Are your relatives planning a winter getaway? Perhaps you will travel to another country on the far northernmost part of the hemisphere where your best bet to get around town is by renting a car.

That said, chances are you’ll be the one in charge of renting said car and driving it to the hotel or towards other tourist attractions. Any educated driver will know that snow or sheet ice is not exactly the grippiest of surfaces, but just how different is it compared to the dry tarmac and asphalt we have here in the tropics?

Seeing as I’ve been in this exact situation as my family went on our trip to see the northern lights, allow me to share a few things to look out for when driving on snow or in cold climate.

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Source/Rent the appropriate vehicle

Preparing for the trip ahead always starts with finding the right rental car. Consider variables such as the number of people you’ll need to transport, the distance you’ll need to cover, and all your luggage when selecting a vehicle.

If there is an option, you ought to opt for insurance to provide coverage for any incidents that may happen. Considering of course that you will be driving in a foreign country, a vehicle that comes with navigation or a GPS system will make your trip much easier. Safer choices would usually be an SUV or a van for additional ride height, but most folks in Europe, for example, are also fond of wagons or estates – vehicles that may suit your purpose even better.

In our case, I went and rented a Volkswagen Passat Estate to try and see what wagon life is like. Suffice to say it was a sensible choice.

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It goes without saying that you will need your Philippine Driver’s License with you to prove your capability to operate a vehicle to the rental company. For short trips of less than 30 days, most countries will accept the standard license, for longer durations however you may need to apply for an International Driver’s Permit from the AAP, especially countries where English is not the normal language. Don’t take it just from us though, it’s still best to research on the requirements of the countries you intend to visit.

Your decisions at this stage will be key to making sure you enjoy your trip – and the experience of driving on snow altogether.

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Watch the surface

Relax. Driving a car in the city with mild snow is not much different from puttering around town here assuming you’re driving within proper limits. Loss of traction isn’t exaggerated so long as you’re following trails of gravel on the road or if you’re on pavement that is traversed by many vehicles.

Once you go off the beaten path however, you will want to watch the surface as it changes. Thicker snow, or worse, icy roads will make the car shudder as you apply the accelerator – at times even triggering traction control. On surfaces like these, make sure to be very gentle with ANY input on the vehicle. Be it braking, accelerating, or making a turn, ensure that you have enough room for error or corrections and avoid tailgating the car in front.

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Pay close attention to roads that get deeper and thicker snow. While you may think your car can simply plow through it – it cannot. Deep enough snow will get you stuck and in need of assistance to get out. Don’t be a hero and backtrack instead, leave that to the snowplows.

A good skill to carry with you is to understand how countersteering works. In the unlikely event that your vehicle breaks traction at the rear, steering into the opposite direction of the skid will help keep your car on track. That said, we DO NOT recommend you try to induce this with a car you’re renting.

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Studded Tires are your best friend

This is likely standard for any decent rental company that supplies cars in snowy areas, but make sure to ask anyway. Studded tires make all the difference between a car that turns in snow and one that plows through the bushes. If you try walking on snow with flat soles on your shoes instead of ones that dig into the snow, you’ll probably just slip and fall on your bottom. Consider then that the car’s tires have to stop roughly 2 tons worth of metal and passengers on a surface like snow while going at speeds exponentially more than humans could do – yep, that’s just how important studded tires are.

Even if your vehicle is 4WD/AWD, the traction those cars can offer is next to useless on standard tires vs a front/rear-wheel vehicle on snow studded tires.

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Cleaning snow/ice off windows

Now that you’re all settled in and cozy in your accommodations, you’ll likely see all that snow falling outside and perhaps enjoy a quaint moment with your family. You go to bed, wake up the next day, and realize that your car caught a fair amount of snowfall overnight. Seeing as you’ll be going around town today you will need to clean off all the snow and ice off your windscreen.

Your rental will likely come with a brush or scraper so you can do this manually. No, turning on the wipers will not help – they may actually be stuck in place and won’t work till you clear the windscreen. What could help though is turning the vehicle’s defogger on as you let it warm up before driving off. It generates heat that helps melt the snow and ice and makes it easier to scrape off.

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Considering this wasn’t a regular chore for a tourist like myself, I found this bit quite entertaining while we had our rental. I’d assume this could be very annoying for the average winter motorist though – let alone cleaning a car that’s been left outside for a few days.

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Engine Block Heaters

During our trip to Finland, I found something peculiar with the way people parked cars there – they always park facing forward. I figured this was some kind of rule at first, but then I noticed some post boxes in front of parking slots around town. Thinking it was a parking meter I thought nothing much of it until I saw a car plugged into the box with a socket.

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Apparently, these boxes are called Engine Block Heaters and are usually in place in cold areas to, well, pre-heat your engine. See, leaving your motor overnight in -30C weather usually makes it harder for it to start. If your rental comes with a set of wires, you’ll also notice it has a plug upfront usually in its lower grill area. This is where you plug the matching socket and plug the other end onto the Block Heater box. Flip the switch on and you can leave the vehicle pre-heated overnight.

Quick research indicates that Block Heaters will usually increase engine temps by about 20 to 40 celsius in a span of three to four hours, so you will only likely notice these effects after that time has elapsed. That said, you may want to warm the car up to operating temps before driving off either way.

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Fog, wildlife, and general visibility

Low visibility is a real issue when driving cross-country in winter. So much so that I’ve seen every car on the road and their grandmother’s car fitted with huge foglamps for long drives at night. Common roads such as dual carriageways will not have lighting at night, and a snowstorm can potentially make visibility much worse than it already is. Provided your vehicle is fitted with fog lamps, you may use them or the high beams with proper discretion should visibility become low. The rule of thumb is when there is an oncoming car you lower the beam or turn the fog lamps off so as not to impede their vision. You can turn them back on once the oncoming car has passed.

The importance of good visibility is also compounded by the fact that you may run into wild animals crossing the road. This isn’t a simple frog, feline, or canine situation though, we’re talking about several hundred kilos worth of game like moose, deer, reindeers, or elk – and these animals can cause serious damage to your vehicle should you hit them.

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With these quick tips, we hope you’ll be more prepared for driving on snow and winter. The vastly different scenery and generally courteous drivers make for a great respite from the hustle and bustle of Manila traffic – you’re on vacation after all.