Setting up for the snow, or how to operate your car in cold weather
It’s winter time, and you want to get out into the snow! Or maybe you’re just worried about how your car will handle cold morning starts. Here’s how to operate your car in cold weather.
Out on a day trip
If you’re driving from a city to some ski resort or other just for the day there’s not a lot of preparation to be done. Your car will be hot from the drive up, and won’t cool during the day to the levels where things start to freeze.
That said, cold and often wet conditions will highlight a few problems that would otherwise go un-noticed:
- Tyres – older tyres and worn tyres will perform dramatically worse than newer tyres in the cold and wet. If you run high-performance tyres on your sportscar you will often find these perform very poorly in such conditions.
- Batteries – cold starts are hard work, and you’ve all seen smartphone batteries die quickly in the cold. Car batteries are no different.
- Windscreen wipers – cold, hard rain and maybe snow will make them work harder than usual.
- Tarp, de-icer and scraper – cover the windscreen with the tarp, use de-icer (never hot water) to remove ice, and the scraper to shift snow.
It is a very good idea to carry warm blankets and cold-weather clothing just in case you need to unexpectedly be outside the car. Includes a hat, gloves, coat and boots.
Remember also that in alpine areas mobile phone reception may well be limited.
This is where you need to take more precautions because the car is not running for much longer, and temperatures drop much lower. All the day trip points above are valid, as well as:
Before you go
- Fluids can freeze, and even when not quite frozen they don’t flow like they’re designed to. The particular fluids of concern that you can fix easily are your coolant and wiper fluid. The solution is antifreeze, but that’s two different types of antifreeze! Without it you run risks such as damaging your waterpump which may be frozen.
- Headlights and tail lights – make sure they’re clean, as things can get very dark away from the street lights.
- Fuel – see end of the article for details of what to do.
Your mechanic should check:
- Hoses and anything else rubber can crack in the cold
- Battery – if there’s one bit of gear that takes a hammering in winter it’s the battery, so get it checked out before you go. Any auto shop should be able to do the testing required, and any battery more than three years old is suspect, particularly in modern vehicles which are sensitive to electrical loads. Large diesels which take a lot of cranking are particular concern too.
- Alternator – once started, the electrical load on the car may be quite high with heating, lights and everything else so the alternator will be working hard, another item to pre-check.
- Fluids – certainly a change of oils and coolants is not a bad idea, and perhaps also use of winter grades. This is somewhat specific to the vehicle, but your mechanic will be able to advise.
Before you leave the car overnight
- Wipers – move wipers away from the windscreen overnight so they don’t freeze on – you could damage the wiper motor if you try operating them and they can’t move. If you need to clear your windscreen then use de-icer, available for auto stores, never hot water, and the humble credit card does a good job of scraping ice.
- Parkbrake – another tip is not to leave the parkbrake on as it might freeze on – use chocks instead. Leaving automatics in Park is fine.
- Windscreen – cover the windscreen with a tarp to prevent ice and snow buildup.
- Doors – rub a little Vaseline on rubber door jambs so they don’t freeze shut, and same for the rubber seals around the windows – like wipers, you don’t want to try powering down windows only to find they’re stuck.
- Wet items – remove any wet items like clothes as that raises the humidity level in the car which is warmer than the surrounds, leading to condensation in the morning. Another way to fix that problem is to ensure the car’s interior air is the same temperature as the outside air before you leave for the night.
The next morning
- Starting the car – unlock the car, ensure all electrical devices such as radio, lights, heated seats and the like are turned off before cranking the engine into life. This is so you don’t drain the battery. Do not open and close the car, play with the radio, adjust electrical seats and generally faff around using battery power before starting.
- Don’t idle if possible – speaking of warming up, don’t start the car and idle it for ages before driving off as that does it no good at all – it doesn’t really warm up, and the poor engine has to make do with that thick, sludgey oil for minutes on end. That said, if you need to idle to clear the windscreen and so on then do so, but be aware the ideal is to start and drive off, but very gently. The safety of a clear windscreen takes priority over engine care.
- Clearing the windows – use a credit card to scrape off ice. A rag wet with warm water helps too, but never use boiling water as it can crack frozen windscreens. Don’t forget side windows and mirrors.
- Take it easy – the car is cold, the tyres are cold, so are you, and so is the road. This is not a good combination for reactions or traction. More on that below.
- Slow down – the single biggest tip. If you hit ice even the most skilled drivers are passengers.
- Avoid travel early in the morning – this is when you find the greatest risk of ice, and black ice is clear ice you can’t see, only the bitumen underneath
- Allow lots of space between cars – far more than usual
- Use the gears to slow down – but not so much the car jerks
- If you do skid, here’s how to recover
- Leave stability control and traction control on unless you are actually stuck – they will help keep the car straight
- Snow modes in cars – maybe, maybe not. In general, a lighter right foot is better. If you get excess wheelspin at very slow speeds try a snow mode, or an eco mode (see, they do actually have a use!). Snow modes are definitely not some kind of super solution that turns your car into a go-anywhere snow machine.
