Winter weather can be tough to face. The conditions can also wreak havoc on your car. If you’re not going to store your car for the winter, preparing your car for the cold, wet conditions of winter is the best way to avoid damage. Unfortunately, many drivers don’t know how to winterize a car. Instead of simply hoping for the best, learn how to protect each part of your vehicle from winter weather with this ultimate guide.
How Does Winter Weather Damage Your Car?
There are several ways that winter weather can cause damage or extra stress on your vehicle’s working parts. Wet weather and freezing temperatures combine to create harsh conditions that can harm your car’s exterior, interior, and even the motor.
Your car doesn’t seem delicate, but it has a variety of running parts and other features that require maintenance and care to keep it in great shape. Your car’s exterior is designed to survive the outdoor elements, and the motor is capable of running in a variety of temperatures, but special care for winter conditions is essential. From freezing temps to the chemicals used to keep the road safe, winter provides a wealth of threats for your vehicle to face. Taking the time to learn how to winterize a car reduces the risk of these problems:
Your Battery Dies
Your battery has to work harder to turn over in freezing temperatures. Additionally, you’re more likely to run windshield wipers, heat, and lights during the winter months. Older batteries are more likely to die, so it’s important to replace your battery every three years.
Your Tires Are Low
Cold weather reduces your tire pressure. If you don’t check them frequently, your tires may be underinflated — causing them to wear out more quickly and even lead to potential blowouts.
Frozen Gas Lines
Quickly changing temperatures can lead to condensation in your gas tank. When this moisture backs up into your gas lines, it can freeze and make your car inoperable. The most common sign of frozen gas lines is failure to start. In extremely cold temperatures, your gas lines freeze while your car is producing heat. Sputtering and stalling can signal this problem.
Corrosion and Rust
To avoid slippery, dangerous conditions, the roads are often coated with salt. Road salt and other chemicals used to melt ice and snow can corrode the metals that make up your car’s body and frame. The parts of your vehicle that suffer from repeat exposure are the most difficult to see and often fail to get washed. Muffler, exhaust, and brake damage are common problems.
Damage to Running Parts
Your car’s belts, hoses, and gaskets are made of rubber that is designed to be pliable. Freezing temperatures can cause these important parts to wear quickly, become brittle, and break or crack. When any of these elements break while your car is in motion, significant damage can occur. Preparing these parts before temperatures drop is essential.
Your car’s fluids like oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, and power steering fluid thicken when temperatures drop. When these liquids become thick, they do their job less effectively. Some vehicles even require different fluids during the winter months.
When plastics heat and cool quickly, condensation occurs. This can lead to freezing within the lines of different systems that are essential for your car’s function. This freezing can cause additional pressure, leading to dangerous leaks of vital fluids. Leaks in your brake or power steering system can lead to malfunctions that could potentially cause an accident.
Road hazards like obstacles and potholes can hide beneath snow and ice. When you add frosty, foggy windows to the equation, limited visibility can lead to a variety of dangerous situations. Icy roadways can lead to collisions with trees and other vehicles. Winter tires can help you grip slippery surfaces to avoid collisions. Other preparations can help increase your visibility.
Your Motor Freezes Up
Antifreeze lowers the temperature at which your radiator freezes. If you don’t have enough antifreeze in your coolant system, you can experience significant, expensive damage. An improper coolant ratio can cause your fluid to freeze and expand within your car’s motor block. If you’re unsure about the age and amount of antifreeze in your coolant system, it’s essential to have it replaced.
Damage to Your Car’s Exterior
The outside of your car faces frost, wind, ice, and snow. This can lead to windshield damage, paint damage, and exposure to rust-causing chemicals. Without proper care, your car might also face windshield scratches, body panel damage, cracks, chips, and rust.
How to Winterize a Car
Whether you take your car to your local mechanic or prefer to take a DIY approach to certain car maintenance tasks, understanding how to winterize a car will help you ensure all the right steps have been taken. Certain jobs for your car’s exterior, tasks under the hood, and even maintenance for tires are vital for safe winter driving. We’ve broken our guide down into key steps for how to winterize a car’s exterior, internal parts, and interior.
