It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of winter and while the views of a winter wonderland are enchanting, driving in winter conditions can be tricky. Drivers often face slippery roads, limited visibility, darkness and extreme cold but there are a few things you can do to stay save.
During my time in Lapland this winter I have learned a lot about driving in extreme winter conditions and I thought it was about time I shared those valuable lessons with you. I have compiled a helpful guide & check lists so you stay save on your next winter drive. Whether you’re planning to rent a car on your next winter getaway or you want to embark on an epic road trip to your favourite winter destination, this post will guide you through some of the obstacles you may face to make sure you’re prepared.
Check when picking up your rental car
There are a few things you should check when booking and picking up your rental car. First of all, you need to know exactly what your insurance covers. Is sand damage included? Does it include break down cover? Is the emergency number displayed in the car?
The next thing on your list should be to check whether or not the car has proper winter tyres. Just make sure to double check that with the rental car company when you’re picking up your vehicle.
Many cars in Scandinavia, Russia and other cold regions have little sockets at the front, that’s a block heater. The block heater warms up the engine which increases the likelihood that your car will start, even in extreme temperatures. If your rental car does have a socket like that, make sure you have the right cable in the car to use it.
One last tip: Check whether or not your car has a windscreen heater. Seriously, it will be your best friend!
The following check list applies to rental cars, as well as your own vehicle should you decide to go on a road trip to a winter destination.
- Insurance cover
- Is break down cover included?
- Emergency number
- Winter tyres (check your rental is fit for the weather conditions)
- Ice-scratchers or a brush to keep the car free from ice and snow
- Block heater cable
Check before setting off
In most places driving somewhere doesn’t require an awful lot of preparation before setting off. This is not the case in places with harsh winter conditions like Lapland. You might want to start the car prior to getting in to let it warm up a little. In the meantime you might have to clear the snow with a shovel to make sure you can get out of your parking space. If the snow fall has been heavy overnight you might struggle clearing everything on your own. Locals in Lapland always know someone with a tractor that can help in cases like this. Otherwise you might have to choose between hours of snow work and postponing your plans.
Here is a list of things you should check before setting off:
- Always have enough petrol
- Know where the next gas station is
- That the windscreen wipers are not frozen and can be moved freely when necessary
- That all windows, including side mirrors are clear
Things to take with you at all times
There are a few things you should always have in the car with you when driving in extreme winter conditions to be prepared in case of an emergency. Breaking down in -25C degrees is never fun, but waiting for help to arrive is a lot more bearable if you’re wearing the right clothes and got a hot drink to keep you warm.
Make sure to always take a charging cable for the block heater with you. Most places will have a plug sockets for you to use and plug-in free of charge while the car is not in use.
Here is a list of things you should pack before setting off:
- Take extra clothing
- Bring snacks & thermos bottle with hot water for drinks
- Take your phone & car charger in case of emergency
- Bring a torch or headlamp
- Wear gloves while driving if the car is not heated enough by the time you set off
- Cable for the block heater
- Ice-scratchers & brush to keep the car free from ice and snow
Watch out for animals crossing the road
If you see an animal by the side of the road, slow down. If the animal is crossing or on the road wait, do not honk or continue driving that might scare the animal. In case the animal doesn’t move (particularly reindeer tend to take their time), maybe open the window and make a sound. Being patient is key.
Car lights will reflect in the eyes of animals if you’re driving in the dark. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell at a distance whether it’s a reflector pole (common road side markings in Finland) or an animal that you’re driving towards. The best thing is to slow down if you’re not sure.
If an animal ever unexpectedly runs out in front of you, try not to panic (I know, easier said than done). Always steer your car towards something less impactful than the animal: a pile of snow for example. Believe me, the damage a moose will make is a whole lot worse than a pile of snow.
Driving in snow
Always avoid sudden breaking if the roads are icy or slippery. You can use gear shifts to slow down instead.
This might be an obvious one, but don’t speed in heavy snow fall as visibility can quickly change. You might also want to consider only driving with dipped (dimmed) beams. Using full beam (headlights) can make it more difficult to see if you’re driving during snow fall.
If the window starts freezing up while driving, try to increase the windscreen heater and if all else fails, the best thing to do is stop and scratch the ice off to avoid getting into trouble. Better to be safe than sorry.
Snow vehicles & gritters
While snow vehicles are a welcome sight on icy roads during winter, because they really make a difference to the driving conditions, they can also pose an obstacle or two.
Watch out when driving behind gritters, particularly if you’re in a rental car as the sand/salt may damage your car.
If the snowplough is coming from the opposite direction and there is a lot of fresh snow on the ground, slow down or stop. Why? They can potentially cover your car in that much snow that you won’t be able to see through your windscreen at all.
Make sure to plan for surprises
Heavy snowfall might lead to unexpected road closures. Be prepared to make a U-turn and look for alternative routes to your destination. Sometimes road closures mean you’re stuck in one area until the conditions have improved. Make sure your travel fund allows for a change of plans. You may have to spend the night in a place that only offers hotels and doesn’t have budget accommodation available.
Winter driving can be challenging, but if you’re well-prepared it’s also an incredible way to experience the winter scenery and make some unforgettable memories along the way.
I would love to hear about your experiences on the road. Have you ever done a winter road trip? What challenges did you face?
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