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Maintaining a Car in Winter

Maintaining a Car in Winter

Canadian winters can be extremely harsh on vehicles. From frigid temperatures to snow, ice and salt on the roads, vehicles face a number of unique challenges in cold weather that require diligent maintenance and preparation. Without proper care, winter conditions can lead to a variety of issues such as dead batteries, engine problems, damaged brakes, rust and corrosion.

It’s critical to take preventative steps to get your vehicle ready before winter hits, as well as stay vigilant with maintenance throughout the season. Things like checking fluid levels, testing the battery, inspecting the tires and undercarriage, ensuring lights and wipers are functioning properly are all key to safe winter driving. Additionally, altering your driving style and habits to accommodate slippery roads is paramount.

By following some simple best practices on winterizing and maintaining your vehicle, you can avoid many cold weather issues. Your vehicle will be safe, reliable and ready for whatever a Canadian winter throws at it.

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Check Fluids

One of the most important aspects of winter car maintenance is checking and topping up your vehicle’s fluid levels. The extreme cold temperatures can cause fluids to thicken and engine components to wear faster, so it’s critical that levels are maintained.

Start by checking the engine coolant level and condition. Coolant helps regulate engine temperature and prevent freezing. Over time it breaks down and becomes less effective. Have a service technician drain, flush and refill the cooling system before winter.

Be sure to use the proper coolant strength for your vehicle and climate. Most modern cars use long-life coolant that lasts 5 years or 150,000km. Check your owner’s manual for the recommended type.

Next, get the oil and filter changed if needed. Cold weather can cause sludge build-up, so fresh oil ensures proper lubrication. Refer to your maintenance schedule, as most cars need changes every 5,000-8,000km.

Finally, top up the windshield washer fluid reservoir with winter-grade fluid. This contains antifreeze to prevent freezing in the lines and nozzles. Always keep it full to clear snow, ice and road salt from your windshield.


Inspect Battery

Your battery is one of the most important components for reliable winter starting. Cold temperatures can sap battery power, so it’s critical to inspect the battery ahead of winter.

First, check the battery terminals and clean them if there is any corrosion present. Use a wire brush to scrub away corroded areas, then re-connect and tighten the terminals. Clean terminals ensure proper contact and power flow.

Next, have the battery tested to determine if it holds a full charge. Most auto parts stores will do this free of charge. A battery should hold at least 80% charge. If it’s lower, it’s time to replace it.

Finally, check the battery’s age – most only last 3-5 years in cold climates. If your battery is older, plan to replace it even if it passes a charge test. Starting a weak or old battery in winter is when you’ll experience issues.

Installing a new battery with full cranking power will give you peace of mind on frigid winter mornings. Taking steps to inspect battery terminals, charge level and age now will help ensure reliable starts all winter long.


Check Tires

Regularly checking your tires is one of the most important aspects of winter car maintenance. As temperatures drop, tire pressure decreases, so you’ll need to check and adjust tire pressure more frequently. The general recommendation is to check tire pressures at least once a month in the winter. Use a quality tire pressure gauge and inflate your tires to the manufacturer’s recommended pressure listed on the sticker inside the driver’s door jamb or in your owner’s manual.

In addition to maintaining proper inflation, be sure to check your tires’ tread depth as the winter weather approaches. The legal minimum tread depth is 1.6mm, but experts recommend at least 3mm of tread for safe winter traction and braking. If your tread depth is nearing the minimum, it’s advisable to replace your tires before winter arrives.

Rotating your tires helps maintain even tread wear, so this is a good maintenance task to perform in the fall. Most manufacturers recommend rotating every 5,000-8,000 miles. When rotating, be sure to move the front tires to the rear and vice versa so they wear evenly.

Finally, invest in a good set of winter tires, or at least all-season tires with severe snow service rating. Winter tires are engineered specifically to provide superior traction, braking, and handling in cold weather and snowy conditions. They can make a huge difference in safe winter driving. Be sure to have winter tires installed before the first snowfall.


Wash Undercarriage

Salt, sand and grime from winter roads can build up on the undercarriage of your vehicle. This can lead to corrosion and rust if left in place. Make a habit of washing the underbody of your car at least once a month in winter.

Use a pressure washer to spray the wheel wells and components underneath like control arms, springs and drive shafts. Be sure not to directly spray sensitive components like wheel bearings. Removing built-up grime will prevent premature wear.

