Winter weather wreaks havoc on your vehicle...and on you, if you get stuck or stranded!
Automakers and component manufacturers put their vehicles through arduous cold weather tests to be sure they are safe, reliable, and durable for consumers to drive in all sorts of conditions. As for your end of the deal, proper winter maintenance is required to continually enjoy the safety, reliability, and durability of your vehicle.
Here is your go-to guide for winterizing your car. Read straight through or jump to the section you need most:
- Your Engine, Battery, Tires, and Wipers
- Fluids Checkup
- Proper Techniques for Warming Up Your Car
- Winter Car Washing
- Winterizing Your Car’s Interior
- Protecting Your Car from Road Salt (and Other De-Icing Methods)
- Winter Car Storage
Your Engine, Battery, Tires, and Wipers
Winter maintenance tasks are different from summer maintenance tasks. Sometimes the differences are subtle, but it’s still important to heed them.
Also, don’t just assume that all is well if your car seems to drive fine. There are a lot of complicated details that make up your car’s components, and they all need to work together seamlessly. Many issues won’t be felt or recognized as a problem unless you take time to inspect everything closely.
Car maintenance is one of those times when doing a few simple tasks will go a long way to preventing a more serious issue from catching you off guard down the road. Here’s how you can maintain your engine, battery, tires, and wipers:
- Is your 4WD system working correctly? Are you belts and hoses tightened and free of wear? To answer these and other critical questions, perform an engine assessment.
- Since cold temperatures lower your car battery’s cranking power by almost half, do a quick voltage test with a multimeter and make sure the battery fasteners and connections are clean and tight. These two things will help ensure you don’t get stuck out in the cold with a dead battery.
- When it comes to winter weather and your tires, driving on worn out treads or poor performers is risky. Keep everyone driving safely by installing the right snow tires, which are much better performing than all-weather tires and even the snow tires of decades past. Also, check your tire pressure (it may need to be higher in the winter; check your owner’s manual).
- Water streaking and skipping cause low windshield visibility and are signs your windshield wiper rubber is stiff or cracked. Inspect your blades and use proper windshield wiper protocol. Rather than using your wipers to clear the windshield of snow and ice, use a brush and scraper. While you’re thinking about your windshield, you better get any rock chips repaired before freezing temperatures cause them to crack more.
There are a variety of fluid levels that must be checked and topped off. This will take just a few minutes total but can take your car off from the brink of breakdown. These fluids are critical to check during the winter:
- Engine Oil (Some manufacturers recommend specific grades for cold weather. Check your owner’s manual.)
- Coolant (Sub-zero temperatures may require a different antifreeze/water ratio. Check your owner’s manual.)
- Wiper fluid
Proper Techniques for Warming Up Your Car
Modern cars seem to be warmed up and ready to drive, even in the cold, as soon as the key is turned. However, that doesn’t mean it actually is. Just a bit of idling (30 seconds will do just fine) will give the oil a chance to warm up, thin out, and move through the engine more smoothly. Once driving, do so gently for a few minutes. Driving is actually the best way to warm up your car’s engine but take it easy on that gas pedal at first.
If you live where long, extra-cold winters exist, it might make good sense to install an engine block heater to keep engine temperatures above 20℉ regardless of the outdoor temperature. This will allow the car to start easily and get the oil moving quickly.
Before doors have a chance to freeze, lubricate them with a lock lubricant. If your door locks have frozen up, don’t try to force them open with your key and don’t use hot water to melt the ice (it will just refreeze). In most cases, another door will not be frozen shut. If they’re all frozen, simply use some de-icer on the lock. Keep a tube of it around (not locked inside your car) for whenever you may need it.
Winter Car Washing
It can seem impossible to keep your car clean through all the months of rain, sleet, and snow. It’s recommended to stay away from both drive-through and touchless car washes for frequent cleanings. These methods use harsh chemicals and questionable cleaning products to do the job. It may not seem to be a big deal, but when used a lot, the wax and sealant on your car’s surface may become swirled, dull, scratched, and stripped.
If you’ve thoroughly waxed and protected your car before harsh weather starts, then using a high-pressure water hose to do the cleaning should be enough to keep your car (and under your car) clean between more serious, but less frequent, washes. Be sure you dry your car, including the cracks around the trunk, the inside of the doors, and around the power antenna.
Protecting Your Car from Road Salt (and Other De-Icing Methods)
Waxing your car with a good quality wax before winter (and periodically throughout, if possible) will protect it from all the harsh salt and other road de-icing substances that are not good for your vehicle’s finish. Don’t just run your car through a wax cycle at a drive-through car wash. It’s best if you do this job by hand.
Rinse your car often to prevent corrosive build up, especially the undercarriage and in the wheel wells. If your vehicle has alloy wheels, apply wax to help prevent pitting and corrosion.
Winterizing Your Car’s Interior
Floor mats are a must for protecting not only your car’s carpet but also your car’s floorboards. Rubber mats are even better for protecting against mud, salt, and snow melt.
Seat care is also important. For upholstery, use a protection spray to prevent stains from salt and moisture. If you have leather seats, cold air can cause them to dry out and crack. Use a leather conditioner to prevent it.
Winter Car Storage
Parking your car in a garage rather than on the driveway is much better for keeping it warm, clean, and running well.
If at all possible, resist parking on the street. Parking out in the open will make your car very dirty from water and grime, and it can be buried by a passing snow plow. In addition, a snowplow can’t do a very good job when it has to work around parked cars. This leaves dangerous road conditions for others on top of a higher likelihood of being nicked by the plow or slammed into by another car.
If you are preparing to store your car over the winter, on top of cleaning it and checking its fluids, do the following:
- Add a fuel stabilizer to your gas tank.
- Lubricate important chassis points so they don’t become brittle.
- Prepare your battery (disconnect it or install battery tenders).
- Block critters from entering your exhausts and intake boxes. Use repellent under the car to prevent rodents from chewing on wires.
- Park your car on a tarp and secure your wheels by placing chocks up against them.
- Place a desiccant (dehumidifier) inside to prevent mold and a musty smell from forming.
- Use a car cover to prevent dust accumulation.
Now, all of this may seem like a lot of unnecessary work on your part. The truth is that it really isn’t. Prepping your car before winter strikes doesn’t need to take more than a few hours and maintenance just takes a few minutes throughout those few cold months.
If you need a little more motivation think about this: by keeping your car in good shape, you’ll also be keeping you and your family safe during this potentially dangerous icy season.