Please don't travel until it's safe to do so! Our travel posts are great for making future plans or dreaming about your next escape. Also, please note that this post may contain affiliate links from which we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
After the iconic summer vacation, the winter holidays are the busiest season on America’s highways. Whether you’re headed to Grandma’s for Christmas, or you’ve splurged on that family ski trip, there’s a good chance a winter road trip is in your future.
Winter road trips can be a bit more challenging than their summer counterpart. For one thing, you won’t find many roadside picnics, and the allure of the open road is tempered with fickle driving conditions. But that’s no reason to stay home! There are some benefits to winter travel and snowy back road adventures, provided you keep your family happy and your car in top form. Here are some tips for surviving the winter road trip, whether you’re embarking on a weekend adventure or a cross-country excursion.
Safety Tips for Winter Travel
No matter what time of year you’re driving, the most important thing is to drive safely and defensively. In winter, this means knowing how to drive in snowy and icy conditions, ensuring your car is equipped for winter travel and packing appropriately for possible mishaps or emergencies. The following tips will help you stay safe during your winter road trip.
Invest in a roadside assistance program. We use AAA and they’ve never let us down. We have used them to tow us out of ditches, fill our empty gas tank, and rescue us when our dog locked us out of the car in a fit of excitement. If you think that your dog (or child) might do the same to you, remember to keep your cell phone on your person at all times. AAA provides 24-hour emergency roadside assistance, discounts on many hotels throughout the US, and identity-theft protection. I believe the cost depends on where you live, but in Northern New England, we pay $49 a year, which includes five miles of free towing. AAA Plus gives you 100 miles of free towing and is probably a better choice if you’re traveling in really rural areas (back roads for the win!).
Snow tires are awesome! I didn’t need them when I lived south of New Jersey, but now I have them put on just after Thanksgiving. What a huge difference snow tires make for winter travel. Be sure to check your tire pressure before your trip, especially if the temps have dropped. Air contracts as it cools, so your October tire pressure will have dropped significantly by December.
Have your car serviced by your local mechanic. Before your winter road trip, you should have your battery, tires, wipers, hoses, and other systems checked to ensure your car can handle a long journey. Of course, you can do this yourself if you have the skills. If not, ask your mechanic to inspect your car before heading out on your journey.
Check your car’s fluids before each trip. While this isn’t specific to winter road trips, there’s a good chance you’ll need that extra washer fluid if you’re driving in slushy conditions. Check your oil, transmission fluid, and coolant levels too, and keep extra fluids in your car just in case.
Keep your gas tank at least ½ full. Keeping your tank full will prevent your gas lines from freezing up, and it will ensure that you have a reliable source of heat if you are ever stranded.
Dress Appropriately. Driving in full winter garb isn’t much fun, but no matter what you wear when you’re driving, be sure to have appropriate clothing with you. And if you’ve got teenagers who think they know how to dress, remind them that they need boots, mittens, and warm coats. They may think they’ll be all warm and cozy in the car for hours on end, but they won’t be smiling if they have to get out and walk.
Road Trip Car Checklist
Running into car trouble is no fun, and if you’re on a winter road trip, it can put a huge damper on your adventure. Here’s what to pack in your car’s trunk, so that you’re prepared in case of mishaps or emergencies:
- Your AAA card and emergency phone numbers
- Fully-inflated spare tire
- Towels and rags for spills, dirty windows, etc.
- Extra fluids – motor oil, washer fluid, antifreeze, and transmission fluid
- Jumper cables
- Emergency blankets
- Emergency firestarter kit
- Basic tools – include a hammer, wrenches, pliers, and screwdrivers
- A flashlight with a fully-charged battery
- A fully-charged cell phone and a car charger
- A paper map detailing your trip
- Extra food and drinking water
- Warning light or flares in case you break down on the roadside
- First aid kit
You can find ready-to-go emergency car kits on Amazon that include many of the equipment listed above. These also make perfect gifts for road trippers and new drivers. Here are a couple emergency car kits that have received great reviews:
Winter Driving Tips
Driving in the winter can be challenging, and over the past few years, even southern states have experienced winter conditions. No matter where you’re headed this winter, follow these winter driving tips to stay safe on the road.
Accelerate and Decelerate very slowly. Sudden braking and acceleration could cause you to skid.
Increase the following distance between you and the car in front of you. Instead of the 3 or 4-second rule, shoot for keeping 8 to 10 seconds behind the car in front of you.
If you can, slow down instead of stopping. This is especially important on hills where you may slide backwards if you try to start and stop again.
If you become stuck or snowbound, stay with your car. It makes it much easier for rescuers to find you, and your car provides shelter from the storm. Call your roadside assistance service, and if you don’t have service, call the police. Tie a bright cloth on your door handle or your antennae as a sign of distress. If you are stranded at night, keep your dome light on so that others will see you.
Follow these safe driving tips no matter what season you’re road-tripping in.
Renting a Car for a Road Trip in the Winter
If you’re planning a winter road trip, but you’re worried about taking your car, you may want to consider renting one. This is especially ideal for those of you that drive small cars, older cars, or cars that don’t perform well in winter conditions. Rental cars are usually new or just a few years old, so the likelihood of maintenance problems is minimal. You will save wear and tear on your own car, and you’ll have the opportunity to choose something that is a bit more fun to drive.
One option that we’ve chosen in the past is to fly to our winter holiday destination, and drive a rental car home. Why? Because we always end up with more luggage than we anticipated! Renting a car allows us to exchange gifts with our family without worrying about how much space they’ll take up.
Staying Sane on the Winter Road Trip
Winter road trips can be challenging, but we know you’re up for it. Here are some tips for keeping everyone sane en route to your destination.
- Audiobooks. Have I said this before? They are such a lifesaver that it’s worth repeating a hundred times. Here are our favorite books and stories read by awesome narrators. We also make use of our Audible subscription on just about every road trip.
- Hot chocolate. Is it worth having to stop and pee? Absolutely. Fill a thermos before you head out, and suddenly, your winter road trip becomes just a bit more magical. These Hydro Flask vacuum-insulated coffee mugs will keep your cocoa hot for four hours, and the locking lid prevents spills on your upholstery.
- Pit Stops. In the summer, we tend to stop for picnics, hikes, and other outdoor adventures. We do that a bit in the winter too, but sometimes we have to settle for the mall – our favorite pit stop at night or in bad weather. You can still run around a bit in the mall (with some restraint), and the rarely-visited food court (at least for us), becomes a special treat.
- Christmas Music? Maybe not — I can already hear my kids groaning at the thought. If I were part of a different family, I would recommend that everyone sing carols and get silly. Maybe that family is yours.
- Have a rest-area snowball fight. Great fun if everyone has their their mittens handy. This is a great way to blow off some steam, and it might be a reason to wish for snow before your trip.
- Eat good food. Keep sugary snacks to a minimum unless you are prepared for a meltdown. Instead pack trail mix, cheese and crackers, beef jerky, and carrots with hummus.
- Stay in a hotel with an indoor pool. We’re a camping family, but winter road trip camping is beyond us, so when we have to, we splurge on a hotel with a pool (and a hot tub). Parents and teenagers always look forward to winter road trips that involve hotels. Find the best deals and read reviews on hotels with pools on TripAdvisor.
Those are our tried-and-true tips specific to the winter road trip. Want to read more secrets to family road trip success? Get your wanderlust on —
Got any winter road trip tips to add to our post? Leave a comment below to make our day. And if you found this post useful, we’d love it if you’d share it far and wide.