Car Stuck in Snow? - here's what to do

A car stuck in snow, even snow this deep can be rescued after you do a little digging first.

When you have a car stuck in snow, you have a problem. Let's not be concerned about how you got it stuck, let's just focus on how to get it out of the deep snow on your own.

Here's what you can do to get it out yourself, without leaving the car.

The technique is known as "rocking the car" out of the snow. This technique can work for soft soil and shallow mud as well, but it's most often used to get a car out of snow.

First, let's look at the basics of this technique - just the basics.

Then, let's discuss some of the precautions associated with it so you don't get into deeper trouble.

This is a car stuck in snow and slush and mud. Take care that you know what you're driving into, as wet snow and mud make matters worse.

Keep in mind that this technique will allow you to free a car stuck in snow on the street or other common road surface. It won't allow you to free a car that's lodged in a snow bank or stuck in a ditch in 3 feet of snow. That's a job for a tow truck, another vehicle with towing straps or a bunch of helpful motorists that can help you dig and push your vehicle.

Rocking the Car - the basics

The idea behind rocking the car out of the snow is you're trying to create a type of runway for the car by gently driving back and forth in the snow, making a slight amount of progress in one direction or both, until you have:

  1. A sufficiently clear path established to allow you to build up a little speed to make a breakthrough to clear yourself of the deeper snow ahead or behind you; or,
  2. Made an entirely clear path with your tires from where you had the car stuck in snow to where you can slowly proceed down the runway and back onto the road using the momentum of the vehicle.

This may take a dozen or so movements back and forth to create a sufficient pathway to free the car, but if done properly, it requires no shoveling and doesn't harm the vehicle.

The approach I use is to move in one direction a foot or so, apply the brakes gently to hold the car in position while I switch gears, and then move in the other direction a foot or so, again gently applying the brakes to avoid sliding, and then repeating the process until I'm ready to make my escape.

Build your runway for your car stuck in snow, but don't spin the wheels as traction is key to getting out.

The more level the surface, the easier it is to get out of trouble. Be mindful that depending on how and where you have your car stuck in snow, it might be that the path out is something other than the path in. This includes backing out.

Also, it's often best to make the pathway the same length ahead and behind the point where you were stuck. By doing so, when you make the pathway, you're passing by the point where you were stuck, and that often helps keep you from settling in there and getting the car stuck in snow again. In other words, you pass by the trouble spot instead of resting back into it.

You'll need to assess your situation to determine what seems best. Usually, if you can go with the slope of the pavement, instead of against it, you'll do better because gravity will be working in your favor.

Be Mindful of These Precautions

Here are some precautions that you should be aware of when using this technique. Heed these precautions and your car stuck in snow will soon be on the road again.

  • Be sure of where you're headed while making your path. Curbs, ruts, patches of ice and other obstacles will only inhibit your efforts.
  • Don't start spinning your wheels. This only makes matters worse. Immediately get off the gas and apply the brakes if necessary to keep your wheels from spinning while you're trying to make progress. Spinning wheels can cause you to slide sideways, deeper into the snow pile. Spinning wheels create a more slippery surface, and you can damage your transmission if you spin your wheels excessively.

Notice the Rav4 in the photo above. The driver is at an angle, deep in the snow, and probably spun their wheels. So, now they're deeper in snow and slush and possibly mud.

  • All of your actions should be gentle and limited in terms of power applied to the wheels. Easy does it, even when trying to build up a little momentum to help yourself break loose. Resist the temptation to power your way need to finesse your way out.
  • Go as straight as possible when making your runway. If you have to turn the wheel, do not turn it more than one quarter of a turn because the more you turn your wheel, the more resistance you'll get to it tracking and making a runway. Turning the wheel at a sharp angle is a bit like putting on the isn't helpful.
  • If you have to turn your wheels, make certain you maintain the same turn radius as you go back and forth.
Many a car stuck in snow become that way because people insist on gassing it and they simply spin themselves into more trouble.

It's relatively easy to get a car stuck in snow, so practice this technique and be mindful of the precautions. Unless you're embedded deeply, at a considerable incline, or you're into deep mud, you should be able to get the car out based on your own gentle and repeated efforts.

Prevention is Important

At the risk of stating the obvious, it's much easier to prevent a car stuck in snow than it is to free it. The key to prevention can be summed up as follows:

  • Know how deep you can go with your vehicle and constantly evaluate snow depth on the road
  • Go slower so you can retreat when you hear your undercarriage start to drag, and before you get your car stuck in snow that is simply too deep for your vehicle clearance
  • Don't come to rest in a large pile of snow, instead go through it
  • Don't drive into an area unless you know something about the depth of the snow
  • Stay on the pavement

Avoid a car stuck in snow by knowing how deep the snow is before you proceed.

The two most difficult situations with a car stuck in snow both involve charging into deep snow and then settling down into it. In dry snow, your car could get surrounded easily. In wet snow, your undercarriage could become entrapped much like concrete.

Both situations can be avoided if you simply use good judgement. With experience, you'll feel and hear how your car is performing, and that will suggest what is best to avoid trouble.

Most of the time, if you go steady but slower, you'll probably make it through the snow. And, if you get your car stuck in snow, at least you won't be as far and deep into trouble as you would have been had you driven into it at higher speeds.

Just in Case

There will be times when a car stuck in snow needs more help than rocking it can provide. For those times, it's good to have a small shovel, traction devices, and other material on board such that they can be used to help get you out of trouble. You might be surprised at how just a little sand or some cinders can dramatically improve traction when the problem you're having involves glare ice.

Tow ropes or straps can be helpful if there is someone else with a vehicle that can be used to pull you. If you have a passenger, often that's all you need to help push your car out of the deeper snow. Even a car stuck in snow that is very deep can be pushed out by two of three people when the driver is carefully steering and gently applying just a little power to the drive wheels.

Done with Car Stuck in Snow, back to Safe Driving

It's no fun to be stuck in snow. If you can't prevent it, at least you ought to know how best to get yourself free.

In the event you're looking for more help than I'm offering on this topic, here are additional resources that might be of interest to you.