How to Drive in Snow, Sand, or Mud—and Get Your Car Unstuck

Couple Pushing Car Out of Mud
 David Madison / Getty Images

It’s winter, and that means anywhere it snows—from Tahoe to Tallahassee—you’ll see cars flipped over or stuck in ditches pretty much the second a flake of white stuff falls from the sky.

And because we don’t want this to happen to you, we’re offering some professional tips, courtesy of guides who teach off-roading for a living and the folks at Bridgestone (makers of Blizzak tires, which just so happen to be the best-selling winter rubber on earth).

A caveat: Life is uncertain; driving can be dangerous. But some of what we’re suggesting should up your odds of surviving winter, not to mention driving off-road, no matter the season.

1. Practice

The first lesson is to get comfortable with the ideas we’re offering, and that means practicing. Get more familiar with your car, learn how to drive it in adverse conditions, and study how to avoid dire circumstances in the first place. Don’t wait until the blizzard of the century hits to learn how to drive in bad weather.

Also: Just in case you do break down or get stuck, make sure you pack several items in your car just in case (more on that in a bit). Yes, you can always call for roadside assistance, but dialing an 800 number always fails to work at exactly the worst time, like when it’s -7° outside, it’s 11 p.m., and OnStar or AAA is overwhelmed with other callers.

2. Be prepared

You need the following items in your car, and you need to know how they work and how to use them.

  1. A gallon jug of water, which is handy for everything from washing off greasy hands, hydrating, or topping up a radiator.
  2. A heavy mover’s blanket and a 6×6′ piece of tarp, both useful for warmth as well as kneeling on the ground to change a flat.
  3. If the spare tire in your car is a can of fix-a-flat or a lousy donut on a skinny rim (if you don’t know you should check), shop eBay or Craigslist for a used rim that’s the same size as the ones that come stock and get a full-size tire mounted on it. Why? Because donuts are speed- and distance-restricted, so you might not even be able to make it home on that flimsy piece of baloney.
  4. Be sure to have jumper cables. Better yet, get Antigravity’s XP10 portable jumper pack and tire inflator kit. (We’ll explain why the tire inflator is key even if you don’t have a flat.)
  5. Test out the jack and tire iron that came with your car. We bet they suck, because all stock tools that come with cars these days do. So once you learn this, go to the auto parts store and you’ll learn that even cheap alternatives are superior and far easier to use. We suggest a breaker bar for the lug nuts and keeping a ratchet wrench and the correct-size socket for those nuts, too. The latter will hugely speed the process of wheel replacement.
  6. If you’re headed somewhere remote enough that you might get stuck, you should consider traction matting. Matting is sort of like a portable bridge you lay down to get you across an obstacle your tires otherwise won’t be able to grip. We like GoTreads Traction Mats, which can stack, so they eat less room in your rig. And again: practice using these before you need to.

3. Know your mojo (and its limitations)

Trick question: How will four-wheel drive help you stop skidding on black ice? Answer: It won’t. Four-wheel or all-wheel drive is only useful under power. It can help you get going from a dead stop, but once your car is actually moving, it does nothing. You could be in a rear-wheel-drive Ferrari or a lifted 4×4, and if both cars hit a patch of ice while initiating a turn, both will begin to slide.

Both only have four tires, and in both cases the contact patch with the ground is about the size of the meat of your palm. The total area of that contact patch is only a little larger than an 8×11″ sheet of paper. One reason so many SUVs end up stuck in snow: Drivers mistakenly think four-wheel drive implies some sort of superhero power. It absolutely doesn’t.

4. Know the conditions

Whether it’s 33° after a day of pounding rain, bone-dry, and -5°, or 75° and sunny with a strong chance of mushy sand on the Arizona fire road you’re about to ascend, you need to know about conditions before you go anywhere. There are plenty of driver-focused sites detailing conditions in popular off-road routes.

Most important: Do the most basic test of all—bend down and actually touch the road on which you’re about to drive. Remember: The only control you have is the contact patches of rubber that touch the tarmac. If that asphalt is as slick as snot, you can find out first with your hand, without driving an inch. That knowledge will inform what you do next.

5. Get moving

No matter what vehicle you’re driving—AWD, two-wheel drive, etc.—it’s key to understand the tech you have. Every new car sold for the past few years has stability and traction control, regardless of which wheels are driven by the engine. These systems (basically) use the antilock braking system to prevent tires from spinning. Stability control largely works once you’re already underway, but traction control tries to interfere to stop wheels from spinning as you try to get rolling. In a lot of circumstances—a few inches of snow on a driveway or when your car is parked on sand—traction control won’t let the wheels spin at all.

