Snow Driving and Winter Survival Tips

Pam-with-Car-in-SnowI can pretty much guarantee that you’ll learn a trick or two in the next five minutes, no matter how terrific a snow driver you are.  Some of it will make sense to you because you already know, but a couple will make you whisper, “Huh?  Is that right?  Really?”

SNOW DRIVING 101: Being an accomplished snow driver involves a peculiar combination of traits, some of which seem counter-intuitive.  We’ll get to the fine points in a minute but first a bit of snow Driving 101:

mustangWhat are the best and worst vehicles for driving in the snow?  As a rule the same thing that makes that Mustang GT, hot Camaro, Porsche, or M-Series BMW so hot on the road, makes for a LOUSY snow driver.  Leave it parked for sunnier, drier days….because they are rear-wheel drive…period.

Best cars on slick ice?  Nope, not four-wheel drive…really.  It’s front-wheel drive, even if you have the 4-wd option in your cockpit.   The reason is simple: occasionally a car needs to turn.  A front-wheel drive car will never get you into a turn you can’t handle, because it’s pulling your car through the turn.

With four-wheel drive, however, those two driving back wheels can sometimes overpower the steering front wheels.  The result is, that turn-off to your driveway just slides on by. Best cars in Deep Snow:  Having said that,  here is where four-wheel drive comes into its own:  Deep Snow.  And if you have an emergency lock that makes all four wheels turn…no matter what, that’s the time to use that option.

winter-tyresSNOW TIRES:  In the past seven years, snow tires have gotten a whole lot better.  I have a set (that means all four) of Swedish snow tires on my homely front-wheel drive van that turns it into SUPER VAN in the snow.  I can’t spell or even pronounce the name of the company…I ran across them in a Swedish chat room, where the Swedes were raving about the fact that they didn’t have to buy 4-wheel drive to be great on the road.  The secret ingredient?  You’re not gonna believe this, you really won’t.  Peanut Oil.  Don’t ask me why.   But Henry,  I don’t need snow tires on all four wheels because I don’t have four-wheel drive.  The response to that is:  No, you really do.  The reason is tires do more than just power a car, they help steer it and they help stop it.  All very important things.  (Note: The Americans have recently caught up and have some great super sticky snow tires as well.  Just be sure to get four of them.)

helpless_girl_snow_stuck_mustang_010Some Very Big Little Tips:  Okay, you just got stuck and you absolutely, positively have to get out right now.  The very best way to spot (or hear) a rookie snow driver?  Care to guess?  It’s the sound of frustration, desperation, the spinning of wheels.  I believe they even coined a phrase about that one.  The very last thing you want to do is spin your wheels.  Here’s why: Whatever snow or ice under your wheels that’s keeping you from moving…when you spin your wheels you create friction.  Friction=Heat and Heat= Melting…just enough to make that slick patch of snow, a slick patch of ice.  After that first inadvertent spinning of the wheels….stop, even if you’re frustrated.  You’re just making it worse when you hear that sound.  If it’s not too bad behind you, back up…slowly.

BIG TIP:  When you’re stuck, never cut your wheels hard.  It makes it geometrically more difficult to get traction.  I had this very thing occur as recently as yesterday when our FedEx driver got stuck in front of our house.  He really wanted to cut his wheels to get back on track, and it really didn’t work.  When he finally realized he was stuck, I urged him to straighten out the tires.  It works.

SUPER TRICK:  It takes approximately a minute and a half.  Get out and let some of the air out of the driving tires, but only the driving tires.  (It absolutely has to be the driving tires.)  Let enough out so that you can see the bottom of your tire splaying out…just a little.  It’ll increase your traction by 20+ percent, which may be enough to get you out.  Just write it on your forehead to refill the tires as soon as you can… really soon after.

