Christmas means a busy week of travel for many of us, and while we’d not rule out a last-minute governmental U-turn on what we can and can’t do over the winter period, it’s sure to mean plenty of time on the road.
Driving over winter presents its own unique challenges, and while there’s plenty of advice out there on which cars or accessories might be best – let’s face it, those who are going to bother with winter tyres have probably already fitted them by now – there are still some simple checks you can make to ensure things go smoothly.
We’ve picked five of the most important below, and then come up with five items it’s handy to have in the car however long or short your journey. Drive safely!
Check your tyre pressures
Checking your tyre pressures isn’t exactly winter-specific, but it’s still an important regular check and particularly so over winter when cold temperatures can lead to lower pressures. Correctly-inflated tyres will ensure your car handles, rides, stops and delivers the fuel economy it should, and minimises the risk of damaging them.
Many newer cars will come with a small electric inflator (usually alongside a can of tyre gunk, rather than a spare), but it’s useful to have one around in the garage anyway. Tyre pressure gauges are handy too – and compact enough to throw in the glovebox.
You can find the correct pressures for your car online, and some will have them written in an obvious place, like a door jamb or on a plate under the bonnet. Oh, and while you’re doing the pressures, why not check the tyres’ tread depth and condition?
Top up your washer fluid
Another fairly obvious one, but no less important. Most of us will have experienced going through nearly a full washer bottle on some winter journeys, as moisture lingers on cold and mucky roads and is flicked up onto the windscreen in a constant spray.
Two other conditions conspire to make this an important check too: Long hours of darkness, and low sun. Both can compound any lack of visibility, as moisture and streaks on your screen refract sunlight and headlights and dangerously limit vision.
Worth remembering too that if you’re not just buying bottles of premix from the petrol station, you’ll want a slightly higher concentration of screenwash to water over winter. The extra solvents will reduce the risk of it freezing in the bottle, and also help to cut through road grime better than water would on its own.
Check your oil
Most classic owners will check their cars’ oil fairly regularly, not least to ensure that the leakier classics among us are still running with a safe level of the stuff. And if you’re planning a longer trip, you’ll want to know the engine is operating at its best.
But oil has to work harder during winter, as the cold temperatures increase its viscosity. On start-up in particular, it may be several extra seconds before thicker oil finds its way down all the vital passageways, around bearings and up the piston walls – extra seconds where your engine is less protected than it needs to be.
If your oil is in good condition, it will get to work quicker and protect better, though in some cars it can be worth switching to a lower weight (i.e. a lower viscosity) over winter, particularly if you’re regularly starting your car in cold conditions.
Give your screen and wipers a clean
Here’s a simple one, and it’ll ensure the washer fluid mentioned earlier can do its job effectively: Before you go anywhere, clean your car’s glass, and wash any muck off the wipers themselves.
The cleaner your screen is before you set off, the more effective your wipers will be once underway. Do the wipers too, since there’s little point squirting the glass if you’re just going to smear road grime and dead leaves onto it. Good to do the side glass and mirrors too, since those can still pick up muck even if your front and rear screens are spotless. Give the inside a spritz with glass cleaner too, so you’re not forced to frantically buff it while driving down the road.
And if your wipers are getting a bit ropey, there’s no better time than winter to replace them outright. If your wiper mechanism is easily accessible too, why not give the pinions and hinges a squirt of lubricant?
Clean your lights and numberplates
Pretty obvious once again, but just as you’ll struggle to see through a windscreen clouded with gunk, your headlights are going to be significantly less effective if they’re similarly caked in a film of road slime.
The same products that work on your windscreen are good for lights too, and remember that if they’re not equipped with wipers like old Volvos, Saabs and similar, they might need some more attention each time you stop.
Finally, keep a rag around for wiping grime off your numberplates. The police take a dim view of obscured numberplates, so even if you prefer the mucky winter look, and even if you’re never likely to trouble any speed limits, just make sure those plates are kept clean.
And five items it’s handy to have in your car over winter…
Scraper – An old credit card or cassette case (do people still use those?) works well enough for scraping ice, but a proper scraper works even better, and won’t inconveniently snap.
Bulb kit – Some countries make a spare bulb kit a legal requirement, and it’s really not a bad idea – both legally and functionally, you’ll want all your lights working as they should.
Extra washer fluid – As we noted above, you can guzzle through this stuff pretty quickly in the right (or wrong) road conditions, so a top-up is always handy to have around.
Torch – It’s darker for longer over winter. A good torch (and maybe some spare batteries) is both useful and a good piece of safety kit wherever you’re driving.
Cloths and paper towels – Numerous uses here: wiping windows, mopping up leaks and spillages, demisting your windscreen, wiping mud and snow off your shoes before you get in the car, etc etc. Keep a few dotted around in cubby holes.
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