Smart Four Wheeling in the Snow
By Tom Severin, 4×4 Coach and Tread Lightly! Master Tread Trainer
With the snow we’ve been getting in the mountains lately, a lot of four-wheelers are itching to fire up their vehicles and go plowing through the white stuff. Whether over Cajon Pass, through Big Bear area, or just to Grandma’s house, driving off road in snow is a lot of fun. Winter driving offers its own set of challenges; the following tips will help ensure your trip is a pleasant one.
First off, be sure the road or trail you have in mind is open. Contact the appropriate land management agency if you aren’t sure.
As with all four-wheeling, remember the buddy system. That is, always go out with at least one other vehicle. It’s fairly easy to get stuck in snow, and the cold just compounds any difficulties you may experience. More on that later.
Make sure you pack survival gear along with food and water. Remember that it gets dark early this time of year, and storms can hit in a hurry. Check the forecast before leaving. You don’t want to get caught in the mountains during a blizzard. Also, cold weather reduces the output of your battery. Replace it if it’s more than five years old. Consider installing a dual battery system as well. That way you’ll have a back-up, as well as a source of power in case you need to use the winch.
Pack your vehicle accordingly. The basics include a snow shovel, air jack and tire chains, if you have them. Brightly colored equipment is really useful in a snowy environment. An ice scraper/window brush and recovery equipment are a must, also. You’ll want some communications equipment, as well. Pack ham radio gear if you have it. If not, consider getting licensed. The exam isn’t that difficult and gear is reasonably priced. If you don’t care to go that route, look into a satellite phone. Cell phones rarely work in the outback, so don’t count on one.
Make sure your headlights, tail lights, fog lamps, and license plate are clear of snow. As the old saying goes, you want to see and be seen.
Upon arriving, spend a few moments surveying the trail and surrounding terrain. One of the biggest problems with snow is that it covers ruts, ditches, and rocks. If you’ve driven the trail before, try to recall where the rough spots are, and avoid them. Don’t try to drive over them, as you risk getting stuck or damaging your vehicle.
Chains are great for driving in snow. They give you better traction and braking all around, and better steering up front. If you have just one set, place them on the back. Chains up front allow you to chew through deep snow, but the added braking capability could cause fish tailing. This happens a lot while going downhill on a slippery slope.
Air down your tires to a standard off-road level. For a 31-in. tire, that would be in the 18 to 15 psi range. Start off in single file as you normally do. The lead vehicle will blaze the trail, but often becomes stuck. Plus, the underbody usually gets packed with snow, so the vehicle doesn’t run well. Be prepared to pull out that vehicle, but also rotate the vehicles to keep a “fresh” vehicle in the lead at all times.
If you get stuck, try rocking the vehicle. You can usually gain a few inches each time, which often is enough to get you onto better ground. Avoid spinning the tires if possible. That just melts the snow underneath, which quickly freezes. Then you’re in worse shape than when you started.
If you’re still unable to drive out, use a recovery strap to pull your vehicle out. But be careful: The strap is under tremendous stress. Make sure no one is standing between either vehicle. If that strap breaks, it’ll crack the person in the head, and your trip is over. A Pull Pal® also works well in these situations.
More Snow Driving Tips
Remember to drive slowly. As mentioned above, snow covers all blemishes in the trail. If the snow is firm enough you may actually drive on top. But more likely, you’ll cut through, and expose your vehicle to rocks and other hazards below.
Even with chains, your vehicle behaves quite differently in snow. Stopping and cornering are more difficult and braking distances are greater. Drive slower than normal and keep a safe distance between the vehicles. 4WD doesn’t offer any better braking than 2WD, despite what you may think. If you find yourself sliding one way, turn with it, but also apply some power and stay off the brakes. The 4WD traction will help pull you out of it.
Use gentle acceleration whenever climbing a hill. Quick acceleration can cause the tires to spin, which results in an icy trail. Speaking of hills, assess the trail before descending, and make sure it’s safe to drive. Can you get back up if you had to? If not, and that’s the only way out, take a different route.
Here’s hoping your next romp through the snow is a safe and enjoyable one.
Tom Severin, 4×4 Coach and Master Tread Trainer, teaches 4WD owners how to confidently and safely use their vehicles to the fullest extent in difficult terrain and adverse driving conditions. Visit www.4x4training.com to develop or improve your driving skill.
What about driving off-road during the rest of the year? Get some tips on driving off road responsibly from Tread Lightly!