- Fresh snow traction is not bad – fresh snow is not often actually all that slippery, but still slow down. The bigger danger is older snow which has been compressed and frozen overnight
- Shade – travelling later in the day the sun will burn off the slippery parts, except where it can’t reach under the trees. Often that’s downhill on a bend, so wash off that speed
- Read and feel the road – get out of your typical roaddriver mode and pay close attention to your surroundings. Shade we covered, but do you see running water on the road? Are there icicles anywhere? How is the car feeling now? Try a little harder braking where it’s safe. What if your brakes fail to stop you on the next corner? See that difference in snow depth or road colour ahead….what does it mean for traction?
- Wheeltracks – following in another vehicle’s wheeltracks can help if it is fresh snow, if it is old snow that can be very slippery due to the compressed snow which may have turned to ice
- Where’s the road – a snow covered road can disappear and it is easy to drive off the bitumen which is now hidden. Slow down and look for road clues
- Be prepared to turn back – but if you do, take a lot of care with the 3-point turn. Make a 300 point turn, it’s safer. Those roadside edges become deadly.
- Offroad and 4WD modes – this is a really hard area to give advice on in a short space of time because there’s just so many different cars and modes. I can say for sure that engaging every traction aid you’ve got may well be counter-productive as many of them are not designed for slow, slippery surfaces. However, most owner’s manuals have guidance, so consult that for your car.
- Slow down – yes, I know I said it before, but it’s the #1 tip so it’s worth repeating. Quite possible to lose the car completely at 10km/h on ice.
The 4WD Handbook has a complete chapter on snow driving including chain fitting.
Fuel for the cold – petrol, and alpine diesel
Petrol engines have no worries, diesel might need attention.
Petrol freezes at around -50 degrees Celsius, not a temperature we’ve found too often in Australia. That said, it becomes gel-like at higher temperatures but still nothing to worry about.
Diesel on the other hand freezes up at around -20 degrees, but you’ll hit problems at much higher temperatures. All fuel needs some element of inherent lubrication, and in the case of diesel that’s wax. This wax can start to crystallise at low temperatures, and the temperature this happens at is known as the cloud point – because the fuel becomes cloudy and doesn’t flow freely through the car’s fuel system, potentially even to the point of damage or the car refusing to start.
It is not well known, but the diesel grade sold in Australia varies from month to month, and from region to region. The diesel you buy in Tasmania in July is very different to the diesel you find in Darwin in January. Australian Standard AS3570 sets maximum temperatures, by region and by month, for the supply of diesel fuel and these range from 15 degrees in central Australia in January to -3 degrees in Tassie in June. This, by the way, is one more reason why storing fuel for months is not a good idea – the blend changes over the year.
So if you’re coming up from the big smoke to the mountains, be aware that diesel you put in your car in for the city is not designed for alpine use. You want alpine diesel which is typically manufactured with a cloud point around 4 degrees lower than the current standard, so perhaps as low as -7 degrees. There’s also highland diesel, usually around -2 degrees below the standard.
What you should do:
- Use alpine diesel – you’ll find your alpine diesel at any servo close to the mountains – check the websites of the likes of BP and Caltex for availability. Plan to arrive with empty tanks around 1/4 full, and fill up.
- Use an additive – as an extra precaution, you can use an additive which further lowers the cloud point. If you do so then add it to warm diesel in a partly-filled tank, then fill up and drive. This ensures the best mix, and the ratio is 1L per 500L of fuel so not much required. I have used Western Oil’s Torque successfully, easily starting my diesel Ranger at 0 degrees when others had much, much more trouble (and not all of them bothered with alpine diesel either!). Lucas Extreme Cold Weather Fuel Treatment is another option. Both should be available at the likes of Autobahn, Supercheap Auto etc.
However, if you are on a daytrip where the car will be parked for perhaps 3-6 hours during daylight there is little reason to be concerned. It is more of a worry if you remain overnight.
It happened to me – adventures with a diesel Mondeo – by Isaac Bober
Late last week Antarctica breathed out which sent an icy wind in Australia’s direction. Or, more specifically, in the general direction of the higher parts of the eastern states. The alpine regions copped a decent dump of snow and even my backyard in Leura copped a smattering of snow. Well, there was snow in the air. Further west was a winter wonderland.
Now, living in the Blue Mountains I’m used to the mercury struggling to make it into double digits during winter, but last weekend was properly cold with sub-zero temperatures overnight on both Saturday and Sunday.
Earlier in the week I’d collected a brand-spanking new Ford Mondeo Titanium… diesel. The tank was full and all was well. Well, all was well until I went to start the thing on Sunday morning. It wouldn’t start. It was 10am.
Three times I stabbed at the starter button and three times the Mondeo coughed, spluttered and died. One the fourth attempt it caught but chugged its way to the corner of my street and then died again. On the fifth poke it was alive but not completely happy, and it took another minute or so of driving before the Mondeo felt like itself again…
As night fell on Sunday the temperature dropped again to below zero and on Monday morning at 8am the car refused to start. It was groundhog day. Eventually the car started and, just like the day before, sounded like an asthmatic smoker for a minute or so.
The problem? The diesel Mondeo had a gutful of Sydney diesel. Had it been filled with diesel from a local (Blue Mountains) petrol station there wouldn’t have been a problem, and I know this because I have two other diesel cars parked outside my house at the moment and both were filled the week before. Both started without issue.
So, as the Scouts always say, be prepared. If you’re going somewhere cold for the weekend, and you’ve got a diesel either make sure you fill the thing locally or carry some additive to prevent the diesel in the tank from going waxy and in some extreme case, virtually turning to jelly.