Have you ever driven your truck in unsafe winter conditions? Chances are you have, but for those who haven’t, running into icy roads, freezing rain, and white-out conditions during heavy snowstorms can quickly become treacherous. As we approach another winter season we’d like to share with you our tips for safe winter truck driving.
11 Winter Driving Tips for Truck Drivers
So what should you keep in mind when driving a truck or semi-truck in the winter snow? And what should every truck driver have? Here are our top 11 winter driving tips for truck drivers to keep you safe through the snowy season.
1. Be Prepared For Your Trip
Winter truck driving means being prepared, such as , keeping an emergency kit to make your winter travels safer.Emergencies can and will arise and the extra preparation will see you through those moments. Here are the key items we recommend you add to your emergency kit:
- Snow chains: (Minimum of 4 chains if you travel in Colorado when their chain law is in effect).
- Open flames: Open flames can be dangerous inside a semi-truck but it’s still a good idea to keep matches and candles in the event of an extreme emergency where you’re stranded outside your truck.
- Electric lanterns and/or flashlights: In case of being stranded during the night, keeping a light source available is crucial.
- Heavy clothing designed for extreme cold. During inclement weather, you may have to wait longer than usual for a service vehicle to arrive. Hypothermia can set in without you realizing it, so having the items you need to stay as warm as possible may just save your life.
- Back-up sleeping bag/blankets: Will help during extremely cold nights. Hand warmers are also great to carry in case of freezing temperatures.
- Extra road flares: Extra road flares beyond the minimum required by DOT and FMCSA.
- Non-perishable food items: Such as canned food and dehydrated or freeze-dried foods.
- Extra water: Either gallon jugs or packs of water bottles works. Each has its pros and cons, so a mix of the two is optimal.
- Radio: A battery powered radio or a CB radio and a backup battery-powered handheld CB radio. Although we’re going into 2022, CB radios remain as a primary way for truck drivers to communicate with each other and authorities in the event of an emergency.
- Back-up cell phone battery banks/chargers: Just make sure you keep these charged up so they are ready to go if you have no other way to recharge your cell phone.
2. Inspect Your Truck Before Driving
Nothing about trucking safety is complete without mentioning the pre-trip inspection. A thorough pre-trip inspection is the number one way to prevent accidents as a truck driver. Follow your pre-trip routine, and if you don’t have a pre-trip routine, it’s time to develop one.
During the winter months, pay special attention to your engine, ensuring it is running properly. When you park for the night, set your tractor brakes, but do not set your trailer brakes. Doing so will help you avoid the horrible consequence of laying under the trailer in ice and snow and sub-freezing temperatures banging on your brake drums with a hammer. Other factors to inspect for winter truck driving include:
- Making sure your fluids are topped off and not frozen. Inspect the undercarriage of your truck and trailer for chunks of ice and debris that could break free and damage your equipment or another vehicle on the road.
- Making sure your heater and windshield defroster are working properly and that your mirrors are clean. If you have heated mirrors, make sure to turn them on to prevent ice accumulation.
- Making sure your tires meet the FMCSA guidelines for tread depth, and that they are in good condition with no cuts, bumps, abrasions, or punctures.
Again, ten or fifteen minutes of pre-trip inspection can save you from spending hours in a ditch somewhere, so don’t overlook how important the inspection is for safe winter truck driving. It’s also smart to keep up with a regular preventative truck maintenance schedule and checklist to cover all you bases.
3. Practice Chaining Ahead of Time
We’ve mentioned practicing chaining ahead of time once already, but it’s worth mentioning this essential truck driver skill again. The worst time to figure out you have no clue how to chain up is when you’re in two feet of snow in a Colorado mountain pass, on the side of the highway and it’s 15 degrees out. Before you find yourself in that situation, practice applying your chains during your downtime in warmer weather so that when you have to do it for real, you’ll have fewer problems.
4. When in Doubt, Pull Over
Truck driving in the snow is always dangerous. If the road hasn’t been treated and/or plowed yet, it is better to play it safe and pull over. You can always call ahead and schedule a different delivery time in the event of inclement weather. Rescheduling the load, or arriving late is always better than crashing, or worse.
Additionally, never out-drive your sense of safety. If the road conditions feel unsafe to you, then by all means follow your instincts and safely park your truck and wait it out.
