In the past, I have asked a question on this exchange regarding driving a well-maintained car across the East Coast of the U.S. In that particular question, I wanted to know if it were safe for a car to drive those distances in such a short period (turns out it is actually optimal).

Now, I wonder whether or not it will be safe for me, not only my vehicle.

I have virtually no experience driving in wintry conditions. I've lived in snow when I was younger. I know how to prepare myself for it, but I do not know how to prepare or maintain a car in it, nor how to travel potentially long distances through it. The trip from FL to NY (Buffalo) is about ~1.3k miles (~2k km), where, by mid-December, I think it would be reasonable to expect icy conditions on more or less half the length of the route.

I have twice the experience driving the distance, not any for the conditions. As a virgin to driving long distances in such conditions, as a vehicle owner and operator, what are the more important notes one should regard when doing this thing?

There are potentially endless notes one could make on such a topic, so for "more important," I mean things which most who have experience with these matters would agree upon, things of common knowledge/conventional wisdom/norms.

For an answer:

  • perhaps some qualities of the conditions not inherently obvious to a newbie;
  • perhaps some of the potential actions of other drivers on the road which may not inherently make sense to a newbie;
  • perhaps some recount of a quote or of personal experience driving through such conditions;
  • and/or perhaps a list of items which may be desirable to have or prepare to have for the trip,

would be sufficient.

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    Not an answer but you're clearly overthinking it. – Cedric H. Sep 22 at 9:12
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    I don't think you've specified where in New York you're planning on going. The assumptions in the answers are that it's New York City, but going to NYC can be quite different than going to Buffalo, New York. – Mike Harris Sep 22 at 13:09
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    @B.fox Yes: going to NYC from the south, you'll only have trouble in the (somewhat unlikely) event of a December storm. Wintry weather in Buffalo is far more likely, and if it happens, far more severe. – Mike Harris Sep 22 at 13:15
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    @B.fox: Look up "lake effect snow". – Nate Eldredge Sep 22 at 18:01
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    My first day in the arctic circle (Tromso, Norway) I took a car skidding around a mostly-empty parking lot with some snow. On the last day of my trip, I skidded out at very low speed around a roundabout, and was able to correct course without leaving the roadway because I had already been in that situation with that car. It is illegal and a bit dangerous, but at first opportunity go learn how your car skids on water and ice. Nothing beats experience. – dotancohen Sep 23 at 10:53
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I actually make almost that same exact trip several times a year. Some of the other answers here are just downright dangerous. I can not stress enough that

Winter conditions are no joke and could cost you your safety and your life

We are very spoiled, at times when it comes to driving in the US. But for someone that is not used to driving here, winter conditions can be absolutely deadly.

Take a look at http://icyroadsafety.com/fatalitystats.shtml It has some useful, though generalized, and older info, but from experience, I can tell you that the biggest risk for winter driving is people that are not used to winter driving. If you're not used to it, or not used to driving here in the US. then you are at a greater risk.

That said information is your friend and can help mitigate the risks. You ask good questions, and I will provide tips. Keep in mind these are December tips. They don't hold true in the summer.

  • Once in Georga or further north, the risk of ice and snow is greater. The colder the weather, the greater the risk.
  • Of very high importance is ice on bridges. And some of the bridges are very long. Ice can form on bridges in whether that is in the 40s and 50s. The wind can cool the water on the bridge to freezing temperatures long before the ambient air temperature reaches freezing. Icy Bridge
    If you see a sign like this be aware they may be ice.
  • "Black Ice" is a real problem. You generally can't see it.
  • Never drive in the rain or snow if you're not experienced. Plan for getting "stuck" somewhere. It may seem silly, but it's worth it during the actual rain or snow.
  • Rain is actually a bigger risk than snow. Snow leaves this powder you can see, rain has a higher tendency to leave ice patches that you can't see.
  • Keep in mind, especially through mountain regions, that ice can form on the road long before the air temperature is freezing.

Now for some prep work to keep you safe.

