm)

At the start of winter you really want to ensure the car is properly serviced. Fresh tyres, new wiper blades, engine oil, antifreeze levels correct. Then take every opportunity to fill up the petrol tank - just in case you need to run the engine for warmth while stuck for days! In the more remote areas you should consider snow tyres, snow socks or even chains - they can make all the difference.

Supplies: Everyone should have a blanket, sleeping bag or slanket in their car anyway. They are so cheap or even free at garages that you might as well. Not just an essential to keep you warm if you do have to overnight in the car, but they are really useful to give you grip if you are really stuck - tucking a blanket or rug under the tyres can give a lot of traction. Gloves and Hat - yep, simple, but if you are trying to dig yourself out and the temperature is down below minus 15 you want to conserve heat! Possibly a Cthulhu Balaclava is the best solution.

YakTrax Ice Grips - get yourself a set of these essential accessories.

Snow shovel - if you can find one! The telescopic ones can easily be stored in the boot.

Drinks - would be really nice to have a flask of hot coffee or soup, but realistically you can keep juice or cans in the car really easily. You can dehydrate very quickly when stationary and running the engine to keep the car warm. Keep some bottled water as well, and ideally some coffee powder (see below)

Food - cereal bars or chocolate are easy to store in a car for long periods of time.

The important bit - Geek essentials:

An inverter - ideally reasonably high wattage, so you can charge your laptop.

Torch - ultrabright LED torch, or for extra bling, one of these 10 Million Candlepower torches.

High gain antenna (at least 9dB) and 802.11 card if necessary. How are you going to update your blog, check out your Stack Exchange posts and twitter feed, follow the Met Office updates detailing the cold and ice coming your way, or keep yourself entertained with iPlayer if you can't connect?

Immersion heater - either a 12v car version, or a 240v one to run off the inverter - so you can make coffee.

USB Handwarmers - keep your typing speed up. Or your strafe speed in Brink!

eBook Reader - whichever flavour floats your boat.

In car mp3 player - you don't want to run out of tunes before help arrives! Ideally at least a half a terabyte of music will avoid any risk of boredom.

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Install snow tires. If it's 4-wheel drive or front wheel drive, install on all four wheels; if rear-wheel drive, just the driving wheels, although all four would be best.

You might get away with summer tires + chains, but they have to be propely fitted and legal for where you intend to use them (check local regulations). If temperatures are no more than a few degrees below freezing, and you don't have to deal with more than a couple of inches of snow, you can get away with "all season" tires (but should be on ALL wheels). Nevertheless, proper snow tires are really the best option.

Learn skid recovery. There are places you can go for instruction and practice, but it is possible to teach yourself. Read up on techniques. Only practice in safe (large, open, flat, empty of obstacles, people) places (e.g. vacant parking lots) at slow speeds (just a few MPH is enough to induce a skid on snow) to get the "feel". If you're in a safe place and want to experiment, any abrupt or excessive control input (accelerator, steering, brake, or combination at some level) will induce a skid or spin of some form; understanding what inputs will or will not produce what result can be very helpful in knowing what not to do when you need to keep the car under control.

See other answers for advice on what to keep in your car (supplies, clothing, etc.)

When driving in slippery conditions, slow down, leave plenty of extra space in front of you, make any driving inputs (accelerator, brakes, steering) gently. Avoid steering and braking simultaneously (unless your car has traction control); either steer (no brakes) or brake (straight line) as appropriate to the circumstance; don't try to do both at the same time; the combined inputs require more traction which you may not have. Best to avoid a skid situation altogether, but still be prepared (know how to recognize and recover). Always try to keep space all around your vehicle... in a low-traction situation, your car will want to keep going in the same direction, so it's usually best to attempt to brake straight-line, but there may be situations where the easiest/safest action is a lane change (no brake). Again, read up on winter driving techniques.

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+1 for skid recovery. I taught myself, on empty roads at night, sometimes in the back of large parking lots. Invaluable skill, especially when it comes to not freaking out, and like this answer says: either brake or steer. I'd also add to learn skid recovery for each vehicle you own: Each car handles differently and it's important to be one with your car. –  BigHomie Jan 23 at 16:43
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My biggest concern would be the weight of the vehicle and the overconfidence that a 4x4 causes. It's real easy to overestimate the available traction in a 4x4. Starting out from a stop seems so easy that it's real easy to forget that normal braking is typically harder than normal acceleration. You may well be right on the edge on acceleration, and then when you go to stop, you're over the limit of available traction...

