You may have noticed that winter is coming. And while winter has its joys -- skiing, hot chocolate, shopping for hard-to-find toys in overcrowded malls -- driving in snow and ice isn't usually one of them. Snowy roads and cold temperatures are hard on cars and drivers alike, but there are a few things you can do now to make things a little easier on both of you once the white stuff hits.

Preparing your car
An annual checkup is a good idea for almost every car or truck, and I personally think that fall is the best time to have one. Cold temperatures mean that motor oil is thicker, belts and hoses are more brittle, batteries put out less power, and engines and transmissions have to run longer before they warm up to their proper operating temperatures, all of which increase your chances of a breakdown. Breaking down is never fun, but it's even less fun when it's 20 degrees and snowing.

Schedule an appointment and take your vehicle in, and make sure your mechanic hits these points:

  • Check the battery. If it's over 3 years old, consider a replacement even if it seems fine now. Older batteries are more vulnerable to cold temperatures, and finding that your car won't ... quite ... turn ... over on a 5-degree morning when you're late to work is not anyone's idea of a good way to start the day.
  • Check belts, hoses, and coolant. Your mechanic will surely have these on his to-do list, but they're worth noting here anyway. The idea of checking your engine's cooling system right before winter might seem counterintuitive, but it's important for several reasons. Here's one that's less obvious: Leaking engine coolant is bad any time, but you especially don't want it to leak on snow, where it might not wash away quickly -- your pets will find it both tasty and poisonous. (Honeywell's (NYSE:HON) Prestone brand offers a "low-tox" coolant that is less deadly and works pretty well in most cars. Check with your mechanic.)
  • Check the air conditioning system. Another counterintuitive one, but possibly very important. Air conditioning systems are dehumidifiers. Turning on your AC while you run the defroster will greatly speed up your window-clearing efforts. (And no, you won't freeze yourself -- if you turn the heat up, you'll get plenty of warm, dry air.)
  • Mount your snow tires. While most cars now come with "all-season" tires that are supposedly adequate in snow, snow tires work better when the flakes fall, no matter how many electronic driver aid doodads your car has. If you climb a steep hill regularly, live in an area where the plowing is less than thorough, or drive a rear-wheel-drive car -- BMW drivers, I'm talking to you here especially -- I strongly recommend getting a set. Bridgestone and Goodyear (NYSE:GT) make excellent, affordable snow tires for a wide range of vehicles, but see what's available locally.

On your own
After you see the mechanic, make a point of taking these additional steps:

  • Get new wiper blades. I'm not convinced that heavy-duty "winter" blades are worth the extra cost, but I am convinced that having fresh blades in winter is a great idea. These aren't expensive, and they're extremely easy to install yourself.
  • Top off your wiper fluid. Essential if you drive on salted roads. Fill your car's reservoir with wiper fluid (not water, it'll freeze!), and top it off every time you fill your gas tank. I personally keep a jug of wiper fluid in each of my cars all winter, because I've had the experience of running out while trying to get home in a snowstorm, and I'd rather not have it again.
  • Use "dry gas." Condensation in your fuel system can freeze in your gas lines during cold weather, causing your car to run roughly -- or not at all. Keeping your tank as full as possible can help, as can adding a bottle of gas line antifreeze -- often called "dry gas" by mechanics -- every time you fill up. It's usually a little white bottle and costs just a couple of dollars, and most gas stations in cold-weather areas will have it. It's not a bad idea to keep an extra bottle in your car, just in case.

If you'd like more info on winterizing your car, check out this article and head over to our Buying and Maintaining a Car discussion board. Stay warm!

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If you live in warm-weather country, Fool contributor and New Englander John Rosevear plans to envy you on those warm, sunny January days. He does not own any of the stocks mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.