It’s one of the worst feelings when driving: you push the throttle, you hear the engine roar and the tires spin, but you’re not going anywhere.
Old Man Winter has won, and you’re stuck in the snow.
What it takes to get you out will depend on how firmly you’ve gotten yourself wedged in, but we have a series of steps to follow to help get you moving again.
Don’t panic. If you’re upset, you’re more likely to do something that will just make the situation worse.
Take a deep breath and calm down before you do anything. Think everything through before you do it.
Assess your safety. If there’s any danger from other traffic, don’t mess around. Call a tow truck and let a professional handle it.
Before anyone gets out to push, make sure there isn’t a possibility that other drivers could slide into the back of your vehicle and trap people against the bumper.
Get out and have a look. Walk around your vehicle and see what the problem is. See how deep the snow is, or if you’re slipping on ice. Look at what’s around your vehicle, too. Make sure you won’t hit anything if your vehicle slides sideways while you’re trying to free it.
Go slowly at first. Try going in the opposite direction. If you got stuck going forward, try backing up. Go slowly, and press the throttle gradually, rather than “stabbing” it. When driving forward, put the car in second gear if you have a stick shift. If you have an automatic transmission, put it in “2” or “L” if those are available on your shift lever, or in second gear if you have manual shift mode.
Again, accelerate gently. Keep your front wheels pointed straight ahead. Get someone to help push you out, if you can. If you start moving, keep steady throttle pressure until you’re back on firm ground. If you stop that forward motion while you’re still in snow, it’s likely you’ll get stuck again.
Something very important: Keep your wheels pointing straight ahead, and don't start turning until you're sure you are no longer stuck. Your tires have less grip if they are turned to the side—if turned tires gave as much traction, 100-meter runners would start by running sideways…
Make some traction. Your tires need a surface they can grip. If you’ve thought ahead about snow, you’re pulling your winter preparation kit out of the trunk right now. If the tires are buried in snow, try to dig them out — a folding shovel works great, but use your window snow brush if you don’t have anything else.
If you have traction aids, slip them as far under the tires as you can, and then slowly drive onto them. In a pinch, you can use a floor mat for a traction aid. If you have a bag of sand or kitty litter, sprinkle it liberally as close to the tire as you can.
But be sure that you’re putting the traction devices under the right wheels. We know you know, but when you’re not happy about being stuck, sometimes you can overreact and make an honest mistake. Put them under the front wheels on a front-wheel-drive vehicle, and under the rear ones for rear-wheel-drive.
If that doesn’t work…
You can try going harder on the throttle, to see if spinning your wheels will get you out. Before you do, think about safety, and don’t let anyone stand near the tires. Turn off your vehicle’s traction control. It will be a button on the dash; check your owner’s manual if you’re not sure where it is.
Accelerate slowly, and then increase the speed. This may be enough to get you moving, and if it does, keep going until you feel the tires gain traction. If nothing happens after a few seconds, then stop, since excessive spinning is hard on the tires.
Don’t rock the boat. You may have heard of “rocking” a vehicle that’s stuck. That’s when you accelerate while continually moving the gearshift back and forth between 'drive' and 'reverse.' We definitely don’t recommend it. Rocking is hard on the transmission, engine mounts, and front-end components, and they’re all very expensive repairs.
Call a professional. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, Mother Nature wins. When she does, call a tow truck. Your buddy with the truck and the tow chain may owe you a favour, but it’s easy (and pricey) to damage or even tear off a front or rear fascia if you’re not sure what you’re doing.
Check your vehicle. Once you’re out, check for damage before you drive away. Look under your vehicle for anything that’s hanging down or touching the tires.
Think about next time. You can’t control the weather, but we have some suggestions to help keep you going straight ahead. If you hit a patch of snow or ice, don’t hit the brakes or turn your wheels. Changing your speed or direction can cause you to slide. Slow down before you reach it, and then continue across it at the same speed.
Go slowly when you’re driving into deep snow, such as an unplowed driveway, and pay close attention to what your car is doing. If you feel it start to lose traction, stop right away. Don’t go forward and get stuck.
Carry a winter preparation kit, including such things as a shovel, traction aids, blanket, flashlight, and work gloves. If you’re a woman who normally wears high-heeled boots, put a pair of flat-soled ones in, too. And if you travel outside of densely-populated urban areas, include survival gear such as candles and emergency food.