How to Winterize a Car Exterior
The outside of your car can use some extra care to prepare for the harsh weather. Some simple preparations for a car’s exterior can help you prevent rust, improve visibility in dangerous winter conditions, and help you on slippery roads. Take these steps to winterize the outside of your car:
- Wash and Wax: Washing your car extends the life of your car’s protective paint and keeps external mechanical parts working properly. After your car is thoroughly washed and dried, apply a fresh coat of wax to repel road debris, wet weather, and chemicals used to keep the roads clear.
- Replace Your Windshield Wipers: Visibility is essential for safe driving. Inspect your windshield wipers for signs of wear like cracking or stiffness. Other signs your wipers need to be replaced include streaks or water left on the windshield and scratching or skidding when wipers are in use. You can also install winter wipers that are equipped with extra rubber that keeps ice from collecting on the blades.
- Lubricate the Door Locks: Water can get into your trunk and door locks and freeze, effectively locking you out of your car even when you have a key. Lubricate locks ahead of freezing weather with a silicone spray or door-lock lubricant.
- Switch or Inflate Your Tires: Your tires carry a lot of weight, travel many miles, and are a major part of keeping you safe on slippery roads. If you live in an area that gets a lot of ice and snow, consider switching from your regular all-season tires to winter tires. These tires resist hardening in freezing weather to grip the road better. No matter what kind of tires you use during the winter, it’s essential to check your tire pressure. Tire pressure drops one psi of every 10-degree drop in temperature, so your tires will likely need more air.
Pro Tip for How to Winterize a Car:
Drivers who switch to winter tires each year can save time by investing in an inexpensive set of steel wheels. Mounting your winter tires on steel wheels will make for an easy swap and save your alloy wheels from winter damage.
How to Prepare Your Car’s Mechanical Parts for Winter Weather
The motor in your vehicle is designed to stand up to hundreds of miles of use. Still, it needs extra care to provide you with the best possible performance during the winter months. Preparing all of your car’s running parts for the harsh effects of winter weather will extend the life of your car and help prevent the likelihood of a breakdown that could leave you stranded for hours in the cold.
Pro Tip for How to Winterize a Car:
If you don’t know how to check the fluids in your car, have it serviced before freezing weather arrives to ensure you have enough antifreeze.
Test the Mechanic Elements
Even if you routinely visit a mechanic, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of your car’s essential winter functions.
Before temperatures dip below freezing, ensure these features are in optimal working order.
- Heater: Ensure your heater turns on without making unusual noises and without difficulty. If the air doesn’t warm up properly, your thermostat may be stuck in the closed position, or your air cabin filter may need to be replaced.
- Rear Window Defroster: Visibility is key for safe driving, and unobstructed windshields are required by law in many states.
- Windshield Wipers: Your wiper motor faces a heavy load during winter.
- Hazard Lights and Dome Light: You use your car’s lights during the summer, but it’s easy to overlook the ones you don’t use all the time. These lights are essential if you actually get stuck in a winter storm. Your car’s dome lights and hazard lights are the best way to make you visible to other drivers and rescuers.
Check the Fluids
Your vehicle depends on a variety of fluids to keep it in peak running condition. If you’re unfamiliar with fluid receptacles and how to check and change the fluids in your car’s motor, have it serviced by a professional. Still, it’s important for all drivers to have a basic understanding of the changes your car should undergo to be prepared for freezing temperatures. Use this checklist to ensure your car is running the proper types of fluids for the winter season.
While it’s safe to use water during the summer, it’s vital that your coolant system runs a 50/50 or 30/70 antifreeze to water ratio. If you take on the responsibility of adding coolant to your radiator, make sure you understand what you’re using. Antifreeze can be purchased either at full strength or pre-mixed. Only add water if you buy a full-strength coolant. If you’re unsure about the age and amount of your coolant, you can use a tool called an antifreeze refractometer to measure your coolant strength.
