How to get your car out of snow

On the Road 4 min read

If your car is stuck while driving in the snow, it can be difficult for your tires to gain the traction they need to push the vehicle forward. As a result, they spin while the car sits stuck in the snow. Fortunately, a few techniques can help get your car out of the snow.

Important note: Before trying any of these, remember to ensure 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 gain traction in snow

1. Shoveling

This is a time-consuming and tiring method, 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.

2. 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 harm your pets and the environment.

3. Add dry materials around the tires

If you can’t remove the snow, add dry materials around the wheels to improve your traction. 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 if you get stuck in the snow.

4. 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.

5. Rocking the vehicle

Another common method is “rocking” the car back and forth. If you’ve got a little space where the car has traction, this method builds 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 tough 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 expensive and more inconvenient than calling for help.

6. Starting the vehicle in second gear

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 get the traction you need. It can still be hard on the transmission — the clutch specifically — so take it easy.

7. Letting air out of the tires

You can also try letting 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 successfully get 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.

How do you get a car unstuck by yourself?

If you have dressed appropriately for the weather, you can do most of the steps we’ve mentioned for how to get tires unstuck in snow by yourself. However, if the snow is heavy and it’s getting late in the day, you’d do better to call in some reinforcements quickly.

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 unrelenting, tie a colorful bandana or another piece of cloth to your car’s antenna to help roadside assistance find you and make you more visible to other drivers, potentially avoiding an accident.

Can getting stuck in snow damage your car?

Your vehicle can sustain damage after being stuck in the snow. Were school and work canceled because of the snow? Even if you don’t have to drive, you’ll want to dig your car out of the snow as quickly as possible once the snowfall stops. If your car gets stuck in the snow on the road, Vehicle HQ says that getting stuck in deep snow can damage your transmission, battery, and drivetrain. Due to the immense stress on these parts, they can break or become damaged. So, don’t let your vehicle stay in one spot for too long after a snowstorm; get help if you’re stuck and find out whether car insurance covers snow damage.

Be prepared for the weather

Les Schwab Tires recommends that you ensure you’ve got snow tires on your vehicle before you drive in winter storm conditions. Pack a snow shovel, a bag of sand or kitty litter to get out of snow, and a road emergency kit with winter supplies in your trunk before heading out in snowy weather.

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