  • Go slower. Both in speed and in general. Take your time.
  • Bring very warm clothes even if it's not that cold. Winter weather is more unpredictable, and especially in the mountains can change drastically as you drive. It may be 80 in Florida and below freezing along the way, with your destination in the 40s. I see that a lot. Bring extra blankets, coats, and clothes just for the car.
  • Be Exceptionally careful transitioning from the interstate to other roads. Interstates are usually addressed as soon as the weather permits, sometimes even in the storm. The side roads are a much lower priority. Sometimes not getting cared for until days or weeks later.
  • Choose stops that are larger. Rest areas are good, truck stops are good. Large gas stations (that you can see from the interstate are good). Small gas stations are worse. The larger the location the better chance winter-related issues are addressed.
  • Take road flares.
  • Be aware, before you travel for the day, what kind of whether you're getting into. If the weather changes then be ready to stop. That may mean stopping for the day (or even two) when you don't plan to.
  • Be aware of "Call boxes" and "Mile Markers" (in some places they are combined) You can see examples here Keep in mind that some states may not use them. For example, Flordia (the state in the example) is phasing them out in favor of the *FHP program, which is a number you can call from any cell phone Call Box
  • Which brings us to.. Stop at state welcome centers. Find out if there is a number to call if you get into trouble. Every state that I am aware of will have a number you can call, or call boxes. The idea is that if your break down, or get into a minor accident, you call that number and they dispatch help.
  • Keep your cell phone charged, and a phone charger in the car.
  • Keep track of where you are using mile markers. If you break down, especially in some rural areas, there may not be a landmark that both you and the person on the phone can recognize. Mile markers fix that. It's much better to search a mile (some states use tenths of miles) then half a state.

Which brings us to, what happens if you get into trouble

  • Don't Panic
  • Turn off the car
  • Use your cell phone, if you can, to call for aid
  • DO NOT CALL 911!!!!! Usually, that's the correct number, and if you can't think of anything else then it will do. But it's much faster to call the aid number you got at the welcome center. Your cell phone, while traveling, may not connect you to a local 911 operator. They will get you to the right person, but for non-emergencies, you could face fines. For emergencies, you may face long wait times as the dispatcher in some small town tries to find the right jurisdiction to hand your issue off to. Keep in mind that 911 service is based on where your cell phone bill goes, then where the tower your cell phone is talking to is. That may not always we close to where you are. Again, this is especially important in the mountains and rural areas.
  • STAY BY THE CAR!!!!! If you have to walk to a call box leave a note and a direction you started walking. Especially if it's cold, really be sure you don't have an option. Most states have "Road Rangers" that drive the interstates at intervals looking for cars in distress. That is another thing you can ask about at the welcome centers.
  • Dress warmly before you need to, it's better to stay warm than to have to warm up.
  • Don't use your car's heater for warmth. That's a good way to make a bad situation worse.
  • If it's evening or night time, deploy the road flares.
  • If you can pop your hood open (it's a sign that you need help)

    All this negative may make it seem like it's all "Mad Max" in the winter and it's not. It's all relatively safe, but if you don't know what you're doing, you can get into some serious trouble. This is mostly true for travelers from different countries or people that are not used to driving in the US. If you're a US taught driver then truck stops, gas stations, mile markers, and call boxes are like second nature. If you have never dealt with those things they can be a source of much confusion.

For all the naysayers that I am sure that will pop-up, please keep in mind that drivers from other countries see us as weird. I have had friends from European countries come over and expect to drive from one side of the country to the other in a few hours (because they can at home) or look me square in the eye and ask what a cup holder is for because their cars don't have them. I was once told that when they drive the activity is driving, and something like a cup holder or a drink is a distraction. Here (in the US) driving is something we do as matter of course. As is long distance driving. Same is true for a young or inexperienced driver that has never left a city.