PREPARE…PREPARE…PREPARE   If  you can…stay home when the weather gets bad.   But if you have to go out, put it in your mind what could happen.  Have warm clothes, gloves, hat, boots, a shovel…the garden type is great because you may be digging out crusted ice and slush.  And, put a bag of sand and a bag of salt in your trunk and a flashlight if it’s after dark.

snowy hillDriving Technique = Understanding Momentum:  The biggest concept you have to understand is momentum.  On slippery snow and particularly on ice, what I tell my wife is: Drive like a little old lady going down a hill or around a turn, and drive aggressively going up a hill.  It’s true, and here’s why.  When you’re going down a hill, if you gauged wrong and it was slipperier than you thought, you are in serious trouble.  Hard to slow down once it gets away from you  and your car will want to just plow straight ahead.

Going up a hill, however, you need to be brave.  If you see a steep snowy hill in front of you, or just an area of scarily deep snow…and there’s no choice but to go forward, you have to carry a little speed to keep up your momentum in the snow.  The most frustrating thing for an experienced snow driver is getting behind someone who thinks they can tip-toe cautiously UP a hill at six miles an hour.  It ain’t gonna work.  When I recognize that scenario, I’ll pull over and let them go on and get stuck.  Then I’ll approach the hill with a little speed…enough to carry that necessary momentum.

A Very Big and Very Simple Trick:  When things suddenly go very bad.  Your car isn’t responding to the steering wheel or the brakes:  Here’s the tip:  Let-up  on everything, the gas, the brakes and with a little luck the steering and brakes will quickly return.  From that point on, drive like the proverbial Little Old Lady.  I tell my wife to pretend there’s an egg on the brake and the accelerator pedal.  Don’t hammer either one, just use the bare minimum.

A Small Valuable Tip:  You just got stuck.  You let the air out just a bit, and your wheels are facing straight.  You know not to spin the wheels, but…you’re still stuck.  If you have that sand and a shovel, now is the time.  Make sure you shovel it on both front and back sides of the driving wheels as you may have to “rock the car”.  BUT:  Duh…you never got around to putting any sand or salt in your trunk.  It’s time to get creative.  Did you just buy some cereal at the grocery? A bag of sugar, perhaps?  potato chips, bird seed, cat litter?  They’ll help.  Don’t have any of those?  Do you have floor mats?  It’s time to enlist their aid.  Drag em out and jam them in on the side  of where you intend to go.  They work.  In a real emergency, an old jacket will do the same thing, even the New York Times.

You Already Have Four-wheel Drive:  Many, many drivers, (mostly guys) believe that because they have a macho truck and 4-WD that they not only have superior traction going forward…they have it stopping as well.  Guess again.  When it comes to stopping, that little pipsqueak Prius in front of you has four brakes on all four wheels…just like you.   The point is:  Even if you have 4-WD, when it comes to braking…think….waaaay…ahead.  There’s a traffic light ahead…and it’s red?  Start slowing down ahead of time so that just possibly you won’t have to stop at all.  It’s not macho, but it’s excellent snow driving.  An added benefit?  The idiot behind you will have less chance of ramming you, too.

Chains and Studded Snow Tires:  They are messy and annoying and noisy to put on, but…once they are on, even a rear-wheel drive car becomes SUPER SNOW CAR.  I learned to snow drive at a very, very, very early age….way before I was old enough to get my license.  I inherited my grandmother’s old ’51 Chevy and drove it in the snowy back fields of New Jersey.  No roads, no plowing, just big fields of snow.  I was young and fearless, but through applied Darwinism, I got better and better very quickly.  When I got my license and began dating, I was highly motivated to be able to get around in the snow.  Chains on the rear wheels of my 65 Chevy Belair, four fifty-pound sand bags in the trunk…a shovel, and I was invincible.  Studded snow tires are a very good runner-up, particularly for ice.

