Winter Driving-Canada

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  • Driving in the winter need not be a frightening experience if you are prepared.
  • Snow is a fact of Canadian life, and snow clearance on the roads is generally fast and efficient unless you live off the beaten track.
  • If you haven't much experience with driving on snow, find a big empty car park after some fresh snow has fallen, before it's been ploughed, and go for an experimental drive. Find a spot without kerbs and practice doing donuts, accelerating from rest, hard breaking, swerving and steering, to learn how your vehicle responds.
  • The golden rule is that there is no substitute for going slower when driving in bad winter conditions.

All Wheel Drive, 4x4, etc.

  • An explanation for the unaware: Most ordinary cars are two wheel drive (either the front or rear pair of wheels get power from the engine). '4x4' or 'four wheel drive' means that all four wheels get equal power simultaneously from the engine to drive the car, which can be useful for moving in slippery conditions, eg mud or snow. 'All wheel drive' is like 4x4, but is more complex, and each wheel gets the power independently of the other 3 (in contrast 4x4 wheels all get the same power). AWD is therefore more responsive to particular conditions, but also has more that can go wrong with the system, so is less rugged. Although any vehicle might come with any type of drive drain, front wheel drive is more likely in standard passenger cars, with rear wheel drive switching to optional 4x4 or AWD more likely in trucks and SUVs.
  • AWD, 4x4, etc are not a necessity in most situations on metalled roads. Most Canadian passenger cars are front drive only.
  • More important than extra driven wheels are good traction from the wheels you do have.
  • AWD will get you going easier in slick conditions, all other things being equal, but you might be less aware of how little grip there is because of that, and might well be going faster when the need to stop or take evasive action in a hurry occurs. At that point having 4 driven wheels rather than two is of no help at all in slowing down or steering. The only thing that will help at that point is having good grip to the road surface.

Winter Tires

The subject of snow / winter tires is often brought up. Many people get by without, but there is no doubt that in snow and ice winter tires will stop a vehicle much faster.

No matter how many safety features your vehicle has, it's the tires that enable you to handle it in the snow and ice.

When shopping for winter tires, look for the peaked mountain with snowflake symbol. Tires marked with this symbol meet specific snow traction performance requirements and have been designed specifically for use in severe snow conditions. The Transport Canada Web site ( displays the symbol and gives winter tires tips. The next type down from Mountain & Snowflake are 'Mud and Snow' (marked on the tires with "M+S"). These can be used year-round, but are not intended for heavy snow conditions.

It is mandatory to have winter tires (minimum M+S) on any vehicle driving a mountain pass in BC from October 1st to March 31st, which may be extended until April 30th. This is enforced with a $109 fine, and the roads included cover the majority of BC highways [1]. If you are remaining in the Lower Mainland, Greater Victoria, and Okanagan or Thomson valleys, winter tires are recommended but not required. Highway signs indicate where winter tires become mandatory.

Quebec's mandatory winter tire rules were changed with effect from 2019. It is mandatory that all private vehicles and taxis are fitted with winter tires from December 1 to March 15 (previously the start date was December 15).

To change or not to change

  • Tires marked "M + S" ( "mud and snow" tires) -- also known as "all-season" tires -- are designed for all kinds of weather, but may not be suitable in heavy snow.
  • In temperatures at or below freezing, all-season tires tend to stiffen and lose gripping power. In low temperatures, the stopping power of all season tires is compromised by the rubber compounds used, even on clear dry roads. In snow and ice conditions the difference in traction is even more clear cut.
  • In areas that experience mild winter temperatures and receive little snow, all-season tires may be appropriate.
  • In regions that experience cold, snowy winters, however, snow tires are an essential safety precaution. In deep snow, winter treads have much better traction than regular tires or even all-season tires.

The video in this link shows tire information. tire information There are also useful comparisons/ reviews (with numbers) here and here

In 2008, the province of Quebec made winter tires mandatory and winter collisions fell by 17 per cent and collisions causing serious injury or death fell by 36 per cent.

Trade offs

The rubber used for winter tires is specially formulated to be softer and more grippy even on dry clear roads . Winter tires also have more aggressive, deeper tread patterns in order to grip on ice and snow.

The softer rubber often results in softer tire sidewalls, and more flex in the tread-blocks, which results in the handling of a car on winter tires in normal conditions feeling less precise. The deeper more aggressive threads also often lead to more road noise on dry tarmac, although modern designs have made great improvements in this area.

