Wheeling in Winter
On and Off Road Driving Tips
Even if you never take your 4x4 off-road, youll be glad you
have it when the snow falls and the roads get slippery. The extra traction you get when
all four wheels are pulling gives you a margin of safety a two wheel drive vehicles just
cant deliver. But keep these points in mind:
4-wheel drive helps you go but it doesnt help you stop.
Dont get complacent just because youve got a 4x4. When roads get slick, slow
down. Anticipate problems in plenty of time so you can brake under control.
Be familiar with the type of 4-wheel drive system your vehicle has.
There are so-called "part-time" and "full-time" systems. A part-time
system gives you better traction on slippery surfaces because the front and rear sets of
wheels are locked together, but you shouldnt keep a part-time system in 4WD on dry
pavement. This creates too much wear on the drivetrain. A full-time system lets a little
slip occur between the front and rear wheels, so running it on dry pavement is ok. A
full-time system is more convenient when youre driving on a road with intermittent
patches of ice and snow, with dry pavement in between, because you can just put it in 4WD
and leave it there. A part-time system gives you more traction when the surfaces are
covered with solid snow or ice.
When the weather turns cool, think about getting your rig ready for
winter. Dont wait until the asphalt turns white to prep your vehicle.
youre planning to spend any significant time driving in snow, invest in a set of
snow tires. Theyll help you avoid the hassle of chains in most situations. Whatever
tires you use, youll get more traction and better stopping power if you have them
siped the process of cutting tiny slits in the tread. Tire stores will do this for
you with a special siping machine.
Put dedicated snow tires on your vehicle well before the first
snowfall. Recent tests by Michelin show that the special tire compounds used in the tread
of high-end snow tires need to be conditioned after you mount them each year by about 600
miles of dry highway driving before they develop maximum traction in snow.
You can also use studded snow tires, with small match-stick-sized
metal projections sticking out of the tread about an eighth of an inch. Studded tires give
superior traction on icy surfaces, but they give less traction on dry pavement because
they keep the tread from fully gripping the surface.
If you live in a super-cold climate, you probably know people who
parked their vehicles on a snowy surface and ripped the tires right off the rims when they
tried to drive away the next morning. The heat from the recently-driven tires melted a
thin layer of snow when they parked, but the night-time sub-zero temperatures froze this
layer again, effectively welding the tire treads to the ground.
the potency of your antifreeze before the first frost, and be sure to change your oil to
lower viscosity winter-weight. Invest in an oil pan heater if you live in an especially
cold climate. Dont forget to change the windshield washer fluid to an antifreeze
type. Then be sure to wash the windshield before freezing temperatures arrive, so you have
the antifreeze solution in the washer lines, or else theyll freeze solid and you
wont be able to squirt the winter grime off your windshield until they thaw in the
Vision Be sure
your windshield wipers are up to par. Carry windshield deicer and an ice scraper. Plan
ahead so you can start your engine a few minutes before you have to leave and get the
heater and defroster going. Dont risk driving with the windows frosted over, peering
through a little peephole youve managed to scrape clear in the middle of the
functioning heater and defroster provide more than just comfort. They provide safety by
keeping the windows clear. Check them thoroughly as part of your winter prep.
Keep the door locks and rear hatch locks well lubricated and deiced. Make sure your
headlights, tail lights, and brake lights are all functioning well. You need to see and be
seen as much as possible when driving in the mist and fog. Consider carrying a yellow
flashing light with a magnetic base. Plug it into the cigarette lighter and put it on your
roof to increase visibilty in bad weather. (Check your local laws first to be sure
thats legal in your locale.)
Dont take a chance driving in winter weather with a marginal battery. Your battery
wont be nearly as efficient in cold temperatures anyway, and has to work a lot
harder to turn the engine over when the oils stiffened by the cold. A dead battery
in a blizzard or remote location can be life-threatening. If youre not sure about
your battery, invest in a high end new one and make sure it has plenty of
dual batteries if youre going to travel to remote backcountry, especially if you
anticipate having to use your winch.
