Getting your car unstuck in the winter?
December 7, 2007 8:55 AM   Subscribe

What are your best tricks for getting your car unstuck from snow on the side of the street?

After straining both my arms getting my car unstuck, I figured there's got to be a better way... So how do you do it? Old Kitty Litter? Cardboard? Blow torch or pry bar?
posted by drezdn to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've used cardboard with success.
posted by infinityjinx at 8:57 AM on December 7, 2007

Get additional traction by putting the floormats from the car under the tires. Benefit over cardboard is that you always have them with you in the car.
posted by azlondon at 8:58 AM on December 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

I use salt pellets, normally used for water softeners. I'll throw a couple of handfuls around each tire, and along the path I intend to drive on, wait about a half hour, then pull out slowly. The pellets melt the snow and ice a bit, but also give good grip, since they don't dissolve very quickly. At $5 for 40 pounds, it's a cheap solution, too.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:02 AM on December 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Let some air out of the tires and you'll get a bit more contact with the ground. Don't spin your tires, just enough to get those floormats underneath them.

Reinflate tires asap.
posted by idiotfactory at 9:05 AM on December 7, 2007

I have decided that I will always carry a shovel/spade in the car. I am off to Bass Pro Mills or some sort of army surplus shop to get one of those cool folding ones so it fits nicer. Also, I am going to carry a pot of driveway salt in the boot - for $5 it's daft not to. That came in very, very handy last night when my just two wheels being locked wasn't enough to stop my car sliding down the hill last night after I wanted to park it...

When I got stuck the other day I put branches and sticks under the wheels - worked a treat. Also, turning the wheel slowly lock to lock while trying to get it moving helps.

(floor mats will maybe get destroyed by a spinning wheel, mind you. Only use disposable rubber cheapies from the motor factors, not the proper ones).
posted by Brockles at 9:05 AM on December 7, 2007

The best way, and if it's practical, is to round up 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 people and just push the thing out.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 9:07 AM on December 7, 2007

In addition to salt, kitty litter, and cardboard (and some careful scraping/shoveling of the ice and snow around the tires), a couple of friends - or a couple of random guys walking down the street - should get behind the car and push while you sit behind the wheel. The trick is to rock the car, back and forth, while the accelerator is gently engaged - give it a little more gas at the "top" of a forward push when you can feel it start to break free. Do not gun the engine, and do not spin the tires - you'll just make it worse.
posted by rtha at 9:08 AM on December 7, 2007

I say stop abusing your tiny T-rex arms and try MrMoonPie's suggestion of salt pellets - they work like a charm. They make everything melty.
posted by iconomy at 9:09 AM on December 7, 2007

Carpet remnants are free from carpet stores and work miracles when trying to extricate yourself from snowbanks. Cat sand works well, too, but is kind of an odd thing to carry around.

Put weight over the drive wheels (have a friend sit on the bumper, put a cinder block in the trunk, whatever), let some air out of your tires, put carpet down and slowly hit the gas. Always worked for me.

The kindness of passers-by cannot be underestimated, either.
posted by Pecinpah at 9:12 AM on December 7, 2007

And if you don't have snow tires, with studs, on all four wheels, make an investment. You'll drive out, nine times out of ten, after doing the basic shoveling. "All-weather" does not apply to snow.
posted by beagle at 9:21 AM on December 7, 2007

Little bags of salt pellets also make a great stocking stuffer. (In a practical family.)
posted by smackfu at 9:22 AM on December 7, 2007

simply waiting in your idling car will melt quite a bit of snow - the heat factor.

but if this is a rear-drive vehicle, pack a heavy bad of salt into the trunk. it'll give you much more grip (kind of like the excellent "deflate the tyres" idea) and when push comes to shove, get a bit of salt out and put it into the snow in front and behind each tyre. wait a bit. the snow and ice will begin to slowly soften up. keep your car idling the whole time. then begin moving it an inch forward, two inches back, three inches forward, four inches back ... a swing motion. repeat until you are free.

also ... make sure you have good snow tyres and, if you really want to be prepared, consider carrying a shovel and some chains. they're a bitch to put on but nothing grips like chains.
posted by krautland at 9:30 AM on December 7, 2007

