10 Winter Driving Tips for Colorado Commuters

A brisk wind tumbles its way down from the Rockies. A gunmetal cloud, deep with the weight and terror of oncoming precipitation. A sheet of iridescent ice, causing over 100 cars to pile up on a busy highway. Winter is upon us, Coloradoans. Therefore, winter driving is right around the corner.

Poetry aside, Colorado is known for its particularly harsh (and beautiful) winters. In fact, a majority of the Denver transplants move here for the weather. The pulsing rays of the summer and the sports-worthy snows of the winter (and sometimes spring). Though it’s all fun when you are on the ski lift, snow and ice can be an absolute pain during your commute.

What are the best winter driving tips? How can you make sure that you are safe on the road during the upcoming months? Let’s get into it.

Rehash Is Necessary – The Denver Way

Colorado is known for its mounds of fluffy snow. Consequently, those that are born and raised in the Centennial State don’t need to learn any of the information on this list. It’s all a regurgitation from their parents, teaching them to drive through the hazardous climate throughout their entire childhood.

Then what’s the point of writing this? The transplants need help. Tons of it, in fact.

Not only is the Denver area one of the top cities for millennial relocation, but its abundance of transplants are from states beyond the winter range. In 2019 (well before the heightened migration due to online work trends) Westword noted that the two states with the most Denver transplants were Texas and California.

Texas recently saw its first bout of snow in 126 years and California isn’t known for its chilly weather. Those raised in those warm states need these tips.

In November 2022, 100 cars piled up on a Denver highway after a light dusting of snow. 100 cars. Light dusting, not even an inch.

These tips need to be heard.

1. Make Sure Your Vehicle Is Prepared

Historic football coach, Joe Gibbs, once said, “A winning effort begins with preparation.”

Now, winter driving isn’t the same as calculating football plays during a historic Super Bowl run, but you get the point. Gain the advantage in every battle by being ready for your opponent. It’s that simple.

Here’s a quick checklist of winterizing concepts that should be addressed or checked before things begin to get too cold.

  • Make sure your battery is charged, in good condition, and doesn’t have corrosion.
  • If your windshield wiper fluid is not graded for sub-freezing temperatures, mix in or replace it with a fluid that is.
  • Your wiper blades should be in good working condition regardless of the season.
  • Make sure your oil is graded for lower temperatures.
  • Check all lights and headlights.
  • Get the car checked and tuned up at the mechanic (especially the brakes).
  • Have a tire sealant repair kit in the vehicle.
  • Keep an emergency kit in the vehicle consisting of non-perishable food, bottled water, blankets, a flashlight, a first-aid kit, an air compressor, a tire-pressure gauge, a small shovel, jumper cables, an extra jacket, boots, gloves, and your prescription drugs.

Winter Tires Above All

Though the entirety of the aforementioned list is crucial for winter driving safety, winter tires are the most important part of driving in the season. Think of it this way: the biggest issue with snow and ice is the lack of traction between your vehicle and the solid ground. Your tires are the one thing between your vehicle and that element. It’s more important than, say, your headlights working properly.

Winter tires feature softer composite, deeper treads, and unique tread patterns, allowing for more flex and grip over clumps of matted snow and slick ice. Furthermore, they are built to stay soft during colder weather, while normal all-season tires can become stiff when below freezing.

Winning through preparation begins with having the right tire for the job.

Colorado also has the option of implementing the Traction Law. This ruling means that every vehicle on the road needs to be 4WD or AWD and have winter tires (with specific tread specs). Therefore, if you are a commuter outside of the city, you might as well be prepared for the worst and have winter tires on the ready.

What About All-Season Tires?

All-season tires are sold through simplicity alone. They are fairly simple. Their composite is soft enough to survive both winter and summer. Their tread is deep enough to help in snow and reduce gas consumption in the summer. But are they a good replacement for winter tires?

No. Not really.

If you need to commute daily in Colorado, you are best off getting winter tires. All-season will work in a pinch (or a few), and certainly aren’t as useless as summer tires in the winter, but they aren’t ideal. Save yourself the danger and get winter tires.

2. Slow Down, for Pete’s Sake!

It’s a common phrase where I’m from. I can hear the memories of my dad saying, “If you are driving in snow, drive like you got a big pot of soup in the front seat.”

You may not realize your overall lack of control when driving on snow or ice until you attempt to brake. Then, your wheels have trouble gaining traction and you begin to spin out. If you have to brake hard in winter conditions, you are going to increase your chances of losing control.

Driving slower, staying away from tailgating vehicles, and using your brakes like you are stepping on eggshells are the most important driving tips. It’s simplicity in nature (but some don’t seem to understand). If you are going slower, you won’t have to brake as hard. If you won’t have to brake as hard, you won’t lose control as easily.

Take your time. You will get there. Prepare for the prolonged commutes and drive safely. The rule of thumb is to increase your stopping distance by five seconds.

3. Avoid Sharp Turns

This one is simple, but it must be stated.

When you cut your wheel to make a sharp turn, the quick and drastic motion of the wheels can cause momentum to go against you. Don’t lose control and traction by cutting your wheels too drastically.

