You might expect to drive through snow, sleet and freezing rain in a classic Canadian winter, but you’re not going to enjoy it. Slippery roads and poor visibility make for stressful commutes, while sub-zero temperatures can impair your car’s performance. There’s also the experience of waiting for help in the cold if your car breaks down.

Preparing for cold-weather commutes is vital if you drive in Canada. The good news is it’s easy to work winter preparation into your annual car maintenance routine. Once you’ve built cold-weather prep into your schedule, emergency planning and defensive driving techniques will help keep you and your family safe on the road all winter long. 

1. Prepare your car for winter

It’s never too late for some routine maintenance to get your car ready for icy weather. Start with your battery. “The typical lifespan for a battery is 3 to 5 years,” says Ryan Lemont, the Manager of Fleet Operations for Edmonton at the Alberta Motor Association. “After that, they do start to wear out. It’s good practice to get your battery tested, especially going into colder temperatures.” 

Also essential: snow-ready tires. Typical all-season tires aren’t enough for a Canadian winter, Lemont says, so equip your car with all-weather or winter tires so you’ll have enough traction. In fact, if you live in Quebec, the law requires you to drive on snow tires from Dec. 15 to Mar. 15 each winter. The safety edge you get with proper tires is real enough that some car insurers will give you a discount for using snow tires. The safety edge you get with proper tires is enough that some car insurers will give you a discount for using snow tires. Even your choice of oil can make a difference. Using a synthetic oil in your car may offer better performance, and is less susceptible to breaking down over time. 

2. Watch your wipers

Visibility is paramount for safe driving, especially in the winter, and you’ll want to pay special attention to your wipers in chilly weather. The average set of windshield wiper blades needs replacing once a year, says Lemont, so schedule your replacement right before winter so you get the best performance when you need it most. Consider heavy-duty winter blades, intended to perform better in snow and ice, and switch out your warm-weather wiper fluid – which is more of a detergent – to a winter one that offers de-icing properties. 

Make sure you’re cleaning snow, ice and road sediment from under your wipers before each drive and before you attempt to turn them on, recommends Lemont. This will help avoid straining the wiper motor or scratching your windshield. And consider flipping your wipers up when you’re parked so they won’t get icy. 

3. Keep your gas tank topped up

Running out of gas is the easiest way to make a stressful winter drive infinitely worse, so pay special attention to your fuel gauge. “When you’re filling up your vehicle, you never want it to go below half a tank of fuel,” says Lemont. Topping it up not only protects you from being stranded without fuel, but also helps keep moisture out of your gas tank and line so they won’t freeze. If the temperature has dipped to -15°C or -20°C, you should also use gas line antifreeze to keep things running smoothly. 

4. Pack winter safety essentials

Because you’re a responsible driver, your car is already stocked with a first-aid kit (and if not, you should pick one up!), but you should beef up your road safety stash during the winter, recommends Lemont. Pack a shovel, a pair of work gloves and a set of booster cables. A blanket, warm gloves, candles or heating elements, as well as a flashlight or traffic flares can all help you stay relatively warm and visible. A few filling non-perishable snacks, like protein bars, can make all the difference when you’re waiting for help to come. 

5. Drive slowly and cautiously

When it comes to safe winter driving, think defensive. “Give yourself lots of time and lots of space,” says Lemont. “Even with the best winter tires, you’re not going to stop on a dime on ice.”

Increase your stopping distance and keep more space than usual between yourself and the car in front of you. If the road conditions are bad, expect to drive significantly slower than the speed limit to maintain good control of your car. 

Make sure your windows and mirrors are clear and free of ice and fog, and clean any snow or slush off your lights (including your centre brake light) so you’re visible to other motorists. Be sure to brush snow off your roof, hood and trunk, as well as your windows, so it doesn’t blow down and obscure your rear window or pose a hazard to other drivers. Get in the habit of turning your lights on earlier, says Lemont, since the sun may start to set during late afternoon drives.