For hard to reach spots, use a degreaser and stiff brush. Rinse thoroughly and allow to fully dry before parking again. A clean undercarriage will help prevent rust and deterioration.


Check Lights

Checking all your lights is an essential part of winter car maintenance. With fewer daylight hours and inclement weather, properly functioning headlights, brake lights, and turn signals are critical for safe winter driving.

Inspect all exterior lights and replace any burnt out bulbs. Headlights illuminate the road and make your vehicle visible to other drivers. Make sure they are aimed properly and not foggy or cracked. Replace headlight bulbs in pairs to keep brightness and color temperature consistent.

Brake lights alert drivers behind you when you are stopping. Check that all brake lights come on fully when pressed. Turn signals communicate your intended direction. Verify blinker function and speed on both sides. Consider replacing standard bulbs with longer lasting LEDs.

Clean road grime, salt, and snow buildup off lenses to maximize light output. Check for moisture or cracks that can diminish illumination. Proper lighting gives you better vision and communicates your actions clearly to other motorists for safe winter driving.


Inspect Wipers

One of the most important parts of winter car maintenance is checking your windshield wipers and replacing them as needed. Wiper blades take a beating during the winter from snow, ice, and road salt. Over time, the blades will wear out and no longer clear your windshield properly.

Before winter hits, inspect each wiper blade carefully. Look for any cracks, splits, or other damage. Bend the blades to check their flexibility – they should snap back into shape. If the rubber is hardened or stiff, the wipers are due for replacement.

Also check that the wiper blades fully contact the windshield across their entire length. Any skipping or streaking indicates they are not making proper contact and need to be swapped out.

Plan to install new winter-rated wiper blades that are designed to withstand freezing temperatures and snow buildup. Silicone or rubber-coated blades work best. Be sure to get the proper sizes for your make and model.

With fresh wiper blades, fill the windshield washer reservoir with winter cleaning fluid that contains antifreeze. This will prevent the spray nozzles from freezing up.

By inspecting and replacing your wipers before winter, you’ll have clear visibility all season long.


Check Heater/Defroster

Ensuring your heater and defroster are working properly is crucial for safe winter driving. Start by turning on the heat and make sure warm air blows out the vents. Set the temperature to high heat and allow the engine to fully warm up. Feel the air coming out and confirm it gets hot. Switch the settings to defrost and verify the air blows strongly against the windshield.

Check that the defroster is able to clear frost and fog from the windshield in a reasonable amount of time. If airflow is weak or the air is not getting hot, there may be issues with the heater core, blend door actuator, blower motor or a restriction in the system. Take your vehicle to a professional mechanic to diagnose and repair any heater or defroster problems.

Having good visibility is imperative for winter driving. Make fixing any issues with your defroster or heater a high priority. This can prevent dangerous situations where frost buildup or fog obscures your view of the road.


Touch Up Paint

Winter weather can take a toll on your car’s paint job. Road salt, sand, and gravel kicked up by other vehicles can lead to paint chips and clear coat damage. Left untreated, these areas can start to rust and flake. Touching up chips and flaws in the paint with the proper color-matched paint pens or kits can help prevent further damage. This prevents moisture from getting underneath the paint and causing rust. It also protects the metal from corrosion.

Inspect the entire exterior of your car frequently during winter. Look for any small dings, chips, scratches or areas where the clear coat has been damaged. Always wash and thoroughly dry the car before applying any paint. Shake the paint pen vigorously and dab on thin layers of paint to build up the damaged area. Allow proper drying time between coats. Once the touch-up paint has dried, apply a layer of clear coat paint pen to seal and protect it. This keeps your car looking its best all winter long.


Warm Engine Before Driving

In frigid winter temperatures, the last thing you want is to hop in your vehicle and immediately hit the road. Trying to drive when your engine is stone cold can lead to issues like poor fuel economy, sluggish performance, and increased component wear. That’s why it’s recommended to warm up your engine a bit before setting out in winter.

The easiest way to warm your engine is by idling the car. Let it run for a few minutes, which gives the oil time to circulate and metal parts to expand slowly to operating temperature. Idling for more than 10 minutes, however, is unnecessary and wastes fuel. A better option is using a block heater if your vehicle has one. Plugging in the block heater before starting the car will heat the engine coolant, which in turn warms critical components like the battery and oil.