  • I do not believe that wind can cool water on a bridge by more than a few degrees. Do you have any source supporting your assertion that it can cool it by over 18 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius)? – phoog Sep 23 at 15:06
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    @phoog: That is correct. The reason the signs exist is that when air temperatures are at or below freezing, bridges might have ice on them when other areas of the road do not -- mainly because they are not warmed by the ground. At night, bridges both collect condensation and freeze it faster than roadways laid on the ground. – Dave Tweed Sep 23 at 15:14
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    The advice about not calling 911 is also incorrect. 911 calls are handled specially -- they routed based on the tower receiving them, not based on the phone making the call. – Dave Tweed Sep 23 at 15:25
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    @phoog: It's rare, but it definitely can happen. On a clear night, radiative cooling from the black pavement to space can drop the bridge temperature below freezing. Hence, the signs. – Dave Tweed Sep 23 at 15:29
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    @coteyr Sadly, 911 may be the only way to get help. I live in a major midwestern US city and specifically looked up non-emergency police numbers to put in my cell phone. I called one once to report a traffic light out of order and was instructed by the officer who answered the phone at the station to call 911 to report it. – FreeMan Sep 24 at 19:27

The routes you mention are major freeways, and they will be plowed and salted if need be for snow. Snow is not a common occurrence on most of your intended route, and ice will be an issue only if you are quite unlucky and travel during a storm or shortly after. A few days every year, and sometimes zero. I have been on the New Jersey Turnpike during moderate snowfall. Traffic was still moving at 30 mph. You might have an issue on city streets as you approach your destination.

Having said that, at the time of this writing, the drive you intend is impossible today because of flooding.

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    "Snow is not a common occurrence on most of your intended route": I would go a bit farther than that and say that before mid December snow is quite rare even in the northern portions of that route (I live in New York City). – phoog Sep 22 at 0:59
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    Also it's not impossible to drive between Florida and New York right now; it's just necessary to take a detour. – phoog Sep 22 at 1:16
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    This is absolutely true.... if OP was stopping in New York City. They are not; they are going to Buffalo. – KRyan Sep 22 at 14:50
  • @KRyan that was not apparent when I posted these comments. Snow is a much greater concern around Buffalo, of course, and the route between Florida and Buffalo would not normally include the parts of I-95 that were closed when this answer was posted. – phoog Sep 23 at 14:46

Winter travel is much less predictable. It's not possible to give a blanket statement.

In general, travel on an interstate highway is just as easy in the winter as at other times, except that severe weather may be a bit more common, and the effects may last a bit longer. Icy driving is possible, but not to be expected even in winter. Icy conditions are very uncommon on the southern part of your route, even in the middle of winter.

I would want to have an idea ahead of time of what to do in case of severe winter weather. Say that you find just before you begin that New York is forecast to have a severe blizzard prior about the time of your planned arrival. Would you be able to stay in Florida a few extra days and arrive later after it clears? Would you be able to drive part way and stay in a hotel for a few days until the weather clears? Could you leave early if it would mean arriving ahead of the weather?

  • Know how to check road conditions. Most (all?) states have a web site with a transportation department that lists travel advisories and road closures.
  • Have an idea ahead of time of what you'll do if weather makes your original timeline difficult.

You almost-certainly will not see ice or snow on this route until past New York City unless you literally drive during a snow storm, which would be rare for that time of year, or if you drive immediately after a large snow storm, which would be rarer still. Those are low-lying coastal areas that don’t experience a lot of ice and snow in general, your time of year is too early for it anyway, and your route is large, major, heavily-traveled interstates that will be taken care of as soon as conditions permit. And heavy use itself can keep roads warmer than the surroundings, preventing much in the way of accumulation.

Once past New York City, at some point you have to head into the Catskills and Adirondacks. You’re talking about higher elevations and somewhat less-used roads. The odds are higher there—though still not very high at that time of year. And as you get farther west—towards the Great Lakes—annual snowfall can get quite extreme due to the lake effect, though Buffalo doesn’t get the worst of that. But again, mid-December is not the height of winter, and snowfall at that stage is unlikely to be too significant.

