What To Do When Your Car is Stuck in Snow

Learn effective strategies to swiftly get your car unstuck from snow, ensuring you’re never stranded in winter weather.

What to do when your car is stuck in snow

When you’re driving through a (deep)snowy winter wonderland and your car gets stuck, chances are very slim that a nice white-bearded old man in a red velvet suit will pull you out with his reindeer sled shouting hohoho! Don’t count on it, it’s not gonna happen… 

When your car is stuck in the snow, you’ll have to find a way to get your car unstuck from this deep white mess yourself. Here are some tips and tricks that might help:

1. Don’t panic

You’re not in a burning building (we hope), so there’s no need to rush. Stay calm and composed. Panicking hasn’t helped anyone.

2. Assess and Evaluate

Before exiting your car, make sure that it’s safe to do so. Check for other vehicles on the road before opening your car door, because they may not be able to stop for you in time. Get familiar with your surroundings, assess the situation and evaluate your options.

Now that you’re composed and aware of your situation, it’s time for action.

3. Try the Obvious

Before venturing on a physical journey of hauling stuff to get more traction and shoveling till you drop, why not first see if there are obvious roads to success you might have overlooked:

  • Engage 4×4: If your vehicle has 4-wheel drive, check that it is engaged. Although most modern SUV’s automatically engage full traction on all 4 wheels when needed, some old-school cars and trucks have a knob, switch or lever to switch from 2- to 4-wheel drive manually. Check your car owners manual when in doubt.
  • Engage Snow Mode: Many modern cars have a setting called “snow mode”. This electronically allows for limited wheel slip and optimal traction in snow.
  • Turn off traction control: If your vehicle doesn’t have a “snow mode” setting, then turn off traction control. But if you do, you want to be very, very gentle on the throttle. You want your wheels to be able to spin a little trying to get a grip, but not too fast.
  • Select 2nd Gear: Both with automatic and manual gearboxes you can select 2nd from standstill instead of 1st gear. Power buildup will be more gradual in 2nd gear with less spin, allowing for more traction on slippery ground.
  • Straighten your front wheels: It may seem unimportant, but your front wheels need to be positioned in a straight-ahead position to allow for minimal friction resistance when trying to get out of the snow.

4. Front-and-back rocking technique

When you’ve checked all the obvious checkboxes and you’re still unable to get enough traction to get out, the next thing to try is to rock back and forth. 

With Manual Transmission

If your car has a manual transmission, shift your transmission into second gear and gently rev up your engine to around 1500 rpm (depending on your engine’s torque). Now let the throttle slip very gradually until your vehicle starts moving to the point that the wheels will start losing grip again.

Then quickly kick in the throttle pedal, allowing your tires to briefly roll back in their cradles (the indents your tires have made in the snow). 

Now use inertia to your advantage to gain momentum when your car rolls forward again. When it does, immediately repeat the first step: in second gear at 1500 rpm, let the throttle slip to increase the forward movement until your tires start slipping, then immediately kick your throttle down to release power. Make sure to time this right so that the forward movement that is created by your wheel’s traction is strengthened by inertia. If you do it right, every time you rock back and forth, the rocking motion will grow stronger until you are able to roll out of the “cradles”. 

When your tires are out, don’t stop or you might get stuck again. You want to sustain your car’s forward momentum by applying only moderate throttle. Try not to spin your tires too much, don’t floor it! 

Don’t stop until you’re in a safe spot to park where the snow isn’t as deep.  Check your car for damage while removing any caked up snow in your wheel arches or under your car. If there’s no damage, you can shift to second gear, gradually accelerate and continue your journey. If there’s no safe or convenient spot to stop, keep driving to avoid getting stuck again.

With Automatic Transmission

If your vehicle has an automatic transmission, you need to be very careful not to damage your gearbox when trying the back-and-forth technique, because you can’t engage or disengage your clutch like you do with a manual gearbox.

Instead of kicking down your clutch when your traction wheels start slipping, you want to apply maximum brake pressure to try and keep the wheels on the high end of the “cradles” and bring them to a complete stop.

When your wheels have stopped spinning, gently shift in reverse. Release your brake pedal and simultaneously apply moderate throttle when your car rolls back into the cradles to try and use inertia to rock over the highest point of the cradles. If you can’t get over the highest point yet, apply maximum brake pressure at the highest point you can get to, to try and stay there while you shift to forward gear again, and so on…

You may need to practice this technique a while to get the timing right, but in most cases, if executed as described, this technique works very well. By repeating this rocking motion, the depressions or “cradles” your wheels are stuck in, will get larger. This will eventually help to drive out. 

