Keeping Your Cool on the Highway This Winter

In a season of advertising and marketing drawing upon nostalgia — especially with the big automakers — white, powdery country roads and snow-capped mountains set the tone. Of course, anybody with a driver’s license knows better. The white stuff is not so pretty to drive through, even if it means the family will avoid the insanity of airports. And to that another reality, the United States has so many different climates.

Los Angeles-based mechanic Rebekah Fleischaker starts with season-less, common-sense advice, such as carrying basic items like water, healthy non-perishable snacks, good walking shoes, regular or electric (“road disks”) flares and towel or rag in case you need to do the dirty work of checking out the vehicle when broken down. She will always strongly encourage filling up with the highest-octane gas possible to get the best mileage to run smoothly in all climates. However, advance preparation is key as the main objective — even with commercial-worthy scenery — is to get to and from your destination safely.

“Communicate with your mechanic that your trip will take you into a different climate zone, and be sure to ask him or her to check the condition of your tires and air pressure, fluids, belts, hoses, and brakes,” she says. “It is important the mechanic is clear on what’s being checked in order to make decisions such as determining the coolant to water proportions in the cooling system. Also, with tire pressure, be sure to look on the driver’s side door jamb for a sticker that indicates the correct tire pressure for your specific make and model rather than what’s printed on the actual tire.”

If you are going from flat terrain to mountains, or particularly snowy areas (such as Yosemite National Park, or other nature reserves and ski areas), snow cables or chains for tires are not just a must, but a requirement to enter those areas. Fleischaker favors cables, as they do not rip up the tire as much. While a mechanic can show customers how to attach the cables or chains, in a pinch (with advance research or good signage) you can pay for somebody to put them on near the snowy area you will be entering.

Winter roads © Enruta |

Winter roads © Enruta |

“Other parts of the car also need to be prepared for weather extremes,” she continues. “If you are planning on traveling in snow, you will also want to wax the vehicle before you go in order to keep a layer between your vehicle’s paint and the salt from the roads. When you return, be sure to clean the undercarriage to remove the salt that has been deposited there.”

While navigation apps can help one find and travel along a route between your home and the destination, Fleischaker advises to plan ahead for both emergencies and other more mundane issues, such as gas stops, food and restroom breaks.

“Most major freeways will have service stations or truck stops along the way, but if you are ‘off-roading’ or taking a scenic way like Route 66, take note of prominent towns on the way that can service your vehicle if an emergency arises,” she says.

“Plan your stops ahead if you can, and how many miles you can realistically travel in a day. Also be prepared for the fact that drives through rural areas in the middle of the country require more planning, with so many stops and towns further apart. You do not want to run out of gasoline and get stranded. Also, do not drive tired, as it is easy to have an accident if you are nodding off. If you do break down, of course, try to get to a safe location off the highway or freeway that’s well lit.”