Resist the temptation to immediately drive hard when first starting off in winter. Go easy on the throttle and avoid high revving until your car has warmed up. Following proper warm-up procedures will increase performance and reduce wear and tear on your vehicle in cold weather.


Remove Snow and Ice

It’s critical to clear any snow and ice buildup from your vehicle before driving in the winter. Make sure to thoroughly remove snow and ice from all of the following areas:


  • Windshield – Use an ice scraper to clear frost, snow and ice from the windshield. Start the defroster early to help melt any ice on the windshield.
  • Side and Rear Windows – Brush or scrape off snow from all side and rear windows. Make sure you have full visibility.
  • Headlights and Taillights – Carefully clear any snow or ice from headlights, taillights, turn signals and backup lights so they are fully visible.
  • Roof – Use a snow brush to remove all snow from the roof, being careful around any roof racks or attachments. Snow left on the roof can slide down and obstruct your view.
  • Mirrors – Ensure side mirrors and rearview mirror are completely free of snow and ice obstruction.
  • Around Wheels – Clear snow and ice around wheel wells so it doesn’t obstruct steering.
  • Undercarriage – Check under the car for packed snow or ice around the underside or wheel wells and remove any buildup.


Allow extra time before trips to properly clear your entire vehicle. Driving with snow or ice obstructing your view is extremely dangerous.


Drive Slowly

When driving in winter conditions, it’s crucial to go slow and be cautious. Leave plenty of space between you and the vehicle in front – at least 3 seconds worth. Increase your following distance even more if the roads are slippery. Avoid sudden accelerations, braking, and sharp turns which can cause skids. Take it slow when starting from a full stop, gently accelerating. Don’t jam on the brakes – pump them slowly to stop gradually. Being patient and driving defensively will prevent winter driving accidents.


Store Your Vehicle Properly

If you plan on storing your vehicle for an extended period during the winter months, proper storage is key to protecting it from the elements and preventing issues when you go to start it up again. Here are some tips for storing your car over the winter:


  • Use a battery tender – Connecting your battery to a battery tender or trickle charger will maintain the charge over months of no use. This prevents the battery from draining and allows for easy starting when you need it.
  • Add fuel stabilizer – Fuel stabilizers prevent gasoline from deteriorating when stored for long periods. Add the recommended amount to a full tank before storing.
  • Inflate tires fully – Overinflate your tires 5-10 psi over the recommended pressure before storage to prevent flat spots from developing.
  • Change oil – Old oil can condense moisture during storage, so change it before storing your vehicle.
  • Cover it up – Use a fitted car cover specifically made for storage. This will protect the paint, interior, and components from dust, dirt, moisture, and pests.


Properly storing your vehicle over the winter months will keep it in good shape until you need to drive it again when the warmer weather returns.


Maintenance Schedule

To keep your car in optimal condition for winter driving, follow a regular maintenance schedule. This includes preventative maintenance in the fall to get your vehicle ready for cold weather, as well as ongoing maintenance throughout the winter season.

In early fall, take your car in for a pre-winter inspection and tune-up. Key things to check include:


  • Flushing and refilling coolant
  • Testing antifreeze strength
  • Changing oil and filter
  • Checking battery and terminals
  • Inspecting windshield wipers
  • Checking tire tread depth
  • Rotating tires if needed
  • Checking all fluid levels


Come springtime, be sure to get any winter-related repairs taken care of such as fixing paint chips or dents, cleaning salt residue from undercarriage, and addressing any mechanical issues that arose over the cold months.

Following a proactive maintenance schedule before and after winter will ensure your vehicle stays in solid running condition despite the harsh elements.



In summary, proper winter car maintenance is crucial for vehicle safety, performance and longevity during Canada’s harsh winters. By following the preventative maintenance tips outlined in this guide before winter sets in, you can get your car fully prepared. Ongoing vigilance with fluid levels, battery, tires, cleaning off salt and grime, warming the engine, and safe winter driving habits will help ensure your vehicle lasts through the cold months in good running condition. Investing some time and effort into winterizing your car will give you peace of mind that your vehicle is ready to handle whatever winter weather comes its way.