Know the Weather
If youre going to be driving any distance at all, check the
weather first. Be sure you know what the weather is going to be doing all along your
route. Are you going to be crossing mountain passes? A light rain in the valleys may be a
raging blizzard at higher altitudes. A scenic shortcut in the summer may turn into an
impassable death trap in snowy weather. Call your local automobile or travel club, or
check with the highway departments or highway patrols of the states through which
youll be traveling.
File a "Flight Plan"
An experienced pilot, taking off in a private plane, files a flight
plan before he or she leaves the runway, informing the FAA of the intended route and the
expected time of arrival. If the plane doesnt show up at the destination on time,
people know where to start looking. Take a hint from the pilots. Its a good idea any
time you take a trip anywhere to let friends and family know where youre going and
when you expect to be back. Also let theem know what route you intend to take. This is
especially important in the winter, particularly if youre going to be traveling off
the beaten path.
Even if youre not planning to be driving off-highway, winter
driving demands that you carry equipment to get you moving if you get stuck on a slippery
road. You also need emergency survival gear in case you get bogged down in a blizzard or
if you get caught in miles of traffic brought to a stand-still by an accident. I can
recall several occasions when I had to spend an entire winter night in my vehicle on the
way to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco. Traffic stopped moving one time because of a
jack-knifed semi on Interstate 80 out of Sacramento and another time because of a sudden
blizzard on route 50 between Placerville and South Lake Tahoe. It can take hours to get
out of situations like those.
Heres a minimal list of
equipment and supplies to bring along on snowy highways:
General stuff: CB radio to call for help if
necessary (dont count on a cellular phone if youre out in the country),
windshield deicing fluid, extra windshield washer/antifreeze solution, a waterproof tarp
to lie on in the snow if you have to put on chains or make repairs. Be sure you leave home
with a full tank of gas, and if you know youre heading into bad weather, fill up
anytime you get below ¾ full. Dont forget to bring at least two flashlights with
extra batteries for each.
Unstuck stuff: Tire chains, spare tire with a lug
wrench and jack, Safety Seal Kit to seal flat tires, a tire gauge, an electric air pump to
reinflate flats, a Hi-Lift jack with a bumper-lift accessory, a shovel, a hand winch (a
"come-along"), traction strips to put under wheels that are slipping, a nylon
tow strap, a buck saw to cut brush to put under spinning wheels and to cut firewood if
Food and water: At least a gallon of drinking water
for each person, emergency food to last each person at least one day.
Protection from the cold: A warm sleeping bag for
each person, several extra blankets. Bring along fire-making equipment in case your
impromptu stay in the outdoors lasts longer than a few hours waterproof matches,
gelled alcohol fire starter, Duraflame-type fire logs to get a fire started.
Warm clothing: Warm coats or parkas, sweaters, and
winter boots, along with a change of gloves, boots, socks, underwear, and pants in case
your basic clothes get wet. Bring along waterproof foul weather gear for anyone who may
have to be working outside on the vehicle in cold, sloppy weather.
Things get a bit more complicated when you travel off-highway in the
winter. You have to be prepared to survive for several days if you get stranded in a
remote area, so plan accordingly even if you didnt plan an overnight trip
originally. Its especially important to let people know where youre going and
how long youll be gone.
Heres what you need:
Travel with another vehicle:
Its foolish to travel in a remote area by yourself. Bring along at least one other
rig, so whoever gets stuck has someone to tow him or her out. If one vehicle gets disabled
miles from nowhere, you have another rig available to go for help or to carry out an
All the above "on-highway"
stuff plus a lot more: For off-road travel, you need all the
"on-highway" stuff plus a lot more. Bring along more water, food, and warm
clothes. Be sure to use polypro or other wicking-type synthetic fiber long underwear.