Once when I was absolutely desperate, driving an old Chevrolet with a massive engine and a standard transmission, I was able to get going by turning off the engine, putting it in first gear with the clutch out, and turning the key so that the starter motor moved the wheels more slowly and steadily than I was able to with the clutch.
posted by jamjam at 9:44 AM on December 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sand. When you get stuck, the first thing to do is dig yourself out, of course. I live in a town that gets a lot of snow, so stopping to help people who are stuck is pretty common, but I just drive right by anyone who is trying to power their way out of a major drift. Don't be that person. Carry a shovel (you can get folding ones that don't take up much space). If you are still stuck after shoveling, throw some sand in front and behind your tires. It can be particularly helpful to put a little pile of sand as close as possible to the front tires (assuming you have front wheel drive), so that you can spin them (just a tiny bit) to suck it under the tire, where you need the grip. If you can't get out with sand, then you need to find at least one other person to help you rock the car back and forth (applying the go pedal at the furthest forward point of the rocking). If that doesn't work, you have to be a little more creative. Two things I can personally vouch for are rocking the car onto a patch of sticks that you place ahead of it (sort of like a corduroy road, though an urban environment would call for some other material) and, in extreme cases, jacking up the tires on your drive axle and applying chains in place (assuming you can't get them on by rolling the car onto them).
posted by ssg at 9:48 AM on December 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you have rear wheel drive, and an accessible trunk, get 4 or 5 friends to sit in the trunk. The added weight does wonders for traction. Or get them to push, either one works.

Most of these ideas are good too.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:54 AM on December 7, 2007

Once you've extricated yourself from this malady, get a good set of snow tires, as a poster mentioned above.

I suffered through many stuck-in-the-snow mishaps until I wised up and outfitted my ride with snow tires. Read the reviews, then bought the best at a small financial outlay. The in-snow performance beats my old, four-wheel-drive-capable SUV, and that's in a car that is rear-wheel drive. Snow tire technology is cutting edge. Rarely a winter goes by when I don't have the occasion of driving in a snowstorm past SUVs marooned in snowbanks.

Snow tires. Gotta love em.
posted by Gordion Knott at 9:57 AM on December 7, 2007

Note that studded tires are illegal in many states.

That said, do you mean getting plowed in and extracting your car from a bit of snow, or getting full-on stuck in a snowbank?
posted by craven_morhead at 9:58 AM on December 7, 2007

When I've been stuck in ice, snow, sand etc.. I've found deflating your tires works better than any amount of pushing, rocking, wedging stuff under - all measures of brute force and aggravation. Then drive really gingerly to the nearest gas station or other means of reinflation.
posted by Flashman at 10:08 AM on December 7, 2007

I'll mention a bit of conventional wisdom to the thread- when you get stuck in snow, don't overdo the "spinning your tires" bit before you try salt, sand, or what-have-you. Spinning the tires excessively when they have no road contact (just spinning in the snow) will melt the snow under your tires, which quickly re-freezes and makes a nice little tire-shaped ice divot.

One trick that I've found to be helpful, in a manual, is to rock the car back and forth by switching between reverse and 2nd gear (I've read elsewhere on AskMe that 2nd gear gets better traction starting in snow than 1st does). If you can get some momentum going it can often get you "over the hump". Also, if you look in the automotive section of your local major retailer (Target or whatever else), there are several products designed to be used in these situations, but I've never used one and can't vouch for their effectiveness or utility.
posted by baphomet at 10:23 AM on December 7, 2007

I weight the trunk of my car with two sand bags and one bag of salt, each of which doubles as a snow melter. Or at least it did when I lived in a snowy area.

Most of the time I can get my car out by rocking it and not resorting to any sort of melting agent. You also have to get the technique down. You can't just keep gunning forward, you have to rock the car by alternating quickly between 1st gear and reverse. Moving a few inches or more in each direction many times over. This is easier with a stick shift but not impossible with an automatic. Once you rock it a bit from front to back change the position of the tires and do the whole thing again. This will create a new path, usually resulting in un-stuckness.

This process is less time consuming than it reads typed out.
posted by click at 10:28 AM on December 7, 2007

Rock it slowly back and forth. Slowly. Back and forth.

