The obvious thing that comes to mind when contemplating snow driving is: ‘Do I need snow chains?’. An easy question to ask, but not so easy to answer.
If you’re heading to a major ski field in winter, it’s generally a legal requirement that chains be carried. However, if you are just out for a fun day in the white stuff on forest tracks and not contemplating serious offroad exploits, then chains can cause more problems than they solve.
That said, if you are going to carry snow chains, practice fitting them beforehand. For the uninitiated, fitting chains can be a difficult enough exercise on your driveway let alone when you are up to your differential in cold, wet snow. Be aware not all vehicles can have chains fitted to all wheels (check your owner’s manual). Properly fitted chains certainly improve traction in ice and snow but they don’t perform miracles — if you come to a point where the only way forward is to fit chains, unless you're in the company of seasoned snow drivers, you should probably consider calling it a day and turn around.
Ensure your 4WD is running offroad tyres with plenty of tread. While standard all-terrain tyres will suffice, the more aggressive the tread pattern, the better. Reducing tyre pressure dramatically improves traction when driving in snow. Just how low tyre pressures need to be depends on your vehicle and the driving conditions. While 25psi is a good place to start, in difficult conditions you will almost certainly need to drop pressures further. With low tyre pressure (especially below 20psi) remember to corner gently and inflate your tyres back up to highway pressures before driving at speed.
Steady forward motion is the name of the game in snow — aggressive acceleration or braking should be avoided at all costs. Staying in the hard-packed tracks of other vehicles will assist traction and help directional control in deeper snow by guiding your wheels. Once out of any tracks it can be difficult to change direction and even modest braking can see you sliding uncontrollably off the camber of the road.
Carrying a long-handled shovel and a set of Maxtrax, or similar traction aid, is pretty much mandatory in the snow. A recent fall of snow can hide deep wheel ruts cut into layers of underlying old snow that has turned to hard packed ice. Sink far enough into these and your vehicle’s belly might end up resting on the snow between the tyre tracks. 4WDs make very poor snow ploughs and once friction exceeds traction forward motion becomes impossible. As such, in deep snow, vehicles with a suspension lift have a material advantage over their lower slung brethren.
If you are forced to stop and then can’t find enough traction to move off again, roll back a little to make a short runway before gently accelerating forward and in the process hopefully creating enough momentum to get your vehicle moving again. If all else fails, shovel away snow from the front of each wheel and under the body of the vehicle (if it is resting on the snow). A set of Maxtrax, or similar, in front of the rear wheels should then allow you to drive out.
Weather can change quickly in alpine areas and even if on a simple day trip, you should plan for the worst, such as breakdown or getting snowed-in. Pack additional warm clothing, water, food and blankets as well as basic recovery gear. For safety, always travel in the company of others or at least ensure someone knows your movements. Mobile reception is often patchy in alpine areas and carrying a sat phone or UHF radio can prove invaluable in the event of a breakdown or accident.
If staying out overnight, be aware diesel fuel can be compromised by very low temperatures. It changes consistency and becomes waxy, leaving vehicles difficult or unable to be started the next morning. Most service stations in alpine areas sell alpine diesel which can tolerate temperatures down to about -3º, but topping up half a tank of city diesel with alpine diesel won’t give you much (if any) protection—your tank should be almost empty before filling up. An alternative is to purchase a diesel cold flow additive for your city fuel.
In extreme conditions, putting a blanket over a diesel motor at night will help retain warmth (but remember to remove it before driving off the next day!). If possible, park out of any wind and in a position that will see your vehicle catch early morning sun. Folding out windscreen wipers stops the blades freezing to the glass and wiping cooking oil around the door seals will prevent them freezing shut. If you know your car battery is on the way out, it’s a good idea to change it before heading into alpine areas. Batteries are less efficient in the cold and after a night of sub-zero temperatures, it might just let you down.
As well as the enjoyable challenges snow driving provides, seeing the usually drab Australian bush with a covering of snow is a special experience. Whether it’s the brilliant red of flame robins flitting through the trees, the rich ochre bark of snow gums or the verdant mosses and tree ferns, colours appear more vibrant when set against the stark white background of Australia’s rarely seen winter wonderland.
If you have a 4WD, make the most of it and do a bit of winter exploring.