The softer rubber is also faster wearing than the less sticky all season rubber,(which of course is not as soft and grippy in the cold). Winter tires maintain stickiness to much lower temperatures, but the trade off is that tires wear much faster as a result, especially if driven into the warmer part of the year. There is also likely to be an increase in road noise and somewhat less precise handling in the dry, especially if smaller, higher profile tires are fitted in lieu of large diameter low profile performance tires.

Mount on all four wheels

  • Unless you are advised otherwise by the vehicle manufacturer, use the same tires on all four wheels.
  • This contributes to the stability of your vehicle and helps you to maintain control of it.
  • This advice to winter tires as well as summer tires.
  • There was a time when people only used to put winter tires on the driven wheels, (to save the expense of 2 more wheels/tires). This is however contrary to all modern advice. Experience has shown that this often made handling far worse than having no winter tires at all. Having grip at one end of the vehicle, but not the other often lead to the ends of the vehicle unexpectedly swapping around!
  • Even if your vehicle is equipped with good quality winter tires, you must take road conditions into consideration. In winter this usually involves driving more slowly and maintaining a greater distance from other vehicles.
  • For more details, see Canada Safety Council.
  • has some informative articles about comparative tests of winter tires and the science of winter tires.

Different Sizes for Winter Tires

Winter tires are often installed on a second set of steel rims instead of mounting them to the original wheels. This saves expensive alloy wheels from salt damage, and the occasional contact with a kerb in winter, and also makes changing from all season or summer tires to winter and back again much cheaper and faster to do. Current costs are more than $10 per tire to mount and balance a tire on the existing rims, so in 3 winters new rims will pay for themselves.

Winter tires do not have to be the same size and profile as the summer ones. If you are concerned about cornering ability bare in mind that the softer sidewall, softer rubber and larger tread blocks will result in slopier handling characteristics anyway in the original stock size.

Wider performance tire sizes might have a hard time cutting through slush, so to save money, and to get a narrower tire profile that will cut through slush better, you can generally opt for wheels one or two inches smaller than the original equipment ones, and maintain the rolling radius of the wheel by increasing the tire sections. For every inch smaller, increase the section by 10.

For example as long as the brake callipers can be cleared you can replace original equipment 205/55 x16 wheels and tires with 195 /65 x 15 wheels and tires. Smaller inner diameters and narrower higher profile wheel and tire combinations are significantly cheaper to buy than the larger low profile versions. The lower cost of smaller tire sizes is sometimes enough to immediatly compensate for the additional expense of buying new steel wheels to put them on, and the narrower width of the higher profile tire will help with cutting through snow and slush.

Just make sure that the rolling radius of any tire combo is close to the same as the original equipment, or your speedo and odometer readings will be inaccurate. The tire sellers will be happy to help you figure that out if you cant find an online calulator like the one here:


Good traction is no use if you cant see where you are going.

A snow brush and ice scrapper combo is a 100% necessity. Telescopic ones are a good idea for larger vehicles, and a second hand held ice scraper only is useful to have.

Don't drive an Igloo... clear all the windows and the bonnet and roof, otherwise it will just blow back onto you windows, or those of the car behind. Large transport trucks cant clear the snow off the top of the trailer, and its not unknown for large slabs of snow and/or ice to fall down behind them onto the road from time to time.

Carry extra winter washer fluid, salt spray can make seeing out to drive virtually impossible if your washer tank runs dry, and if you run out, water will not work as it will freeze. On a highway trip in clear drying conditions you will be amazed how often you need to use the screen washer.

Washer Fluid in Canada is sold ready to use...don't dilute it or it will freeze. Generally its available in -35, -40 or -45°C grades. There is also a specific summer washer fluid that is a bit better at removing bug residue from the windscreen.

Check that your wiper blades have not frozen solid. Ice can build up in the spring mechanisms of regular blades, making them useless. Special hingeless or covered winter wiper blades are sold that make this less of a problem. Often if bad weather is forecast, people leave their wipers hinged up off the glass to prevent them getting frozen into place.

Have something handy to clear the mist of the inside of the window, a towel or sponge...bare in mind the mist can freeze on until the demister heats the window enough! A credit card is a useful tool to remove it if nothing else is handy.

