I have lived in many different areas of the country—and overseas. However, I have lived in predominantly semi-tropical areas—places that are hot, humid, rainy and have mild winters. The first time I drove my car through the snow I cried—it was so scary! Now I know a lot more about how to stay safe behind the wheel in any season. If your forecast shows icy days ahead, these tips can help you stay safe and help you save funds.

Performing these simple preparations now may cost a little, but they can save you a lot in major repairs later….and may even save your life!

1. Stock up on winter auto gear before winter arrives

The best time to find great deals on winter auto necessities is before the cold hits in earnest.

Winter auto kit basics:

You can pick and choose from these items based on the severity of your weather.

  • Snow brush (soft bristles is best to not damage finish and paint)
  • Ice scraper (plastic is best for the same reason)
  • A shovel (look for a sturdy collapsible model)
  • A full container of winter windshield washer fluid (with a de-icer additive)
  • Working jumper cables (be sure to test these)
  • 1-2 warm winter blankets
  • Snow boots (knee-high)
  • Tire chains (for deep snow and mountainous regions only)
  • A fully stocked emergency first-aid kit (with sufficient supplies for at least two people)
  • A set of traction pads (or thick carpeting) to help ease your car out of deep snow
  • A set of flares
  • A flashlight and set of candles with matches (make sure these are dry and useable)
  • Extra bottled drinking water and emergency rations (non-perishables are best)

2. Get a battery test…and test the electrical system, hazard lights and all safety lights

One place I used to live is Lake Tahoe. The winter conditions there were severe, and the roads were poorly lit and icy. When I moved there, I learned to take simple precautions like testing my battery charge and safety lights seriously.

  • Cost of a battery test: While a basic test is free at most auto repair facilities, a full electrical work-up may cost anywhere from $90 – $125.
  • Get the test free: Visit any Auto Zone store—it's free (they will also charge up your battery for you for free). Walmart, Advance Auto Parts, O'Reilly Auto Parts, and Pep Boys will also provide a free battery test.
  • If you need to replace the battery: The cost of your battery will depend on the make and model of your vehicle; expect to pay between $50 and $250. You should be able to get installation free with battery purchase.
  • Should you consider replacing your battery?: Firestone's Virtual Car Battery Tester can give you an estimate of when you should consider replacing your battery.

3. Check all fluid levels, hoses and valves

You want plenty of antifreeze, proper coolant (water to antifreeze) levels and a windshield wiper fluid with de-ice additives. Be sure you have enough brake fluid, oil, transmission fluid and other fluids. Also check hoses and valves to prevent leaking.

  • Cost of a check fluids test: Typically there is no charge for this test.
  • Get the test free: Most auto repair shops will check your fluid levels free of charge (hoping to sell you fluids), but you can always get a free fluids test with an oil change or any tune-up service (including tire air pressure check). If your annual car inspection falls due in the cooler season, this is a great time to ask for these tests as well.

4. Check and air up your tires

One thing you absolutely want to have when winter arrives is a set of tires with full tread and full inflation. You may want to switch to snow tires depending on the winter conditions where you live.

  • Cost of a check tires test: Typically there is no charge for this test.
  • Get the test free: Any tire retailer (Discount Tire, NTB, Firestone, etc.) will check your tire pressure and tread free of charge (hoping to sell you new tires and accessories).

5. Optimize visibility

This may mean changing out your windshield wipers (look for winterized versions with shields), adding inset mirrors for your side mirrors and rear-view mirror to boost panoramic vision and eliminate blind spots, and give your vehicle glass (front, rear, sides) a thorough inside-outside cleaning.

  • Cost of new windshield wiper blades (set, not including arms): You can get a set of winter-ready windshield wiper blades very cheaply on Amazon (most prices are between $8 – $20 for a set).

6. Give your car a complete cleaning – inside and out

Severe weather at any time of year can scratch paint, pit the finish and cause dents. While (other than garaging) there is no way to completely prevent these things from occurring, giving your car a thorough inside-outside cleaning, complete with protective wax job, can make it easier to wipe and scrape away snow and ice without harming the car beneath. You will also protect yourself by removing any interior debris that can turn into a missile in sudden stop or crash conditions. As well, you may wish to replace your regular floor mats with vinyl or rubber all-weather mats during the winter season.

  • Cost of a cleaning: You can clean your car for free using a small handheld vacuum and some household cleaning spray. Typical costs to have a thorough inside/outside cleaning and detailing with wax will run anywhere from $50 to $300.