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What to do When Your Car Gets Stuck in Snow

Winter is upon us, and as much as we'd like to stay curled up by the fire, we've still got places to go. Do you know what to do if your car gets stuck in the snow? Read on!


Before it Snows...

There are a couple things you should do BEFORE the storm hits that will help make sure your vehicle can weather the roads.

Have the right tires (in the right condition!)

Invest in snow tires if you live somewhere that gets more than a few inches of snow. Before the snow falls, get your air pressure checked and make sure your tire tread is in the proper condition.

Keep a Shovel in Your Vehicle

You'll be glad you did if you or someone else on the road needs help digging out. Check out this helpful guide for putting together a complete winter safety kit for your car.

Before You Start Your Vehicle

Turn off traction control.

Both drive wheels will need to have traction for you to get unstuck. These are the front tires on a front-wheel-drive and the rear tires on rear-wheel drive, AWD and 4WD vehicles. Turn off the car’s traction control system (usually with a button somewhere on the dashboard or console).

Clear a path around the tires.

Starting with the drive tires, dig the snow out from in front, underneath and in back. If you don't have a shovel, try using a screwdriver, ice scraper or other tool to at least break up any ice that's formed below the tires. A rougher surface area provides more traction.

Clear a path long enough for wheels to move forward and back a few feet, assuming you have that much space on either end of the car. Remove any snow around the tires that’s higher than the ground clearance of the car. Dig out snow from under the front of your car. If you’re high-centered, with snow or ice under the vehicle blocking your exit, you won’t be going anywhere.

Be sure to clear any snow blocking your vehicle's tailpipe before starting the engine. People have lost their lives from carbon monoxide buildup due to a blocked exhaust pipe!

Getting Un-stuck

The Forward-and-Back Technique

  • Start your vehicle, roll down your window and take off your hat or earmuffs so you can hear clearly. Even better, stick your head out the window to watch your front tire. You’ll get the best traction by straightening the wheel, so do this as much as your parking situation allows.
  • Put your vehicle in the lowest gear. If you’ve got a four-wheel drive SUV or pickup, engage the low-range gearing. Move forward just a bit.
  • Now slowly back up. Don’t rev the engine. Stop, then put it in forward and apply a little gas. This can tamp down loose snow and maybe give you enough traction to get out.
  • Listen carefully. If you hear any tire spinning, take your foot off the gas immediately.

The Braking Technique

  • If your vehicle didn't move at all or if your tire is spinning, try braking while at the same time you're giving a little gas. This should decrease the spinning and transfer some power to that wheel.
  • If you have front-wheel-drive and there aren't curbs or other cars blocking your way, try turning the wheels slightly the other way and see if that gives you more traction.
  • Don't try this braking method for more than a few seconds. It can overheat your brakes which can compromise your braking until they've cooled down.

Find Some Muscle

Sometimes a push from a few Good Samaritans will do the trick. Be sure that you use only the gear that keeps pushers out of harm's way (Forward gear only if they are pushing your vehicle from behind.) Ask your helpers to push on the count of three as you gently apply the gas.

The Rocking Technique

If your vehicle is moving forward some but then stopping, try “rocking” back and forth between forward and reverse gears. Give it a little gas just as the vehicle starts to swing forward out of reverse. This may give you enough momentum to drive out. But be aware that this kind of rapid shifting can overload your transmission. Only try it a few times or you could end up with expensive damage. It will be much cheaper to just call a tow truck.

Add Traction

If you’re still spinning, you can put something on the ground to add traction that won’t damage your tires. Try sprinkling sand or kitty litter in front of the drive tires (and behind them if you’re planning on backing out).

Another way to get traction is to lay cardboard, plywood, two-by-fours or even your vehicle’s floor mats down in front of the drive tires (or behind them if you’re starting in reverse). If you’re in the middle of nowhere, you can use weeds or branches from the side of the road. But caution: Clear the area and go very easy when accelerating. Sometimes the wheels can make whatever you put down for traction shoot out. And be aware your mats could get ruined. Again, it’s probably less out of your pocketbook to get a tow truck.

Let a Little Air Out of Your Tires

The last resort is to let a little air out of your tires, just enough so they look visibly lower. Only do this if you have a way to get them quickly refilled someplace close by. Driving on under-inflated tires puts more rubber in contact with the ground and will give you better traction for a short distance. But driving this way isn’t safe and it could damage your tires if it’s a long way to the filling station.

Once You're Unstuck

Re-engage your traction control system, if you turned it off. If you engaged your low-range 4WD, disengage. Make sure your radiator has air flow. Snow packed into the front of the grille can cause engine overheating. Go immediately to the closest service station and refill your tires if you let any air out. If you notice a vibration in your steering wheel, check for snow packed into your wheels. Pull over someplace safe and knock the snow or ice out with an ice scraper or shovel.

Source: Les Schwab

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