How to drive cross country - safely - in the winter?
November 24, 2013 1:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm driving from DC to Washington State in a few weeks, and will take the northern route (OH, IL, IA, SD, MT, ID, WA). I'm concerned about wintry weather, and want to take precautions for a safe drive. What are some best steps or considerations to get there safely? What worked well for you in similar circumstances?

I have a new Subaru Outback that will be weighed down a bit, but nothing will be hitched to the car.

I'll have company, and we will alternate driving. We'll also pack an emergency kit for the car and one for us with plenty of water, food, blankets, etc. We'll have a 50-lb dog with us too, and all of the dog's accouterments.

But...I just don't know what to expect and how to plan for this trip. It's a bit daunting/scary, honestly.

I'd welcome your experiences and advice.

For example, I'm getting mixed messages about tires/chains: how some cars (like Subaru) don't have clearance for chains, how some state departments of transportation require chains but others don't. Is there a good resource to help sort some of this out?

Other details: the car will go to a mechanic a week or so before the trip, we have (flexible) hotel reservations along the way and family members know of our itinerary. I have budgeted some money for special gear or equipment for the trip as needed. I don't have a AAA membership, as my car insurance offers roadside assistance (looking into the caliber of it this week).

What else should be considered?
posted by LittleFuzzy to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You car probably came equipped with all-season tires. Dedicated snow tires are better (I know, it's new, the tires have full tread, etc. But it does make a difference).

Also, places that get lots of snow are good at keeping the roads passable, and at clearing up after a storm; however, they whether for budgetary or logistical reasons, they don't always get out in front of a storm (this may be more of a problem in the Northeast as far as I know). If you have the misfortune to cross paths with a major blizzard, try to sit it out, or to sit out the worst of it.
posted by mr vino at 1:24 PM on November 24, 2013

Best answer: Make sure you have kitty litter, an ice scraper, a small snow shovel, and at least one 12x12 square of reflective material. Also store the water in small bottles, not gallons - it freezes overnight. Make sure everyone has enough gloves that you can get one soaking wet with sweat and still have another clean pair - you should have one set that's absorbent and one set that's for handling snow. Similarly, you should have both reflecting and plastic type blankets and the kind that absorb heat - snow, when it melts, becomes water that leeches the heat right out of you.

Get yourself at least one map of each state - that's so when there's a horrible accident on I-70 or I-80 that takes out the interstate, you can figure out where you need to go without relying on the detour signs. I have yet to make a single cross-country trip without encountering at least one baffling detour, and I now refuse to go on another one sans Garmin. This BTW is the other great thing about being a part of AAA - free maps.

Visit the highway department websites for each state - this is the one for Ohio - and note things like their individual emergency numbers. Some of us have websites that show the highway conditions live; this is very handy to look at in the morning before you leave the hotel. Some cities also have websites that discuss major traffic issues - if you're going through Columbus instead of Cleveland, take note that the 670/71 stuff should be wrapped up by the time you get here (I haven't driven through to be sure it's actually all done.)

The trucking industry is the best place to find resources going to all the different chain laws, etc. - be careful, though, since that's geared towards folks driving, well, trucks (that is, be sure to read attentively; chain laws are pretty straightforward, but some other things aren't.)

Oh, and I would seriously consider doing the further-south routes altogether if the weather gets really bad. I'd rather spend more money and time to do that than get stuck in Montana, mostly because the highway goes through the middle of absolutely nothing at all.

Trying to think of what else... hmm. Get non-sticky emergency food. Even highly preserved and airy stuff, like Rice Krispies Treats, gets hard as a rock when it's cold enough. Hard candy is great as long as it never got hot enough to melt, but it does get brittle. I'm trying to think of something other than crackers and beef jerky that I've never once had a problem or surprise with, and nothing comes to mind. But lots of snacks work well frozen - just not necessarily as you expected.
posted by SMPA at 1:29 PM on November 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: No advice on chains, but I know here in the Gorge there's quite a few people that run studs on their Subarus when the weather gets right for it. (Since winter can be hit and miss, the norm is to have the studs on a second set of rims, making for a quick swap. Do it yourself for free, or Les Schwab will swap their tires for free, if you want to wait a bit.

Thing is, you may or may not run in to conditions where you'd need them. While some passes may be "carry chains", in practice, most are "traction devices required" at their worst, and studs count for that.

Honestly, the biggest problem we see around here come in two flavors:
1) The person thinks, because they have a Subaru (or selected other SUVs) they can drive the same way and at the same speeds as they would with no snow or ice on the ground. And they end up in the ditch.
2) The person is not familiar with or is overconfident driving in the snow, so they do the same thing: end up in the ditch.