Most modern vehicles use multi-weight oil suitable for a wide range of temperatures. Still, some manufacturers recommend using a different weight oil in certain temperatures because all oil thickens when cold. Check your owner’s manual to determine whether you should have an oil change before temperatures drop.
Your car’s transmission fluid cools the engine and lubricates gears, which is vital for your four-wheel drive (4WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) system. You or your mechanic should check the transmission fluid and top it off if needed.
Road chemicals and wet weather will have you washing your windshield often. If you use water in your windshield washer receptacle during the summer months, now is the time to drain it. Water can freeze in the lines and prevent the system from working at all. If you’re unsure whether your washer fluid is rated for freezing temperatures, consider adding a bottle of washer fluid antifreeze to the reservoir.
Test the Battery
Your battery requires more power to start the vehicle during cold temperatures. If you’ve recently replaced your battery, you’re probably safe. If you don’t know your battery’s age, there are a few ways to test its charging power. Maintenance-free batteries have a window at the top that will indicate a fully charged state. You can also have your battery professionally tested at a service station or auto parts store. Have the battery recharged or replaced before it goes completely dead.
Inspect Belts and Hoses
If you touch the hood of your vehicle after driving, you get a pretty good understanding of how hot a running motor gets. During winter, all the components under your car’s hood face freezing temperatures followed by extreme heat every time you get behind the wheel. This can be especially tough on rubber belts and hoses.
When your car’s engine is cold, check the radiator and heater hoses for signs of brittle or cracked spots or contamination from oil and grease. Hoses should feel firm and pliable. If they’re soft or brittle, they need to be replaced. Additionally, your belts should be inspected by a service professional every fall.
How to Winterize a Car: Winter Tips for Your Car’s Interior
Cold, wet weather means rushing through rain, sleet, and snow to get to the warmth of your waiting car quickly. It also means you probably track a lot more dirt, mud, and debris into your vehicle. Winter weather also typically brings germs from winter illnesses. Add holiday shopping into the mix, and you find your family spending a considerable amount of extra time inside your vehicle. Taking the right steps can help you keep your car clean and even prevent winter damage to help keep you safe.
Prepare an Emergency Kit
Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your personal protection during a winter storm is to prepare for emergencies. Even if you know how to winterize a car, extreme weather can make something go wrong. If you do end up stranded in a winter storm, the materials you have on hand can make all the difference. Collect these items for your vehicle’s winter emergency kit.
Emergency Kit Items:
- Jumper Cables: Batteries under extra strain are more likely to die. Your jumper cables can revive your battery or allow you to offer a helping hand to another driver in need.
- Flashlight and Batteries: Winter weather and slippery roads often worsen at night. Ensure you’ll be prepared with a flashlight and spare batteries in your car.
- Matches: A fire will allow you to keep warm, signal rescuers, and melt snow if necessary.
- First Aid Kit: A fender bender can leave you stranded in cold weather with minor injuries. Having the supplies you need can make all the difference when you’re waiting for help.
- Blankets: A half-hour in freezing weather can be excruciating. Blankets allow you to trap body heat to stay warmer longer.
- Bottled Water: Stay alert and avoid dehydration.
- Phone Charger: Your phone battery depletes faster during freezing weather, and your phone is no good with a dead battery.
- Tire Pressure Gauge, Inflator, and Repair Kit: Cold weather leads to deflated tires. Hidden obstacles under snow and ice can lead to blowouts.
- Road Flares: Whether you’re attracting rescuers or warning oncoming traffic of danger, road flares make sure you’ll be noticed.
- Warm Clothing (Extra Jacket, Socks, Boots, Hat, etc.): Emergencies happen when you least expect them. Your New Year’s party attire may not provide you with the coverage you need if you get stranded in a snow storm.
- Shovel and Bag of Sand: You can shovel snow from around your tires and use sand for additional traction. Other options include traction mats and snow chains.
