Desert Driver in the Snow
January 10, 2009 9:32 AM   Subscribe

Is a desert-dweller crazy to plan to drive between Kansas City, Missouri and Eastern Iowa in February? If I'm not crazy, what do I need to know or be prepared for?

I don't know the area, have limited experience driving in the snow, and will be driving an economy rental car. I’ve driven these distances before, but through the desert in good travel conditions. I’ll be making the trip to West Branch, Iowa in the daytime but was planning to return to Kansas City after dark (one week later). Should I wait until the next morning for my return trip?

What can you tell me about weather/driving conditions during February? How are I-35 and I-80? Google suggests the trip will take just under 5 hours. Is that realistic in the winter, or should I expect much longer? How much longer? Or am I missing some fantastic other way to get between these two destinations?

Finally, bonus points for any local info on West Branch and the surrounding area – I’ll be there for about a week and am wondering what good options there are for dining out during that period, both lunch and dinner.
posted by reader-writer to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total)
The weather could be snowy or icy in Iowa in February. Last night we got ice before four inches of snow in central Iowa and I think other parts of the state received even more snow.

I suggest you bookmark, which is the Iowa Department of Transportation's Travel Information Service. I have directed you to the winter driving map.

Check the local forecast before you leave. has a good weather section of its website.

I don't live near West Branch, so hopefully someone from there can help you with places to eat. Have a safe trip.
posted by snugglebunny at 9:42 AM on January 10, 2009

you should make sure that you get a car with front wheel drive and proper tires (enough tread and if possible all-weather or snow tires) if you're expecting winter conditions. especially make sure the tires aren't worn down by sticking a coin into the profile and seeing how far it sticks out.
posted by krautland at 9:57 AM on January 10, 2009

Its doable. I-80 should be fine that time of year.

West Branch is close to Iowa City. I'd go there for entertainment. I haven been there for many years, but you'll be fine. Have a cell phone, dress warmly and be careful. The thing to remember about snow driving is easy on the brake, easy on the gas.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:58 AM on January 10, 2009

Depends on the weather. Interstates however are normally the first things treated/cleared in case of a storm. Unless you head out into the height of a big snow storm you should be ok.

The precautions of having a fully charged phone, full tank of gas and some handy warm clothes wouldn't hurt either.
posted by mmascolino at 10:02 AM on January 10, 2009

Some winter driving tips from Lots of other such lists around - google "winter driving".

If it snows the day or evening you are to leave, I would definitely stay over and leave in the morning instead. That extra time may be enough for snowplows to get the roads relatively clear, plus the better visibility will make things easier for someone not used to driving in those conditions.

Are you staying at a hotel? Remember that even if the main roads and highways are clear, the parking lot may be snowed in, or the access roads may not be clear yet. Allow extra time.

Some things to keep in the trunk for the trip (or get from the rental place?*): cat litter, a small shovel, windshield scraper, maybe a small broom, extra blanket and socks/gloves/hat.) Also check the windshield wiper fluid - maybe even carry an extra bottle.

*I just realized I've never rented a car in the winter and don't know if rental places will routinely provide an ice scraper, which would be the absolute minimum piece of equipment you'd need.

Good luck on your trip!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:06 AM on January 10, 2009

I've driven through an ice storm on I-70 across Kansas in mid-March. So your weather could be anywhere from very dangerous to perfectly fine.

You won't really be sure about the conditions until the day before. The 10 day forecasts in the midwest are for shit. Just give yourself plenty of travel time and accept that you may have to leave a day early or a day late. I usually double travel times if I'm expecting bad weather, which makes sense. If you usually go 70mph but can only go 35mph because of slush, then it will take you twice as long.

Also, try to bring some winter clothes in the car with you if you're expecting bad weather. Coat, gloves, hat, snow boots, and blanket. If you're really concerned, a couple powerbars and some bottled water is also a good idea. If you slide off the road it could be hours before anyone comes to get you.
posted by sbutler at 10:12 AM on January 10, 2009

What might not be evident to a desert-dweller is that wiper fluid can be poured directly onto frozen windows, which makes them a bit easier to clean off. Start the car and turn on the heater first, though.