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Winter tyres are absolutely necessary when the temperatures fall below 4 degrees Celsius, even if there is no snow on the road itself. Cold roads are slippery as well, even with tiny amount of humidity. Summer tyres have significantly worse traction in cold weather, and the car steers like a curling stone -- that is, not at all. Sharp corners and moderate to hard braking are very difficult and outright dangerous. Investment in quality tyres is definitely recommended, but in your case hard to justify. Is there a way to buy second-hand tyres that are still road-legal?

As far as the car goes, 4x4 or AWD fare noticeably better on snow and icy roads, front-wheel drive is preferred otherwise. Cars with electronic stability control (often referred to as ESP) are highly recommended. These come as standard on Saab, Volvos often have them as well, which should tell you something why it's so useful. Suffice to say, snow drifting with it on is very difficult, even when trying to do it on purpose.

There may even be a government/state/municipal requirement for using winter tyres in particular months. In Sweden, they are mandatory between November and March. Check the rules in the jurisdictions you'll be travelling through.

Tyre chains may be recommended, required, or illegal. At any rate, they should be used only if the roads are completely covered with snow. Major roads should be cleared regularly, but small countryside roads may not. Again, check the local laws.

Source: I drive in Scandinavia in the winter.

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Are there any demarcations on tires which say if its a winter/summer tire ? –  happybuddha Sep 5 '13 at 19:35
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@happybuddha: Not that I know of. Different manufacturers have different brand names for winter and summer tyres, usually a quick search will tell you which is which. You can tell by tread pattern, profile and siping usually, but you need to have seen them before ;-) –  mindcorrosive Sep 5 '13 at 19:47
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Sort of... If the tire is marked as "M+S" it means "Mud and Snow". This means the tire met the government minimum requirements. Often called "All season tires", Snow belt people like to call these "3 season tires" because they're generally pretty poor in the Winter. There are Winter only tires that have various snowflake and/or mountain symbols on them that I've seen. However, I do not know if they're standardized between manufacturers or not. –  Brian Knoblauch Sep 5 '13 at 20:12
    
@happybuddha the tire sidewall of a snow tire may be marked M/S (mud/snow) or may show a snowflake. –  mac Sep 5 '13 at 20:28
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The recommendations given on the travel site hit most of the high points.

As someone who grew up in snowy Western New York and had the opportunity to drive all manner of vehicles in the snow, I can say without a doubt that the single best preparation to the vehicle is to fit good snow tires.

Secondly, decrease your speed in snowy/freezing/wet conditions, and increase the distance to the vehicle in front of you.

Keep the windshield washer bottle full of good washer fluid. You'll use a lot of it to keep the windshield clear of the salt spray from other vehicles.

Also, be sure to have plenty of warm clothes/blankets in the vehicle in case you get stuck or snowed in in a big storm. 

Be aware that if the car gets stuck or buried in deep snow and you are waiting for assistance, you must either keep the area around the exhaust pipe clear, or turn the engine off, otherwise you risk carbon monoxide poisoning. This is a perpetual killer of people who get stuck in blizzards. 

With regard to your vehicle choice, I actually prefer smaller lighter front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicles with good snow tires to big heavy pickups or SUVs. A lighter vehicle simply requires less force to accelerate, turn, or bring to a stop than does a heavy truck.

I don't generally find all-wheel or 4-wheel drive to be necessary, unless you will be in deep or un-plowed snow. The important corollary is that 4-wheel or all-wheel drive alone is not sufficient! Neither will help you stop in the snow. Proper tires, driving technique, and common sense are paramount.

If you must make the trip in a pickup truck, be aware that pickup trucks need extra weight over the rear axle to improve traction in the snow. We used to build a wooden frame out of 2x12s that enclosed the area between the wheel wells to hold sandbags (similar to what is shown below).

sandbag frame

The extra weight improves traction, and the sand in the bags can be poured out on the snow or ice as a traction enhancer to help you get un-stuck if you really find yourself in a bind.

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