Preparing a Vehicle for North Dakota Winter 

Dylan Enerson, Reporter

Driving down the road at thirty miles per hour feels no more extraordinary than picking up milk from the freezer at the local grocery store or waiting in line at a coffee shop. There are thousands of moving parts involved with just turning your vehicle on in the morning to get to school let alone traveling at tens of times the speed that would have been imagined even one hundred years ago. To add on top of that, the external environment and conditions you cannot control can make driving a much more complicated situation than most realize, especially in the winter. With North Dakota being one of the most unforgiving states in the country in terms of road conditions during the winter it is extremely important to ensure your vehicle is ready for the ice, snow, cold, hail, and high winds that are abundant during the winters here.   

There are ways to prepare a vehicle for the winters and that starts with regular maintenance. The first item to check on your vehicle in anticipation of the winter is the tires. Those four big pieces of rubber may seem uninteresting and plain but really, they are the only thing separating your vehicle from the road it is traveling on. Afterall, what good is an engine if your tires just spin in one place? What good are brakes if you just slide on the ice? What good is a steering wheel if your vehicle continues straight when you turn to the left?   

The first step to ensuring you have adequate tires is to visually inspect them. If it looks like they do not have much rubber, or tread, left on the tire then you will more than likely need a new set. A common way of checking tires is to perform the penny test. This involves taking a penny and placing it into a central tread groove on the tire with the top of Abraham Lincoln’s head facing downwards towards the center of the tire. If there is still enough tread on the tire that you cannot see Lincoln’s entire head, then you generally still have enough tread left on the tire for daily driving. While not a perfect judge of a tire’s life, the penny test is a good place to start.  

The next step to checking tires on a vehicle is making sure you have the correct type of tire installed on the vehicle. There are a large number of tire manufacturers and each of them carries multiple different tires fulfilling different roles of driving. Tires can range from touring tires, suited for summer road driving in fair weather conditions, all the way to huge mud tires designed for extreme mud competitions where the vehicles taking part will never touch pavement for the life of the vehicle. The majority of tires will slot towards the former of these two types with the most common tires being either all-season or all-weather tires. Both options will provide adequate stopping and starting ability in the winter, but all-weather tires slightly outperform the closely related all-season tires. This is generally due to a more aggressive tread, which sacrifices a marginal level of ride-comfort and noise reduction.   

The best option for winter tires is to get a set of dedicated snow and winter driving tires. These tires use a different rubber compound that is made softer to maximize grip during cold and snowy conditions. This soft rubber works great in the winter but will not last long during the summer months as the softer makeup of these tires wears faster on dry pavement. For this reason, if you want to maximize the ability of your car both in the winter and the summer getting two sets of rims and tires and swapping them out per season will be the best way to do this. The downside to this is the initial investment cost of buying double of all four wheels and in needing a location to store the spare set in the off season. This will pay off in the long run though as this generally makes both sets last longer than they would otherwise and provides the safest driving conditions in all seasons.  

The next item on a vehicle to check is making sure your heat works. This may seem like it is only a comfort item on your list and that it is not necessary if you tough it out on your drive to school to save some money, but heat is one of the more important items to ensure it is working correctly. Even if your drive to class is only three minutes long and your car would not be warm enough to pump out heat anyway there are still plenty of reasons to make sure your heat works correctly. If you get stuck on the side of the road during a heavy snow episode, you could be stuck there for upwards of an hour and sitting in an unheated car in negative temperatures waiting for a tow truck is extremely dangerous to your health and wellbeing. On top of this, adequate heat keeps your windshield clear of ice forming on your windshield and fog forming on the inside from your breath. Without heat you could be driving without a windshield five minutes away from home.  

Now that you have adequate tires and heat in your vehicle, it is time to move on to a few of the smaller, albeit still important, items to check before extensive winter driving. The first of these is the battery installed in your car. When I started driving, I never gave much thought to my battery unless it was not working but these devices have more to them than most think. Every battery has a cold cranking rating, commonly labeled as CCA for Cold Cranking Amps. The higher this rating, the easier it is for that battery to start your car in cold weather. It is especially important to ensure that this rating is high enough to start your individual car in cold weather and this can be done by making sure the CCA matches or exceeds that of the original rating that was installed in the vehicle. You can check this by looking up your model online or every auto parts store should be able to tell you what it was originally. Most batteries sold in North Dakota will be designed for the winters we endure but if you bring your vehicle from a warmer state, such as California or Florida, you may have a battery that worked flawlessly there but will freeze completely in the winter here.  

Next on the list are your windshield wipers and wiper fluid. Most know that good windshield wipers can be the difference between seeing clearly and running over curbs like a fifteen-year-old first learning to drive but the wiper fluid in your vehicle is also important to seeing clearly. Most wiper fluid containers will state a temperature they are good down to, and this represents how much of that fluid is made up of water. If a wiper fluid is mostly water, it will freeze at or near the 32-degree freezing point of water. Many wiper fluid manufacturers also make a winter blend bottle which can be good for use down to or below zero degrees. In fact, I have seen some winter blends that claimed they could be used down to negative forty degrees! Your wiper fluid may not seem like an issue if you simply decide not to use the fluid during the winter, but the fluid will still freeze in the reservoir, and when a liquid freezes it expands, which could lead to damage being done to your wiper fluid tank or lines. This generally will not be noticeable during the winter but once the weather starts to warm up, you may be surprised to find a puddle of wiper fluid underneath your car. Of course, equally important to the wiper fluid in the vehicle is the wipers themselves. It will pay to ensure you have high-quality, winter-rated wipers installed on your vehicle. To prevent ice from gathering on your wipers you can also tilt them away from your windshield so that they are sticking up into the air every night. This will allow you to clear off snow and ice easier in the morning and prevent ice from forming along the edges of the wiper blades.  

Finally, the last step to ensuring your vehicle is ready for the winter is keeping up on general maintenance during the rest of the year. If you do not maintain your vehicle, you are leaving yourself open to failing parts which could leave you stranded on the side of the road or without a vehicle for an extended period waiting for repairs. I recommend taking a vehicle in for an oil change roughly every 5,000 miles and getting a tire rotation performed every other oil change, but this can vary from vehicle to vehicle. The specific recommended service intervals can usually be found in the owner’s manual for your car. This will typically cover intervals for fluid changes and inspection of different parts. If your manual does not have the service intervals or you do not have a manual, most auto shops can help you decide what needs to be done and when along with answering any other questions you may have about your vehicle or performing any other services.  

I have been working on cars since I could drive, and these are just a few tips I have picked up to make sure my vehicles stay running reliably throughout the year. Every vehicle has its own set of issues that will need to be addressed and they will not necessarily be solved or prevented completely by any of these tips, but they go a long way towards giving your car what it needs to get you where you need to go when you need to get there. 


Dylan Enerson is a Dakota Student Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].