Is taking a roadtrip through the midwest over a couple weeks during the winter (around the holidays) a horrible idea?
June 23, 2010 11:30 AM   Subscribe

Is taking a roadtrip through the midwest over a couple weeks during the winter (around the holidays) a horrible idea? Tentative idea is Detroit to Tulsa via a bunch of stops to see things/cities/people. Tentative route - Detroit to Fargo via I-94 (via Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul), Fargo to Kansas City via I-29 (via S. Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska) and then down to Tulsa.

Are there any parts of this trip that would be totally dangerous/unadvisable for a winter road trip? Obviously some of these areas experience a lot of snow and cold temps, but how bad is the driving in late December/early January? Any advice or tips? Thanks!
posted by emily37 to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I did a driving tour of Alaska in the winter. The only dangerous thing would be snow. And that can not be predicted.

As long as you are flexible, able to change your route for snow, and also able to wait out a day our two if you get snowed in - then, go for it. Places that experience lots of snow are very good at clearing major highways quickly after a storm.

But, do not put yourself in situation where you might be forced to drive in dangerous snow storm.

(And pack some long johns, cause it will be cold)
posted by Flood at 11:33 AM on June 23, 2010

I don't think it's prohibitive to travel "up nort" in the winter but don't be deceived by the notion that "big" highways are safer than byroads. I drive from Mpls/St. Paul to Milwaukee about 1x/month and in winter it can get nasty when it snows. There's either slow traffic even in the middle-of-nowhere WI... or no traffic but semis who drive by and drench your car in sleet. Keep a shovel, blankets and cheap clay cat litter (for road traction) in your trunk in case you get stuck. Maybe protein bars as well if you're really pessimistic... I don't see any issues though. Sounds like fun!
posted by ShadePlant at 11:45 AM on June 23, 2010

By "big" highways I meant to specify I-94, etc.
posted by ShadePlant at 11:46 AM on June 23, 2010

If you're taking the interstates the whole way, you reall only have to worry about actually driving during precipitation (either snow or freezing rain.) In that part of the US, interstates are plowed and/or salted fairly quickly after a snowstorm, there aren't that many hills for you to lose traction on, and the roads are pretty straight.

But yeah, you'll need to be flexible about staying a day late or leaving a day early at each of your destinations if it looks like a storm is coming in. You might also run into situations where you'll want to add mileage to your trip in order to avoid the worst of the weather — for example, if there's going to be a big storm in Wisconsin, you might want to reroute through Iowa on your way from Chicago to Fargo. And pack a cold-weather emergency kit in the trunk, just in case.

Finally, keep in mind that the days are short in the northern states that time of year; sunrise and sunset in Fargo on December 21 are 8.5 hours apart. If you want to avoid night driving (and it's probably best to keep it to a minimum during that time of year), this will affect how far you can get in a day.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:50 AM on June 23, 2010

I'm in Duluth, which is at least in the general neck of the woods for part of your trip. Late December is usually when we get our first blast of serious cold (-10/-20), lasting a few days to a week. Typically not a huge amount of snow around that time, but I can imagine West Mn and the Dakotas would be different, and the snow they do get gets blown about pretty good.

Is it dangerous? Well, it is a little bit more dangerous than driving in the summer, but there are some precautions. Make sure you have good tires (no, seriously, that makes a BIG difference), make sure your car is in good condition, pack an emergency kit, including a shovel and some salt/sand, drive for the conditions and not the speed limit. The interstate heading south from Fargo can be pretty quiet at times, and there are not as many gas stations as you might hope/expect so take advantage when you can.
posted by edgeways at 11:52 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I often try to time my long-distance driving for very cold days in the winter, when it's "too cold to snow." (Which, I know, it's technically never too cold to snow, but it's definitely "too cold for there to be enough moisture in the air to screw up my driving"!)

My brother who does a fair amount of solo winter long-distance driving keeps a couple MREs with the chemical heaters in his car. He once got blizzarded off the highway and was stranded in his car for a few hours. The heater not only gave him hot food, but the heat from the heater kept the car warm for a good 3 hours, which was good since the car was off. He would have been fine either way but he always carries MREs with heaters now, just in case.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:29 PM on June 23, 2010

I don't want to discourage you, but yes, it is kind of a big deal. I live just a few miles from I-29 in South Dakota. Last winter it was frequently closed due to weather. That's closed as in, you are breaking the law if you somehow find your way onto the interstate. It's no casual matter driving in this area, especially during that part of winter. We have extremely high winds in the Dakotas throughout the year and when you combine that with snow, you get pretty much impassable roads. The interstates are often the worst because they are so wide and out in the open. If you become stranded, it can turn into a very serious situation.

