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27 Things You Must Do To Prepare Your Car For Winter

Avoid no-starts, frozen doors and windows, engine freeze-up and accidents with this checklist. Plus, see our must-have winter car emergency kit.

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Check Tire Tread Depth

Worn tires and winter driving create a particularly dangerous combination. They increase your stopping distance and decrease stability on wet roads. Even though most states have a 2/32-inch minimum tread depth standard, independent tests have shown that tire traction decreases dramatically once your tires wear beyond 4/32-in. You can try to slide by through winter on low tread, but that’s exactly what you’ll be doing — sliding. A single skid into the curb at five MPH can easily cause $1,500 worth of damage to suspension and steering components. Sure, insurance covers it. But you’ll have to pay the deductible and it counts as an at-fault accident, raising your premiums for years.

For about the cost of a single deductible, you can buy new tires or install snow tires to avoid those slip-and-slide accidents. To check the depth of your tread, use an inexpensive tire tread depth gauge. Check the tread depth at the center and outer edges of each tire.

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Test Your Car Battery

Car batteries have a limited life. Don’t wait for yours to fail and leave you stranded. You can check the condition of the battery, starter and entire charging system with a computerized battery tester. Besides testing voltage, a computerized battery tester checks for internal resistance and conductance, giving you a good idea of the battery’s overall condition. Plus, the tester also checks the condition of your starter and alternator. Make sure you buy a battery tester that works on conventional lead-acid batteries, as well as gel and absorbed glass mat (AGM) styles. That way you can use the same tester on your motorcycle and lawn and garden equipment.

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car breakdownFamily Handyman

Clean Your Battery Terminals

Corrosion buildup on battery posts and terminals can cause hard starting problems in cold weather and prevent your charging system from recharging your battery.

Disconnect the negative cable first, then the positive cable. Clean the battery terminal posts using a battery cleaning tool or wire brush. Then clean the cable terminals. Clean off all grease and acid residue from the top of the battery with a paper towel. Then re-install the positive cable terminal, followed by the negative cable.

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Protect Your Battery TerminalsFamily Handyman

Protect Your Battery Terminals

Reduce future battery terminal corrosion with a battery terminal protectant spray. Once the battery terminals are cleaned and re-installed, spray each terminal with a liberal coating of battery terminal protectant spray.

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Lubricate Window TracksFAMILY HANDYMAN

Lubricate Window Tracks

Freezing water can seep into the window tracks and create drag when you try to open the window. That drag can damage the window regulator cables, costing you almost $300. You can avoid the problem entirely by lubricating the window tracks with spray silicone or dry teflon spray lubricant.

Lower the window and shoot the spray right into the front and back window track. Apply enough lube so it drips all the way down the track. Then operate the window through several open and close cycles to spread the lube along the entire track. Use glass cleaner and a paper towel to remove any spray that lands on the glass.

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Family Handyman

Lube Weather Stripping

If water seeps between your door and weather stripping and freezes, you could be frozen out of your car or truck. To prevent the water from freezing you out, coat the weather stripping and the mating door surfaces with spray silicone. To avoid spraying silicone into your car’s interior, spray it directly onto a clean rag. Then wipe the silicone lube onto your door and trunk weatherstripping. Repeat the procedure on door mating surfaces and the trunk lid.

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Lube Your Door Locks

You probably don’t use your door and trunk locks much if you have remote keyless entry, but that’s no reason to ignore them. If you don’t keep the lock cylinders lubricated, they’ll corrode, making it impossible for you to use your key. If your key fob battery ever dies, you’ll be locked out and have to call a locksmith.

Lubricating door and trunk lock cylinders is easy. Putting graphite lock lubricant into the keyway works well, as long as you don’t overdo it. Dry Teflon spray lube is another option. Shake the spray can to distribute the Teflon and shoot the liquid into the lock cylinder. The solvent will dissolve any sticky parts. Once the solvent evaporates, the internal lock parts will be coated in Teflon particles, allowing the lock to operate smoothly.

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Lube Latches and Hinges

When your car won’t start, a sticking hood latch compounds your misery. Since the latch mechanism sits right behind the grille, it tends to corrode and seize from all the salt spray kicked up by the cars driving in front of you. You can prevent that corrosion by lubricating the latch mechanism before the snow flies.