Anyway, the best advice I have for driving in snow is to only do one thing at a time: if you are braking, you are not turning, and if you are turning, you are not braking (you may in fact need to lightly accelerate to get proper traction). That does a lot to maintain control, and that mindset helps a great deal, because when coming up on a turn, you know you have to start slowing down well ahead of the turn because you want to be at the appropriate speed when you start turning, which is good practice. If you do spin out, you need to turn into the spin, which is counter-intuitive so spend some time thinking about what that means, how you do it, and why it works—I’m sure there are YouTube videos demonstrating it and explaining it. Understanding it can make you more likely to actually believe it and do it in a stressful situation.

  • I'm sorry but this is very risky advice. Likely to get an inexperienced driver in an accident or killed. – coteyr Sep 23 at 7:40
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    Turning without accelerating, at least in front-wheel-drive cars, is a good way to start a spin... But controlling your speed at the start of a curve is essential. (Of course in a rear-wheel-drive, don’t accelerate while turning, unless you’re a race driver.) – Stephen Kitt Sep 23 at 8:02
  • If you spin and don't have the training to know your car enough to end the spin, you hit the breaks. Forget turning. – DonQuiKong Sep 23 at 8:42
  • @coteyr It’s the advice I was given when I was inexperienced, and has in my experience worked. I don’t claim to have the world’s greatest mastery of snow driving—I’ve done a lot of it but I’m sure many have done a lot, lot more. Care to expand on that comment with something useful? – KRyan Sep 23 at 12:23
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    @DonQuiKong If your wheels are already sliding and not gripping, braking is irrelevant. Obviously you want to stop the car, but the brakes won’t be applied to your motion and won’t decelerate the car like they should. You have to (if I understand how this works myself) get the wheels lined up with the direction you’re moving and gripping again before the brakes can help. – KRyan Sep 23 at 12:30

The chances for wintry conditions have already been discussed.

If you are not used to drive longer distances, simply plan for more time, and break up your trip into three or four sections. If you do not have that time, consider Amtrak's Autotrain from Sanford FL to Lorton VA. That may be the most cultivated way to travel between Florida and the Northeast…

Now, for driving in cold and/or snowy conditions… Make sure that you have winter tyres, or at least new all-weather tyres. They say that winter tyres have better traction than summer tyres at temperatures below about 7°C.

It is possible that your car has traction control which reduces the acceleration; it most likely has an anti-skid system anyway. Otherwise, you'd have to drive more carfully, considering that your braking distance would be way higher. Carefully brake and accelerate, just to avoid slipping. Also do not make abrupt turns.

With that, you should be pretty safe.

Schedule your timing so that you're not going over the mountains (tennesee, kentucky) at night. Big rigs know the roads, and you don't!

  • Is that really much of a consideration on the interstate? – David Richerby Sep 22 at 16:23
  • Yes, 100% Yes. I make this trip all the time and yes, it is. – coteyr Sep 23 at 7:41
  • @DavidRicherby in icy conditions, yes, since it is colder at night so you are more likely to encounter treacherous ice at night, when it's also very much harder to see. If there's no threat of ice then it doesn't much matter. – phoog Sep 23 at 15:03

For several years I used to drive from Ottawa to New York city, in time for New Year's Eve. The American border seemed to me approximately where the permanent snow-cover ended (i.e. there is snow on the ground sometimes, but only after a storm). I agree with the comments though, about Buffalo: driving to Pennsylvania I got the impression that Buffalo is (like the Golden Horseshoe) still more-or-less within the snow-line, i.e. likely to feel (and look) like winter driving -- snow-banks visible by the side of the road, and the road surface visible because (or if) it has been ploughed and salted.

To prepare the car you might want winter tyres. I think you won't want chains (I've never used them myself) except on unploughed private roads (and, maybe, mountain passes). You may want winterized liquids: antifreeze in the windshield-washer for sure. I think the manufacturers blend different kinds of gas (fuel) for different countries/climates, but maybe that's not an issue unless the temperatures are really low (a long way below freezing). I don't know about other fluids (oil and coolant) -- I guess a mechanic would know.