It's not impossible, but you absolutely must be flexible with your plans. It would not surprise me if you got stranded in Fargo for two or three days, for instance. You must also be careful with your travels. Keep up on weather reports, road conditions and don't take any risks. Carry a winter weather survival kit. Keep a cell phone with you and charged at all times. If you aren't used to driving on snow, it's going to be even harder. I grew up here and driving in winter is still scary and challenging on a regular basis.
posted by bristolcat at 1:10 PM on June 23, 2010

My wife and I did a road trip from Chicago to western Massachusetts and back via NYC one way and then across 90 on the way back around New Year's this year.

The drive back should have been a 12 hour drive, but we pushed through a lot of snow coming off of Lake Erie and the drive ended up being 20 hours.

We should have stopped for the night but never did, especially judging by the number of cars that had spun off the road.

So, my advice:

1. Have a weather radio.
2. Always have half a tank of gas.
3. Have detailed maps of the area. When 90 was shut down because of snow we ended up on back roads of Erie, PA and found our way by guesswork.
4. Plan enough time and money to stay at a hotel if weather gets really, really bad.

But mostly just be adventurous and cautious at the same time and you'll have fun.
posted by ztdavis at 1:28 PM on June 23, 2010

Again, it will totally depend on the weather. We had an estimated 300+ people stranded overnight on a 100 mile stretch of US-287 through Wichita Falls, Texas (yes, I said Texas) this past Christmas Eve due to a freak blizzard. It was supposed to snow 1-2 inches and before it was all done, it was about 10-12 inches. Four big rigs piled up and next thing you know, we have a 100 mile traffic jam. Take blankets, water, and snacks and keep the car at least half-full of gas.
posted by tamitang at 3:35 PM on June 23, 2010

What edgeways said. I'm also in Duluth, and we drive all winter here. Decent tires are key. Except in a pretty major storm, you're unlikely to have any trouble driving forward in a straight line. You are far more likely to have trouble stopping. Therefore, it's important to adjust your speed for the conditions, try to anticipate a few seconds ahead, and leave some extra space between you and the car in front of you. Especially on the freeway, it can be slippery and you won't even know it until you hit your brakes. On ice, you get to brake or steer. Not both at the same time. And either one will be less effective than usual. But, definitely, go on your trip. Sounds like the nature of your trip is such that if you do have to hole up someplace and wait it out for a day or two, it won't be a huge problem. It's much more likely that you'll be moving, but at a rate slower than the posted speed limit.
posted by LowellLarson at 3:36 PM on June 23, 2010

I think the worst part of the trip will be the St Paul to Fargo, Fargo to Omaha legs. It gets pretty desolate out there, as Bristolcat says.

You may want to consider doing St Paul, south to Des Moines and then Kansas City on I-35 instead. It is a more traveled road, and the weather is somewhat better.
posted by gus at 5:58 PM on June 23, 2010

Fargo resident here: During precipitation is the worst of it. If there's a good chance of driving into snow, it is much better to stop and wait it out. I'm talking SNOW, not fluffy flakes drifting through your headlights. Prepare a winter survival kit, learn what to do if yout get stuck or go off the road, but above all watch the weather. We drive I-94 from Fargo to Milwaukee all year 'round, and there's a stretch of time from December to March when we've been in some really sketchy road-quality times when we probably shouldn't have even been out on the roads. Minnesota is pretty good about keeping roads clear, but Wisconsin doesn't clear roads much at night, and west of St Cloud they close interstates completely because there's so much space between safe refuge that it is genuinely life-risking to continue driving.

Also, more dangerous than just driving in snow is driving in snow with other cars and semis all trying to share the same road. It's easy enough to drive as slow as you're comfortable, but that can pose a danger due to the semi driver cruising along twice as fast as you because he weighs 50x as much. You might be a nice, safe winter driver, but that one crazy guy in a beat-up Econoline who thinks he can still drive the speed limit in 6" of slush is going to mess up somebody's day pretty quickly.

I'm not completely trying to scare you, though. On clear roads, winter driving isn't so bad. During the day, even with recent snow, states out this way have all pretty much figured out how to keep roads clear and safe. It's quite rare to be stuck more than 10-12 hours due to roads, and if you're going to be stranded for more than a day you usually have a day or two notice, because the weathermen can usually see a storm that big coming a long ways off. Last Christmas we left for Milwaukee 12 hours early, to stay ahead of a storm, and we had beautiful roads. People 2 or 3 hours behind us got locked out of the highways and stranded at truck stops until the next day. Plan flexibly, and be prepared to weigh the options for leaving early to being stranded a while. Maybe have alternate routes -- switch to I-90 or I-35 to avoid storm if it looks bad on the road ahead.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:42 PM on June 23, 2010

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