If you’re heading off on a winter road trip or driving home for Christmas, here are a few basic car checks you should make before you leave.
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The winter weather is now well and truly with us, and the heavy rain, snow or frosty mornings can really make driving trickier. I always love taking my car out on a road trip, but driving in winter certainly presents its own challenges.
When I headed up to Scotland to celebrate St Andrew’s Day in St Fillan’s at the end of November, I knew that the weather would be cold. In fact, I woke up on the first two mornings to a hard frost and -6C temperatures. Thick fog added a little more interest, and then on the final morning there was heavy rain.
So whether you are planning to head home for Christmas or going away for a winter break, here are a few things you should check before you go on a road trip in winter.
Check your Tyres
Your tyres keep you in contact with the road, so it’s vital that they’re in good condition, especially in winter conditions.
In the UK, it’s illegal to drive with tyres that have less than 1.6mm tread throughout a continuous band in the centre 3/4 of the tread. That needs to be around the entire circumference of the tyre, so you need to check the tread thoroughly to make sure there aren’t any areas of extra wear.
How to check the tread on your tyres
To check the tread on your tyres, simply place a 20p coin into the tread grooves on your tyre. The outer rim of a 20p piece is just under 3mm wide, so if you can’t see the rim then your tyre is well within the legal requirements.
If you can see part of the rim of the 20p piece, then it’s best to check your tyres using a tyre tread depth gauge. You can also take them to a garage or tyre retailer to have them checked.
Check the air pressure on your tyres
It’s also really important to make sure that you have the correct air pressure on your tyres.
Driving with tyres that are under-inflated or over-inlated increases the wear on your tyres, and it also makes your car use more petrol. That’s bad for your pocket as well as the environment!
Check the required pressure in your car’s handbook or on a sticker inside the driver’s door. You may have to adjust the pressure depending on how many passengers and how much luggage you’re carrying.
Tyres for winter
It’s best to have at least 3mm of tread on your tyres for winter driving. You might also want to consider buying winter or all-season tyres, as these give your car more grip in the cold, wet conditions of winter
You should only use snow chains on your tyres if there is enough snow to ensure that the chains won’t damage the road.
Check your Engine Oil
Having too little oil is a quick way to reduce the performance of your car or even damage your engine. And that can mean a very hefty bill!
You should be checking your oil regularly anyway, but it’s worth checking it before you go on a long road trip in winter.
Make sure that your car is parked on level ground and that the engine is cool before you start. Remove the dipstick and wipe it clean, then push it all the way back in. When you take it out again, check where the level of the oil is. It should be between the Min and Max marks on the dipstick.
If it’s below halfway between the two marks, you might want to top up the oil before your trip. Make sure you use the right type of engine oil – check the handbook or contact the manufacturer if necessary.
Open up the oil cap and carefully pour the oil in, a little at a time, checking the level with the dipstick. Be careful not to pour too much oil in, as this can also harm your engine.
Check Screenwash and Windscreen Wipers
Of course, windscreen wipers are vital all year around. But winter rain, snow and spray from the roads means you should check that they’re working properly before you head off on your winter roadtrip.
If your windscreen wipers are squeaking, smearing or skipping bits, you need to replace them. Check your handbook or ask at a retailer to make sure you get the right sizes.
And don’t forget to top up your screenwash before you leave. You can get screenwash that is suitable for winter driving conditions, and you might want to dilute it a little less to deal with muddy splashes from the road.
Check your Lights
Don’t forget to check that all of your lights are working before your road-trip, and ask someone to take a look to see if your rear lights are OK.
Road spray can make your lights less effective, so give them a wipe over before you leave.
Start off with a clear view
If you have experienced the joy of early morning driving in winter, you’ll know how annoying it is when you have to wait to demist your car.
A demisting pad like this one makes the job quicker and simpler. It is made of non-scratch, lint-free material so it won’t damage your windscreen.
And you can throw it in the washing machine and tumble drier when it needs freshening up.
Be Prepared for Emergencies
If you’re travelling in winter, it’s worth packing a few extra items in case of emergencies. You don’t need to weigh your car down with everything you might possibly need, but there are a few things worth packing.
- A scraper and de-icer to help clear your windscreen
- A torch with spare batteries or a wind-up torch
- A battery pack and cable to charge your phone, or a 12v car phone charger
- Sunglasses so that the low sun doesn’t dazzle you
- A first aid kit including sterile wipes, plasters and dressings
- Blankets – these foil blankets take up very little room
- Water and a few snacks in case you break down
Final checks before you go
Check your route and journey time on Google Maps, and download your route to your phone in case of signal problems. Try to stick to main roads where possible, as they are more likely to be gritted and cleared.
If you’re leaving early in the morning, don’t forget to allow extra time to de-ice the car. Make sure that all of your windows are fully clear before you start off. And if there’s snow on top of your car, you’ll need to clear that off before you leave as well.
Keep your driving steady to avoid the need for sudden braking on icy roads, and allow extra time for your journey.
And of course, keep an eye on your fuel level. Make sure that your tank is always at least one-quarter full to allow for any unexpected delays or diversions on your route.