Affiliate Disclosure: This winter guide is sponsored by Advance Auto Parts. As an affiliate partner of Advance Auto Parts, Automoblog may earn a commission if you purchase one of the products below. This commission comes to us at no additional cost to you.
Why Pre-Winter Maintenance Is Important
Winter is different from other seasons because of the risks associated with driving. Snow and ice accumulation will make even the most familiar roads hazardous. The sun will set earlier, meaning light is at a premium when we leave work after a long day. And we all know visibility during a snowstorm is limited at best (which is why we recommend a good pair of wipers near the end of this article).
Given the challenges associated with winter driving, it’s important to have a trusted mechanic inspect your vehicle. We recommend doing this while the weather is still relativity nice during the late summer or early fall. This will give you time if you need to save up for bigger ticket items, like a new set of tires or a brake job. New tires and fresh brakes will help when you are navigating rush hour traffic during the winter.
The items on this list, by contrast, are much less expensive than something like a new set of tires. However, each of them will give you an edge when Old Man Winter comes knocking. And each of the items on this list you can do at home.
#1: Change The Oil & Filter
We recommend a full synthetic to protect your engine as the temperatures drop. In general, synthetic oil does a better job of keeping your engine clean and free from the deposits and sludge that hinder performance and efficiency. If you have never run a synthetic before, doing so will help flush out any muck leftover from conventional oil. Contrary to popular belief, it will not harm your engine to switch to a synthetic.
Concerning winter weather specifically, conventional oils take longer to flow through your engine after it is first started. This is not the most ideal situation if your vehicle sits outside every night in freezing temperatures. You might sometimes hear the expression that synthetic oils get “to the top” of the engine quicker. This is to say a synthetic oil rushes through the engine faster because of its chemical composition. In the contest between synthetic and conventional oil, a synthetic will provide immediate lubrication even though the engine is still “cold” after being started.
On the Advance Auto Parts site, you go through a quick three-step process: first, select your vehicle, then select the oil type and weight, and then select the filter. Advance Auto Parts has Castrol EDGE and Valvoline synthetic oil bundles for high-mileage vehicles, and a Mobil 1 bundle specifically for trucks and SUVs. Right now, many of the synthetic oil bundles from Advance Auto Parts come with a premium K&N or Carquest oil filter.
Advance Auto Parts has its synthetic oil bundles priced about the same as what a conventional oil change goes for. Given the lower price and higher quality of the oil, one of the synthetic bundles Advance Auto Parts offers is the way to go.
#2: Check Your Battery
Given the longer shelf life of car batteries, they tend to fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” category. In other words, you never realize you need a battery until your car refuses to start. And, of course, this always happens at the most inconvenient times.
If you cannot remember when you last checked your battery, now is the time. Advance Auto Parts has a tremendous selection of batteries from top brands like Optima, Autocraft, and DieHard. If you have never installed a battery before, or need a refresher, don’t sweat it. Advance Auto Parts provides this helpful guide, complete with a video demonstration.
In the past, we have had good luck with Optima Batteries. In general, there are three different types: the RedTop, YellowTop, and BlueTop. The RedTop is a good “all-around” battery, while the YellowTop is best for a vehicle with more accessories than the average car (like a work truck, service van, or 4×4 vehicle). The BlueTop is a marine and RV battery. This comprehensive Optima Batteries guide will explain more, although if you have a “daily driver,” we recommend the RedTop from Advance Auto Parts.
The Optima RedTop is specifically designed for all types of vehicles and weather conditions with its SpiralCell Technology. Overall, the RedTop delivers more starting power in a shorter amount of time versus a traditional battery.
Pro Tip: Keeping a portable jump starter in your vehicle during the winter can help if you have an unexpected dead battery. We recently reviewed the 1200A Shell Jump Portable Starter and believe it’s a solid product.
#3: Change Your Air Filter
If you cannot remember the last time you looked at your air filter, it might be time to change it. Once you have removed your air filter (they are easy to locate), you can do a quick visual check. Most air filters are white or off-white when they are new. As you drive, they turn darker over time as they catch dust, dirt, and debris. While discoloration is typical on an air filter, if it looks excessive, go ahead and replace it.
