Think road trips are a summer-only activity? Think again.
Are winter road trips even possible? Is road tripping in the winter safe … or even enjoyable?
Yes! Yes. A thousand times yes.
Winter road trips do require a bit more preparation and planning than their summer counterparts, but you’ll be rewarded with fewer crowds, less traffic, and maybe even off-season hotel rates!
As a third-generation Minnesotan and road tripper who’s clocked more than 15,000 miles around the country (including Alaska in the winter!), here are nine things I’ve learned about how to safely, sanely road trip in the winter:
1. Road trip in a car with snow tires – and if your car doesn’t have them, consider renting one that does.
Snow tires are the difference between a stressful, slippery winter road trip and peace of mind. They also cost about $400.
If you don’t live in a snowy area, there’s no reason for you to splash out on snow tires, but they’ll make your road trip much safer and more enjoyable. Consider renting a car with snow tires or at least a vehicle with four-wheel drive.
2. Spend five minutes watching winter driving videos.
By third grade, Minnesotans know you need to ‘steer into the skid’ and pump the brakes when you hit ice, but this isn’t common knowledge for everyone! If you’re not terribly experienced driving in the snow, spend a few minutes watching Youtube videos to brush up on the basics. Sounds nerdy, but it makes a big difference. This one is particularly helpful.
3. Bring cuddly stuff for the car.
Wearing your parka and boots for while you sit for six hours isn’t particularly enjoyable. If you’ll be spending part of the road trip as the passenger, bring some cozy socks, a blanket and maybe even slippers. It’s much more comfortable and makes the trip more fun.
4. Plan for a few outdoor activities along your route.
Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you have to stay cooped up in your car for the entirety of your road trip. Check along your route for ice skating rinks where you can rent skates, or state parks that offer snowshoe or cross-country ski rentals.
These stops will help you stretch your legs and let you experience nature in other parts of the country.
5. Check the weather before you head out (and periodically while you’re traveling).
Well, obviously, right? Most of us remember to check road conditions before we head out, but it’s important to remember that the weather might be different at our destination or change over the course of a five-hour drive.
If you call 511, you’ll be able to access weather and road information, road construction reports and seasonal load restriction information about any state. If you’re calling from out of state, use the number 1-866-696-3511.
6. Dress or pack for the weather outside the car.
If you’re not planning to stop for snowshoeing or you’ll be parking in a ramp at the end of your journey, it’s easy to believe that your peacoat and leather boots are “warm enough.”
But when we’re driving hundreds of miles through freezing temperatures, we need to dress (or at least pack) for the weather outside the car. That means that if it’s 15 degrees, I’m going to pack my ‘real’ winter boots, long underwear, a parka, and a wool hat and mittens – even if what I’m wearing is a bit lighter and more stylish.
7. Find fun winter events along your route.
Road trips are about the journey, not just the destination – so make the most of your trip! I like to take detours to look at particularly good holiday light displays or the occasional reindeer farm.
Prepare by checking city event calendars along your route. You could watch free movies at Ann Arbor’s Holiday Classic Film Fest, see The Festival Of Lights in Manhattan, KS or The Majestic Holiday Spectacular musical review in Corvallis, OR.
8. Bring a winter car kit.
You can buy a ready-made kit or pack your own in an old backpack. I’m a) quite safety-oriented b) an experienced winter road tripper, so my car kit includes all ‘the usual’ components and a few extras.
In addition to the basics, I like to bring along:
- A bag of kitty litter (adds weight to the back of the car so you’re less likely to fishtail and can be spread under tires to help you get traction on ice)
- Snacks (but keep them in the trunk so you don’t mindlessly nibble them)
- Back-up boots (in case you’re wearing your ‘cute boots’)
9. Pack your travel mug and drink lots of warming things.
If you ever needed permission to sample eggnog lattes, peppermint mochas or hazelnut cappuccinos, a winter road trip is the perfect excuse to indulge. Bring your travel mug and map out some cute local coffee shops along your route. Support local businesses and stay cozy at the same time. That’s a win/win!