If your car is stuck while driving in snow, it can be difficult for your car to form the traction it needs to push itself forward. As a result, your tires spin while the car sits in place. Fortunately, a few techniques can help get your car out of the snow. Before you try any of these, remember to ensure that your exhaust pipe is free of snow. A blocked exhaust can cause a dangerous buildup of carbon monoxide in the car while you run the engine trying to get the car to move.
Ways to get your car out of the snow
This is one of the more time-consuming and tiring methods, but it’s also one of the best. Your car gets stuck because the snow is too slick to allow the tires enough grip. Removing the snow around the tires, under the car’s body, and in the path towards the road — ideally down to the road surface — is one of the most reliable ways to get back on track.
Melting the snow
Like shoveling, melting the snow with salt or other chemicals can help you get the traction you need. However, melting the snow this way isn’t ideal. Salt can cause rusting if it stays in contact with the car’s body too long, and other chemicals like antifreeze can be harmful to you, pets, and the environment.
How to improve traction on snow
If you can’t get rid of the snow, you can improve your traction by adding dry materials around the wheels. Common options include sand and non-clumping cat litter. If you live in an area where severe winter weather is typical, consider keeping these materials on hand in the car’s trunk during the winter months.
Making the most of your car’s systems
Modern cars contain advanced electronic systems to help get tires unstuck in the snow. If your car has a four-wheel-drive option, turn it on because it delivers power to all the wheels, increasing your odds of finding a spot that provides the grip you need. Put your car in low gear if it’s an automatic to help keep the wheels from spinning too fast when you press the accelerator.
If your car has a traction control system (TCS), turn it off. While that may sound counterintuitive, the TCS’s job is to cut power to the wheels when it detects that they are spinning against a slippery surface. That helps you maintain control in a skid but makes it very hard to get loose from snow.
Other methods for getting your car out of snow
Other methods can help you get your car out of snow, but they pose some risk to the car.
The most common method is “rocking” the car back and forth. If you’ve got a little space where the car has traction, this method works by building momentum which can carry you through the slippery spot. You go forward as far as you can, then switch to reverse and go back as far as you can, then forward again, and so on.
The problem is that rapidly changing gears repeatedly — especially while the wheels are moving — can be very hard on the transmission. If you try rocking your car, be careful. Apply the brake to stop the car at the endpoint of each rock, then shift gears while the car is still. If it doesn’t work after a few tries, let it go. Transmission damage is more expensive and more inconvenient than calling for help.
If your vehicle has a manual transmission, you can try starting the car in second gear to achieve a similar effect. The second gear has less torque, making it less likely that you’ll spin the wheels and potentially getting the traction you need. It can still be hard on the transmission — the clutch specifically — so take it easy.
You can also try letting a little air out of the tires. By making the tire slightly flat, you put more of the tire in contact with the road surface and create more traction. Only do this if there’s a gas station or mechanic nearby where you can fill the tire back up. Driving on underinflated tires is dangerous and can cause long-term damage, so you want to get them re-inflated as soon as possible.
What to do after your car is stuck in snow
If you’re successful in getting your car moving, look for a safe place to stop for a moment and look at the wheels. The tires’ spinning can often build up snow or ice in the area around the wheel. That can wear on the tire surface, clog the treads, or make it hard to steer. Get a snow scraper and free any excessive ice or snow off the wheels. Turn your traction control back on, reset any other settings like all-wheel drive, and carry on.
If you still can’t get your car out of the snow, it might be time to call for help. If you have opted for roadside assistance coverage on your auto insurance, your insurer may send a tow truck to help you get loose from the snow. Otherwise, you’ll need to call for one yourself. If the snow is very bad, tie a colorful bandana or another piece of cloth to your car’s antenna to help roadside assistance find you while also making you more visible to other drivers, potentially avoiding an accident.