What’s a Gnarly Girl to do when the snow report says it’s dumping fresh powder, but a fear of driving in the snow hinders your ability to make it to the mountain? Worry not, wanderlusters. Kelsey compiled every tip she knows so you can learn how to drive in the snow.
The year I got my driving permit, a few inches of snow dusted my hometown. My dad grew up in a snowy area, which groomed him into quite the expert snow navigator. He wanted to impart these qualities to me, so he convinced me to learn how to drive in the snow.
I took the driver seat in his Ford Expedition, and continued along a flat road. My false sense of confidence building, I thought to myself, “hey, this isn’t so hard.”
As if karma read my mind, we reached a steep hill, and I didn’t get enough momentum. In a terrifying few seconds, we fishtailed backwards down the hill. Even with my dad’s calm narration on how to handle the situation, I went into panic mode, and vowed to never drive in the snow again.
Recently, a friend’s mom told me a story about how she learned to tow a boat behind her car because she didn’t want to rely on someone else to do it for her, and she knew she was perfectly capable of doing it herself. After hearing her story of self-sufficiency, I decided I didn’t want my fear of driving in the snow to keep me from doing what I love.
With a few practice sessions (and a very patient dad), I can now regularly drive to the mountain by myself with complete confidence. Driving in the snow can be scary for both first-timers and experts alike, but with the right equipment, knowledge, and mentality, you can survive driving in the snow and get to those ski runs you crave.
GET THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
I will caveat this article by saying I only drive in the snow with an All-Wheel-Drive car with Mud + Snow tires. I have never used snow chains, so some of these tips will not be as applicable if you choose to use snow chains. Most mountains require traction tires or snow chains. Always check the road conditions before your trip. Make sure you’re prepared before you go with the right set-up for you, whether that means renting a car with winter tires, or learning how to put on snow chains. You can find snow chain tutorials on YouTube, or your local tire shop may even give you a chain-up lesson for free. Practice chaining up ahead of time – don’t wait until you’re on the side of the road wishing you had cell service to figure out whether your car has front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive!
PATIENCE, YOUNG GRASSHOPPER
My ULTIMATE pet peeve while driving in the snow is when a driver gets too cocky, and tries to speed past the rest of the crowd. They get frustrated by the slower speed, and try to create their own lane to pass everyone else. I don't care what type of vehicle you drive (*cough* it's usually a gigantic pickup with monster truck sized tires *cough*) this is the worst thing you can possibly do because you’re putting everyone else in danger. It is not worth risking someone else’s life or your own to save a few minutes. Patience is your best friend when driving in the snow, so be courteous to your fellow snow-goers. We’re all trying to survive the snow drive!
IT’S A MENTAL GAME
Equipment and driving tactics are very important aspects, but my best advice is to control your mentality. If patience is your best friend, panic is your weakest link. Confidence is the key to driving in the snow because occasionally you will need to make quick decisions. When I get nervous driving in the snow, I tell myself that everyone else is safer when I am calm. I try to think of it from a new perspective: this is my one time to focus on a singular task. Normally, when I drive, I listen to music, become a lip sync star, have an existential crisis, etc. Driving in the snow lets my mind focus on only the road ahead. Keep a clear mind for calm reactions, and ease into the zen of snow driving.
SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE...
The biggest beginner mistake is driving too fast. Too often, I see people panic when they get stuck, and press on the gas even harder. This will only cause your tires to slide and spin because they're unable to get traction. Sometimes, I get anxious when I feel like I’m slowing everyone else down, but as previously mentioned, driving too fast in the snow causes accidents. It is better to be hated by other drivers than dead. In the snow, your car needs more time to gain traction and slow down. Keep your speed steady and in control.
...BUT GIVE YOUR BRAKES A BREAK
Similarly, another beginner mistake is relying too much on the brakes, or braking at the wrong time. Recently, I was driving in the snow and the car in front of me kept slamming on the brakes, even when we were driving uphill. This made it dangerous for me because their actions were unpredictable and I couldn't gauge when they would stop. When your car comes to a full stop in the snow, it can be harder to gain traction again. Try your best to keep your tires moving forward at all times, even if it means going much slower. One of the best ways to do this is shifting gears. If you’re going down a hill, steadily shift your gear down from 3 to 2 to 1, paying attention to your car’s response. Your car should begin to slow down, allowing you control of your speed without using your brakes. If you do need to use your brakes, do it steadily and with control. Never slam on your brakes – it will cause your car to slide and you may not stop. It’s crucial to give enough space to the car in front of you to allow yourself enough time to brake. On dry pavement, it’s advised to leave 3-4 seconds between you and the car in front of you. In snow, you need to leave at least 8-10 seconds. A good spacial rule of thumb is the distance of 1.5 cars.
