To the rest of the world, winter in Canada is the stuff of legend. While Ottawa is the seventh coldest national capital in the world in terms of average temperature, in winter, it regularly wrestles with the Outer Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator for coldest on earth.
Many Canadians take it in stride. But it’s not business as usual. A study published in the medical journal The Lancet found that cold weather kills 17 times as many people as hot weather.
Factor in treacherous conditions like snow, black ice and reduced visibility, and it’s clear that winter driving is a different matter altogether.
Here’s a plan for preparing yourself and your vehicle for winter driving:
You winter car kit
If you’ve spun off the road, blown a tire, or your battery has died, be ready for a long wait to be extricated. There are some materials you should keep at hand in the vehicle for comfort and survival’s sake. These include:
- Extra layers of clothes and blankets. It’s not comfortable driving while mummified in a parka and snow pants, but you might want to pull them on if something goes awry – ditto snow boots. Keeping warm is your priority, and you can’t just keep the engine running even if it still works — lethal carbon dioxide can build up, and an engine can overheat if the vehicle isn’t moving.
- A first-aid kit. Your first aid kit should include items like sterile gauze pads (both small and large), adhesive tape, bandages, scissors, tweezers, safety pins, an ice pack, and antiseptic wipes.
- A flashlight and batteries. The days are shorter and nights seemingly darker in the winter; keep a high-quality flashlight and extra batteries with you.
- Food and water. Hopefully, you’re not going to be stuck too long, but hunger and thirst can make you miserable. Keep some non-perishable snacks, like protein bars or prepackaged turnovers, to fend off the pangs. (By the way, while it’s long been disputed, Twinkies are perishable, though not on a timeline that should have you concerned.) Calories also give your body something to burn to keep warm.
- Heat packets. Small packets that heat up automatically without requiring a power source can help to keep hands and feet warm, especially if you can’t start the car for heat.
- A candle in a deep can will provide some warmth. Don’t forget the waterproof matches.
- A small shovel and a windshield brush are handy to have at hand. A folding shovel can help you dig your way out of a snowbank. A windshield brush is always needed to clear your windows of ice and snow.
- A Swiss Army Knife. Hopefully, you won’t be in circumstances where you need it, but a seatbelt cutter or a Swiss Army Knife might save the day. The Swiss Army Knife can be particularly useful with all of its gadgets if you are stranded.
- A mobile phone. Did you need to be told that? Of course not. Nevertheless, make sure you’ve got the appropriate numbers programmed, and the device is fully charged. Better yet, carry an emergency phone battery charger with you.
You can begin to assemble your emergency kit by downloading this list from the Government of Canada and visualizing circumstances under which you’d need every item.
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Other winter items to have in your car
These items needn’t be immediately at-hand. Some are too bulky or dangerous to keep in the cabin with you. Keep these items in the trunk of the car to get it out of a snowbank if it’s stuck (if possible), or if it won’t start in cold weather, and secure the scene where you are to prevent follow-on accidents:
- Salt or sand, or even non-clumping kitty litter
- A tow chain or rope
- Battery booster or jumper cables
- Road flares
- Antifreeze, winterized washer fluid, and lock de-icer
Preparing your vehicle
Perhaps the essential preparation that should take place before the season starts is winterizing your vehicle. Here are things you should do:
- Get snow tires. According to the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada, more than three-quarters of Canadians switch to snow tires. Be like them. Have them installed when the temperature goes down to 7 C; that’s when regular radials start to harden and lose traction. Think about using a garage that will store your all-season tires for you after the change if you don’t have a garage or basement. In Ontario, every insurer is required to give a discount to drivers who change to snow tires for the winter.
- New wiper blades. Minimal cost, but an immediate improvement in your driving experience. You should change your vehicle’s windshield wiper blades at least twice annually.
- Get a tune-up. Have all those belts and fluids and running parts refreshed and oiled and subjected to the kind of vehicular magic a competent mechanic can perform. Check fluids often, especially antifreeze and wiper fluid; you’ll go through much more of the latter in the winter than in the summer.
- Keep your gas tank full. Don’t let your fuel tank drop below half full. Do not carry an empty or full gas can in your vehicle, even in the trunk. Fumes could overcome you, and it’s a fire risk.
- Subscribe to a roadside assistance package. The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) is pretty much synonymous with roadside assistance in Canada. But it’s no substitute for other preparations. Remember, if you’re in a spot because of the weather, so are other members. And CAA isn’t the only organization offering roadside assistance.
Be prepared for your winter journeys this year, and make sure you have the auto insurance coverage you need at a price that suits your budget.