Is Salt, Sand Or Kitty Litter Best For Traction in Winter?

When the winter roads and pavements get icy and slippery there are a few different ways you can increase traction to stop vehicles and people from having accidents.

Salt, sand and kitty litter are some of the most common items used. But which is better and when should you use each?

Salt is one of the best ways to add traction during winter because it melts the ice and allows you to make contact with the road or pavement underneath. However, salt can damage concrete driveways and paths causing scaling and spalling damage to occur.

Sand is one of the most inexpensive ways to add traction to ice. The sand sits on top of the ice providing vehicles and people with traction. Sand won't melt the ice and needs to be reapplied if there is fresh snowfall or if it is blown away by the wind.

Kitty litter is only really used as a backup option when sand isn't available. It works to add traction just like sand but is more expensive. However, kitty litter is commonly kept in cars to get them unstuck because it's usually easier to store and less likely to spill compared to sand.

Each have their pros and cons and you need to choose the right product for your situation.

The Pros and Cons of Using Salt To Add Traction To Ice

Salt is by far the most common way to add traction back to roads, driveways and sidewalks after they have been iced over.

It is relatively inexpensive and it works great to actively melt the ice revealing the road or path underneath and giving vehicles and people traction again.

To understand how salt melts ice it is important to know that the freezing point of water is 32ºF/0ºC. But when you add salt, it significantly lowers the freezing point of water down to as low as 16ºF/-9ºC for regular rock salt or as low as -25ºF/-32ºC for calcium chloride salt.

When you spread salt over the ice it lowers this freezing point and forces the ice to begin melting, improving traction. It doesn't take long for salt to fully melt ice – it begins to work instantly and in as little as 15-30 minutes the ice can be fully gone in most parts.

However, there are many reasons why people use sand instead of using salt.

When salt is being used it can corrode metals in and around your driveway and can cause your car to rust. Salt can also damage just about anything in your driveway, including cement, wood, flagstone, brick, etc. 

Even calcium chloride can damage concrete – and that's considered one of the safer ice melts to use on concrete due to it's extra low freezing temperature.

Salt can also damage the plants around your driveway as it inhibits the ability to absorb nutrients and water. Using salt can also not a good idea if you have a pet since it can get stuck in its paws and cause awful burning.

There's also the fact that salt stops working below a certain temperature. So if you're in an extremely cold climate sometimes the salt won't be able to melt the ice at all and will be effectively useless at adding traction.

For all these reasons sand is commonly used as a more environmentally (and concrete) friendly alternative.

Is Sand The Best Option For Improving Traction In Winter?

Sand does an outstanding job improving traction and it is one of the most affordable options you can go with. Sand tends to be more environmentally friendly than salt when used in smaller quantities, as salt can ruin plants and be unsafe for pets.

Sand doesn’t melt the ice. Instead, it sits on top of the ice adding traction because you're now standing on the gritty, grippy sand and not directly on the ice. This is how it prevents vehicles and people from slipping.

This means that sand isn't going to damage that new concrete driveway of yours and it will continue to look great for years to come. If you have a new concrete driveway then sand is definitely advised over any type of ice melt – even ones that say they are safe for concrete.

However, there are also some drawbacks to using sand.

Unfortunately, it can also be blown or washed away easily during bad weather conditions making the area slippery again.

That is why people sometimes use a mixture of sand with a littler bit of salt. This will not only speed up the process of melting, but also help the sand stick to the ice and prevents it from being blown away as easily. 

If there is fresh snowfall salt can melt this snow and prevent it from turning into ice in the first place. However, the sand will just be covered up by the fresh snow and ice and will be rendered useless – meaning you need to apply more and more sand every time this happens.

Overall sand is a good cheap short term solution for adding traction to ice but there are also a variety of other things you can put on ice for traction – such as sawdust, straw, kitty litter and gravel.

Why Is Kitty Litter Not The Best Option For Improving Traction?

Kitty litter can be used to add traction to ice and it does just as good of a job as sand does in most cases. Like sand, kitty litter does NOT melt ice, it just sits on top of the ice to provide traction.

However, it's more expensive than sand and so this is why people tend to opt for kitty litter as a last resort once everything else has sold out.

If you are using kitty litter you want to make sure you choose the correct kitty litter for ice as they aren't all created equal. Most kitty litter used for ice is silica gel which has the same chemical composition as sand. It ADSORBS water (not ABSORBS) and so doesn’t get mushy. Non-clumping clay kitty litter can also be useful.

However, clumping kitty litters made of clay, corn, walnut or other products can be terrible for ice. As they get wet they get mushy, don't add much traction and stick to everything.

Kitty litter is often chosen to keep stored in your car for emergency situations as it generally easier to store and less messy than sand. If your car is stuck on an icy or snowy driveway, you can spread some kitty litter underneath your tires, improving the traction at the moment. 

It’s a good idea to keep a bag of kitty litter in your trunk in case your car gets stuck on ice but because of it's higher cost salt or sand and likely going to be better options for you.

Salt & Sand Mixture For Improving Traction 

Using the salt-sand mixture is, by far, one of the best methods of improving traction.

Sand/salt mixtures are mainly combined to cause the sand to stick to the ice and not get blown away. The salt content is quite small and so minimal ice melting actually occurs. Unless you get a mixture with a lot of salt.

In addition to the salt-sand mixture, there are a few more things you can use to gain better traction during the harsh winter days. 

How To Prevent Ice Buildup In Your Driveway?

Rather than trying to add traction to ice after the ice is already there there are ways you can prevent ice from even forming in the first place.

I've created lists of the best ways to prevent ice on your driveway and the best methods to prevent ice forming on your sidewalk.