In November 2011, somewhere in the proximity of Asbury Park, N.J., Billy Bauer found himself in every winter driver's worst nightmare.
"For seven hours, my girlfriend and I were trapped in a snow bank while I was driving my BMW home from work," says Bauer, a marketing director for his family's firm, Royce Leather. Being trapped in a BMW isn't quite as nice as it sounds. With snow engulfing the car, Bauer turned off the engine to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning and desperately tried to make his cell phone work.
"There was absolutely no cell phone reception," Bauer says. "This was in the middle of nowhere on a country road."
Bauer and his passenger didn't exactly bond over the experience. As Bauer recalls, his now ex-girlfriend kept saying, "I told you so, Billy."
Finally, Bauer ripped open his car's leather seats and removed the support rods, "which I struck through the window to gain someone's attention."
Blinding snow. Sleet-streaked windows. Icy roads. If you live in certain parts of the country, it can feel like you're putting your own life in your hands when you're driving in the worst that winter can dish up – probably because your life does depend on those hands, the ones tightly gripping the wheel, not to mention your feet. Brake lightly.
Of course, even if you go through the entire season without risking your life, your car can take a beating.
"Vehicles and related parts can be susceptible to freezing temperatures, just as they are susceptible to very hot, dry temperatures," says Kristin Brocoff, spokesperson for CarMD.com Corporation, an Irvine, Calif.-based website devoted to car repair. "Anything extreme – even day-to-day driving in stop-and-go traffic – can cause parts to wear more quickly than they may otherwise. In the case of snow, it's often the road salt that causes car problems that can range from rusting to clogs and buildup."
So as the calendar creeps closer to winter, now is a good time to take a look at your car and see if there's anything you can do to prepare it for the cold, ice and snow.
Make sure your car has enough antifreeze. This is a no-brainer if you know cars. But if you are a new driver or just thankful you know how to turn on the ignition, maybe it's not.
"If you're running low on coolant during the freezing temperatures, that water [in your radiator] can freeze, which prevents it from being able to flow freely and cool the engine," says Jim Smyth, CEO of Smyth Automotive Parts Plus, an automotive aftermarket company headquartered in Cincinnati. "As a result, your engine can overheat and lock up despite the low winter temperatures outside."
The potential damage cost of not having enough coolant and seeing that engine overheat, Smyth adds, can run into the thousands of dollars.
Stay fueled up. For starters, you don't want to run out of gas on a snowy day (or any other day), but there's another reason. "I never let my tank go below half full in the winter," says Jeff Walker, a New York City-based insurance specialist with Chubb Insurance. Walker says if your tank goes below half full during a cold winter, it can result in condensation forming, which, he says, makes the engine run poorly.
Check those brakes. If you've been thinking of getting new brakes or pads, don't wait any longer. Joe Youngblood, a digital marketing consultant in Plano, Texas, can attest to that. When he was a kid growing up in Kansas, he lived at the bottom of a steep hill and frequently pulled people's cars out of snow banks with his father and brother. He remembers fishing out a truck when one car slid past them, toward his house. At the last second, it got some traction: "The car spun, wiped out our mailbox and continued driving down the street," he says.
Walker points out that drivers in larger cars with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive might feel safer and indestructible, but if you're on ice, your vehicle won't stop any faster. "Often these vehicles are heavier than a normal car and will lose traction more easily in slick conditions when the brakes are applied," Walker says.
Rotate your tires and have the alignment checked. It isn't cheap, but the reasoning behind this practice is that it keeps all four tires from wearing down in the same spot over time. In other words, mixing up the tires keeps the tread depth and pattern "continually changing and fresh," Smyth says, adding that if the tires are never changed or aligned, they develop uneven tread, which "hampers your vehicle's ability to grip the road and maintain control."
Change your windshield wiper fluid. "There are 'summer blends' and 'winter blends' that each have different compositions," Smyth says. The summer blend is mostly made up of water; alcohol is added to the winter blend, making your washer fluid "less likely to freeze as it hits your windshield," he says.
Even better, Smyth adds, buy a winter blend solvent that contains de-icing properties.
Pack your car. If you know you'll be driving in snow or ice, it's a good idea to load the car with items you may need if the worst happens.
Particularly if you live in a remote area, Walker suggests you pack your car with tire chains, warm boots, a jacket, blanket and gloves. If you're really concerned, he suggests including a shovel, flares, a cell phone charger and extra cash. He also recommends a fire starter and a ration of food.
And, of course, if you don't already have jumper cables in your trunk, you might as well add those to your list.
"Water and food certainly would have been helpful," concedes Bauer of his experience. "As would have been a tool kit to break through the windows. And perhaps a passenger who wasn't such a backseat driver."
You might also consider keeping some cat litter in your trunk – a suggestion offered up by LeeAnn Shattuck, a race car driver and the owner of Women's Automotive Solutions, a car buying service for women based in Fort Mill, S.C.
Shattuck, who grew up in Ohio and Wisconsin, "where winter lasts about half the year," says she always carried a 25-pound bag of cat litter in the back of her car – regular litter, not the scoopable kind.
"If you get stuck on some ice or snow, put a cup or two of cat litter under your drive wheels. It gives you traction to get unstuck," Shattuck says. "It's much more effective and safer than sand."