For a few hundred dollars (installed) you can get a remote starter. This allows you to start your vehicle without having to go outside, and means the heater has a chance to warm the car and demist the windows. In the summer you can pre cool a car the same way if you leave the A/C on. The penalty for this convenience is increased fuel consumption and green house gas emissions

A/C will help remove mist faster as it dehumidifies the air. It does not take a lot of humidity tracked into a vehicle as snow or from sweating after clearing the driveway for the windows to steam up completely. It seems counter intuitive to turn the AC on when its -20C, but it helps the window, and its a good idea to cycle your AC from time to time in the winter as it will help keep the system well lubricated, which will stop refrigerant leaks from the joints, and help the compressor life. A couple of minutes is enough. Often the demist setting on the ventilation system automatically brings the A/C on line.

What else do I need?

Apart from winter tires there are other sensible precautions to take before setting out in the winter.

Carry extra clothing. If you break down or get stuck, help may take a while to reach you, and a car without its engine running can get cold fast. hats and gloves are often forgotten. Extra thick winter socks can be used to substitute for gloves, or to keep your feet warm if they get wet in the snow while trying to dig a car out of a snow bank.

Carry a snow shovel to dig yourself out of trouble if necessary. It doesn't take long for a foot of snow to fall sometimes.

Carry some sort of traction aid, like sand or studded mats to get going if you end up on glare ice

Carry and emergency kit of a few candles and a thermal blanket, road flares etc

Cell Phone...doesnt everyone have one anyway?

A tow rope and booster cables. Sometimes you might need a tow, don't count on the "other guy" having a rope! Booster cables are a good idea as the usual suspect if the car wont start in the cold is the battery, a cold battery has a lot less power available than a warm one, and a cold engine needs a lot more power to get it started due to the thicker oil and reduced clearances due to the contraction of cold metal parts.

That naturally segues into .......

Block Heaters

East of the rockies, most cars have an electrical cord hanging out the front. This isn't that everywhere other than BC has gone electric; these are block heaters. Brits and British Columbians are generally confused about what these cables are for, other Canadians wonder why BC doesn't have them (hint: winter is different). The block heater is there to be plugged in in winter, and keep under the bonnet (hood) warm(er).


A block heater is a small electrical heater that plugs into an external electrical power source. It warms the oil in the car sump, which keeps it thinner. Thinner oil is easier to pump and will provide more instantaneous protection to the numerous moving parts in an engine upon starting. If its really cold or the battery is in less than great shape it might start when it otherwise wouldnt, but what it REALLY does is prevent long term wear on the engine, and means the starter and battery don't have to work as hard to start the car, and means the car will be more efficient sooner, although whether its more efficent enough to compensate for the electricity used in the big picture is a moot point, your engine will start easier and might last longer is the bottom line.

There has been a lot of debate as to what temperature point it really makes a difference, -10C is a good rule of thumb...better to warm things up too soon than too late, but many Canadian vehicle happily go their whole life without ever being plugged in.

You'll use more fuel and create more pollution in the first minutes after a "cold start" than when the engine reaches normal operating temperatures. When an engine starts up, it pumps oil throughout the engine block to lubricate moving parts. In a cold engine, the oil is thick and resists flow, so the engine has to work harder to overcome internal friction.

Fuel combustion is also less efficient in a cold engine, and the air-fuel mixture is richer – in other words, there is more fuel in the mixture and less air. (The mixture of fuel vapour and air must be in proper proportion for efficient combustion.) The combined effect is a sharp increase in pollutants. On top of everything else, the catalytic converter doesn't work when it is cold. Therefore, all of the engine's emissions pass through the exhaust untreated.

You can help reduce the impact of cold starts – and avoid idling your car needlessly to warm the engine – by installing a block heater. This inexpensive device warms the coolant, which in turn warms the engine block and lubricants. The engine will start more easily and reach its peak operating temperature faster. What's more, it won't have to work as hard to pump oil through the block.

At –20°C, block heaters can improve overall fuel economy by as much as 10 percent. For a single short trip on a cold day, your fuel savings could be in the order of 20 percent.

Reduced fuel consumption will do more than save you money. It will also minimize greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2), the most common GHG, is an unavoidable by-product of burning gasoline. Every time you turn on your vehicle's engine, you generate CO2 – and the more fuel you use, the greater your GHG emissions.

A block heater runs on electricity. To save money, invest in an automatic timer that switches the block heater on two hours before you plan to drive the vehicle (instead of leaving it plugged in all night). This is all the time needed to warm the coolant and, in turn, the engine.

An article by a canadian master technician said "Block heaters are a good way to keep your engine warm when temperatures drop, but they are not really needed above about –18 C. Even at colder temperatures, plugging in a block heater for more than four hours is a waste of electricity, as the engine won’t get significantly warmer if plugged in longer." (

More tips here....