The Best Tips and Tools for Safer Winter Driving

The Best Tips and Tools for Safer Winter Driving

Long before the first snowstorm hits, the onset of cool weather brings drivers a unique set of dangers and inconveniences. Tires lose pressure, sometimes becoming dangerously (and invisibly) deflated. Batteries lose power in the cold too. Shorter days mean that commutes — and emergencies — often happen in the dark.

Here, Wirecutter’s experts offer advice and tools, from a portable electric tire pump to a rechargeable headlamp, to help you stay safe behind the wheel through the cold-weather months.

Your car’s tires will gain or lose about a pound per square inch (p.s.i.) of air pressure for every 10-degree change (colder air equals lower pressure).

That means a tire properly inflated for the summer may be running low now. A dangerously low tire won’t always be obvious to the eye, and even a short drive to the gas station can warm your tires enough that they’ll register a false safe pressure at the air pump.

The safest approach is to check your tires after your car has been stationary overnight. The Accu-Gage 60 PSI is a Wirecutter staff favorite for its easy-to-read dial, rubber gauge guard and handy bleed valve. You can find the recommended pressure for your car either in the manual or on a placard in the driver’s side doorjamb.

The easiest way to add air to a tire is to use a portable tire inflater, which simply plugs into a car’s 12-volt outlet (a.k.a., cigarette lighter). After testing 20 tire inflaters, Wirecutter recommends the Viair 78P. A floor-standing bike pump also works; Wirecutter recommends the Lezyne Classic Floor Drive. Ten pumps of the handle will inflate a standard 17-inch car tire by roughly one p.s.i.

A dead battery is a major inconvenience, and if it strands you in cold weather, a safety concern. Wirecutter experts have extensively tested portable jump starters, and the Weego 22s came out on top. It can jump standard cars, small pickups and compact SUVs, and holds its charge for at least a year.

It’s about the size of a smartphone and features warning lights and a loud alarm that together tell you if you’ve hooked it up incorrectly. Its reverse-polarity protection (meaning it won’t work if you have the cables hooked up incorrectly) prevents any unsafe discharge of power.

For larger vehicles, such as full-size SUVs and pickups, consider the Powerall PBJS12000-R.

The Weego 22s has needle-nose clips that make it easy to attach to battery posts, even in a tight engine compartment.CreditMark Smirniotis/Wirecutter

Wirecutter tested ice scrapers at Ford’s cold-weather testing facility in Dearborn, Mich., in 2015. Three years of real-world testing later, the Hopkins 80037 is still the top pick. Its sharp plastic scraper blade is just flexible enough to conform to the curves of windshields. Its telescoping handle measures five feet when fully extended, enough to reach all the way across the roofs of most SUVs and trucks. And its combination brush-and-squeegee head sweeps away both powdery and wet snow without scratching paint.

The Wirecutter team has tested all types of snow shovels as well. For a portable, car-friendly shovel, pick up the Voilé Telepro Avalanche. It’s just 39 inches long when assembled and has a paint-friendly but sturdy plastic scoop.

This comprehensive guide to roadside emergencies is worth a read, but here are a few simple items that will help you stay safe and relatively comfortable if you’re ever stuck on the side of the road in the cold.

A headlamp keeps both your hands free to replace a tire or steady yourself on the trek to the nearest gas station. Wirecutter recommends the Black Diamond ReVolt.

CreditEve O’Neill/Wirecutter

If you’re stranded, a cheap sleeping bag can help you stay more comfortable than those thin mylar emergency blankets — which you should keep on hand anyway. The Coleman Oak Point Cool Weather is affordable, and its rectangular shape is better for hunkering in a car than other mummy-style bags.

Finally, the StonePoint LED Emergency Beacon or a set of reflective warning triangles can help alert other drivers to a stranded car ahead.

Finally, do these maintenance tasks before the real cold sets in. Replace your wiper blades if it’s been more than a year. Top up your washer fluid, making sure to use a de-icing formula so it won’t freeze on the glass. And here’s a driving tip (and a law in some states): If your wipers are on, your lights should be, too.

Keep a bag of cheap clay cat litter in the trunk. If you’re stuck on ice or mud, the grit will help give you the grip to escape. If you do get stuck, your car’s manual will show the “tow points,” where a rope or strap can be safely attached to your vehicle.

Finally, consider keeping cash on hand. You may not be able to put an emergency tow on your credit card — and even a good Samaritan will appreciate a tip in thanks.

A version of this article appears on Wirecutter.com.

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