If this technique doesn’t work, move on to the next step.

5. Braking technique

If your vehicle can’t get decent traction because only one tire is spinning and the other isn’t, try braking lightly with your left foot (that’s awkward, we know) while gently pushing down your accelerator pedal with your right foot while in gear. This should slow down the spinning wheel and transfer some power to the other wheel that wasn’t spinning. Together, they should get more traction.

If your vehicle is front-wheel-drive, you can try turning the wheels slightly side to side too, while they are spinning. This might gain more traction also. Before trying this, you want to first check that there aren’t curbs, cars or other obstacles in your path, of course.

Only try this braking method for a few seconds, or your brakes may overheat. 

6. Clear snow

If you’re unable to drive your vehicle out using the rocking or braking technique, you’ll have to get your hands dirty, well… wet and cold in this case… Nope, we don’t like it either…

Exit your car, but first make sure that it’s safe to do so. Again, check for other vehicles on the road before opening your car door, because they may not be able to stop for you in time.

If you don’t have a shovel, look for something convenient to clear snow with. Nope, there’s no app to clear snow with (yet). 

This improvised snow clearing tool should be rigid and have a size between an ipad and a laptop (no, we don’t recommend using those). You can use anything that makes snow removal faster and easier. If you’re in the countryside or in the woods, using a tree branch may work miracles, especially in hard, compact snow. 

If you don’t have anything you can use, you’ll have to do it by hand. You want to wear gloves or wrap your hands in anything you have, like a plastic bag or a towel, to prevent them from getting cold and numb. 

You can use an ice scraper or something sharp like a screw driver or a wrench from your toolbox to break up compacted snow or ice.

Start by removing as much snow as you can from in front and behind of your tires to free them. If your car’s underside is stuck in the snow, you’ll have to try and clear that too. Don’t put your body under your vehicle when clearing snow though, or it may come down on you and crush you!

When you’re done, try to drive out in second gear or use the front-and-back rocking technique again. But before you start your car, first check that your exhaust isn’t clogged with snow.

If your tires still can’t get enough traction, continue to the next step.

7. Add Traction

If your tires are still spinning and they can’t get grip, you can try putting something under your tires to increase friction. 

If you’re in the countryside or in a wooded area and there are dry patches of ground under trees for example, you could look for leafs, pine needles, gravel, sand or coarse dirt to shove under your traction tires. Small pine branches work great too. You want to be very gentle on the accelerator pedal when you try to drive out in second gear with stuff lodged under your tires, because too much wheel spin might launch that stuff violently and damage your car. 

The ultimate way to get a grip though, are traction boards. These semi-flexible boards can be shoved under your traction wheels for instant grip and most can be used as an emergency shovel too. A must-have if you live in a rural area with frequent snowfall or even for those living in urban areas up north.

8. Lower tire pressure

The last resort is to lower your tire pressure to the point that they start bulging. Bulging tires have a wider contact surface which in turn increases friction. 

This is only an option if you have a car tire inflator with you or there’s a service station nearby to normalize your tire pressure afterwards. Driving on underinflated tires is unsafe and it could also damage your tires if you drive too far.

9. Ask or call for help

If all your efforts were to no avail, you’ll have to ask or call for help to push or tow you out.

You can call a tow truck; Roadside assistance might even cover it. If you’re not covered, you can call Honk For Help. They will help you out 24/7.

Whatever you do, don’t leave your vehicle trying to venture out for help in a snowstorm. Your car is your best chance to wait out a storm. It protects you against wind and snow and you’ll be easy to find for a tow truck or the emergency services.

If you’re stuck in the middle of a snowstorm, it might be a long wait though. Run your engine just enough to stay warm but you want to conserve your fuel in case it takes much longer than expected for help to arrive. Make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of snow before starting your engine.

Be prepared 

Be prepared for future incidents whenever there’s a chance that the winter weather will take a turn for the worse and consider winter tires, tire chains, tire socks or traction boards. Always carry emergency supplies in your car, including a collapsible snow shovel, thick fleece blankets, some protein bars, water or a large thermos of hot coffee, reusable heat packs and an emergency flashlight.

Conclusion

Getting stuck in the snow can be a frustrating experience, but with these tips and techniques you can increase your chances of successfully freeing your vehicle. Remember to stay calm, assess the situation, and to use the tools and techniques at your disposal. Seek professional assistance if needed and prioritize safety. 

Be safe out there!

Happy cruisin’!

Information provided is for informational purposes and may not apply to all situations. Consult your car owner’s manual and always follow your car manufacturer’s instructions.

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