Last year, my husband and I and other members of our rural volunteer fire department spent Christmas Eve in pea-soup fog working traffic control at an accident scene on a two-lane highway. The driver was not badly injured. But he sure wasn’t dressed for standing around in the damp cold waiting for a family member from the next county to come to pick him up. 

Apparently, there are lots of people who didn’t experience enough miserable weather while standing at the end of the driveway waiting for the school bus to learn that our mothers were right: Winter is the time to bundle up from head to toe. Or at least to have what you need for bundling up in the car. I marvel at the supreme confidence people who go to Walmart in their jammies have in their vehicles and the weather (not to mention their appearance). I was speechless (well, briefly) when a city friend drove two hours north for a retreat here in January with no coat, boots, hat or mittens, and no ice scraper for her windshield. 

There must be places where you can dash from heated garage to heated building, where streets and sidewalks are promptly cleared, where cell service is reliable and help, if needed, is minutes away. That’s not here. 

But when you live in the sticks – especially up here at 45 degrees north – you pick up some tricks for coping with winter road conditions. Here are a few.

In your car. Everyone from your insurance company to the local TV weather team broadcasts reminders about stuff to have in your vehicle for winter – things like sand or cat litter for traction, a snow shovel, lock de-icer, flashlights and extra batteries, a cell phone charger or power bank, non-perishable snacks and drinking water. They don’t necessarily tell you how to keep that drinking water from freezing. Or how to thwart mice – the scourge of rural life – so they don’t eat those non-perishable snacks and nest in blankets you would wrap up in after sliding off the road. We keep wool blankets in an old snowboard bag made of heavy-duty Cordura fabric – not impossible for mice to chew through but not easy, either. Non-perishable snacks, dog treats, extra flashlights and batteries, candles, matches and fire starter go in a large mouse-proof cookie tin. For water, anything we leave in the car is sure to be frozen, and it wastes calories to use body heat to thaw it out. So year round we fill bottles with fresh water for each trip (short or long), and make sure bottles get inside when we get home. If necessary, I could build a fire to melt snow in the tin.

Little luxuries. Since we don’t have a garage, we recently bought heavy-duty nylon windshield covers for our vehicles. You shut the front doors on “wings” and secure elastic straps around the side mirrors to hold the covers in place. Every time I don’t have to scrape ice off the windshield it elevates my mood from “coping” to “cheerful” – well worth the $25 apiece we spent on those covers.

Confidence. Back before school parking lots had cameras and cars had safety features like anti-lock brakes, country kids built winter driving skills by “doing donuts” in empty parking lots and (sometimes on frozen lakes). That purely educational activity helped build muscle memory for when you need to unexpectedly steer into a skid. I don’t know how drivers new to snow country challenges practice with today’s front-wheel and all-wheel drive vehicles. But even an Olds Cutlass 88 V8 and practice can’t outweigh two factors essential to winter driving confidence: speed and space. 

Speed and space. Slippery roads reduce the amount of traction your tires have, so slow down to give yourself more time to react. Increase the space between you and other vehicles, which are unpredictable at best. It takes four to ten times more distance to stop on ice and snow than on dry pavement. Estimating stopping distances at slow speeds is something you can still practice in an empty parking lot. (While you’re at it, include lessons on how to rock a vehicle back and forth to get unstuck.)

Other drivers. False confidence is a common affliction among drivers who never bothered to practice stopping distance estimation or have forgotten their winter driving skills. Their slide-offs, spin-outs, and rollovers can impact other motorists as well. Increase your distance from other drivers even more when approaching bridges and overpasses, intersections, hills, and other places where ice forms early and snow and slush build-up. The same goes for fog, blowing snow, and other poor visibility conditions. Near home, you may know to be wary of drifting in the flats, icy spots where melting snow refreezes overnight, bad curves and hills, and spots most likely for deer to jump out. But don’t trust other drivers to know those things, or to maintain focused attention and make good choices.

Speed. Figuring out a speed appropriate for conditions can be a Catch-22 situation on rural roads. Sometimes you may need to go a bit faster than you think is prudent – for example, when you end up at the head of a long line of vehicles following too close, itching to pass where passing seems more unsafe than a bit more speed. Too slow can be almost as unsafe as too fast, especially in fog and other low-visibility situations. But you may be forced to go slower than you think is appropriate when you know it’s unwise to pass or to give those with false confidence room to make bad choices without involving you in the consequences. That slowpoke may be a young driver just learning to cope with winter road conditions, an elder aware of diminished reaction times, or someone transporting a wedding cake. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Pull over. When it’s safe to do so, pull over and let others go around. That’s not as easy as it sounds on rural roads. When you can’t see the fog line and don’t trust the shoulder, you may have to soldier on until you find a wide spot or intersection where it seems safe to wave around those behind you. Then decrease your speed gradually and use your blinker to signal your intent. If you’re following someone and not eager to lead, it might be your turn anyway. In the dark especially it’s exhausting to lead into driving snow or fog with headlights glaring in the rear-view. An unspoken agreement to take turns is something rural people do to cope with conditions.

Be flexible. Watch the radar and try to avoid the worst conditions, if you can. Sometimes leaving a little early or a little later makes a huge difference in the weather and road conditions you face. 

When you can’t… For years, not driving in horrible conditions wasn’t an option for me. I had to go regardless, to meet contractual obligations and the needs of aging parents. It’s 75 miles to the airport, and all but a dozen are two-lane rural roads. Allowing extra time in bad weather meant I had to leave home before the airline decided whether or not to cancel my flights. Fortunately, on the worst drive of my life only a handful of other drivers were also on the road and nobody was taking chances. I’m willing to bet they all had blankets and other emergency supplies with them, too. 

Those are conditions the local tow operator calls a full-coverage day. He’s not wrong. So in addition to checking your washer fluid and tire tread, now’s a good time to review your auto insurance policy. 

Be safe out there.


Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.

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