Every winter, without fail, Britain is unprepared for bad weather. There’s the wrong kind of snow, leaves on the line, and traffic grinds to a halt. It’s always a bit puzzling to those of us affected by it directly, or watching stories about another cut-off rural village on the news, because being reliably unprepared for something is quite the trick.
That’s more reason to make sure you’re not the one getting caught out. While knowing how to drive in bad weather is certainly very important, a bit of preparation and maintenance on your car will make your life much, much easier if the weather turns bad and Snowmageddon descends.
You use your car’s lights a lot more in the winter and this means they’re more likely to wear out and stop working when you need them the most. The longer, darker mornings and evenings that we have between October and February make driving difficult enough, with an increased need for your headlights to illuminate the road ahead not to mention making other road users aware of your presence.
Most of us have been there where we’ve seen what appears to be a motorcyclist coming towards us, or ahead of us, and the closer we get it turns out to be a car running on one head or tail light. While most modern cars will give you a visual warning on the dash informing you that one headlight bulb is out, a lot of cars won’t tell you and you’re left to do your own checks.
Most lights are simple to check – your sidelights, headlights, DRLs, fogs, and indicators can be checked simply by turning them on and then walking around the car to check all your bulbs are lighting up.
For your brake lights (and maybe reversing bulbs in an automatic), you will need to park the car next to a surface you can see the light reflected in and push the pedal. You should be able to see the light through the back window.
Even if all of your car’s lights are in good working order, it can definitely be of benefit to upgrade to a brighter set of headlight bulbs. We sell some exceptional headlight upgrades from the likes of Philips and Osram.
For driving during the day, you could look to fit a set of daytime running lights with vibrant LED bulbs delivering the kind of illumination that reduces the risk of accidents in the daytime, as well as poor conditions.
We’ve even got some additional lights from brands such as Lazer Lamps that are popular with long-distance HGV drivers and motorsport competitors. Complete with LED lights these auxiliary lights give off a huge amount of illumination and are universal in fitting, meaning they’re suitable for any make and model.
Windscreen wipers, screen wash and de-icer
With more rain likely to fall and all kinds of dirt, grease and debris thrown up at your windscreen from the treated roads, it’s time to check on and even change your windscreen wipers. The blades inevitably wear out over time as they’re called upon to clean the windscreen and wipe away the snow, ice and rain.
Worn wiper blades are easy to identify, often leaving a line across the windscreen when used. If you notice THIS then it’s time to swap your wiper blades for some new ones, ready for the peak winter season when you need them to be on top of their game.
Having checked and changed your windscreen wipers it’s important to monitor your screen wash levels. With all kinds of materials sticking to your windscreen during the winter, you want to ensure that you can see clearly, so being able to call upon your washer fluid to help remove any residue is essential. There are various screen washes, windscreen treatments and additives available, but it’s most important to have a winter screen wash that’s capable of working even in the coldest conditions – the last thing you want is frozen washer fluid!
On the theme of things freezing, de-icer is a must-have accessory at this time of year. Keep a bottle of Autoglym de-icer in your car and you’ll be able to quickly and easily defrost your windscreen and windows without all of the effort. For really thick ice, an ice scraper is handy to have.
It’s also worth considering an in-car dehumidifier. Pingi Moisture Killer is a highly effective way of eradicating dampness from inside the car, helping to avoid your windows fogging up overnight.
Check your tyre tread and condition
As the contact point between your vehicle and the road surface it’s essential that your car tyres are in good condition ahead of the harsh winter weather. You won’t notice your tyres deteriorating overnight, but over a prolonged period of time the levels of tread and grip will slowly diminish, until they reach a point where they can no longer provide the performance you need under acceleration, braking and cornering – or from a legal perspective.
While councils will do their best to keep the road well treated, the levels of tread on your tyres are every bit as important in providing the grip you need. By law all car tyres should have a continuous minimum tread depth of 1.6mm around the central three quarters of the tyre. While this is the minimum legal requirement, many tyre manufacturers and technicians recommend a minimum tread depth of 3mm to give you plenty of grip and warning to get them changed.
There are a couple of methods you can try to check your tyre tread levels. One is the popular “20p test” where you insert a 20p coin into the grooves in your tyre. If you can’t see the outer edge of the coin (meaning it is sat inside the groove) then your tyres are above the legal limit, while being able to see the edge (sitting flush along the edge of the tyre) means your tyres could be illegal and need checking properly. Alternatively, you could invest in a tyre tread gauge which will give you an accurate reading showing the exact depth of your tread – with some doubling up as tyre pressure gauges, too.
Checking your tyre pressures regularly is also important, as your tyres simply won’t perform properly if they are not inflated properly. Doing this manually is a chore over winter, so this would be a good time to invest in one of the TPMS solutions we sell. These let you see your tyre pressure from inside your warm car, which definitely has its pluses when there is snow on the ground. They also give you a continuous update as you drive along which is safer than checking it weekly.
Checking the condition of your tyres is of paramount importance, as worn or damaged tyres simply will not provide the traction you need to keep you safe. You should always be on the lookout for any signs of uneven tyre wear where one tyre (or one particular part of the tread) is wearing faster than the others, any signs of damage to the tyre wall including bumps, cracks, bulges, oddly worn areas, flat spots and any nails that may have found their way in and – of course – any noticeable vibrations you might be feeling as you drive.