That said, have a good conversation between you and your driving partner about what kind of driving you are each comfortable with, where the expectations are of "when to call it a day and wait for better weather tomorrow", and most of all, to just SLOW DOWN.

And I mean it on the slow down part. We lost two family members on black ice in Montana in early October. Slowing down and driving appropriately for the weather is the most important piece of all.
posted by stormyteal at 1:32 PM on November 24, 2013

Do you have snow tires on the car? I know you don't need them in DC, but if you're staying in Washington, you might want them anyway.

The big lesson is to let the weather tell you what to do. You might go the whole way with only a dusting of snow, or you might have to stop for two days until a big storm passes. It's easy to think, oh, I need to be in Spokane by tomorrow because already have a reservation, but that's false "momentum thinking." Every winter in Ohio we saw SUVs off the side of the highway or even flipped because they thought they needed to be on the road. The AWD doesn't help a bit in highway snow, because all cars are all-wheel brake. Rain will double your stopping distance, snow or ice can quadruple it.
posted by wnissen at 1:34 PM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The big lesson is to let the weather tell you what to do.

This is the most important message. Drive when it's hospitable, don't drive when it's not, and you'll have a much nicer time getting there.
posted by kiltedtaco at 1:46 PM on November 24, 2013

Best answer: Be prepared for the trip to take longer than you expect. I've twice been on this route and had the highways shut down due to winter weather, both times requiring that I get off the road and go stay [somewhere] for at least a night. For a trip like this, I'd budget at least two extra nights, just in case.

Keep a bag with you in the car that contains, at a minimum, any important medication, money, ID, clean underwear, and an extra shirt. If you have a small, easily carried bag that you can fit a clean pair of sweats into, etc, do that. In the event that you end up having to leave the road, this means you can go into a hotel without having to first unpack the whole car. It also means that in the event that Something Bad happens, you can pick up the bag and start walking/hop in a cop car and not be freaking out about not having your inhaler or whatever.

Once you get past Iowa, start stopping for gas any time you see a gas station and have under about half a tank. Gas stations get fewer and further between out there, and some exits don't have 24 hour stations--you don't want to find out the hard way that the exit you'd planned at gassing up at is one of them.

It's not actually a bad drive, and you probably won't need any of this advice, but better safe than sorry.
posted by MeghanC at 1:48 PM on November 24, 2013

I did this route in reverse (Portland to New York) five years ago at Christmas. We were advised to go the northern route because it's colder and dryer. Sure enough it was true. We had almost no snow on the ground or road the whole way and the driving was very safe and we made good time. The other good thing is they have no problem salting the road in the Midwest which is a great thing for having non slick roads. All the stuff above is good advice "just in case."
posted by Piano Raptor at 2:10 PM on November 24, 2013

I don't think you actually need any special equipment at all, other than a credit card and a few extra days, as long as you're sticking to the interstate highway system. The interstates are the best maintained roads in the country and either they are fine or there's a major weather event ongoing - and if that's the case, you need to be holed up in a motel until they're fine again. Just give yourself plenty of time and be smart about taking the weather into account.
posted by something something at 2:21 PM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pack some beef jerky.
posted by oceanjesse at 2:22 PM on November 24, 2013

Best answer: Don't get too caught up in worst-case scenarios. I've driven around quite a bit and the only tools I've used on a cross-country drive are a pair of sheers (to cut off a torn bit of my undercarriage's cover on the road, when it got snagged on a tire tread I had to run over), and my phone. There are also small toolboxes that you can keep in your car, if you would like the flexibility to do some repairs yourself. If you run into major trouble or are worried about how your car is doing on the way, the towns on a major interstate tend to have WalMarts and other places that can look at your car.

Other tools I like to have in the car just in case:
-- A window breaker/seatbelt cutter in the car, in case of an accident. The LifeHammer is an example.

-- An all hazards alert weather radio, to keep from getting blindsided by a weather emergency.

