Preparing Your Vehicle for Winter

truck in snow

Winter may or may not be coming this year for those of us in the southern end of the lower peninsula. The U.P. and the northern end of the L.P. are already experiencing snow accumulation. With some slightly warmer than normal temperatures, it might be a good time to evaluate your vehicle for winter operations. Granted, this should be done prior to freezing temperatures rolling in.

During the warmer months of the year we prep our vehicles for rain or mud. The same things that we carry when it’s warm out may not work out so well when it’s freezing out. For example, keeping foods that require heating up for emergencies may need to be swapped for foods that are high in calories and don’t need to be cooked. A different style of shovel designed for snow removal may be swapped out for a shovel designed for mud.

This got me thinking about what I would need to prep for the winter driving months around my city. From a high level the equipment is much the same, but once you drill down into the details it becomes apparent about the differences. Not switching out specific gear or adding in needed gear once winter hits can leave you at a disadvantage if problems arise. You should also take into account anyone you might have traveling with you. My family count is five people and two dogs. Most of the time we drive my Suburban on trips so I need to make sure to accommodate for my three kids, my wife, and dog.

Inventory Your Gear and Emergency Box

Once the warmer weather has decided to leave and the colder weather moves in it’s a good idea to do a layout and inventory of everything you have in your rig. You can then identify what isn’t needed, what won’t work, and what could be a liability once freezing temperatures arrive. Checking things like expiration dates, cold weather tolerances, and looking for items that would freeze becomes essential. You want to have the necessary gear in place or have a plan for emergencies.

Below are some basic items to consider when putting together a winter specific gear box:

  • Blanket(s) or electric blanket(s) or cold weather sleeping bag(s)
  • Battery pack with charging cords for phone
  • Winter clothing: hat(s), gloves, scarf, boots, socks, thermal underwear, etc.
  • Body warmers
  • Dry food
  • Water
  • Flashlight(s), headlamp(s), and extra batteries
  • Tow straps
  • Jumper cables
  • Toolkit
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Emergency flares
  • Rescue tool, knife, and/or multi-tool
  • First aid kit
  • Entertainment
  • Traction boards
  • Snow shovel
  • Fuel container
  • Full-size spare tire

Most of these items are probably already packed in whatever storage method you use for your gear. However, they might not be for winter use. For example, I have a blanket and a sleeping bag in my Suburban, but they are not good for winter. Ultimately I need to spend some money on good wool blankets and a cold weather rated sleeping bag.

Supplementing camping gear you already have packed into your rig with the listed items above can ensure you have what you need if it means staying with your vehicle while waiting for recovery. And never underestimate the value of having something to do while waiting. Have some books, magazines, or small games to keep you entertained.

Perform Winter Maintenance

If you follow a regular vehicle maintenance schedule, this should be an easy thing to accomplish. Whether you are doing the work yourself or you turn it over to your trusted mechanic, there are some things you should pay particular attention too. I don’t take into account usage of winter tires. Most people who daily drive their overlanding rigs are going to have tires that are sufficient for winter usage.

Don’t Drive Around Blowing Cold Air

Check that your heater and defroster are in working order. There’s nothing worse than driving around on a freezing day and having cold air blow into your cabin. Trust me, I’ve had it happen. Luckily it was a simple fix and only required my rig’s coolant to be refilled. Had I not checked it I would have driven around all winter with cold air rather than hot air.

Clear Frontal Vision

Another simple check and replacement you can do yourself is to put new wiper blades on and ensure you have the proper washer fluid. It may not seem like a big deal, but there are washer fluids specifically designed not to freeze. I’ve never had this happen but I have had windshield wiper blades in poor condition going into winter. There are also winter wiper blades available that are of sturdier construction than “summer” blades.

Electrical Checks

Testing the electrical system and ensuring your battery is in excellent condition, your vehicle lights work, and even making sure all of the heating fans come on is another easy check you should be able to perform. Pay attention to slow cranking and whether your vehicle headlights dim while idling; this could be an indication of the battery starting to die.

If you have an automatic starter ensure your battery is up to par. Having a battery designed for cold weather is ideal, but unless you’re in an environment where temperatures are reaching well below freezing most batteries are sufficient. With that said though, you don’t know disappointment until you think you’ve started your car on a frigid morning only to find out it wouldn’t turn over due to a drained battery. Test the battery and replace it if necessary.