Tyres have a (very rough) shelf life of around five years, and should be changed around that time, if they’ve managed to stay in top condition for that length of time. If you’ve already gone beyond five years it’s definitely worth looking into a new set of tyres before the winter arrives, so you’re primed and ready with new, super-grippy tyres.
Consider fitting a set of winter or all-season tyres and carrying snow-chains
As soon as air temperatures are consistently dropping below 7 degrees, most tyre manufacturers agree that summer tyres are not at their best. The rubber compound used starts becomes too stiff to grip the tarmac well.
Winter tyres use quite different compounds and tiny sipes that are designed to allow the surface of the tyre “squish” against the road surface even at freezing temperatures, giving much better cold grip. There’s also performance in snow to consider. Summer tyres just don’t have tread patterns designed for snow which requires quite a specific design.
The tread pattern and compound will also be designed to work well on cold, wet roads where the temperature is above freezing as well, with a tread pattern designed to cope with aquaplaning and wet road surface.
Almost as good in snow as a dedicated Winter Tyre are All-Season Tyres. While All-Season Tyres aren’t all that new, Michelin’s highly successful CrossClimate made a big splash in the tyre industry and most tyre manufacturers have launched a new, high-performance all-season tyre in response.
These are tyres that attempt to do a bit of everything, including driving well in winter conditions and snow. A tyre that does everything isn’t going to be as good at any one thing as a more specialised tyre, but the latest all-season tyres don’t lag that far behind summer tyres on warm roads or winter tyres on cold roads. We think for a lot of drivers in the UK, if you’re not having to deal with heavy snow, All-Season Tyres are a pretty good compromise, and let you use the same tyre all year round.
Another winter option, if you live in a notoriously treacherous part of the world, is a set of snow chains. Wrapping around your tyres to give you added traction to help get you moving through the snow and ice, snow chains can reduce braking distances and give you control when the grip is reduced – or completely removed – by snow and ice.
Which of these options you go for will depend on where you live. If you live up in the Scottish Highlands, you’ve probably already got a set of serious winter tyres. If you live somewhere with milder weather, this would probably be overkill. We do think more people should consider All-Season Tyres. Never getting caught out by unexpected snow showers is a nice advantage to have, especially here in North Wales!
While you’re thinking about tyres and grip, it’s also worth noting that your car will probably have left the factory with geometry designed to make it safe and resistant to skids (in most cases – if you daily a Lancia Stratos or something like that, not so much). If your wheels are no longer aligned like that, you are increasing the chances of a skid or a slide.
Bringing your car to our fitting centre for a wheel alignment (or to any reputable garage if you’re not near us) will help ensure that your wheels are correctly aligned.
Check your car’s battery
Cold weather and batteries are the exact opposite of a match made in heaven, and that’s why you can find it struggling to fire up the engine in winter mornings. The cold affects your battery’s ability to hold charge.
Battery lifespan varies wildly depending on how the car is used. They generally have a guaranteed lifespan of up to four years, but this is probably about the minimum we’d expect a battery to last. This makes it difficult to tell exactly when you should be considering replacing your battery. You can get a battery tested, which you might want to do as soon as it displays any symptoms of being tired. Alternatively, for maximum peace of mind you could simply replace it.
If you don’t replace the battery this year then you should consider keeping a power pack in the boot of your car, just in case it does let you down and you’re not at home. Capable of charging and powering up your car battery – while also having a handy adapter to charge your laptop or phone – this portable power pack comes complete with jump leads and a handy carry case.
Give your car a basic service
Breaking down at this time of year is the worst. There isn’t a good time to find yourself stranded by the roadside, in the car park at work or on the drive; but the winter is definitely at the bottom of the metaphorical list. In order to prevent a breakdown in the freezing cold, give your car a basic service at home to ensure that all your essential oils, fluids and lubricants along with your air and fuel filters are in prime condition.
In addition to the tips we’ve already provided, check and top up your engine oil to ensure that it has the essential lubrication it needs to work to its full potential. Any stress and strain you can take off the engine is only a good thing after all!
Keep it topped up with fuel
Another key consideration is a fairly obvious one to most, but one that catches a lot of drivers out in the winter to their peril. Checking how much fuel you have in the car is of paramount importance, but many opt against filling up at the pumps because it’s too cold or the weather isn’t particularly nice, only to find themselves running low – or running out – resulting in a breakdown and a recovery call-out.
Always keep your fuel topped up with at least half a tank at this time of year, and especially ahead of a long journey, so that you’re fully prepared for unexpected hazards or issues on the road. If you get stuck in a traffic jam or are forced to take a diversion you’ll need that fuel to help negotiate the additional miles and, perhaps more importantly, to stay warm.
Prepare for anything
If you’re going on a long journey, or heading out on an essential journey when the forecast isn’t particularly favourable, it really will pay to be prepared. Pack up some essentials to keep in the car including warm clothes and a blanket, just in case you get stuck anywhere and are forced to wait around, while sensible footwear will also be of benefit, as you don’t want to find yourself trekking through the snow in high heels or a pair of old trainers.
A winter breakdown kit is also a good option and contains everything you might need if you do get stuck. With a power pack to help get the battery going again, high visibility jacket and warning triangle so you can be seen, torch, tyre inflator and a first aid kit, you’re prepared for almost any type of breakdown. We even sell snow shovels just in case you have to dig your way out!