Avoid cotton clothing. Wear layered clothing, so you can adjust the layers to stay warm
without getting wet with sweat when you cut wood or do other work. Wear winter hiking
boots. Bring more fire-making equipment and bring along some dry firewood to get a good
fire going to help dry out wood you pick up in the woods.
Camping supplies: A
winter tent for shelter, cooking utensils, a propane stove and propane lanterns. Tarps and
rope to build shelter from wind, rain, and snow.
Winch and winching supplies:
At least one of your vehicles should be equipped with a good winch. Driving off-road in
the winter, youre very likely going to have to winch at some point. (See Chapter
10 in 4-Wheel Freedom: The Art of Off-Road Driving for detailed advice on winching and
Hi-Lift jack recovery techniques.) Winching supplies include D-shackles, a pulley
block for double-lining the pull, several nylon tow straps, a length of chain with a hook
on each end, and extra cable (to reach anchor points out of reach of your installed winch
cable). Include leather-palmed gloves and eye protection.
Its helpful to have a 2-meter band radio available in remote areas, since
youre more likely to raise help with the longer range of 2-meter equipment. The
range of a CB is too limited to be of much help in real backcountry. You need a no-code
amateur radio license for the 2-meter radio, but this is very easy to get. Contact your
local amateur radio club.
Bring a first aid kit.
(See Chapter 6 of 4-Wheel Freedom for a detailed list of suggested first aid supplies and
for general survival tips.) Bring a water filter in case you run out of fresh water and
get stuck somewhere without snow to melt. Be sure you have sunglasses for everyone, and
bring plenty of sunblock. Bring snowshoes in case you have to hike any distance over deep
snow. In remote areas you might want to have a shotgun, rifle, or heavy-caliber handgun
along for protection.
Bring stuff for basic vehicle repairs.
Include a roll of duct tape and a tube of epoxy sealer to seal holes that rocks or sticks
might poke in the oil pan or gas tank.
If worse comes to worse
Before you venture into backcountry in the winter, take a course or
at least read some books on cold-weather survival. The first few times, travel with people
experienced in wintertime camping.
If you get stuck in the snow, and have to wait for rescuers in the
wilderness, set up camp and build a fire. Keep enough wood cut so theres no chance
of the fire ever going out. Its your lifeline. Stay warm by running the car engine
and using the heater only until you have the fire built. If you rely on the car engine for
warmth, youll soon run out of gas and your vehicle will turn into a large icebox. In
very cold weather, youre better off to build a shelter in the snow. Properly
constructed, you can heat a snow shelter with a candle and survive for an extended length
If you have trouble getting a fire started, try putting a light
coating of Vasoline from the first aid kit on a cotton ball, a paper napkin, or a piece of
cloth. Light the Vasoline and use it to get the kindling burning. If you run out of
matches, you can light the Vasoline with sparks from the battery jumper cables. Pieces of
bicycle tire inner tube make a good fire starter, too. Carry some with your fire-building
Stay with the vehicle. Rescuers
can spot a vehicle in the snow better than they can spot a lone figure hiking through the
snow. Keep the vehicle cleared of snow for better visibility. If you can move it, park it
with the windshield facing south, to increase the chance that sun glinting off the glass
will attract the attention of searching air craft. Prepare a large signal fire and cover
it with a tarp. If you hear a low-flying airplane or helicopter, whip the tarp off, squirt
a bunch of fire-starter on the kindling, and light it. Make lots of smoke by burning
pieces of your cut-up spare tire, and put green evergreen branches and motor oil on it
after it gets going.
Have a signal mirror ready to attract the attention of airborne
rescuers. Take the rear view mirror off your vehicle and use that if you dont have a
signal mirror available. Lay out a big "HELP" sign on the ground, using large
sticks on top of the snow or rocks on the ground.
Above all, dont panic! People will be looking for you, and you
can survive a long time with a snow shelter for warmth and snow to melt for drinking
water, even if you run out of food.