Just pop the hood and soak the latch with spray lithium grease. Open and close the hood a few times to work the lube into the latch and spring mechanism. Then close the hood and forget about it for the rest of the winter. It’ll pop open without any problems when you need to get under the hood.

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Consider Winter Tires

Winter tires could save your life. Winter tires provide much more traction on snow, getting you started 33 percent faster from a stop sign and reducing your stopping distance by almost 30-ft. compared to all-season tires. Winter tires even perform better on ice, stopping you 48 percent faster and reducing side skid in turns. A set of four winter tires costs $600 or more, depending on your wheel size. If you have the tires mounted on your existing wheels, you’ll have to pay a shop to swap them each spring and fall. Sure, winter tires cost a lot. But consider what you get for your money.

With better stopping distance and handling in turns, winter tires can prevent a potential at-fault accident. If your collision deductible sits in the $500 to $1,000 range, winter tires could actually pay for themselves in a single season if they keep you out of an accident, making them the best snow tires.

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coolant testing with a multimeterFamily Handyman

Check Your Coolant

Engine coolant does more than protect your engine from freezing and cracking. Coolant also contains anti-corrosive additives and water-pump lubricants to keep your entire cooling system in tip-top shape.

Test the level of your coolant’s freeze protection using an inexpensive tester. Suck in some coolant from the coolant reservoir and read the results on the scale printed on the tester. But don’t stop there. Just because coolant tests OK for freeze protection doesn’t mean the additives still provide protection. To check that, you’ll need a digital multimeter. Begin with a cold engine. Remove the radiator cap and start the engine. Set your digital multimeter to DC volts at 20 volts or less. When the engine reaches operating temperature, insert the positive probe directly into the coolant. Rev the engine to 2,000 rpm and place the negative probe on the negative battery terminal. If the digital meter reads .4 volts or less, your coolant is in good condition. A reading greater than .4 volts shows the additives are exhausted, and you may be in the market for a new radiator, a water pump or a heater core. All of those repairs cost far more than a simple coolant change.

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Switch to Winter Wiper Blades

Ordinary wiper blades get packed with snow, causing the blade to streak or miss large swaths of your windshield. Winter wiper blades eliminate that problem. A rubber boot encloses the entire blade, preventing ice and snow from sticking or packing. They make for much better visibility and safer winter driving. Remove your old wiper blades and store for use again next spring. Then snap on the winter wiper blades and see clearly all winter. Clean your car’s headlights to see clearly during the long nights of winter.

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Check and Replace Your Hood Lifts

If the gas lift cylinders that keep your hood open struggle when it’s warm outside, they’ll quit working completely when temperatures dip below freezing. Because the left and the right lifts receive the same amount of wear, you should always replace them in pairs. Right- and left-side lifts often differ in subtle ways, so ask the store clerk to label them for you.

Get a friend to hold the hood open while you replace the lift. Propping the hood with a piece of wood is a recipe for a head injury. The lifts attach to the hood and fender with bolts or a ball-and-socket arrangement.

The bolt styles make for an easy swap. Just remove the bolts and replace the lift. The ball-and-socket styles have a C-shaped clip that prevents the socket from popping off the ball. To remove the ends from the ball studs, just insert a small flat-blade screwdriver into the center of the clip to pry it out. That allows you to disengage the ball and socket.

Use the screwdriver to pry out the C-clip on the replacement lift and snap the end onto the ball.

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Family Handyman

Replace the Cabin Air Filter

Cabin air filters often get neglected on late model cars and trucks. You may not consider this important maintenance, but a clogged cabin air filter can dramatically reduce airflow through your car’s heater, stressing the blower motor and overheating the blower motor resistor.

Blower motor replacement on some cars can cost as much as $400, so it really pays to replace your cabin air filter before the heating and cooling season. Buy a replacement filter at any auto parts store for less than $20 and refer to the installation instructions shown in your owner’s manual. Keep in mind that some models specify airflow direction, so note the orientation of the old filter as you slide it out.

