June 3, 2020

Keeping Vehicles Running in Sub-zero Temperatures

Winter time temps provide their own “unique” challenges when it comes to vehicle maintenance. More than ever, we rely on our vehicles as our lifeline in the winter, especially in a rural setting. I grew up (and currently reside) in Northern Maine, were temps routinely drop below 0F.

I also lived in North Pole, Alaska, were the thermometer may not hit above -20F for weeks on end. If you know the useless trivia fact that the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales meet at -40, you’ve probably survived the same environment! Extreme cold does weird things to everyday objects. Liquids, such as washer fluids and motor oil, can become solids, and solids can become brittle and crack. Here are 12 things I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) about keeping vehicles operating in negative climes:
1. Never start an unplugged vehicle that’s been sitting in under -10F overnight. A friend of mine once cracked his engine block this way. The replacement cost of a new engine can approach the price of a used vehicle. If you do not have a garage, an electric plug in configuration, with a battery, engine block and oil pan heater is the most cost effective bet. An auto-starter with a winter mode is also a unique alternative. Once set, the vehicle will turn on once every couple of hours and run for about fifteen minutes. This will burn maybe a gallon of gas over night. This is handy if you’re frequently mobile, i.e. not near a plug in power source. Three hour movies and late night parties come to mind.
2. make sure your vehicle is in top running order each fall. Tires need to be all weather. Antifreeze needs to be checked. Batteries take on an especially heavy strain in the winter. A 500 amp heavy duty battery works best. At -40F, a car battery has less than 50% of its normal cold cranking amps.
3. Never add air to tires at -40F unless absolutely necessary. I learned this one the hard way. When the temperature first dropped in Alaska, I noticed my tires sagging. I aired them up at the local gas station, and woke up the next morning to, you guessed it; four flat tires. The moisture had frozen the valve stems in and the air had slowly escaped. I now keep a portable inflator in the vehicle and leave the tires alone when it’s super cold.
4. Four wheel drive does not make you invulnerable. Every winter, I see jumbo trucks in the ditch after first snowfall. All-wheel and four wheel drives will still slide on ice. City intersections are especially insidious. People stop, start, spin, and polish the ice like a zamboni. If you have an standard shift, it’s always better to down shift if you have space and time to do it.
5. Always carry an emergency kit. A quick list might include; gloves, hats, blankets, a portable gas heater, flashlights (hand crank types are great; batteries will be dead when you need them!) and maybe some food, such as an MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) and a Snickers bar or two. In the winter situations can turn on a dime. A friend of mine once broke down on a quick run to the dump. He then faced a two mile walk home in -60F with nothing on but jeans, t-shirt, and street shoes.
6. Even a new vehicle will have problems in arctic climes. Plastic parts will crack and break. Upholstery will become brittle and shatter when sat on. Again, an auto starter or a plug in cab heater can prevent this. I’ve also seen vehicles shred a brand new serpentine belt, which brings me to my next point;
7. Carry a small stash of spare parts. Sure, you can’t pack a spare engine, but things like wiper blades, engine belts, fuses, etc. may mean the difference between making it home and being stranded. The make of vehicle and its own special cold weather quirks can dictate the exact list of parts.
8. In icy weather, fold out your wiper blades. Wipers can become stuck in ice. The first time you use em’ its riiiiiiiipppp!
9. When it first gets cold, put a bottle of antifreeze fuel additive in your gas when you fill up. Do not, however, think that adding two jugs is twice as effective! You will, in the process, successfully burn up your fuel line.
10. In extreme cold weather, a snap cover for your grill will enable your engine to run warmer. A poor mans version can be had by simply inserting a piece of cardboard in front of the radiator. However, don’t forget to remove it if the outside temperature goes over 0F or your engine will overheat!
11. Beware of frozen windshield washer pumps. To be truthful, I’m still working this one out with my Mitsubishi Outlander… when it’s below 0F, the pumps are inop. You never realize how vital a clean windshield is until you need one. I’ve been experimenting with different brands that promise “protection down to -38F!” when I find one that actually lives up to this claim, I’ll post an update.
12. Finally, accept that everything will take longer to accomplish in the subzero. Very zen. Typical startup procedure in -60F;
-Apply cold weather clothes;
-Chisel ice off of door;
-Insert key and turn verrrrrry slowly (a snapped off key in a lock sucks!)
-Start engine. Vehicle will howl and protest accordingly (we hope!)
-While the engine is warming up, finish external prep. Clean windshields, lights, mirrors, intakes, and exhaust. Unplug power cord(s). Vehicles trailing power cords down the highway are not uncommon sights in Alaska.
-Be sure to clear any razor sharp sheets of ice off of the vehicle! Law suits have occurred by forgetting this item!
-While idling, return inside (to finish applying cold weather gear)
-Prepare to launch. Work the steering wheel back and forth to assure its not frozen (I’ve heard of them snapping off!) If the vehicle is a standard, work the clutch to thaw it before use. Work the tires back and forth to even out flat spots.
As you can see from the above, it can take nearly an hour to get on the road! Arctic road survival definitely isn’t for light weights.
Well that’s it for Astroguys’ on arctic survival for now. Hopefully, it’ll help keep all of you “north of the 60″ alive to stargaze on another clear winter night. Be sure to comment here on any other of the million plus tips and tricks on winter vehicle survival… we’ll be back to science next week!


  1. Joe says:

    He got in his car at -60 wearing only a t-shirt? Did he heat the car up for an hour before? Either way, your friend sounds like an idiot.


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