Winter Driving in Canada

Across the country, this past week has seen huge snowfalls. Together with the snow come the unique driving conditions of our Canadian winter.

From driveway to sidewalk to road, it's all whiteness.
From driveway to sidewalk to road, it’s all whiteness.

The Roads:

In the winter, roads are no longer distinct, clearly marked routes. They are simply a blanket of white. Everything is buried. The roads, oncoming lanes, sidewalks, all look the same. Instead of lanes, drivers follow the tire tracks of the cars before them. In parking lots, drivers take their best guess of where the stalls are. Not only can we not see where we are supposed to be, but also the ground is slippery, rutted, and often hiding ice. Ice under a layer of freshly fallen show is common. So is black ice: a thin, invisible layer of ice over the road that a driver may not see until their car is sliding.

Tire tracks, but no visible road.
Tire tracks, but no visible road.

The Dangers:

Hitting the gas pedal too hard could cause your tires to spin in place. They will heat up the snow under them turning it to water. Quickly, this water will freeze and your car is now stuck on a patch of ice. Hitting the brakes too hard will cause your car to slid. The slightest turn of the wheel or bump on the road will cause the car to turn, even spin. Turning corners too quickly could cause the car to slip sideways or the back end to swing out. When a driver over-corrects this and the back end now slides in the opposite direction, the car is now ‘fish-tailing’. The back end is flapping back and forth like a fish’s tail.

Barely visible lanes and a snow bank as tall as my car.
Barely visible lanes and a snow bank as tall as my car.

The Stunts:

For the adventurist or teenager, the snow adds to a few fun tricks. In an empty parking lot, cranking the wheel in one direction will cause the car to spin in circles – or doughnuts, as we say. Many enjoy using the emergency or parking brake to turn corners as it locks up the wheels and can be steered into a measured slide.

The Annoyances:

Of course, there is the major pain of shovelling the snow out of your driveway and your sidewalk. We also have huge walls of snow pushed off the roads by snow plows. These need to be shovelled away from driveways and limit our visibility. These snow banks may also end up burying a car that was parked on the side of the road, or eliminate parking spaces. And a point that often impresses people from warmer climates: If the car is going to be parked outside, and it’s a long, cold night, many people plug their cars in. The car has a block heater that need to be plugged into an extension cord to keep things warm enough to work the next morning.

The snow is piled several feet high.
The snow is piled several feet high.

The Survival:

The number one rule is to go slow! Even if you were driving at 50 or 60 km/hour before, you should go 30, or 20 if there is any hazard nearby. Everything has to be slow. Slowly press the gas. Begin braking half a block before a stop sign. Even if you start to lose control of your vehicle, you do not want to react too suddenly. Always steer in the direction that you WANT to go. Steering too hard in the opposite direction will simply cause the car to spin out in the opposite direction. Finally, always have your winter tires! Sure it’s a struggle to drag them out of your garages, basements, attic rafters and replace the set of summer tires on the car; but winter tires stay flexible in the cold, grip ice better, and will keep you pointed in the right direction. Get them on before the first snowfall in November and keep them on until the highways are safe in April. Yes, that’s right, in Canada, our winter lasts about five months!

The snow shovel.
The snow shovel.

Our winter roads have caused highway closures, vehicles stuck in ditches, fatal crashes, and school closures this past week. Welcome to Canadian winter roads.

Read more:
Vancouver’s sushi scene: “thank you, Japan!”
Picture Postcards: snowy Swiss chalet
Balea Lake – an ice hotel in Romania

About the author

Kelly Pohorelic
Kelly is a BC girl through and through, but never lasts at home very long before her feet start itching. She has travelled repeatedly to Australia, Europe, and Mexico (and the US, but that doesn't really count). The goal is every continent, but in every place she goes, there is only more to see. She currently fills the days working too many hours with children, writing, and learning Spanish. Though, friends will always find her in a kitchen filled with new recipes from the countries she has visited.
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5 Comments

  • Great post Kelly! It’s a good choice of topic. Where I grew up, in the north of England, we generally get 1-2 weeks of snow per winter. So everyone more or less knows the basics of snow driving. There’s nothing this extreme though! If it snows too much, my parents just don’t leave the house. I guess that’s not an option if winter lasts five months.

  • Kelly, this is very useful. There are a lot of things I didn’t know. Although I don’t think I’ll ever drive in Canada :) I’ll let my hubby deal with it. We’re in Ottawa right now and there isn’t that much snow, thank God.

  • Thanks!

    I thought it was a major part of Canadian winter culture, since it can be a concern for so many months and has a large impact on daily activities. The cultural differences became clear when I spent early December in the UK and people, as you say Liz, just stayed inside.

    Ana, even if you don’t drive here, now you can know what you’re talking about. “Watch out for black ice” “Steer where you want to go”. I’m sure your husband will appreciate it ;)

  • In other parts of the world, I heard that they are faking snowfall and the people are enjoying it. In Canada it is natural and causing problems, but still others can find a way to have fun and enjoy it. I like those pictures. They’re beautiful. I am looking forward for more of your post.

  • Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of ways to enjoy the snow here! Skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling.. and just being a kid with snowballs, sleds, forts..

    It is just when it covers the roads and highways that it can make daily driving dangerous.