This list will help you avoid no-starts, frozen doors and windows, engine freeze-up and accidents. Plus, see our must-have winter car emergency kit.
Test Your Car Battery
Clean Your Battery Terminals
Corrosion buildup on battery posts and terminals can cause hard starting problems in cold weather and prevent your charging system from fully recharging your battery. Disconnect the negative cable first, then the positive cable. Clean the battery terminal posts using a battery cleaning tool or wire brush. Then clean the cable terminals. Clean off all grease and acid residue from the top of the battery with a paper towel. Then re-install the positive cable terminal, followed by the negative cable. Need a more in-depth guide? Learn how to replace a car battery.
Protect Your Battery Terminals
Reduce future battery terminal corrosion with a battery terminal protectant spray. Once the battery terminals are cleaned and re-installed, spray each terminal with a liberal coating of battery terminal protectant spray (around $7 from any auto parts store).
Lubricate Window Tracks
Lube Weather Stripping
If water seeps between your door and weather stripping and freezes, you could be frozen out of your car or truck. To prevent the water from freezing you out, coat both the weather stripping and the mating door surfaces with spray silicone. To avoid spraying silcone into your car’s interior, spray it directly onto a clean rag. Then wipe the silicone lube onto your door and trunk weatherstripping. Repeat the procedure on door mating surfaces and the truck lid.
Lube Your Door Locks
You probably don’t use your door and trunk locks very much if you have remote keyless entry, but that’s no reason to ignore them. In fact, if you don’t keep the lock cylinders lubricated they’ll corrode, making it impossible for you to use your key. If your key fob battery ever dies, you’ll be locked out and have to call a locksmith. Lubricating door and truck lock cylinders is easy. Puffing graphite lock lubricant into the keyway works well, as long as you don’t overdo it. Dry Teflon spray lube is another option. Shake the spray can to distribute the Tefllon and shoot the liquid into the lock cylinder. The solvent will dissolve any sticky parts. Once the solvent evaporates, the internal lock parts will be coated in Teflon particles, allowing the lock to operate smoothly. Learn how to lubricate all the parts of your car here.
Lube Latches and Hinges
The last thing you want to deal with when you’ve got a dead battery is a sticking hood latch. Since the latch mechanism sits right behind your grille, they corrode and seize from all the salt spray that gets kicked up by the cars in front of you. You can prevent that corrosion by lubricating the latch mechanism before the snow flies. Just pop the hood and soak the latch with spray lithium grease. Open and close the hood a few times to work the lube into the latch and spring mechanism. Then close the hood and forget about it for the rest of the winter. It’ll pop open without any problems when you need to get under the hood.
Check Tire Tread Depth
Consider Winter Tires
Winter tires could save your life. Winter tires provide much more traction on snow, getting you started 33% faster from a stop sign and reducing your stopping distance by almost 30-ft. compared to all-season tires. Winter tires even perform better on ice, stopping you 48% faster and reducing side skid in turns. A set of four winter tires costs $600 or more, depending on your wheel size. If you have the tires mounted on your existing wheels, you’ll have to pay a shop to swap them each spring and fall. Sure, winter tires cost a lot. But consider that you’re getting a lot for your money. When you factor in the better stopping distance and handling in turns, it’s easy to see how winter tires could prevent an ‘at-fault’ accident. If your collision deductible is in the $500 to $1,000 range, winter tires could actually pay for themselves in a single season if they keep you out of an accident. Learn more about winter tires here.
Check Your Coolant
Engine coolant does more than protect your engine from freezing and cracking. Coolant also contains anti-corrosive additives and water pump lubricants to keep your entire cooling system in tip-top shape. Test the level of your coolant’s freeze protection using an inexpensive tester. Suck in some coolant from the coolant reservoir and read the results on the scale printed on the tester. But don’t stop there. Just because coolant tests ok on the freeze protection doesn’t mean the additives are in good shape. To check that, you’ll need a digital multimeter. Begin with a cold engine. Remove the radiator cap and start the engine. Set your digital multimeter to DC volts at 20 volts or less. When the engine reaches operating temperature, insert the positive probe directly into the coolant. Rev the engine to 2,000 rpm and place the negative probe on the negative battery terminal. If the digital meter reads .4 volts or less, your coolant is in good condition. If it’s greater than .4 volts, the additives are exhausted, and you may be in the market for a new radiator, a water pump or a heater core in the future. All of those are far more expensive than a simple coolant change. Learn more about how to test coolant here.
Switch to Winter Wiper Blades
Ordinary wiper blades get packed with snow, causing the blade to streak or miss large swaths of your windshield. Winter wiper blades eliminate that problem. The entire blade is wrapped in a rubber boot that prevents ice and snow from sticking or packing. They make for much better visibility and safer winter driving. Find winter wiper blades at any auto parts store for around $12-ea. Remove your old wiper blades and store for use again next spring. Then snap on the winter wiper blades and see clearly all winter.
Check and Replace Your Hood Lifts
If the gas lift cylinders that keep your hood open are weak when it’s warm outside, they’ll quit working completely when temperatures dip below freezing. Hood and rear hatch lifts are available at any auto parts store for about $25-ea. Since both the left and the right lifts receive the same amount of wear, you should always replace them in pairs. Right- and left-side lifts often differ in subtle ways, so ask the store clerk to label them for you. Get a friend to hold the hood open while you replace the lift. Propping the hood with a piece of wood is a recipe for a head injury. The lifts attach to the hood and fender with bolts or a ball and socket arrangement. The bolt styles are easy to identify. Just remove the bolts and replace the lift. The ball and socket styles have a ‘C’-shaped clip that prevents the socket from popping off the ball. To remove the ends from the ball studs, just insert a small flat blade screwdriver into the center of the clip to pry it out. That’ll allow you to disengage the ball and socket. Use the screwdriver to pry out the C-clip on the replacement lift and snap the end onto the ball. Learn more about replacing hood lifts here.
Replace the Cabin Air Filter
Cabin air filters are one of the most neglected maintenance items on late model cars and trucks. You may think its unimportant, but a clogged cabin air filter can dramatically reduce airflow through your car’s heater, stressing the blower motor and over heating the blower motor resistor. Blower motor replacement on some cars can cost as much as $400, so it really pays to replace you cabin air filter before heating and cooling season. Buy a replacement filter at any auto parts store for less than $20 and refer to the installation instructions shown in your owner’s manual. See what’s involved in a typical installation here.
Build Your Own Winter Survival Kit
Small LED Flashlight
Cell Phone Car Charger
Notepad and Pen or Pencil
Portable Air Compressor
Check out a portable air compressor like this one from Black + Decker on Amazon.
Simple Tool Kit
There are a few roadside fixes that can be accomplished with some common tools. Pack a couple screwdrivers, pliers, an adjustable wrench and some duct tape. If you can get your car moving again and to a service station with a few Macgyver tricks, you may not only get home safe and sound, you’ll save yourself the cost of a tow. Check out this guide to troubleshooting a car that won’t start.
First Aid Kit
Warm Hat and Gloves
Staying warm is the most important survival tactic when you’re stranded in the winter. It’s always a good idea to have an extra hat and gloves so you (or an under-clothed guest) can keep warm while getting your car out of a ditch, changing a tire or taking a look under the hood.