The kitty litter can be thrown under tires for traction if you get stuck in a snowy spot that has ice under the tires. And if you're stuck in the snow somewhere and desperately need to pee, kitty litter in an empty cola bottle will soak it up.
posted by dws at 10:17 AM on January 10, 2009

You can't rely on the rental car company ensuring that you have either a scraper or a full tank of windshield washer fluid. Since you won't be too familiar with the car, learn from this guy's error.
posted by carmicha at 10:32 AM on January 10, 2009

Relax, you'll be fine. Unless you're driving in a snowstorm, you won't have any delays. The interstates are cleared quickly and traffic flows freely within hours of a snow.

That said don't drive if there is a snowstorm. The 511ia link in snugglebunny's comment is the same one I use. If the road's pink or red, don't drive. It's not uncommon to see dozens of cars and semis in the ditches and medians. If they had stopped at a hotel for the evening they could have safely carried on the next morning, as snowstorms in Iowa rarely last longer than a day.

West Branch doesn't have much, but it is minutes from Iowa City. Here's a good askme primer on the area.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:52 AM on January 10, 2009

Oh, and as for the actual driving, turn into the skid.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:59 AM on January 10, 2009

Seconding bringing a shovel. This is a must if you will be there for one week. It could snow, or it could not. You could end up stuck and some point, or not. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. List of stuffs to have in the car:

Hat, gloves, shovel, matches, emergency blanket, high-cal food like candy and maybe some powerbars, flashlight.

A hand crank weather radio, hand crank flashlight, sand (some would put this on the mandatory list, especially with a small economy car. I think a shovel is plenty).

The main thing is, as someone else mentioned, you should plan for the possibility that you'll need to leave a day early or late, and that the drive will take 10 hours instead of 5.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 1:10 PM on January 10, 2009

And here's the MO DOT Traveler Info map.

I-35 provided me with one of my scariest drives ever: freezing fog over black ice, and deer coming onto the road to lick at the salt. Joy. If the roads are bad, consider staying over in a motel.

Also, front wheel drive for the win. Saw too many SUVs in the ditch on our last drive down to KCMO.
posted by scruss at 1:19 PM on January 10, 2009

Nthing making sure you get the right car. Antilock breaks are legally required on cars made in America after the year 2000, IIRC, but that does not mean every recent car, or even every recent "American" car will have ABS. In fact, I've heard rental car companies try to get cars without ABS so they can collect insurance and fees for drivers who get in accidents. Make sure ABS is listed as a feature of the car you will get. If you can afford it, also get Electronic Stability Control or whatever the company calls it. You may be the type to scoff at safety features and say that threshold braking separates the men from the boys, but consider a car's computer has a faster reaction time than you and that you can devote that much more attention to steering if you do skid.

On the lot, make sure the car has all-weather or snow tires with a good tread, and check that the cars have good headlights, wipers, and washer fluid. Ask to get this stuff fixed before leaving. If you need to get windshield fluid, if you forgot to check or whatever, go to a auto parts store or a big box store like Target and buy some stuff that promises not to freeze at a low temp. This keeps the windshield from icing up, and it also can help melt snow if it starts sticking to your windshield while you drive.

Also, I've heard people in warm places tend to not understand black ice. Put simply, if the road looks damp and it's been cold, be careful around curves. Black ice makes the road look wet, but it's a thin layer of ice that is extremely slick. Drive slowly and let the more aggressive drivers pass you when in doubt.

Another good idea is to try to stick to main roads, as they're the first to get plowed and salted/sanded, and they tend to be straighter and better designed. Plus, if heaven forbid, you get in an accident or need to stop for whatever reason, the main roads have bigger shoulders and the highway police patrol them should you need help.

As for the question about when to leave, I don't really know the roads, but follow the weather advisories and leave when you seem least likely to get caught in a storm. Also consider how good you are at night driving, and consider that winter weather can reduce your ability to see ahead.
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:54 PM on January 10, 2009

You're not going to have any trouble as long as you check the weather before you leave and follow the advice above if the weather is indeed a problem. Even in the rare circumstance that you do get stuck out in the middle of nowhere, people off the beaten path passing you by will quickly help you out -- and I speak as a Plains dweller who's often been pretty far in the nether regions of the Plains. Don't sweat it.
posted by crapmatic at 2:24 PM on January 10, 2009

to pick up on mccarty.tim's point on ASB and ESP - rent at hertz and you're likely to get a late-model Hyundai Sonata or Ford Focus. both cars are surprisingly nice. the Focus has a bit less oomph than the sonata (yeah, I know what you're thinking but the thing is really quite good) but both are front wheel drive, which makes a HUGE difference in snow and frosty conditions.
posted by krautland at 10:05 AM on January 11, 2009

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