The fine art of getting unstuck requires practice, say the experts at Overland Experts School in Connecticut, who teach everyone from Navy SEALs to utility crews how to drive. You need to first learn how to turn off traction control. Then, you want to apply just the right amount of throttle to get the car to budge; too much wheelspin will dig the tires in. Can’t get the car to move going forward? Try reverse, very gently on the gas. Then forward, then back again. The idea is to get the car to move with the least amount of power, and then to keep moving very, very slowly. Nothing will get you back in the ditch quicker than too much gas.

6. Keep moving

Once underway, you can turn stability/traction control back on. Staying light on the gas and driving gently will keep you safest in messy conditions. Whether you’re on a racetrack in 70° conditions or on a frozen Swedish lake, tires are really only designed to handle one input well at a time, the pros at OEX explain. (It’s why you’ll watch Formula 1 drivers do all their braking right up to a turn, but get off the brakes into the corner.)

Braking is especially important when driving on snow or mud. At a Volvo program I attended last winter (on a frozen lake in Sweden), we were taught to allow an incredibly long time to brake. Letting the car slow down from just 30m.p.h. seemed to take achingly long.

Don’t believe us? Head to a snowy empty parking lot (be very, very certain you know where every light pole and shopping cart is), start out at 10mph, jam on the brakes, and see how long it takes to actually come to a halt. Try again at 25mph. You could easily see double or triple the braking distance vs. dry conditions. That’s why you’re really in danger if you’re following too closely in the snow, says Will Robbins, a product manager for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations. “Remember basics like allowing more time to brake and keeping more distance between vehicles,” Robbins says.

7. Know how to tow

Towing is an essential skill—both for getting unstuck from a snow bank or a ditch, or for helping someone else get back to pavement. Having a tow strap in your car or truck is essential, as is reading the owner’s manual so you know the tow points on your vehicle. Never towed with your rig? You now have an excuse to practice.

Partner with a friend, go to a chunk of closed or seldom-used road (dead-ends in rural areas are ideal), and carefully experiment with towing. Try towing from different angles, too; if someone stuffed their car into a snow back sideways, you may not have enough run-out room on the opposite side of the road to pull them directly out. What to do? Tow a little bit at a time, disconnect, and start again. Be patient, and logical. If you have to pull the stuck vehicle sideways you’re going to have to break that down into small pieces, perhaps only a foot at a time. This is a matter of very basic leverage, so if it looks like it won’t work…it probably won’t.

8. Use less air

Let’s say you’re stuck and no amount of reversing or trying to move forward will get you unstuck. What now? While Robbins doesn’t love this idea (he works for a tire maker!), there’s a little hack, called “airing down” that OEX recommends you can try to get underway. The only caveat: You can shred a tire if you do it wrong.

“Airing down” works because removing air increases the tire’s contact with the ground. More ground contact equals more traction and, essentially, a longer lever against the ground. Lowering a tire from 30psi to 15psi is potentially plenty of airing down to add enough traction to get you moving. If it gets you close but not quite there, another 3psi drained might not seem like it would make a massive difference, but that’s 1/5th of what’s left in the tire. Yes, the tire will look nearly flat, and yes, once you’re unstuck you have another challenge: finding a way to inflate the tires. That’s why we recommend having an inflator that works off your car’s 12-volt jack. Know that you can drive SLOWLY on tires with little air. But Robbins’ concern is valid: A deflated tire is going to greatly underperform at braking and cornering at speed, so the more you air down the more you have to drive very gingerly.

9. Consider a rubber upgrade

Bridgestone’s Robbins explains why winter tires work better than stock all-seasons very succinctly: It’s the rubber. The rubber compound in winter tires is more pliable in the cold. A summer tire at, say, 40°, can feel as hard plastic and not very grippy at all.

Snow tires also create more surface area. “Think about making a snowball,” Robbins says. “Snow sticks to snow. Winter tires are designed with a tread pattern that packs in as much snow as possible as the tire rolls, which in turn provides snow-on-snow traction.” You’ll see that extra surface in the hundreds of tiny cuts, known as sipes, in the tread wall of the tire. The zig-zag shape of those sipes also allows the tire to grab better, Robbins explains.

Our suggestion: Mount winter tires on a set of inexpensive steel rims that you can swap with your regular wheels come springtime. Those rims will cost you a few hundred bucks, tops, and they’ll pay for themselves quickly because you won’t have to pay to have your winter tires mounted and unmounted every winter.