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Assemble A Winter Survival Kit

You probably already have a few of the items in this winter car survival kit in your garage, but they and few other things belong in the car! Just put them together in a box and place it in your car during the winter months for roadside emergencies. The slides that follow describe each element of the kit and why it belongs there. So equipped, you can readily deal with most winter roadside breakdowns and avoid getting frostbite. For those of you that live or drive through rural, sparsely populated areas, being stuck in a blizzard can cost you your life. The next few slides will detail all of the things you should consider adding to your winter car survival kit.

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Candle-Powered Heater

During a winter breakdown, running your car to stay warm can be dicey. For one thing, you’ll eventually run out of gas (though your car can run for a few hours on a full tank) and you’ll need some fuel when help arrives or when the weather clears up to get your car moving again. But more importantly, snow and ice can block your engine’s exhaust and lead to deadly levels of carbon monoxide in the car’s cabin. So make sure you pack a simple candle-powered heater. All you need is a metal can, a candle and a lighter to heat up the confined space of a car.

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Small LED Flashlight

Make sure your car kit contains a small LED flashlight with fresh batteries. Flashlights (particularly those mounted on a headband) simplify changing flats in the dark, or to see under the hood to identify any quick fixes.

And once the sun sets, you’ll want something to illuminate the interior of the cabin for writing down notes, phone numbers, etc. In some cases you can use the flashlight to signal oncoming cars or help a tow truck pinpoint your location.

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Cell Phone Car Charger

Cell phones become welcome lifelines after a spinout, but they only work when they’re charged. So keep a spare cell phone charger in your survival kit to keep power flowing to your phone.

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Notepad and Pen or Pencil

When you call for a tow, a dispatcher often gives you additional phone numbers for direct contact as well as a possible incident number. In the case of an accident, you’ll need to jot down the other driver’s license and plate numbers.

A pen that doesn’t write could be frozen, so warm it up between your hands. Or you can use a trusty pencil, too, though it might be harder to read in poor lighting.

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Portable Air Compressor

Powered by the 12-volt outlet in your car, a portable air compressor doesn’t take up much space and can help fill low tires — or, more importantly, fill a flat or low spare tire. Check out a portable air compressor like this one from Black+Decker on Amazon. Tire failures related to low pressure happen more often than you think, so remember to check your tires regularly.

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Simple Tool Kit

You can accomplish a few roadside fixes with some common tools. Pack a couple of screwdrivers, a pliers, an adjustable wrench and some duct tape. If you can get your car moving again and to a service station with a few MacGyver-style tricks, you may not only get home safe and sound, you’ll save yourself the cost of a tow.

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Safety Absorbent

A small bag of safety absorbent can help your car regain traction when stuck on ice. Cat litter also works, but floor sweep absorbent works better.

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Jumper Cables

Never count on another motorist to have jumper cables for you to borrow — carry your own. The inexpensive accessory can mean the difference between a helpful motorist helping you get your car started or paying a tow truck to do it.

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Foldable Shovel

You don’t want to dig out compacted snow from under the car or around the wheels using your hands. Even in gloves, that can cool you down fast. When you don’t have room for a full-size shovel (and really, who does?), the next best thing is a foldable shovel.

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Sometimes, when you’re lucky, a can of fix-a-flat (or two cans for the larger tires on SUVs and trucks) can get you back on the road without putting on your spare, which can be a real hassle in the cold. Pick up a can of fix-a-flat. Remember, fix-a-flat doesn’t actually fix the tire; it just gets you back on the road to find a tire shop. But fix-a-flat has to be warm to dispense. So keep it in the cab or warm it over the defroster before use.

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First Aid Kit

Keep first-aid essentials in your car — including spare medications if you need them — to make sure you can stay alert while you’re waiting. Brush up on your first-aid skills so you’re ready if the situation calls for something more than a bandage.

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winter hat and glove

Warm Hat and Gloves

When stranded in the winter, you need to stay warm. Stash an extra hat and pair of gloves in your car so you (or an under-clothed guest) can ward off frostbite while getting your car out of a ditch, changing a tire or taking a look under the hood.

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Warm Blanket

You may need to wait a while for help, so keep a spare blanket in the car to hunker down for the duration. Keep in mind it’s likely to get dirty, so choose an old comforter or quilt.