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Questions About Maintaining a Car in Winter

It’s important to thoroughly inspect your car before the cold Canadian winter sets in. First, check all fluids including engine oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid, windshield washer fluid, and coolant. Top them up as needed. Next, examine your battery’s charge level and the condition of the terminals. Clean any corrosion, retighten connections, and have the battery tested. You’ll also want to inspect the belts and hoses for wear and have them replaced if needed. Finally, get your tire tread depth measured and consider switching to winter tires for enhanced traction.

Industry experts recommend changing your engine oil every 3,000-5,000 km or 3-6 months in the winter. The frequent cold starts and stop-and-go driving of winter takes a heavy toll on engine oil, causing it to break down faster. Use synthetic or synthetic blend oils, which provide superior cold flow abilities to protect critical engine parts better in frigid temperatures. Shorter oil change intervals keep your engine running smoothly all winter long.

You’ll want to inflate your tires to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended pressure, typically found on a sticker inside the driver’s side door jamb. Adjust for the colder temperature – for every 10 degree Celsius drop, tire pressure decreases by 1 PSI on average. Under-inflated tires reduce handling and braking performance. Always check pressures when tires are cold for the most accurate reading. Investing in winter tires specially designed for snow and ice provides the best winter traction.

To avoid frozen gas lines, always keep your gas tank at least half full during the winter months. The extra fuel helps prevent condensation from forming, while a full tank slows down evaporation to keep ice from accumulating in the lines. Adding fuel line antifreeze is another good preventative measure – it displaces moisture and lowers the temperature at which water freezes in the system. Avoid pumping winter gas blends until the temperature is consistently below freezing.

The key is to warm up your engine gently on cold winter mornings. Start the vehicle and allow the engine to idle for 30 seconds up to a minute before driving off. This allows oil to circulate and prevent damage to engine components. Resist the temptation to rev the engine high while idling – the best way to warm it up faster is to begin driving. Go easy for the first few miles, avoiding quick acceleration or lugging the engine, until it reaches operating temperature.

To prevent your exhaust pipe from getting blocked in the winter, park in a garage whenever possible to keep snow buildup to a minimum. Avoid parking in drifts up against walls or fences. Melt any accumulated snow around and under your vehicle after each snowfall using a snow broom. Spray the inside of the pipe with silicone lubricant to make it harder for snow to stick. Leave your exhaust tip uncovered as you clear snow around your car. Check it regularly and clear any blockage safely with a rubber mallet or broom handle.

The best place to stow bulky winter gear is in the trunk whenever possible. Use storage bins, cargo nets, or organizers to neatly contain items and prevent them from shifting around. For smaller gear, utilize in-cabin storage spaces like the glove box, door pockets, seatback pouches, or under-seat compartments. Hang heavier coats on the rear coat hooks, brushing off any loose snow first. Always wring out wet gloves, hats, scarves and shake off mats outside the car before loading them in. Storing gear thoughtfully helps keep your car clean all winter.

To stop doors from freezing shut, start by parking your car in a garage whenever possible. Use a rubber door seal conditioner designed for winter to keep seals pliable, preventing water from seeping into the doors and freezing the locks. Give door jambs and seals an occasional spray with silicone lubricant as added insurance against freezing. Always fully close doors to keep out snow. Keep a de-icer spray like WD-40 in your car for freeing stuck locks or hinges in a pinch by spraying directly into any impacted areas.

Some must-have emergency gear includes jumper cables, a flashlight, ice scraper, snow brush, traction mats, warm blankets, non-perishable snacks, bottled water, a first aid kit and any necessary medications. Road flares, an emergency whistle, portable phone charger and shovel are also smart additions. Useful cold weather accessories like extra gloves, a hat, boots and an emergency mylar blanket take preparation up a notch. Having the right gear on hand gives peace of mind if you get stuck in a winter storm.

Reduced visibility makes winter driving challenging. Ensure all exterior lights are properly aimed and functioning, replace worn wiper blades, fill the washer fluid reservoir with winter formula fluid, and apply an anti-fog film to the inside of windows. Increase following distances to allow more reaction time. Clean all windows, mirrors and lights thoroughly before driving and invest in a set of winter wiper blades. Avoid covering vents that prevent fog and condensation buildup. Finally, have a professional apply protective treatments to headlights and install winter mats to minimize slush mess.