For driving, take it easy: accelerate gently and brake gently. Use engine braking (if you have manual transmission) to avoid a skid, and/or modern ABS (anti-lock brake systems) might help. Also wear your seat belt of course, and allow for longer stopping distance, i.e. more room between you and the car in front.

If the surface is snowy or icy then prepare to be surprised. The local city news always has stories of "fender-benders" when it snows -- if conditions are so bad that you might lose control, at least drive slowly. The most dangerous form of ice is invisible -- transparent, or under a layer of snow.

When I was learning to drive, taking driving lessons in Ottawa, the instructor told me (I don't even know if they were joking) that I ought to hope there was a blizzard on the day of my driving test. They said that, if there was a blizzard, the test would consist of their asking me to drive once around the block, and that I'd pass the test as long as I didn't move out of second gear doing that.

We're advised to carry (in the car) cold weather gear. Imagine, if you will, that you're stuck in your car for 24 hours with the engine off, waiting for rescue. So, real winter clothing (gloves, coat, hat, long underwear) and/or a sleeping bag.

Also (to fully-equip the car) get an ice-scraper. That's like a small hand-spade or trowel with a stiff plastic blade about four inches square. You use it to scrape frost off the windshield (and off all other windows) before you start. You may also want a snow-brush (if it snows when you're parked), that's a brush about 3 feet long -- use it to brush snow off the front hood (so it doesn't fly up into the windscreen when you drive), and off the roof (so it doesn't fly off into the windscreen of the car behind you), and off your outside mirrors. You might also want a real snow shovel (if a wheel gets stuck in a bank of snow, shovel the snow out from the around the wheels). To fully de-ice the windshield you may need to let the engine warm for a few minutes before you drive off, with the hot air (de-icer) set to blow upwards onto the inside of the windshield.

The further north you go, the more likely there will be winter conditions. This means that the further north you go, the more prepared for them that these areas are.

An inch of snow on a New York highway is nothing, but an inch of snow on a North Carolina highway might have it be shut down. Not only is this because the states differ in readiness, but also because the drivers differ in experience.

(Twelve inches of snow would be dealt with quickly in New York. In that case, find a motel for the night)

Watch the weather, taking note if there is a surprise storm. This would be an indication to not drive that day.

As far as conditions in December, I'd be surprised if you saw snow south of New York.

Accidents do happen. We, in the Boston area, add blankets to our driving emergency kits.

As a side, and if you're super worried, get an ice-scraper at a gas station. In the case that it snows overnight, this tool will help you scrape it off your car.

  • I don't have experience driving in winter in North Carolina, but just north in Virginia they keep I-81 very well plowed even during heavy storms. – phoog Sep 23 at 15:00
  • @phoog I am from Massachusetts, and was in North Carolina for what I viewed as a light icy/rain mix. The highway was shut down due to the amount of people crashing, and the city I was in closed down. – Carl Sep 24 at 21:41
  • Well. Ice storms can shut things down anywhere. When I lived in Virginia (west of the Blue Ridge, where the climate was similar to that of New York City) there were some severe ice storms consisting of rain on frozen ground, followed by freezing weather. That shut things down quickly. But an inch of snow was nothing. Were you in the mountains or farther east? – phoog Sep 25 at 4:30
  • @phoog further east, but you've missed my point. That is, that the weather that shut down where I was would not have shut down where I was from. That's why I emphasised the word "surprise" when watching the weather. – Carl Sep 25 at 20:35
  • I did understand your point, but perhaps did not make mine clear: in the mountains of Virginia, which is where one would be driving if traveling from Florida to Buffalo, the tolerance for winter conditions and the ability to clear snow are substantially similar to those in the northeast, where I have done quite a bit of winter driving. I suspect that the same is true for the (rather higher) mountains of North Carolina. – phoog Sep 26 at 1:06

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