Winter Highway Driving
Check Chapter 11 in 4-Wheel Freedom for more information on
handling your rig on snow and ice. Shift into 4-wheel drive at the first sign of
losing traction. Dont wait until youre stuck to engage the transfer case. And
remember the cardinal rule of driving on slippery surfaces is to SLOW DOWN.
Dont get complacent just because youve got 4WD. Drive smoothly no
abrupt turns and no sudden braking.
Be sure you know what kind of brakes you have. If you have ABS, then
you need to apply firm, steady pressure to stop. If you have regular brakes, then you need
to pump the brake pedal rapidly. ABS helps you maintain some degree of steering while you
brake. Without ABS, if you lock your wheels into a skid, you lose all ability to steer the
rig around the obstacle, so its important to modulate them by pumping, pushing the
brake down quickly and firmly just to the point of lockup, then releasing momentarily.
There are two kinds of skids to recognize and recover from
understeer and oversteer. Theyre handled differently.
An oversteer skid is the most common, and occurs when the rear
wheels break free and skid sideways toward the outside of a curve. That points the nose of
the vehicle more into the turn more than you intended its steering too much,
so its called an oversteer situation. You avoid this type of skid by slowing down
well before you enter a slippery turn. You recover by recognizing it the instant you feel
the rear of the rig lose traction, steering back slightly toward the outside of the turn
(toward the direction the rear wheels are sliding), and accelerating just a touch. Do not
apply the brakes. This shifts the weight of the vehicle onto the front wheels, and the
rear wheels lose traction even more. With front wheel drive, you can be more aggressive in
accelerating out of the skid. Its easier to recover by adding acceleration with 4WD,
too, but not as effective as with front wheel drive alone.
An understeer skid happens when you turn the steering wheel to try
to steer around a curve, but the front end just keeps going straight. The rig is steering
too little, so you have an understeer condition. It can happen if you make the mistake of
accelerating too much as you enter a slippery turn. The acceleration shifts the weight of
the vehicle to the rear wheels, and the front wheels lose traction. Avoid an understeer
skid by slowing down before the curve, and coasting around the turn until youre well
into it. Recover from an understeer skid by turning the steering wheel back toward the
outside of the turn (toward the direction the front wheels seem to be sliding)and coming
off the accelerator to shift weight back onto the front wheels, then gently turning back
into the curve.
Dont use cruise control or overdrive on a slippery road.
Either of these modes causes an automatic transmission to downshift when going uphill, and
the sudden surge of power to the wheels can break your traction if the road is slippery.
If the road is icy and you feel as though your rig is going to spin
out at any moment, just grit your teeth and put on the chains. With 4WD, there are good
arguments for putting them on the front wheels or for putting them on the rear wheels.
Its best to carry two pairs, so you can chain up all four driving wheels.
Winter Trail Driving Tips
When youre traveling off-highway in the snow over unmaintained
dirt roads or trails, be aware of several points. Determine the depth and consistency of
the snow. If its too soft to support your rig, is there firm ground six or eight
inches down that your tires can grip? If not, you can get high centered in a hurry, and it
may prove impossible to winch free if the snow is heavy and deep.
Remember that a layer of crusted snow might support your vehicle in
the morning, but in the evening when you return over the same trail, the afternoon sun may
have softened the surface so it wont support you anymore.
Its important to travel with other rigs when you venture into
the backcountry in snowy weather, and dont forget the "flight plan." Be
sure you have a CB radio, or better yet, a 2-meter band radio.
The Bridgestone Winter Driving School, PO Box 4167, 1850 Ski Time
Square Drive, Steamboat Springs, Colorado 80477. Phone 1-800-WHY-SKID.
The Art of Off-Road Driving], by Dr. Brad DeLong. Paladin Press. 8 ½ X 11
inches. 154 pages, 89 Photos and Illustrations. Order tollfree from 1-800-4X4-ROAD
(494-7623), or visit the 4-Wheel Freedom WebSite at: http://www.4x4road.com.