by Eric Jordan, Condé Nast Traveler
Four-wheel drive and heated seats are nice in the snow, but the real keys to driving this winter are preparation and patience.
Are you renting a car as part of your travel plans? Some people will tell you to make sure you rent an all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive vehicle for winter driving, which is not a bad idea. Still, unless you're plying the roads of Buffalo in the middle of a blizzard or headed to a ski area with a switchback access road, it often isn't necessary and the extra cost may not be worth it. Of course, I say this as a Subaru owner, but I ski regularly and the snow in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest falls heavy and deep.
The truth is most new cars these days are front-wheel drive and handle fairly well in moderate snow. What you do want to make sure you get is a car with an anti-lock braking system. In general, the most dangerous part of driving in the snow is braking, particularly on a curve. Anti-lock brakes help to keep the car from sliding out of control. Notice I said "help." It will not prevent slides completely. No matter what car you drive, your best course of action is to slow down. All-wheel drive will do nothing for you if you blast around an icy corner at 50 miles per hour or try to stop quickly in three inches of wet snow.
Yes, avoid rear-wheel drive cars like Mustang convertibles with four hundred horsepower if you're planning a family gathering at Stowe, but I'm guessing that wasn't going to be your choice anyway. The big key is to adjust your driving for the conditions and make sure the car is prepared. Here are a few tips:
• To reiterate, slow down. And leave much more space between you and the car in front. Most people tailgate these days, but if there's a time to break the habit, it's in the snow, when sudden stops and swerves can cause big pileups. In adverse driving conditions, there should be a six-second gap. At 55mph, that's 486 feet between cars. Yes, more than a football field.
• Make sure the car has all-season tires in good condition. Also check the spare. In a perfect world you might stop at a gas station and check the air pressure, but you could also trust the rental company.
• Fill the gas tank when it goes below half. You don't want to run out if you find yourself in a bad traffic jam or if you get stranded--fuel means heat.
• Be sure you have a full tank of washer fluid.
• Bring enough warm clothes--you probably won't get stranded for many hours, but if you do, warm layers could literally be a lifesaver.
• If there's a good chance you'll be in a less-populated area with lots of snow, you might pick up an inexpensive shovel at a hardware store and toss it in the trunk. I dug myself out many times after swerving in an East Coast storm back when I drove my mother's Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight.
• Keep the rental company's roadside assistance number handy. You might also download one of the roadside assistance apps from Urgent.ly or Honk.
• Make sure you have good insurance--it might even be a good time to pay for the rental company's collision damage waiver. I covered information about it and other aspects of car rentals in How to Avoid Hidden Rental Car Fees.
Driving in snow and making sure the rental car is ready for it involves a bit of patience. Like other patient acts of travel, it has its rewards. In this case, when you arrive safely at your destination, you can careen down a hill on some kind of sled, ski, or board and whoop like a maniac.
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