Instead, take wide and arching turns. If you need to take a sharp turn, make sure to decrease your speed exponentially. As we stated, pretend there’s a big pot of soup in your passenger seat that you don’t want to spill.

4. Keep Momentum Up Hills

I grew up on the east coast. We had just as much snow and ice as Denver, but the entirety of our roadways was flat. Very, very flat. When moving to Colorado, your winter driving confidence can be quickly shot by a large hill.

When approaching a snowy or icy hill, keep your momentum. You want as much inertia as possible to get up it. Stopping or running out of speed on the hill can cause acceleration to be both difficult and slippery. Secondly, keep your foot pressure on the accelerator even and light. Do not suddenly let off or accelerate harder. If your wheel starts to spin, ease off lightly. Very, very lightly.

Furthermore, make sure you are in as high of a gear as possible when going up the hill. The decrease in torque keeps the momentum smooth and less jerky.

Going Down Hills

Going downward is almost the complete opposite process (go figure).

Before approaching the descent, make sure your vehicle is in a lower gear. As you descend, drop the gears lower to slow down according. Not only is this easier on your brakes than pressing them the entire way down, but it also works better and maintains traction. You do not want to have to ride on the brakes the entire way, increasing the possibility of losing control.

Driving on a hill comes down to slow and steady. No abrupt movements, turns, or shifts in speed.

5. How to Handle Spins

Regardless of how many precautions you take, you may eventually lose traction while driving in the winter. We can explain how to handle it in a detailed step-by-step format, but all you’ve learned will go out the window when the moment strikes. That’s the way it goes. That’s how our mind handles fight-or-flight scenarios.

If you do begin to spin out, it’s important to let go of both pedals. Don’t press the brakes or acceleration. Furthermore, it is often noted that you should turn into a spin. For example, if the front of your car is spinning to the right, you should not attempt to turn the wheel to correct the spin (to the left). Turn the spin towards the right.

As we stated, all of this may go out the window when the moment strikes. Just remember: no pedals and don’t try to straighten the wheel.

The key to spinning is to avoid it, right? Drive slowly. Drive carefully. Don’t brake hard or turn fast unless you absolutely have to.

6. Respect the Plows

Snow plows have one main duty: clear the roads of snow. They are big, bulky vehicles with plenty of blind spots and obstructed views. If possible, stay away from them and let them do their job.

If the weather is bad enough, the snow plow may not see you. They may easily push snow into you, ride too closely to you, or knock something over your way. While this isn’t to insult snow plow drivers (they’re heroes of the winter), they have a tough job to do. Stay away from them, if possible.

Furthermore, remember that snow plows push snow to its sides. That’s how they function. If you are on the side of a plow, be prepared for snow to come your way. Don’t get covered.

7. Black Ice Is Scary

At the end of the day, black ice is the most dangerous hazard covering the roads in the winter. The slick and translucent surface, caused by the refreezing of water, is impossible to see. It’s thin and extremely slippery, causing even the best of drivers to slip. The issue is it’s lack of noticeability. If you can’t tell you are on black ice, you can’t slow down and prepare properly.

Firstly, think wisely about the weather. If it rained during the day and got down to frigid temperatures later, the rain has likely frozen on the roads. If it rained and then snowed, there is probably frozen rain under the snow layer. These are the times in which black ice is the worst. It’s also the worst under bridges and overpasses where the sun can’t get through, at the start and end of bridges, and at the connection of different road types.

Furthermore, you can almost hear yourself on black ice. It’s almost as if the car noise gets eerily silent, as if you went from driving on road (or snow) to driving on air. Of course, this isn’t a full-proof way to know, but it’s helpful if you’re experienced.

Like ice, black ice should be treated with both caution and respect. Keep off the brake and accelerator. Let the car get through it without any sudden movements are changes in pace. If you begin to slip, follow the tip above.

8. Never Use Cruise Control

Cruise control is an awesome thing. Not only does it allow for ease of driving, but the use of it on highways can improve your gas consumption.

It should never be used in winter conditions, though. You need to be in full control of your speed, braking, and feel the road beneath you. You need to be able to feel if there is resistance to your acceleration. It’s not worth the risk.

9. Clear Your Tailpipe!

This goes without saying, but you’d be surprised: make sure there is no snow or ice on your vehicle before driving.

Not only does snow block your driving vision, but it can fly from the roof of your car, blocking the vision of the driver behind you. Therefore, prepare extra time to make sure you don’t have any snow or ice caked on your vehicle in the morning.

Always check your tailpipe and exhaust for snow or ice, too. If blocked, it can cause monoxide to go into the vehicle, harming you and your passengers.

10. Stay Home

If you are nervous about driving in the winter and can afford to avoid the roads, do so. If the weather is bad and there is an extreme amount of snow or ice on the roads, only go out if entirely necessary. Stay at home. Easy.

We live in a time of working from home, delivery services at your fingertips, and entertainment in the palm of your hand. If a storm is a brewing, stay away from the danger of the road. The best winter driving tip is to not drive in the winter!