When you get enough momentum, pop the wheel toward the street, and hopefully you'll break free.
posted by asuprenant at 10:34 AM on December 7, 2007

I use four wheel drive with studded tires, and I carry a shovel, tow rope, and tire chains. Of those, I think the 4wd is the least important -- good winter tires, plus a shovel, will get you out of almost any situation; the tire chains are good for when there is loose snow on top of ice, or other really miserable conditions, and the tow rope is the back up for when you really screw up and can't do it alone. When I used to have a rear-wheel drive pickup, I would carry sand bags for the weight, but I never needed to resort to actually putting the sand on the ground for traction.

To push a car out, you really need at least one other person (one to drive, one to push) -- I don't think that pushing a car out alone is a good idea, or very practical.
posted by Forktine at 10:34 AM on December 7, 2007

Ah, on post - what click said.
posted by asuprenant at 10:34 AM on December 7, 2007

Most states regulate the use of studded tires. Some don't allow any studs, some don't allow metal studs, some only allow them during a certain date range, some only allow them for certain classes of vehicles. Anybody that sells you studded tires should inform you of the legalities as well.
posted by indyz at 10:39 AM on December 7, 2007

Here's a listing of studded tire regulations by state. The OP is in Wisconsin, so may be out of luck unless driving a school bus or the like.

Nevertheless, get snow tires. Beside the tread size and pattern, they're made of softer rubber that grips the snow and ice better than regular tires.
posted by beagle at 11:18 AM on December 7, 2007

A good shovel is the perfect, time-tested method of getting unstuck. Ideally you should also carry a 70-lb bag of sand above the rear axles which also comes in handy when you need extra traction.
posted by JJ86 at 11:35 AM on December 7, 2007

Aside for my own benefit:

Has anyone used the Nokian WR or Nokian WRG2?

A local mechanic has recommended them, and they're supposedly all-seasons that are also rated as snow tires. But I'm not thrilled with the idea of dropping $600+ on a new set of tires for a car that I don't intend to keep more than another two, 2.5 years.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:53 AM on December 7, 2007

(they're apparently all-season versions of hakkapelliitas, if that helps)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:54 AM on December 7, 2007

Shovel the car out, esp. the drive (front-wheel or rear-wheel?) wheels. Shovel a path to drove into. Use floor mat, carpet scraps or old blankets under the drive wheels, and drive slowly. You can rock the car to get a bit of traction; drive forward 2 inches, back 2, then forward 4, back 4, then forward 6, etc. Much easier w/ manual transmission, but can be done w/ automatic. Don't be totally unwilling to give it gas if you're making headway, if the spinning wheels are getting some action, go with it. Nothing beats experience. Go to a parking lot full of snow and practice driving in it.
posted by theora55 at 1:50 PM on December 7, 2007

You could always keep a small come-along in the boot, might work for ya if you find yourself stuck alone and unable to rock out. They'd be handy for helping other stuck travellers too.
posted by glip at 4:03 PM on December 7, 2007

Please be very careful when using mats of any sort under the tires. My preferred additional traction method is a set of plastic tracks with cleats on the bottom that I picked up at one of these "dollar store" places. With the cleats gripping the snow and ice below, it lessens the chance of the tire rapid-fire spitting the smooth underside mats from under the tire and back at anyone who is behind the vehicle to give it a push.

Luckily when I was helping a neighbor out with this recently, it was me who had to dodge the flying doormat at the last second, and not the good samaritan who'd come by to help push as well. Since the mat was a rather hard plastic, I can't imagine it would have felt nice being propelled into one's leg(s). With that said, though, it did help get her unstuck!

I also nth the 'rocking' method, inch forward by degrees until you feel good traction.

Also very important is to keep your front wheels as straight as possible!!! Although you will have to turn at some point, the idea of keeping your wheels lined up with each other cuts down on the resistance needed to move forward or backwards. A vehicle needs more momentum to turn, momentum that is needed more to get 'unstuck'
posted by kuppajava at 11:49 AM on December 8, 2007

I've got to test these several times this winter and the following helped

1. Putting mats under the tires
2. letting air out of the tires.
3. rocking and going as slow as possible

Nothing beat having someone help though.
posted by drezdn at 10:18 AM on March 14, 2008

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