Steering into a Skid:  Most people aren’t exactly sure what that means.  It’s another one of those counter-intuitive concepts and once in a great while…it’s bad advice.  For 99% of your driving, if you start to lose it, the car’s starting to nose in the wrong direction…steer it in that direction to get your steering back.  What they should also say, is:  “But first…get off the accelerator.”  Hit the gas right then, and you’re headed for a spin, which you really don’t want.  Exception to the rule:  You’re on a mountain road with a drop-off.  If you steer into the direction of the drop-off you’ll regain your steering just as you go over the cliff.

southern driversIn closing, I saw footage of the school closings in the South, sometimes due to a dusting, sometimes to an inch or two.  I saw a couple cars on fire and some flipped upside down…from a dusting???  Yeah.  The biggest thing southern drivers don’t have going for them is: experience. There’s nothing I mentioned today that’s mystical.  But like anything else you have to have it ingrained into your brain, when your car actually starts to get away from you.  If I had to boil it down to one sentence:  Prepare…and drive like a little old lady going down hills and around turns, then like an angry truck driver going up the hill.  Oh, and…don’t spin your wheels.  When you do that it’s like you’re just…spinning your wheels.  This article was Winter Driving 101.  There are more advanced tips, but first you need to know the basics.  If you have your own winter driving tip…write in and I’ll post it.

kubota teaserHenry

P.S.  Sorry for the non-sequitur, but a whole bunch of you purchased gas generators recently to handle power outages.  They pump out amazing amounts of carbon monoxide…enough to kill you very quickly.  You can store the thing in your garage, but you cannot EVER run it in your garage, or house, or shed.  It has to be outside and at least 15 feet from your house.  This is serious stuff.  …Yeah that’s me plowing out my driveway.


Final Ad  copyP.P.S.   Here’s a short important link that can save you some major bucks and a trip to the hospital:   They’re really inexpensive…under three bucks.

P.P.P.S  I’m not even sure whether or not P.P.P.S.s are legal, but what the hell.  After posting this article and tracking-down a “hot” blonde for the wheel-spin scene, I thought…Pamela, who used to dance with Harkness Ballet, has pretty nice legs, too.  Soooo… that’s MY honey at the top of the page!

7 Responses to "Snow Driving and Winter Survival Tips"

  1. Greg Meurs says:

    A great public service article, and timely.

  2. Chris Mercer says:

    Well said! The tip about hammering forward up a hill is priceless. Getting stuck behind a “slo mo” in that situation is/can be quite dangerous.

    One tip that works wonders, that I’ve learned form mountain driving in various conditions, is to use your transmission to slow you down, not your brakes, downhill.

    P.S. Love the comment of, “The idiot behind you will have less chance of ramming you, too.”

  3. Henry Harvey says:

    Thanks for the tip, Chris! Way back when I had a construction job with a fly-by-night company…lousy equipment. Drivin’ down a mountain with 20 tons of gravel in the back, my brakes started frying (literally). Just had time to get it in a super low gear before they went out completely. Those gears were screaming all the way down that two mile run. At the bottom, the brake fluid actually caught fire. Sometimes you learn a lot REAL fast. Thanks again.

  4. Henry Harvey says:

    Since we’re swapping stories, when Henry and I were stationed out in Tucson (Davis Monthan AFB), Henry got it into his mind that we could climb the back-side of Mt. Lemmon (11,000). The front side is the route normal, sane people go. The back-side was really a logging trail.
    We made it 90% of the way in our Fiat 124 Sport Coupe, until the combination of deep snow and switchbacks stopped us. Frustrated, that we’d come soooo far, Henry climbed on the trunk for extra weight while I drove the last couple miles. It worked. Probably wouldn’t do it again, now. Pamela Harvey

  5. Henry:
    Good Information!
    Kevin K.

  6. Jeff says:

    The irony of articles like this is the people who are already most concerned for their safety and others read them. Idiots will never read it – they already “know” how to drive in snow. At least until they hit someone or end up in a ditch somewhere (and then it likely becomes someone else’s fault).

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