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Icebound No More: Getting Your Car Unstuck

Oct 29, 2007
If you've done much driving in wintry weather, at some point your vehicle has probably been stuck on ice or snow. You might get stuck, but there are some tricks to getting your car moving again. For the purposes of this article, we'll assume that it's stuck simply because the tires have lost traction on a slippery surface (that is, it's not in a ditch, and all four tires are on the ground).

First, keep a winter-driving emergency kit in your car. The contents of the kit should include the following items:

1. A bag of some gritty substance to offer traction for your tires. Common choices are sand, kitty litter, rock salt, or pea gravel.

2. Two long, thin lengths of carpet. A runner-style carpet that is cut in half lengthwise is ideal.

3. A spade shovel. If you're in an area where significant accumulations of snow are likely, consider adding a snow shovel as well. To conserve space, you can purchase these with folding handles at a camping or military surplus retailer.

Now, for getting unstuck:

When you realize that your vehicle is stuck, the best course of action is to avoid making the situation worse. As soon as you feel the tires begin to spin, take your foot from the accelerator. Hitting the gas and causing the tires to spin in place only packs down the ice or snow into a hard, smooth surface, making it harder for the tires to get any purchase.

Ease the car backward a little, and then gently rock it forward, up and out of any depression that spinning tires may have caused. If this doesn't work, turn your steering wheel hard in either direction, and try again to rock the car back and forth.

If you're still stuck, now is the time to get out of the car and assess the situation.

Determine which direction is most likely to be successful. If you can, aim toward the closest ground surface where you're most likely to regain traction. Avoid going uphill. If there's an accumulation of snow, use the snow shovel to clear a path.

Use the spade to dig down underneath the front of the vehicle's drive tires (note that it must be drive tires that get traction; the others are incidental). If the surface just in front of the tires is packed down hard, try to score it or roughen it up a bit with the edge of the shovel.

Shovel some of the sand or gravel underneath the tires. It's essential that the tread come into contact with the sand. If necessary, you can get down and use your hands to push some of the sand under the tires. Then, spread a path of sand over the area you've cleared.

Going on the same premise as before (easy on the accelerator), try again to move the car forward. If you have people who are willing and physically able to push from behind, have them push. Make sure that they're to the sides of the car--not behind it--and ready to move out of the way in case the rear of the vehicle should skew or slide.

If the vehicle moves a few inches but then gets bogged down again, try the carpet as an alternative. Push the edges of the pieces underneath the tires. Should the car start moving again, it will at least be able to travel the length of the carpet.

If the vehicle moves forward, try to maintain the momentum without causing the tires to spin...and keep on going until you're on your way.

If the vehicle doesn't move at all, you may need to repeat the whole process again, possibly several times. In certain cases, you might even have to concede to necessity...and enlist the help of a local towing service.

It happens, unfortunately. But even if it does, at the very least you'll know that you used all the resources available to you, and did the best that you could on your own.
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