Starting your car’s engine on a cold morning is very tricky process, requiring a lot of very specific things to happen with millisecond timing and in a very specific order. Of course, the expectation from the driver’s seat is simple: you turn the key (or push the button),  your engine starts, and you go about your day — largely oblivious to the various processes and engineering that have just given you the miracle of cold-weather ignition.

In the coldest parts of winter, many of us use a block or oil-pan heater to make life easier on our engines when starting in the cold. These devices add heat to the engine and the fluids circulating within it, making it more likely to turn over when its extremely cold. But what if you can’t plug your car in? What can you do to make sure that your engine starts — even if it’s been sitting in the airport parking complex for 10 days at 30 below?

According to numerous experts, you’ll want to take at least two major precautions ahead of the winter cold to ensure maximum success. First, make absolutely sure your battery is healthy. Noting that even an aging battery may ‘feel’ just fine from the driver’s seat until it doesn’t, consider a battery test at your favourite service centre. In moments, this test — it ranges from cheap to free, so call around — will give your battery a passing grade or not. If your current battery is on the way out, you’ll want to replace it. This is one of the very best ways to ensure your engine starts in extreme cold.

The other is to use synthetic engine oil. Because of science, this type of engine oil is thinner in extreme cold, meaning your starter can spend less energy churning frozen molasses, and more energy getting your ride fired up. If you drive a modern car or truck, it probably uses synthetic oil already. If you drive an older or a high-mileage ‘beater’ vehicle, synthetic engine may be overkill — though switching to it for just the winter months could make the difference between having to call for a boost, or not.

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In fact, synthetic engine oil may be making the age-old block-heater obsolete for many Canadians. As a cold-blooded northerner, I was surprised when my local Volkswagen dealership insisted I didn’t need a block heater on my new Golf Alltrack, and even talked me out of having it installed. Even down to 36 below after a few days of being parked, it fires up without issue. Translation? If you’re in a recent modern car, or are shopping for one, you’ll probably do just fine without a block heater.

First, consider investing in a portable booster pack, which uses a built-in battery you recharge at home before keeping the unit in your vehicle. If needed, a booster-pack stores enough electricity to jump-start an engine several times — no booster cables or donor vehicle required. Just be sure to store the pack indoors, and keep it charged at all times. Prolonged storage in extreme cold — say, in your car’s trunk — may drain or damage the on-board battery. You can pick up a good booster pack for around $100, and it’s one of the best things you can keep in your car during winter.



Finally, if you need a boost to get your engine restarted, be sure to put on some miles before turning it off again. Further, be sure to only switch the engine off when you’re somewhere safe, in case your battery fails once again. A healthy battery should recharge quickly as you drive, and an unhealthy one may not. If your engine fails to start, it’s a good sign to have your battery and charging system inspected professionally to avoid further problems.

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