If you're worried about this, though, you don't *have* to take the Northern route (I personally wouldn't). I've driven across the country between DC and the West Coast a few times, and I-40 is really not a bad drive -- very fast, very well-maintained roads, easy to get to from DC, and it'll take you all the way to the West Coast, where you won't have to worry anymore about weather issues. That route is slightly more roundabout but it might end up being more relaxed and faster.
posted by rue72 at 3:07 PM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've driven that route many times. Keep aware that at highways speeds you can drive into very different conditions quickly - the eastern sides of Montana and Washington are basically deserts, and may be cold, but have no snow on the roads. Then you hit the mountains and things can get wacky.
Also, take some blankets, we froze crossing SD one January, a very strong cold wind was blowing and the heater just couldn't keep up.
posted by 445supermag at 3:50 PM on November 24, 2013

Mostly--check the weather every day. Weather reports these days are pretty reliable. If they're calling for winter storms and saying stay off the roads, stay off the roads. If they're not, keep moving. Be patient. Don't let yourself get rushed. Don't plan stuff so that if you're delayed just a little you're going to miss Christmas dinner, or whatever. If you've got time to spare, you'll be less likely to anything silly. If things start looking gross, slow down. It doesn't matter if other people are still driving faster, if you start feeling uncomfortable, slow down. If you can keep checking in on the weather, if you start seeing signs that it's just going to get worse ahead, get off the highway and find a motel.

I'm in northern Ohio, and most winter accidents are people who are in a rush to get somewhere when the roads are icy. I have driven in some of our worst storms of the last decade and gotten where I was going just fine, it just required a certain tolerance to going 5mph for a chunk of it.
posted by Sequence at 6:45 PM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I drove this exact route two years ago-- also moving from DC to Washington state with two loaded cars in November. It wasn't any trouble. Be aware of the tendency in eastern states to have tolls on the highway-- don't drive through them or you will get a bigger ticket in the mail in a few weeks. Since Subarus already have all-wheel drive, you won't need chains unless you are going to Seattle, and then only in the last hour of your trip through Snoqualmie pass on I-80, and even then maybe not. Check the Washington State DOT-- they have a website permanently devoted to the Pass. The rest of that route is flat enough that you probably won't need them. If I recall, we drove eight to ten hours per day, and the late November itinerary was something like this:
1. Day One-- Depart Alexandria VA, overnight in Sandusky Ohio. It was winter so we didn't investigate the world's largest cluster of roller coasters, but you might want to.
2. Day Two-- Sandusky Ohio to Austin, Minnesota (we probably could have gone further, but we wanted to see the factory where SPAM is made. It is awesome.)
3. Day Three-- Minnesota to Williston, North Dakota. There is an albino buffalo there, and a log cabin where Louis L'Amour wrote many of his early books.
4. Day Four-- North Dakota to Big Timber, Montana. We were tired and didn't do any tourist stuff.
5. Montanna to Spokane, Washington. Just a few hours, but we had family there. We stayed a few days.
6. Spokane to Seattle. Six hours, more or less. Like I said, the only place you might need chains is in the last hour going into Seattle.
That's about all I remember being noteworthy about that trip. By the way, the northern route you have chosen is much prettier, flatter and easy to drive than the middle section of the country. Kansas and Nebraska appear to be really really flat, and the mountains of Colorado are rough to drive through. You made the right choice. Lots of good advice in the other responses, if you do even half of it you should be fine. Memail me if you have any other specific questions. Have a safe trip!
posted by seasparrow at 7:03 PM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know you are not planning to go through North Dakota, but I wanted to just strongly caution against going through Williston or north-eastern North Dakota in general. Due to the oil boom, that area has trashed highways (thanks to both heavier and more frequent loads than the roads were ever built to handle and no local budget for repairing them) and Highway 2 is way too desolate for a winter trip like this.

If for some reason you do end up in North Dakota (swinging wide of a storm, for example) I'd strongly recommend just taking I-94 and following the recommendations of the state road condition map very carefully. I mention North Dakota only because I road-tripped my way down the country this spring and ended up spending a night in Wyoming (a state I hadn't even planned to be in, let alone overnight in) thanks to storms. So you just never know.

Also, of the states you mentioned I've driven the relevant portions of SD and MT and maybe ID depending on your route. South Dakota and Montana are especially desolate and isolated even on the main highways (my experiences were one trip in summer, one in spring). Please heed the warnings about gas stations carefully.

In fact, where I lived in ND the general recommendation was to simply not let your gas tank go below half tank (I believe due to freezing concerns but the isolation was a factor, too). It's not always possible on a road trip, but I do recommend to the extent that it is possible. It's a huge peace of mind thing.

(The worst part about Idaho is the mountains. They're difficult to get up and no fun to slide down. Be prepared to drive in the slow lane--or to let people pass you on more isolated stretches--and know how to drive in lower gears).

Finally, definitely investigate your roadside assistance. The nice thing about AAA (besides the free maps, and yes, the Triptiks are awesome for roadtrips) is that they contract local mechanics to work just about everywhere. This includes really isolated corners of the country, which your insurance may not cover.
posted by librarylis at 9:11 PM on November 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Like someone above said, pack a ton of kitty litter in your trunk/hatch. It will help weigh you down for better traction/lower center of gravity and if you go off the road, the litter can be used to help you get some traction on your tires.

