Driving in the Canadian Winter

Driving in the Canadian Winter

By Saif Zaman
October 25, 2021

Winter driving in Canada presents a challenge to both experienced and novice drivers. However, if you keep some things described in this blog in mind, then you should be okay. As an international student at University of Waterloo, you will probably stay close to its campus or at least in Southern Ontario. Thus, you don’t have to account for more brutal winter conditions in Northern Ontario where drivers have to attach studs or chains to their tires. Nevertheless, you should always be prepared for driving in snowy, wet, and icy conditions.

Winter tires are a must! They offer multiple advantages. First of all, they grip snowy and icy roads far better than all season or summer tires. Most insurance companies also offer discounts if you have winter tires on your car. They are worth the extra hassle and cost in going to a mechanic at the start of every winter for putting them on and then switching them out for your regular tires at the beginning of spring. A good rule of thumb is to have your winter tires on by at least December 15 and take them off after March 15. If you want to avoid the hassle of going to the mechanic twice a year just for tires, then all weather tires are the way to go. They are not as efficient at gripping icy and snowy roads as winter tires but are still far superior to all season and summer tires. Because of the material used in all weather tires, they can also be noisier and less fuel efficient than other tires. Most large auto shops like Canadian Tire or Kal Tire have comparison tools online to help you decide which tire is the best fit for you–budget and comfort wise speaking–and your car.

Speaking of mechanics, it’s always prudent to perform a maintenance check at the workshop by December. Winter maintenance should include changing your cabin air filter so that your cabin is heated efficiently. Your windshield wiper fluid should also be topped up and your tires’ pressure should be checked and adjusted. If you can, fill your tires with nitrogen instead of air because nitrogen provides more stable tire pressure in winter. Depending on the age of the car and how much you have driven in the summer, you might want to ask your mechanic to perform a wheel alignment as well so that you have steady steering on snowy and icy roads.

The way you drive also depends on what car you drive. I personally prefer sedans over SUVs. Sedans have a lower center of gravity which make them less likely to roll over in case the car slips on snow or ice. Plus, they are lighter than SUVs and that makes their engines relatively powerful. SUVs, however, have an advantage in terms of ground clearance so they can avoid those chunks of ice you sometimes see on the road.

Parking matters, especially during the winter. If you park in a heated garage then you are relatively safe from a freezing interior or having to heat up your cabin and engine for at least a few minutes before driving off. This is especially true for older car models, though I would recommend heating your car for at least 45 seconds before you drive in the winter. Even if you park in an unheated garage that still affords a modicum of protection for your car. However, if you don’t have that many parking options and need to park in a driveway or on the street overnight then you might want to invest in a block heater. Block heaters can be installed by any mechanic at a workshop, but they can be expensive and you need a power outlet nearby to connect them. Also keep a bag of de-icing salt in your trunk. It’s useful for freeing your car if it’s bogged down in snow or stuck in ice. Just sprinkle generously near your tires. You should also keep some thermal blankets in your trunk in case of an emergency where your car won’t start and you are stuck away from home. A handy ice scrapper can clear away ice or snow stuck on your windshield and windows. Please be gentle though.

Finally, driving habits matter even more during the winter. Unlike summer, slamming on the brakes might cause your car to slide or skid, so it’s best to keep a safe distance between you and the car in front of you so as to brake slowly. Following too close to the car in front of you is not only dangerous, especially during winter, but also against the law! Avoid the need to go faster, especially if it’s snowing or if the roads have not been cleared of snow. Accelerate slowly as well since if you try to do it faster, you can cause your wheels to spin, especially if you are going up or down hill.

While I have mentioned some tips and tricks for safe and comfortable driving during the winter, this list is not exhaustive. The Ministry of Transportation has more details online which can be accessed through this link: http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/ontario-511/pdfs/winter-safe-driving.pdf

Have a safe winter driving experience now!


Saif Zaman is a senior PhD candiate at the Department of History, a sessional instructor in Arts and a former international student. When he is not busy looking after his children, he is driving his family to the different parks and conservations areas around Southern Ontario. You can reach him at m7zaman@uwaterloo.ca 


Last Updated: October 27, 2022

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