If the material appears fringy and tattered, or the seal around the top of the filter is coming loose, it’s time for a new one. Really nasty air filters may look like a bird’s nest! Mice tend to snack on air filters (yummy!) as well, so if your car has been sitting, be mindful of that possibility. If your air filter looks like critters have used it as a buffet line, toss it and get a new one.
Advance Auto Parts carries trusted brands like Carquest, Purolator, K&N, ACDelco, and Motorcraft. Just enter the year, make, and model of your vehicle to see which brands are available. The newer and cleaner your air filter, the better your gas mileage will be.
Pro Tip: Your vehicle may also have a cabin air filter, depending on the make and model. Cabin air filters help prevent dust, pollen, and other particles from getting inside while you drive. Like the regular air filter, if you pull out your cabin air filter and it looks like a bird’s nest, pitch it and get a new one.
#4: Your Serpentine Belt Is Essential
Since serpentine belts have a longer life span, they also fall into that “out of sight, out of mind” category. On this list, the serpentine belt is the hardest one to do yourself as it requires special tools, and you have to make sure to route the new belt correctly. Still, it’s an essential item to check before winter.
You can do so visually by taking a flashlight and looking at the belt’s underside (the side with the grooves). If your belt has a significant number of cracks or appears frayed or “brittle,” consider a new one before winter. Similarly, if you hear a squeak or squealing noise under the hood, a bad serpentine belt is probably to blame.
Like a dead battery, if your belt snaps, it will be during an inconvenient time. There is absolutely no way of driving your vehicle if this happens, and you must call a tow truck. A good serpentine belt is essential for winter because it drives vital engine components like the alternator, power steering pump, and water pump. If the belt snaps, your vehicle is immobilized immediately.
Advance Auto Parts has serpentine belts from high-quality brands like Carquest and Driveworks. Serpentine belts are relatively inexpensive, so all the more reason to put a new one on before winter.
Pro Tip: Your vehicle may have a smaller accessory belt depending on the make and model. Given our personal experience with GM trucks and SUVs over the last decade (all had accessory belts), we always recommend double-checking your own vehicle.
#5: Pitch Old Wiper Blades
Bad wipers blades will give themselves away by the streaks they leave on your windshield. Over time, the rubber will wear down and may no longer make contact with the windshield. If this happens, you may continually see a leftover blob of water in your sightline. Bad wipers have a habit of missing spots like this.
Like your air filter and serpentine belt, you can do a visual inspection of your wipers. Be mindful of cracks and cuts, or if the rubber appears to be peeling. Given how difficult winter driving can be, and how easy they are to replace, a fresh set of wipers will go a long way.
Our favorite wiper blades are the Rain-X Latitudes, which are good in all types of weather, clean our windshields better, and tend to last longer than other brands.
Frequently Asked Questions
Even if I change all of the items on this list, should I still see a mechanic?
Ideally, yes. Experienced technicians can look for other, not so obvious problems that are important to address before winter. A check engine light, fluid puddles on your garage floor, and any shake or odd noise are good reasons to visit your mechanic before winter.
What is the best way to maintain my vehicle?
One of the best places to look is in your owner’s manual. Every owner’s manual has a recommended maintenance (or similarly named) section. This section details what services the manufacturer recommends and at what mileage intervals.
However, the mileage intervals for certain services may not match up with how you use your vehicle. For example, you may consider flushing and exchanging your vehicle’s primary fluids earlier if you fall into a heavy-usage category (like towing a trailer frequently). We live in Michigan, where winters can be frigid, so we service our major fluids before the recommended intervals. It’s a peace of mind thing for us. Talk to your mechanic to get their input and go from there.
In the meantime, we have put together this helpful guide on what to check on your vehicle every so often. Doing so will help you keep your car running for the long haul.
What should I put in a Winter Emergency Kit?
Your emergency kit should include: a flashlight, jumper cables or portable jump starter, salt or kitty litter, a small shovel, scraper, flares or glow sticks, matches or pocket lighter, candles, food and water, medication, an extra set of clothing, spare blankets, an extra phone charger, and a road atlas. Include anything else you think will best serve you in the event you are stranded.
To help you better prepare for winter, please consult this free and helpful guide. It includes a comprehensive checklist for getting your vehicle winterized, driving tips that will help keep you and your family safe, and how to respond during an emergency, among other things.