Get out and explore the mountains, but make sure your vehicle is ready for the Ice Coast.
It was the sort of January road trip I’d taken dozens of times. I left Queens before sunrise on a Wednesday, with plans to hit up three ski areas before meeting friends Friday night at Mont Tremblant, 550 miles away in Quebec. Ski, drive, sleep, repeat.
Hunter was fast, Okemo was grippy, and Jay Peak at -20 degrees was…painful. A brutal cold front entombed the east in sub-zero temps that stretched well down into the Mid-Atlantic. Still, I skied as much as I could then hopped back into my Wrangler for the drive into Canada. I made it about a mile before my car overheated, clanging crazy warning tones I’d never heard before. The engine fan sounded like it was getting ready for takeoff. I pulled over, popped the hood, checked the oil and coolant levels, and decided to call AAA.
No cell signal. I turned the ignition back on; no heat. My antifreeze had frozen. The sun was setting, my teeth were chattering, and I reluctantly drove back to the Jay base in order to call for roadside assistance despite knowing what could happen to my engine. The nearest service stations were all closing soon – I’d have to get towed the next morning. Last-minute slopeside lodging cost almost $300, repairs cost another $300, but I considered myself lucky – in that sparsely-populated corner of Vermont, I could have been 20 miles from help, with no signal and no way to keep warm.
Turns out Canadians and northern Vermonters know something we relative-southerners often don’t: winter antifreeze mixtures need to be higher than what most of us usually have sloshing around. I learned a couple of very important lessons that day – about proper winterization and emergency preparedness. Freezing to death on a rural Vermont backroad would be a bad way to cut short a ski season.
Chasing winter around the Northeast’s mountains can be challenging, but we’ve put together a list of necessities for snow fiends to have either on or in their vehicles. Some of these you’ll use all the time; others you’ll hopefully never need. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of frozen antifreeze.
Have an All-Wheel-Drive or 4-Wheel-Drive Vehicle Hopefully, you’ve done that already. If not, this will be your biggest expense. But you live in the Northeast; you’re used to driving in variable conditions, so you probably already have one of these, right?
Keep an Emergency Kit If my Jeep broke down in a more secluded area of Vermont, I’d have been a popsicle by morning. Get a sturdy plastic tote and stash some essentials inside, including a flashlight, a warm blanket or space blanket, hats, extra gloves, some cat litter to help free yourself from an icy parking spot, a first aid kit, and a couple of flares. Many ski areas are located in remote corners of the region, and cell service is notoriously spotty in the mountains.
You should also carry a strong, collapsible shovel to enable you to dig out on those powder days. There’s nothing more frustrating than missing fresh tracks because you’ve spent an hour digging out your car with your bare hands and a neighbor’s trash can lid.
Get a Roof Rack or Cargo Box This is a no-brainer for anyone who has to haul a family to the hill, but even solo warriors and couples should invest in some sort of roof system. Most vehicles have enough room to stash a few pairs of skis with the back seats folded down, but that’s a lot of snow, slush, and gravel that will get all over the interior, gear, luggage, and clothing. Loose skis can become projectiles in the event of a quick stop. And there are times when you will want to be able to fit an extra friend or two, and even just two people with all their ski stuff takes up a lot of room.
At the very least, it pays to invest in a ski rack such as the Thule SnoPack or the Yakima FreshTrack – simple locking roof clamps that let you stash your planks up top. If your drive distance to and from the mountains is relatively short, this solution may be enough.
But if you regularly travel three, four, or six hours to get to the goods, then a cargo box such as the Thule Force XT or the Yakima RocketBox is the better way to go. Sturdy and aerodynamic, they also help keep moisture off your gear when you’re not using it (edges can begin to rust surprisingly fast). And it’s a great place to throw all those stickers you’ve been collecting.
Invest in Snow Tires (or Chains) Every car has four-wheel braking. Snow tires are what give you the grip to blast through blizzards en route to your powder paradise, and just as importantly, to stop when necessary. A front-wheel-drive car with winter tires will outperform most 4-wheel-drive vehicles without them because of the added grip. All-weather tires and summer tires are made of a rubber compound that hardens easier in the colder temperatures. Winter tires, such as the popular Bridgestone Blizzaks, have a combination of knobbier treads and a softer rubber that helps keep your vehicle from sliding on fresh snow, compacted road ice, and cold pavement.
Because the rubber is softer, snow tires will wear much more quickly in summer, so it pays to switch them out twice a year: put on the snow tires around Thanksgiving and take them off sometime in April – you’ll save thousands of miles on the lifetime of your tires and both sets will last twice as long. They’re not cheap, but they’re less expensive than whatever will happen when your car loses traction on I-91 at 55 miles per hour.
Similarly, tire chains can be helpful to have on hand if you have a larger vehicle, or the roads are particularly gnarly. But chains are to be used on a strictly limited basis because they wear and and can damage tires and road surfaces, so winter tires are always your first best line of defense.
Install All-Weather Floor Mats Get either the less-expensive rubber, cut-to-size versions you’ll find hanging in any auto supply store, or go online to find sturdier versions, such as WeatherTech, that can be ordered to fit the exact dimensions of your vehicle, which helps keep the mats from sliding around.
Standard carpet mats aren’t up to the challenges of winter. The gravel, road salt, and melted snow will chew up a carpet mat, and a soaking wet carpet can take days to dry and begin to rust out your floorboards. A few easy-to-remove, easy-to-clean rubber mats will save your vehicle’s interior in a variety of ways.
Winterize Your Car Check the tire pressure, get an oil change, make sure your wiper blades work well, and keep the windshield washer fluid topped off. And if you’re going to be adventuring around northern Vermont in -20 temperatures, be smarter than I was and make sure your antifreeze is the right mixture. Usually a 60% antifreeze/40% water mix will do unless you’re road-tripping to Winnipeg or heading to the Chic-Chocs.
Have Reliable Roadside Assistance Become a AAA member, or just make sure your insurance covers roadside assistance at a reasonable co-pay rate. It can be a literal life-saver.
Frozen Window Lifehack Keep a spray bottle filled with a solution of two parts rubbing alcohol, one part water, and spray it on your frosted-over windshield. Alcohol freezes at -173F, so it will start melting the accumulated ice, doing most of the work for you. Your days of reaching over your car for 20 minutes to scrape off all the frost with elbow grease alone are over.
It’s also a handy thing to keep in your garage or boot bag, as it works for frozen locks and door frames as well.
Have Kids? Have Distractions For those of us who have to travel long distances to get the goods, the drive can be taxing. For children, it’s torture. Plan your winter road trips the way you would plan for a long flight. Have plenty of snacks, games, devices, books, and other distractions handy. I have friends who recoil in horror at the idea of driving three hours with their children and others who regularly spend five hours in the car on Friday and another five hours on Sunday, with minimal drama. The difference in these parenting stories is preparation. Keep the kids busy and get them used to longer drives and before you know it you’ll be plowing up to Sugarloaf like it’s no big deal even though you may live in Connecticut, Brooklyn, or Jersey.