If you come upon an icy road unexpectedly, avoid using your brakes and allow your vehicle to slow. The sooner you begin to slow down, the better the outcome. The slower your speed the lower the chance that you’ll jack-knife the trailer.
If you are forced to use your brakes, pump them with a light pressure while observing the angle of your trailer as that is the direction you will slide.
5. Keep Lights Cleaned Off
You need to see and you need others to see you. Ice will accumulate on the exterior of your truck as you drive, coating your lights, and even your windshield wipers. Remember to make frequent stops to clear the ice from your lights and your wipers to maximize your visibility to others and to ensure you can see where you are going.
6. Don’t Follow the Brake Lights
In low visibility, you may resort to following the taillights ahead of you. This is a dangerous habit to get into because it is difficult to judge the distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you, or you may end up following those taillights ahead of you right off the road. Instead, another winter truck driving tip is to maintain a safe speed, and keep your eyes on the road stripes if you can see them. If you can’t see the lines on the road, are forced to drive excessively slow due to the low visibility, or can see nothing at all, then it’s time to get off the highway and find a safe place to park. Never use the shoulder of the road in low visibility as you increase the chances that you’ll end up in an accident.
7. Pack Layers
Another important winter truck driving tip includes wearing extra layers to stay warm. When it comes to bundling up for cold weather, moisture is your enemy.
"Wet skin, or wet clothing will result in faster heat loss because the moisture accelerates the transfer of heat away from your body into the water in your clothing or on your skin."
To protect against moisture both externally and to guard against sweating too much and losing heat that way we recommend:
- A water proof exterior.
- Thick material clothes, like wool socks and sweatpants, etc.
- A moisture- wicking base material (like under armor).
- Adjust your layers according to how warm or cold you are. Be ready to remove additional layers if you’re too warm to avoid sweating. You can experience rapid heat loss if you step outside into freezing temperatures while sweating.
8. Pack a Bag of Kitty Litter or Salt
It’s a good idea to pack a 25- pound bag of cat litter (avoid the clay litter because it just turns to mud) and a 25- pound bag of road salt with you during the winter months.
If you’re parked at a truck stop, rest area, or at a delivery or pick up and you need to get the truck moving, an icy patch can put a kink in your plans. To get your truck moving, pour some kitty litter, salt, ice -melt, or any combination of these products in front of and behind your tires to help you gain traction.
Once you’ve salted the ground in front and behind your drive tires, try rolling your truck forward and backward until you gain traction.
10. Carry Anti-Gel
Consult with your trucking company’s winter driving guidelines before adding anti-gel to your fuel tanks. Some companies are ok with you doing this, but others prefer you not to.
Just in case you’ve not been told, diesel fuel hates cold temperatures. Fuel that has not been adequately treated for cold temperatures will begin to turn to gel at 20F and lower. So instead of liquid in your tanks, you’ll have something like butter instead. And that’s a bad thing.
If you are free to use anti-gel, then pay close attention to the temperature and the weather forecasts. If temperatures are expected to drop below 20F, add half a bottle to each diesel tank.
If the temperature is below 0 F, add a full bottle to each tank.
Even with a bunk heater, you may be better off letting your truck idle when you’re parked as this will help keep your fuel from gelling and your fluids from freezing.
Anti-gel is always cheaper than a service call for a gelled truck.
11. Bring Extra Gallon of Washer Fluid
You’ll go through a lot of washer fluid due to dirty road spray coating your windshield. So another winter truck driving tip is to have extra fluid handy when you run out (which happens faster than you think).While an extra gallon of washer fluid is great, it doesn’t hurt when you’re spending extended time in the northern climates to carry an extra two, three, or even four gallons of washer fluid.
As a note of caution, make sure you use windshield washer fluid specifically treated/formulated for extremely cold temperatures. In some parts of the country, it gets so cold that anything less will lead to an instantly iced over windshield, and that’s not good when it happens while you’re rolling down the interstate at full speed.
Staying Safe for Winter Truck Driving
Winter is the most challenging time of year for truck drivers and we hope these tips and our other winter driving best practices will help you have a safe and successful winter driving season. In all things trucking, safety always comes first, especially during the winter. Always err on the side of caution and remember no load is worth your life. In addition to the tips in this article, seek out other winter truck driving tips from experienced truck drivers who have years of operating during the winter under their belt. And please, stay safe out there and have a great winter driving season.