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Car Stuck in the Snow? Here’s How to Get Out

Chris Kaiser

It’s the classic winter driving challenge, what to do when your car is stuck in snow? We’ve got the answers to keep you moving all winter long. 

Getting Unstuck, the Easy Way

With winter comes snow, sometimes a lot of snow. And whether it’s slipping off into a ditch or failing to navigate that drift at the end of our own driveway, if you live where it snows over the winter, you’ve probably gotten your car stuck. Waves of anger and self-recrimination may come flooding over you in that moment, but I’m here to tell you don’t despair, don’t throw a fit (like I do), and don’t call a tow truck, at least not yet. With just a couple tricks up your sleeve, you can get your self unstuck and on your merry way in no time. Here’s how.

Step 1: Assess the Situation

Looking at the front of car stuck in deep snow
Looking at the front of car stuck in deep snow

The first thing to do when you’re stuck is to stop (and stop swearing) and assess the situation. Make sure to watch for traffic as trucks and snowplows will keep rolling even if you’re immobilized, so be aware of your surroundings. Next, look to see which tires are stuck and where you’re losing traction. Identify whether your vehicle is front-wheel or rear-wheel drive. If you’re losing traction, it’s the driving wheels that need your attention in step two.

Step 2: Dig Out Tires

Shoveling snow tires from snow
Shoveling snow tires from snow

Once you have identified where you’re losing traction, start digging. Hopefully you’ve included a small shovel in your car’s winter survival kit. Be sure to dig on both sides of your tires, not just the direction you’re wanting to go. Make sure to clear out the wheel wells while you’re at it so there’s not snow packed in there to affect your tires. (You’ll know if snow is packed in there if you get going and feel a funny wobble from your steering wheel.)

Step 3: Dig Out Exhaust and Underside

Shoveling snow away exhaust and under car
Shoveling snow away exhaust and under car

Make sure to also dig out the exhaust in the rear. In deep snow this can get obstructed, increasing the risk of carbon monoxide poising. Also make sure you’re not high centered; that is, hung up on a drift of snow under your car. If that’s the case, you can get your tires dug out and achieve traction and still go nowhere. Check the underside and dig out snow as needed.

Step 4: Start Rockin’

Man looking out window while rocking car
Man looking out window while rocking car

Now you should be ready to start extricating your car. We recommend doing this with the window open if possible so you can hear if your tires lose traction and start spinning. With your wheels straight, put the car in drive and try rolling forward. If that alone doesn’t get you out, shift into reverse and go in the opposite direction. Carefully work back and forth, shifting only once RPMs go down and using neutral as a buffer between drive and reverse. Be gentle with this process because repeated hard shifts like this can damage your transmission.

Step 5: Improve Your Traction

Placing wood plank under wheel - 4DIYers on Youtube
Placing wood plank under wheel - 4DIYers on Youtube

If the rocking method doesn’t finish the job, it’s probably time to improve your traction. You can use sand, kitty litter, cardboard, or, in a pinch, even your floormats (using the underside rubber against the tire). You can also use salt or ice-melt, but be conservative here as spraying a lot of salt on your car isn’t great for its paint job.

Step 6: Lose Some Air In Those Tires

Airing down the tires in the snow - Okanagan Overland on Youtube
Airing down the tires in the snow - Okanagan Overland on Youtube

Another way you can improve traction is to lower your tire pressure to expand the contact patch, just like Jeep owners do when they’re rock crawling. Just remember to fill them back up as soon as you’re unstuck.

Step 7: Call Your Friends

Friends pushing stuck car
Friends pushing stuck car

After all, what are friends for? Answer: Consoling you through a breakup, helping you move, and getting you unstuck when a snow drift jumps out of the ditch to swallow your Civic. Whether it’s just a gentle push or a pickup and a tow rope, don’t be afraid to call on your buddies for assistance. Just know you’ll have to live with a little ribbing about it all later. (Also, if you do end up trying the DIY towing method, make sure to attach the rope or chain to something sturdy like the frame. You don’t want to lose your bumper and still be stuck in the snow. Your friends will never let you live that down.)

Step 8: Know When You’re Beat

Tow truck driving in the snow
Tow truck driving in the snow

If your friends all drive Priuses and the snow is just too deep, know when to call in the professionals and get a proper tow. Sometimes all your best efforts will be for naught when your car is stuck in the snow during Mother Nature’s meanest season, and that’s okay (except for the towing fees, of course).

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Stay safe this winter and remember, go slow, keep out of the drifts, and carry a shovel in your trunk.

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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