Let A Professional Fix It

Lastly, do a quick walk around and note any damage on or under the vehicle. If something looks suspicious or something feels odd when you are driving the best thing to do is take it a mechanic. Have them do a check on the vehicle and get things corrected before severe weather hits. You don’t want to end up off the road because something broke and could have been easily fixed.

What To Do If You Get Stuck

There are plenty of times I’ve seen cars stuck and no one in them. I often wonder what happened to the drivers, where they went, and hope they are okay. The number one thing to remember if you get stuck and cannot self-recover is not to leave the vehicle. Most times the elements are what end up killing people who leave their car and try to seek help.

If you’re uninjured, exit your vehicle and check to see if you can self-recovery or will need help. If you can safely self-recovery then do so, but if not it’s best to call for help. If you’re going to have to have to wait for a tow truck or someone to help you get unstuck ensure your exhaust pipe is clear of any snow. If it’s snowing heavily, you may have to exit your vehicle frequently to ensure the exhaust is clear of snow.

If you have injuries, the best thing to do is call for help, make it clear you have injuries, and wait it out for emergency services to arrive. There’s no point in putting yourself in more danger by attempting to self-recover if you are injured.

Final Thoughts

What I’ve laid out is simple enough to follow and most of us probably already carry the items mentioned and have the skill set necessary to survive getting stuck. Let me know in the comments what other skill set would be beneficial or gear might be a plus to have.

The Built Versus Bought Dilemma

An Op-Ed article from contributor Asa Lee Meadows on the built versus bought dilemma.

It was January 2, New Year’s day off (Observed).  Having just moved up to Michigan a few months ago and noticed the greater number of deer present I decided that it was time to switch out my ARB stubby bumper for a full-width AEV bumper that I used to run on my 2012 JK. With the 2014, I had thought about just trimming the fenders myself, which would have looked better with the stubby. I’m glad I waited a few months to see how I liked the stubby before proceeding with the fender trim. Actually, it was over a year, but I wanted to be sure, and with a new baby, I never had time to really wrench on the jeep.

jeeps in winter
The Jeep Running In The Winter

Back to my day off plans. I informed the wife that I would be in my fortress of solitude (garage) for most of the day taking off the old bumper, and reinstalling the winch & winch plate, bumper, and front skid. After refreshing myself of the install procedure that I had done 4 years ago with the help of my friend James I decided that maybe I’ll let a shop do the swap for me this time.

A few reasons went into this.

  1. I still haven’t cleared the garage all the way out after moving here. I have most of the tools in my toolbox, but there are boxes of other tools still packed. I know my anti-seize is packed away and my friend Reid would be freaking out if I didn’t apply liberal amounts of it to everything with threads on it during the install. I have no idea where my wire loom is if I have any left over for the fog light wiring extension.
  2. I have enough room in the garage for both my jeep and the wife’s car with about 4 feet of room in the front of the jeep to work on. But it’s still crowded in there. I need to really clear out the garage.
  3. My wife is 6 months pregnant and we have a 20-month-old. Our son George is really active and in this stage of her pregnancy she’s exhausted when she wakes up in the morning. So watching Geo all day solo would be a strain on what is also her day off too.
  4. There’s also a couple other modifications I’d like to do, like switch out my wire rope for synthetic. That’d also mean that I need a different fairlead than the roller one. That would be easiest to do when I put the bumper on.
wearing the red dirt
Wearing The Red Dirt Proudly

Taking all of these things into consideration, I decided I’d rather let a local shop do it and spend my day with George. I took him to the Chippewa Nature center where he likes to play. While there, I saw a posting for a snowshoe hike for beginners. Something that I’ve been wanting to try and will be part of my overall Michigan Overlanding adventures.  Had I spent the day in the garage, I would have missed out on that. In two weeks, we’ll be going on vacation for a week. That gives me plenty of time to get my checklist for what I want to be done and price it out from a couple of places. It also gives me ample time to have the work done while I’m gone.

out playing in the dirt
Out Playing In The Dirt

So yeah, this time I’ll be a bought person. The last Jeep I put on all the bumpers, cut the frame mounts for clearance, installed the lift kit, etc. Like with anything, everyone’s own personal priorities, budgets, and life circumstances will dictate what happens and when. It really shouldn’t be a matter of saying whose rig is better than whose.

I think the important thing for our sport (off-roading) or recreation (overlanding) isn’t how people get out there, but how many people get out there. The more inclusive we are to other people who share common interests the better for us all. The more places we’ll have to wheel. The more public land use areas at our disposal. Those are the things we really should focus on, not who turned a wrench more.