Safe travels.
posted by Fister Roboto at 9:46 PM on November 24, 2013

Best answer: I have driven from the west coast to the midwest and back several (five) times in the middle of winter. I drove a Honda civic with no special extras, I did carry chains in my truck, but I did not invest in studded tires. I took the northern route most of those times and only hit ice once. I was in South Dakota and went over a patch of black ice, felt the car lose traction. I tapped on my brakes until I could feel the tires get a grip, then I pulled over on the side of the road until my blood pressure returned to normal. I drove a little slower after that, but otherwise no big deal. In all honesty since you will be on I-90 for most of the trip the roads will be surprisingly clear. Boring as all hell, but clear. I got AAA guidebooks the first time I made the trip, and then never used them again. They're nice if you want to scout ahead for a hotel, but otherwise I didn't find them terribly useful. If you own a GPS for your car then you will be just fine.

Things I reccomend:

-Do carry a set of chains and make sure you know how to attach them correctly
(Odds are you probably won't need them, but once you get midway through Montana there are more hills, and as noted above Idaho is full of terrain change)
-Once you hit South Dakota start paying attention to gas stations, top off whenever you stop. Gas stations will start becoming few and far between.
-I highly recommend audiobooks to listen to, they're awesome for long trips.
-The hardest stretch is from the end of Illinois to the middle of Montana, it's mostly flat and there's not a whole lot to look at on the side of road. It's bare as far as the eye can see.
-Take breaks whenever you feel like it, it helps you to stay focused and recharge a bit. Anytime you stop get out of the car and walk around for a few minutes, you'll feel so much better.
-You didn't mention if you were driving straight through or staying in hotels at night. If you can afford it, I'd say stay in hotels. It's nice to have a bed to collapse in after a long day of driving. Also, the roads are icier at night.
-Drive at whatever speed you feel safe at, seriously.
-Gentle taps on the brakes if you feel yourself losing traction.
-Have fun, be prepared, don't worry. You'll do great and have fun along the way!
posted by carnivoregiraffe at 1:01 AM on November 25, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the many helpful recommendations. There are too many to keep marking as best.

We are starting to rethink our route, given challenging conditions in some spots (Montana). We are considering this slightly more southerly route:

Washington, DC
Columbus, OH
St. Louis, MO
Omaha, NE
Ft Collins, CO
Salt Lake City, UT
Boise, ID
Kennewick, WA (or someplace else in WA)
Seattle, WA

It looks like 95% of the valuable advice still applies given this potential re-routing, so that's great. If there are other suggestions based on the change, those are welcome too. Ideas about cross country driving still welcomed, natch.

Again, thank you! This has been profoundly helpful.
posted by LittleFuzzy at 7:01 AM on November 25, 2013

LittleFuzzy: "We'll have a 50-lb dog with us too, and all of the dog's accouterments."

Most importantly, get your dog chipped before you go, and be sure the chip company has your current information, especially the mobile phone numbers where you can be contacted while on the trip.

Using string clear tape, tape your contact info for the trip on to his/her collar. If you're going to be staying with anyone for the night, include their info too.

Schedule potty breaks for the dog. In my experience in the Midwest, rest areas aren't near population centers. So if your dog gets loose from you at one, you're going to be chasing him on the highway, or out in some impassable muddy old corn field. Safer, imo, to drive a few minutes into a town, and find a park or some green space away from the scary roar of traffic.

ALWAYS ALWAYS keep him on a lead when he is not actually locked in the car, even if he's never in the history of ever given any indication of bolting from you. Why take the chance that he'll decide to chase a rabbit or another dog while you're in a field in the middle of nowhere? When I transport dogs that aren't crated, I tie the end of their lead to my seat or the door handle, just in case I forget and open the door. Just be careful they can't choke themselves.

Take your dog's vet records with you, or at least have his vet's contact info handy in case something comes up.

Some ideas for finding lost dogs here: Lost Dogs Illinois. Maybe look over some of their tips for finding a lost dog, so that you have some ideas or a basic plan of what to do in advance should the unthinkable happen.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 1:36 PM on November 25, 2013

Something else I just remembered: Have current pics of your dog handy. Take pictures from a variety of angles, and be sure they show any unique markings. If he's getting a special cut before the trip, take the pics after he's groomed. Print a handful so you can give them out should you need to mount a search.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:59 PM on November 25, 2013

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