In Canada, life doesn’t slow down when winter arrives. There are so many great places to explore and fun activities to enjoy all year round! Great road trips don’t need to take a back seat once the snow flies. However, safe winter driving does call for some preparation. Taking a few key steps to get your car ready for winter road trips can help keep your travel safe and stress-free.

Here’s a checklist with seven steps to follow to get your car ready for winter road trips. Some of these are part of regular vehicle maintenance. Others may surprise you with the difference they’ll make in getting you safely to your destination, even in bad weather.

Step 1: Get your car ready for winter by changing to winter tires

We can’t emphasize this enough: in Canada, winter tires are essential! Winter tires are mandatory in Quebec and most of British Columbia, but they’re not a legal requirement in other provinces. But you absolutely should not skip putting winter tires on your vehicle no matter where you live.

How do I know if I need winter tires?

If the average daily temperature where you live regularly drops below 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit), you need winter tires. The rubber compound used in other tire types such as all-seasons or summer tires harden at lower temperatures. This means they can’t provide as much grip in the cold as winter tires do. This is true even on clear pavement! And it’s also true of mud and snow, or M&S tires. While they say snow in the name, M&S tires also lose performance below 7 degrees Celsius. If you live in Canada, dedicated winter tires are the way to go as you get your car ready for winter.

When should I have winter tires installed?

Once the average daily temperature in your area drops below 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s time to get your winter tires installed. In most of Canada, this typically happens sometime in October or early November.

How to inspect winter tires to get my car ready for winter

Before having winter tires installed, be sure to check the tread and sidewalls for bulges or cracks. Look over the rims to inspect for dents that may cause the tire to leak. It’s also important to measure the tread depth to ensure it’s within a safe amount. Verify the manufacturer’s recommended tire pressures by checking the tire and loading information sticker. This is located inside the driver’s side door and will give you the correct pressures for inflating your tires.

How much tread should winter tires have?

To have enough grip for winter conditions, a winter tire should have at least 5/32″ to 6/32″ of tread remaining. Here in Canada, we have a very easy way to check this. Take a quarter and point it with the caribou’s nose facing straight down, then place it into the tread. If you can see the tip of the caribou’s nose, your tires don’t have enough tread and should be replaced. As you can see in the photo, the tread depth on our winter tires barely grazes past the caribou’s nose. As a result, this will be our final season on this set of tires before we replace them.

How do you check tire pressures?

Unless you have access to an air gun and a torque wrench and know what you’re doing, you’ll need to have your tires changed by a professional. When it’s time for our tire changes, we call George at Toronto Mobile Mechanics. We love the convenience of having our tires changed in the driveway while we work in our home office. (This is not a paid endorsement! We just find George to be honest, reliable, and great to work with.) Not only does George double-check the tire pressures for us, but on this visit he found and fixed a leaky valve for us on the spot. That’s great service!

It’s important to monitor tire pressures on an ongoing basis to get the best performance. Aim to check your tire pressures once per month plus immediately before starting any long road trip. It’s easy to do this on your own. Check the recommended pressures on the tire and loading information sticker. You’ll find this on the inside of your driver’s side door. Then visit your local gas station, where you’ll find an air pump with a tire pressure gauge built in.

Take the cap off each tire’s valve and use the nozzle on the air pump to check the pressure in each tire. Then, top it off as needed. Note your tires should be as close to cold as possible to get an accurate pressure reading. It’s better to do this earlier in the day and after a quick drive from home than right after a long highway run.

Step 2: Get your car’s oil changed

Getting your car’s oil changed at regular intervals is essential to keep the engine running smoothly. How often should you get your oil changed? Some cars have shorter recommended oil change intervals such as every 8,000 kilometres or six months, while others can go up to a year or 16,000 kilometres before needing a change. You can find the the manufacturer’s recommendation for your car in the owner’s manual.

In Canada, remembering your car’s oil changes is easy. If your car’s recommended oil change interval is every six months, time your seasonal tire and oil changes together at the same interval. If your car requires an oil change every 16,000 kilometres or annually, the best time to do it is in the autumn. Newer oil is more viscous, meaning it flows better, which is important to help keep your engine moving in colder weather. We ask George from Toronto Mobile Mechanics to take care of this for us every fall at the same time as our winter tire change.