IF YOU GET STUCK…
Remember: your car gets stuck when it doesn’t have enough traction. Maybe you didn’t get enough momentum, or you hit the gas pedal too hard and your tires are spinning in an endless snow abyss. Know that in these situations, your goal is to get traction again.
- REVERSE. When you’re stuck, holding down the gas pedal only makes it worse. As Missy Elliott once finely articulated: “Put that thang down, flip it, and REVERSE IT.” Typically, cars are better at handling the snow when in reverse. If it is safe, reverse until you regain control again, and then go back into drive.
- Try different gears. The lower the gear, the easier it is for your car to steadily gain traction.
- KITTY LITTER! It sounds crazy, but if you plan on doing a lot of driving in the snow, keep cat litter in the back of your car. You can sprinkle it in front of your tires to give them something to grab onto.
- Use your floor mats. If your car has rubber floor mats, you can put these underneath your tires to get extra traction and escape the problem area. Just remember to retrieve them once you get unstuck!
IF YOU START SLIDING OR FISHTAILING…
- Don’t Brake! Braking triggers slides and makes matters worse. It doesn’t feel as intuitive, but you actually want to accelerate a bit if you start to slide so your tires can regain control.
- Turn into the slide. You want to turn your front wheels in the same direction that the rear of the vehicle is sliding. So, if your vehicle slides left, turn your wheel left. Once your car straightens out, straighten out your wheel. Watch this video for a visual example.
- Don’t Overcorrect. Overcorrecting a slide can cause angular momentum, which means your car could keep rotating into a full spin. And that sounds absolutely terrifying, so don’t do it!
IF YOU’RE DRIVING UP A HILL…
- Give the car ahead of you plenty of space. You don’t want to stop on the way up the hill, so make sure there’s enough room for you to keep going at a steady speed. If they start sliding backward, you don’t want to be caught in the crossfire.
- Get enough momentum. You want to gain speed before you get to the incline and let inertia do the work.
SOME LAST COMMON-SENSE ADVICE
- Make sure you have enough gas. I never like to risk running on an empty tank because snow causes a lot of accidents. Sometimes, that can mean the entire highway shuts down until an accident clears. Make sure you have enough gas in the event that you get stuck waiting on a grid-locked highway, otherwise you’ll just contribute to the abandoned vehicles in the road.
- Keep your car stocked. We’re talkin' blankets, emergency kit, flashlights, matches, flares, snacks… People poke fun at me for being a “doomsday prepper”, but when you get stuck on the side of the road, you will be happy that you thought of everything.
- Pay attention to the temperature. If you're lucky enough to have a temperature gauge in your car, watch it closely. Even small changes in temperature can mean big changes in driving conditions. I like to refer to 34-35 degrees as the "danger zone" because it's just warm enough for the snow to turn slick. Be aware of the slight changes in temperature so you can adjust your driving style.
- Assume that no one else knows how to drive in the snow. A lot of people ask me why I am comfortable driving to the mountain but wary of driving in the city when it snows. My answer is that I assume most people in the city aren't used to driving in the snow, and it becomes more of a danger for me. Although it's a slightly negative perspective, this type of cautious attitude can help you stay on your toes to course correct if the other drivers screw up. If I'm behind someone who makes me nervous, or someone is right on my tail, I do everything in my power to get away from them, whether it be pulling over or passing in a safe area.
Remember these tips and you’ll be on your way to becoming a self-sufficient snow driver. If you feel completely overwhelmed by all of this information, all you really need to remember is this word: STEADY. Steady speed, steady turns, steady braking, steady head. You can do this! With a little bit of practice and a lot of self pep talks, you’ll be cruising through the snow like it ain’t no thing, and enjoying the fresh powder you deserve.
NOTE: These tips only act as a basic guideline. Driving in the snow can be very dangerous. Always use caution and your best judgement.
What did I miss? Add your snow tips in the comments!