- Car Tool Kit: The ability to make simple auto repairs is most frequently hampered by the lack of tools. Having them on hand can help you avoid getting stranded.
- Non-Perishable Food: Calories will help you maintain your body temperature when stranded in cold weather.
Invest in Rubber Floor Mats
Ice, snow, road salt, and grime are easily tracked into your car during the winter. Purchasing all rubber floor mats will prevent salty ice and snow from seeping into your carpet and reaching your floorboards to cause rust. Rubber floor mats can be purchased at most department stores and are relatively inexpensive. This investment can save you money in the long run.
Pro Tip for How to Winterize a Car:
If you purchase after-market floor mats or ones not specifically designed for your vehicle, make sure they don’t interfere with the working of the gas and brake pedals.
Check and Clean Gaskets
The gaskets around your car doors help keep out air. However, wet weather and freezing temperatures can cause these gaskets to freeze, making it impossible to get your doors open safely. Add a thorough inspection of each gasket to your how to winterize a car checklist. If they are cracked or damaged, it’s time to have them replaced. Dirt and grime on your gaskets can also cause your doors to freeze. Use a clean cloth and soapy water to clean your gaskets. Dry them completely and lubricate the gaskets with a silicone lubricant.
6 Habits to Practice for Safe Winter Driving
Winterizing your car prepares it for the months ahead. But learning how to winterize a car only gets your car ready for the first day of cold weather. There are also additional steps you should take throughout the winter months to keep your car safe and in peak condition. Practice these habits to stay safe and keep your vehicle in top shape during winter.
1. Let Your Engine Warm Up
Older vehicles have difficulty running in cold weather if not sufficiently warmed up. Modern cars will start up and take off right away, but it puts extra stress on the car’s working parts. Letting your car idle for a few minutes will warm up and thin the oil for the best performance.
2. Keep the Gas Tank at Least Half Full
More gas in the tank reduces condensation, which prevents freeze-ups. Additionally, if you end up stranded, you’ll need to depend on your engine to stay warm.
3. Learn Winter Driving Skills
If you’re new to the area and not used to driving in ice and snow, learn about the different techniques you should use while driving on slippery surfaces. Common tips include:
- Avoid sudden braking.
- Accelerate gently.
- Steer slightly into a skid.
- Avoid sudden starts and stops on slopes.
4. Check the Washer Fluid Frequently
Winter weather combined with road grime quickly depletes your window washer fluid. Check this frequently so you can ensure you’ll have good visibility during the worst weather.
5. Learn Storm Safety Tips
If you do get stranded in a winter storm, it’s essential not to take actions that will make your situation worse. Never leave your car because you could quickly lose sight of it in blizzard conditions. Only run your motor for short periods to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Turn on your dome light to attract attention.
6. Frequently Wash Your Car’s Undercarriage
Chemicals used on the road to melt ice and snow can quickly rust your vehicle. Washing the underside of your vehicle, including fender wells (the space surrounding your wheels) and wheels, is a key step of how to winterize a car throughout the season.
Pro Tip for How to Winterize a Car:
Never use hot liquids to defrost your windows. Hot water that comes in direct contact with your cold glass can cause the windshield to fracture. Instead, allow your car to warm up and defrost your windows completely, or use an ice scraper to clear frost and ice.
Winter weather can be tough on your car, but staying put for the entire winter while your car sits safely in the garage isn’t a workable solution. Winterization is a way to keep you and your car safe while still enjoying everything winter has to offer. Learning about the effects of winter weather on your vehicle and how to winterize a car can help you prepare for winter driving in any climate. Proper maintenance during all seasons is essential for extending the life of your vehicle.
Additional Winterization Resources
Browse all our winterization guides:
- How to Winterize an RV
- How to Winterize a Car
- How to Winterize a Boat
- How to Winterize a Camper or Travel Trailer
- How to Winterize a Motorcycle
- How to Winterize Lawn Mowers
- How to Insulate a Garage Door
- How to Winterize a House
- How to Winterize a Sprinkler System
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