Step 3: Change your windshield wipers

Did you know you should change the windshield wipers on your car at least once per year? Over time, the rubber strip on a wiper blade becomes weathered, pitted, and stiff. This can lead to streaking and make the blades less effective at keeping your windshield clear. Most modern vehicles use a standard clip for wiper blades, and new blades typically cost $20 or less each. This a quick and easy job to take care of on your own.

Before you start, here’s an important tip: make sure you know how the wiper blades connect to the arms on your car so you can buy a blade with a clip that’s compatible. You can find information on how to disconnect the wiper blade from the arm in your owner’s manual. Try it yourself before you buy a new set so you know what sort of connector to look for.

You’ll also need to know what sizes of wiper blades to buy for your vehicle. Typically, you’ll find a guidebook showing the correct sizes for your car’s make and model year next to the new blade display in your favourite auto parts store.

Step 4: Change your windshield washer fluid to get your car ready for winter

You may be surprised to learn there’s more than one formulation for windshield washer fluid! The summer formulation is better at removing stuck-on bugs and grime from your glass. The version designed for winter contains antifreeze, which helps melt snow and ice and makes them easier to remove.

If you’ve only been using the winter formulation all along, as many people do, that’s no problem. Simply top up your windshield washer fluid and you’re good to go for winter road trips. You can switch to summer fluid in the late spring if you’re interested.

If you’re currently using the summer formulation, it’s time to get switched over to wiper fluid with antifreeze. The easiest way to do this is to just wait until the reservoir is empty and refill it then with the winter formulation. If your reservoir is close to but not completely empty and the weather dips below freezing, you can add winter solution and mix them in the reservoir. The summer solution dilutes the winter fluid’s concentration, so consider spending more on a fluid that’s formulated for lower temperatures if you go this route.

If there’s a significant amount left, you could get under the car to disconnect the hose to empty it, or you could try using a turkey baster or siphoning with a tube to remove the remaining fluid. But many people just opt to overdo it with the spray for a few days to empty the reservoir.

Step 5: Clean the inside of your windows, too

Keeping the outside of your windows clean is important for visibility, but wiping them down from the inside is just as important. All sorts of grime can collect and create a film on the inside of your car’s windows. You likely won’t notice it until you’re trying to defrost on a cold day and it takes forever for the inside of the glass to clear up. When there’s dirt on the inside of the glass, the moisture in the air has something to cling to for longer. By cleaning the inside of your windshield, you’ll see a substantial improvement in how quickly the fog will clear. A simple glass cleaner and a microfibre cloth does the trick.

If you really want to get at those streaks, use a second clean microfibre cloth to dry the glass after you’ve wiped it down. And clean your rearview mirror while you’re at it—it could probably use it, too!

Step 6: Get your car ready for winter grime by swapping out your floor mats

A Toyota RAV4 with winter floor mats - Get your car ready for winter road trips

Don’t forget the carpets! Once you and your passengers are getting into your vehicle with wet and salt-covered winter boots, the upholstery in summer floor mats won’t stand a chance. It’s worth investing in a set of sturdy rubber floor mats to keep dirt and salt from getting ground into your upholstery. It’s also helpful that winter floor mats can be cleaned easily by hosing them down. Doing this simple semi-annual swap as you get your car ready for winter will keep your carpets looking good as new and help retain more of your car’s value.

Step 7: Assemble a winter car emergency kit

Finally, be prepared for the unplanned emergencies that can befall us when we venture out onto the roads in winter weather. Keeping a winter emergency kit in your car means you’ll have extra winter accessories and blankets to stay warm, spare food and water in case you get stranded, and supplies to get yourself unstuck from a ditch or restarted if your battery dies. Get your car ready for winter by putting together a winter survival kit. We’ve provided a full set of instructions for assembling a winter car emergency kit here.

Now, you have your car ready for winter adventures! Where will your first winter road trip take you? Start your search for winter road trip inspiration by clicking here.

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