How to Get a Car Unstuck From Ice and Snow

09 winter driving social digging heartbeat shovel snow stuck scaled jpg Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

So, your car is stuck in snow or on a patch of ice. Now what do you do?

First, here’s what you shouldn’t do: Don’t floor the gas pedal and spin the tires until you smell rubber burning. You’re only digging deeper holes in the snow (and potentially damaging the tires) instead of getting yourself unstuck.

Related: Baby, It’s Cold Outside: Prepare Your Car for Winter

That advice comes from two professional driving instructors who practice their trade in Colorado, where snowfall is measured in feet instead of inches.

Spinning = Stuck

“When you’re accelerating, try not to spin the tires. When you’re spinning the tires, you’re basically creating ice and slush under the tires and reducing traction, so it’s harder to move,” said Michal Michalkow, owner of First Gear Driving Academy in Thornton, Colo.

Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colo., concurs that it’s best to ease up on the gas pedal at the first sign of wheelspin.

“Anytime you’re spinning your wheels when you’re trying to rock a car out, you’re polishing the surface and creating more ice, and that doesn’t help your cause,” Cox said, stressing that patience is a virtue — and a good idea. “As long as you can move back and forth even an inch, you’re still making headway. You don’t want to get greedy and spin the wheels. You want to keep moving an inch at a time until it becomes feet and [you] finally become free.”

How to Get Unstuck

Follow these suggestions to get out of snow without calling a tow truck:

Put It Into 2nd Gear

Common wisdom says to shift into the lowest gear, but Cox said it might be better to shift into 2nd gear (if possible with an automatic transmission). Automatics with a Snow mode typically start in 2nd or even 3rd gear. “You have a little less torque in a higher gear, so you have less chance of spinning the wheels and losing traction,” he said.

Engage Traction Control

Common wisdom also says to turn off traction control, found on most late-model vehicles and usually integrated with stability control. The reason is that some traction control systems react too quickly or slowly to wheelspin and make it harder to get going in snow or ice. Cox, however, said, “Traction control is basically doing what you as a driver should be doing” — limiting wheelspin — and that’s a good thing. “Anytime you lose traction, you want to keep that loss as short as possible, adjust accordingly to stop it, regain traction and then try to move again,” he said. “If you continue to lose traction and add more and more gas and spin the tires faster and faster, that just generates more heat, more ice and more problems.”

Rock It Gently

Michalkow and Cox mentioned momentum frequently, and rocking a vehicle back and forth by shifting from a drive gear to Reverse is a great way to generate momentum. It takes time to build momentum, so don’t get antsy and gun the engine expecting to blast your way out. An “easy does it” approach works better.

Keep It Straight

Make sure the front wheels stay pointed straight ahead as much as possible.

“When you’re trying to steer and accelerate at the same time, you’re splitting your efficiency between two different actions,” Cox said. “If you’re trying to move forward with the wheels straight, it will move forward more effectively. As soon as you turn the wheel, you’re going to have less traction and forward momentum.”

Get the Shovel

Instead of trying to get out of snow from the comfort of the driver’s seat, Michalkow said it might be faster and easier to get out of the car and shovel. Remove snow from around the drive wheels so the tires have pavement to grip and from under the vehicle so it has sufficient clearance. Michalkow always carries a shovel in his vehicle for such occasions. “When you’re snowed in, the best way to get out is to dig yourself out with a shovel. To get momentum, you need some room in front and behind and alongside the vehicle,” he said.

Pack Salt

Ice-melting crystals (aka salt) can melt snow and ice so the drive wheels can grip pavement. Kitty litter or sand also gives the tires something to grip. Don’t have any of that handy? Cox suggests wedging a floormat under a drive wheel as a traction aid, but turn it upside down so you don’t leave black tire marks on its surface.

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Always Use Caution

Cox cautioned that these suggestions do not guarantee success because the snow conditions, tires and driving techniques of those who are stuck can vary widely. If the tires are down to the last bit of tread depth, for example, or a vehicle has summer performance tires, all bets are off for getting you unstuck.

Summer tires, and worn tires of any type, simply don’t function well on snow or ice. Even front-wheel drive versus rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive can be a source of debate — the drive wheels aren’t as important as the tires on those wheels when it comes to traction. A RWD car with snow tires will beat a FWD car on all-seasons in icy conditions every time. But those tires have to be in good condition, too.

“In deep snow, even a good snow tire when it’s half worn only gives you the performance of a new all-season tire because you’ve lost [tread] depth,” Cox said. “Once an all-season tire is half worn, it gives you the performance of a summer tire. When an all-season tire is half worn, it has no place in snow.”

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