Winter front tires attach to the front steering tires of rear-wheel drive vehicles to add traction. Wait until temperatures have consistently dipped close to freezing before installing them, using soap lubricant to slide them on the tires. Inflate them to the recommended PSI found on the tire sidewall. When warm weather returns, fully deflate and remove them until next winter. Store out of direct sunlight and extreme heat to maximize longevity. Be aware these attachments don’t qualify as snow tires, so switch to dedicated winter tires for optimal performance.

Start by giving your car a good rinse with water to dissolve any built-up winter salt and grime. Pay special attention to the underside, wheel wells and bumpers where salt spray tends to accumulate. Mix a solution of car wash soap and warm water and wash your car as usual, using a soft sponge or brush. For more stubborn stains, use a gentle all-purpose cleaner. Be sure to thoroughly rinse your car after washing. Wipe the paint dry with a microfiber cloth and apply wax to protect the finish.

In snowy parts of Canada, aim to get a rust protection treatment every year before winter and after spring thaw. These oil-based coatings stick to metal surfaces and crevices that are vulnerable to corrosion, providing a water-repellent shield. Look for treatments containing corrosion inhibitors that actively prevent rust from taking hold. Getting on an annual application schedule protects your investment from the ravages of road salt.

Several modern vehicle technologies take the sting out of Old Man Winter’s bite. All-wheel drive systems power all four wheels for confident snow traction while heated seats, steering wheels and mirrors keep you toasty. Windshield wiper de-icers eliminate scraping on frosty mornings. Engine block heaters make cold starts a breeze after being plugged in overnight. Finally, advanced driver assistance features like traction/stability control and forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking deliver an extra measure of safety.

To maximize fuel efficiency as temperatures drop, remove excess cargo weight, avoid excessive idling, park in a garage when possible, and stick to the speed limit. Accelerate gently, use cruise control on highways, and combine short trips. Switch to synthetic engine oil, inflate tires to recommended pressures, and stay current on engine maintenance. Limit use of fuel-hungry accessories and avoid aggressive starts/stops. Finally, consider installing winter tires designed to reduce rolling resistance in cold weather conditions.

Only wash your car during daylight when temperatures are above freezing – harsh detergents and soap residue can freeze on paintwork overnight leading to damage. Dry your car thoroughly after washing, focusing on crevices and seams prone to rust. Use a chamois leather rather than terrycloth towel to avoid lint sticking to damp surfaces which can scratch clear coat. Move your car inside after washing to prevent exposure to salt spray kicked up from the roads which adheres easily to damp surfaces. Finally, wax paint monthly through winter for added protection.

Prevent snow ending up on your floors by designating a mat or towel for brushing snow off boots before getting in. Shake or sweep off as much loose snow as possible first. Invest in heavy-duty floor liners with deep ridges and consider using seat covers to simplify interior cleanup after stormy drives. Park in a garage whenever feasible to limit exposure. Check that door and trunk seals are intact so melting snow can’t seep in. Vacuum frequently and use interior detailing wipes on carpet and upholstery to prevent stains.

Plan to install winter wiper blades when daytime temperatures start averaging around 4°C or below. Look for winter blades with wraparound frames preventing snow and ice buildup in the joints, graphite-coated or rubber boot-protected attachments to prevent freezing to windshields, and natural rubber compounds that remain flexible in frigid conditions. Use the manufacturer recommendations to select the proper length for your vehicle. Properly maintaining winter blades keeps them clearing frost, snow and grime right through until spring.

To prevent your locks freezing, start by spraying lock de-icer into the key slot every few days as a preventative measure – this displaces moisture and keeps mechanisms moving freely. Apply silicone lubricant around the full perimeter of doors and trunk lids to stop water getting in and freezing locks from the inside. Keep a spare key in your wallet or pocket during winter just in case. If your lock does freeze, heat up the tip of the key for a few seconds using a lighter or match before gently inserting and turning the key.

When facing bitter sub-zero temperatures, start by plugging in your engine block heater overnight to guaranteed quick cold weather starts. Fully charge your battery and clean terminals to maximize cranking power needed for cold starts. Switch to synthetic oil formulated for extreme low temps. Fill up the tank with winter gasoline to prevent line freeze up & improve flow. Check antifreeze rating and top up your washer fluid with winter de-icer formula. Pack an emergency kit and make sure your tires have adequate winter tread. Finally, move your parking spot into the garage if possible!

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