4 Ways to Optimize Your Pickup Truck for Snow

Pickup trucks need some help to make them safe and secure in winter.

Black 2022 Ford F-150 LightningFord


It's winter and your town just got 10 inches of snow. You have to get the kids to school and yourself to work. You might feel relieved if you have a pickup truck to handle the unexpected elements. This is a misconception. A truck doesn't necessarily guarantee great winter performance. There are a few practical tips to help ensure you and your cargo arrive safely when the flurries begin.

Use 4WD or Snow Mode to Enhance Tire Grip

Some trucks such as the Ford F-150 Raptor offer full-time four-wheel drive (4WD), so power goes to all four wheels all of the time. Others such as the Chevrolet Colorado are part-time 4WD, which operate in rear-wheel drive unless the driver engages 4WD. Still other unibody trucks such as the Honda Ridgeline are all-wheel drive (AWD).

With AWD or full-time 4WD trucks, the vehicle automatically has power going to all four wheels at the same time for maximum available grip. However, if you have a part-time 4WD system, you'll need to engage 4WD yourself. For trucks with different drive modes, it can be helpful to engage snow mode, which typically smooths out throttle inputs to keep from spinning the wheels on snow or ice.

Depending on your vehicle, there may be a second gear shifter or a button on the dashboard to let you select 4WD high (4Hi) or 4WD low (4Lo). In some trucks you can even do this while the vehicle is moving. If terrain gets rough, such as while climbing a steep hill that is unplowed, consider 4Lo. In most trucks, you might have to slow to a stop and engage neutral before the transfer case can engage.

A good guideline to follow is this: If you can't see the street because it's covered in snow, it's generally safe to engage 4WD.

Winter Tires Are Designed to Perform in Snowy and Icy Conditions

If you drive in heavy snow regularly, you should install a good set of snow tires. They are different from all-season and all-terrain tires. The tires' rubber is the only part of your car that touches the snowy and icy pavement and can make the difference between arriving at your destination safely and ending up in a cold ditch.

While all-season tires are made to perform in both mild winter and summer driving conditions, they usually do not perform well in colder temperatures with plenty of snow and ice. Similarly, all-terrain tires can be physically hard in cold temperatures, allowing snow to pack in the footprint and negate the tread grip. In both cases, you can lose grip easier than you would with a snow tire, especially if your town gets more than a few inches.

Winter tires, however, are made for the snow. The rubber is designed with a deeper tread pattern to reduce snow buildup and can remain flexible during cold weather to give the tire more grip. Winter tires also have tiny bite edges called sipes that help provide traction on ice.

Snow Chains and Cables Can Be a Backup Option

You'll also want to carry a set of chains, made from links or cables, just in case winter tires and all-wheel or four-wheel drive aren't sufficient. If your truck is two-wheel drive, they likely will be put on the rear tires.

Some unibody trucks such as the Ford Maverick can be front-wheel drive, which means chains are intended for installation on the front tires. If you are in 4WD or have an AWD truck, chains usually go on the rear tires unless your owner manual says differently.

A Few Strategic Tools Can Help if You Do Get Stuck

If you spend much of the year driving around in the snow and ice, you're likely to encounter a situation where all the preparation in the world doesn't matter and you get stuck in the snow. For situations where that happens, it's best to plan ahead with the usual emergency supplies as well as some sand or cat litter, especially for trucks. When some extra weight is placed — and secured — in the bed directly over the rear wheels of a truck, it can greatly enhance tire grip on slippery surfaces.

Nothing will make the wrong type of tires magically get a grip on the ice, but a little extra weight can help prevent the wheels from spinning, especially on rear-wheel-drive trucks. The same principle is at work in front-wheel-drive cars in the snow. If you do get stuck on a patch of ice, dumping some of the sand/litter on the ground might help give the slipping rubber enough traction to get moving and out of trouble.

One other important item to carry is a shovel. Having the right tool for the job of clearing snow from around your truck's wheels — or frame — makes digging out deep snow less of a chore and could help keep your fingers from getting frosty.

There are situations where you just need to call for roadside assistance and wait for help, but often a little preparation can let you get back on your way without the fuss.

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Emme Hall
Emme Hall loves small convertibles and gets out to the canyons in her 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata whenever she can. You can also find her in the dirt in her lifted (yes, that's right) 2001 Mazda Miata, or racing air-cooled Volkswagens in races like the Baja 1000. She's taken first place twice in the Rebelle Rally — once driving a Jeep Wrangler and then a Rolls-Royce Cullinan the second time. She was also the first driver to take an electric vehicle to the Rebelle Rally when campaigning the Rivian R1T to a top-five finish
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Austin Lott
Austin Lott has been around the industry since 2014. Before joining Capital One, he got his start at one of the major automotive media outlets in his native Southern California. Since then, he’s written for numerous different magazines and brands, and dabbled in automotive photography. In his free time, Austin works on older cars and enjoys interesting experiences—once he even got to operate a 1948 GE diesel-electric locomotive.