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Snow Driving 101

The slippery art of winter motion

Mike McNessor
Oct 18, 2002
Photographers: Mike McNessor
Poke a button on the dash or twist a pair of hub locks, and your faithful truck is ready to crawl along ice-greased winter roads or plow through differential deep snow.
Cool. Now, how about you?
From November to March, as much of North America goes into cold storage, drivers must shake the mothballs out of their winter-driving skills. As a truck or sport/ute owner, you have a leg-up on most, but what happens when an overnight nor'easter pummels your camping adventure, leaving you with four feet of snow to punch a hole through on the way out of the woods, or a late-afternoon freezing rain puts the icing on rush-hour commute, turning a 4x4 into a 4000-lb hockey puck?
According to the experts, driving a truck through winter's worst is no gamble if you know when to hold and when to roll. That means drivers need the confidence to keep their foot off the brakes and the common sense to keep speeds in the basement.
"On icy roads, the biggest thing is to slow down," says Greg Nikolas, chief driving instructor at Land Rover's driving school at the Equinox resort in Manchester, Vermont. "Trucks and SUVs tend to be heavier and tougher to slow down. You can go better, but you can't stop better than a normal passenger car."
Mark Cox, an SCCA Pro Rally racer and director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, reminds drivers that smoother is always faster.
"SUVs are great because of their weight, traction, and ground clearance," Cox says. "But it's a double-edged sword. A lot of front-to-rear/side-to-side weight transfer and a high center of gravity can make trucks and SUVs tougher to handle than cars. Once things start to happen, a driver has to be quick to correct. The main thing is to maintain your momentum and change directions gradually. Be smooth."
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When your intent is to move forward rather than sideways on an icy road, the experts say first make sure your 4x4 is in four-high.
"A lot of people in trucks and SUVs don't use four-wheel drive," Cox says. "If there is any question, use it."
It's also possible to be too cautious. "If you're on the highway in four-low, you could get to the point where you're the hazard because you're going too slow," says Nikolas. "I can count on one hand the number of times I've had a vehicle in four-low on a main road."
If your truck is equipped with the aforementioned hub locks, you'll probably have to supply your own anti-lock brake system, too. Nikolas recommends engine braking whether or not you have ABS, which means slowing down and leaving plenty of room between you and the next car.
At the Land Rover driving school, Nikolas teaches his students "threshold braking," which means applying just enough pressure on the pedal to slow down without locking up the wheels.
It takes lots of practice and the confidence of a Yugo salesman to hold steady on the pedal without freaking out and clamping down.
"Use the gearing of the vehicle more," says Nikolas. "Use first gear and let engine compression hold you back, using less foot brake. Use the brakes sparingly. If it's a particularly steep hillside, we call it threshold braking. Use just enough to slow down, but not enough to lock up the wheels, and that's tough."
Cox can't stress enough the value of getting a grip when your vehicle starts to slide.
"A lot of people develop a fear of losing control," he says. "Most people are way out of the comfort zone. But with practice, you can learn you're never totally out of control."
What that means is: Ease off the gas and make smooth, controlled corrections while steering into the direction of the slide. Be prepared to ease the throttle back on once the vehicle is straight in the road. Remember, forward momentum is the only way you're getting home.
When negotiating deep snow, experts say handle the wheel and the gas as you'd handle them in deep mud.
"The techniques are the same--but you may need more momentum to get through the snow," Nikolas says. "Maintain a steady throttle; don't back out of the throttle too early. Don't give it too much throttle, either, over-torquing the wheels, creating unnecessary wheelspin and digging yourself in."
Nikolas, who's been off-roading professionally and as a hobby for over a decade, also recommends keeping the wheels as straight as possible.
"Turn only enough to negotiate the trail," he says. "You get a lot of feedback in the steering wheel, and you don't always want to let the wheels turn where they want to go. If you get too far from center, turn the vehicle into a plow, and shift more of the power to one wheel than the other, overtorquing that wheel."
Of course, a way for guided practice applying these techniques is to enroll at an accredited driving school.
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The Bridgestone Winter Driving School teaches 2000-3000 students each year on how to properly handle a vehicle in the worst possible conditions. Spins, braking techniques, throttle, and steering are all on the lesson plan.
In February 2002, Nikolas and the crew from Land Rover's off-road academy in the Northeast, put together a special winter-driving curriculum at the Stratton Mountain ski area. The treacherous course simulates the worst highway driving conditions imaginable letting truck and 'ute drivers put their skills to the test.
"We concentrate on controlling the vehicle when everything goes wrong," Nikolas says. "What we've set up is the worst-case scenario that anyone could possibly experience. If something like this ever happens on the road, it would be less dramatic than what we're making it. The class is three hours--a bit of classroom time and all hands-on from there."
Snow Prep
You're ready for anything, and we believe you. But the experts say most people ignore the basics when preparing their truck or sport/ute for winter.
Snow tires: Toothy treads help you go dashing through the snow, right? Sure, but according to Bridgestone, they can also help you stop up to 50-percent faster. All-season tires, even on a four- or all-wheel-drive rig, may not be up to the task.
"Snow tires (on a four-wheel-drive) are appropriate in the snow belt," says Mark Cox, an SCCA Pro Rally racer and director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School. "Four-wheel drive is great, but you still only have four contact patches on the road."
What about studs? According to Bill Egan, chief engineer of advanced tire technology at Goodyear, metal molars for treads are worth 40-percent-more traction on packed snow and ice. But on wet or dry roads, they actually may reduce traction.
Air pressure: The good folks at Goodyear point out their snow tires work only when inflated. According to the Akron-based tire manufacturer, underinflation is a chronic problem in winter months because cold air is denser than warm air. So a tire inflated to 32 psi on a 70-degree day will be inflated only to 26 psi on a day when the temperature is at freezing. Tire life, Goodyear says, will decrease 10 percent for every 10 percent the tire is underinflated.
Battery: It sounds like a no-brainer, but how many times has your battery given up the ghost on a sunny summer afternoon? Cold weather, on the other hand, puts a strain on your battery in a number of ways: An ice-cold engine is tougher to crank; running the heater, electric rear-window defroster, wipers, and headlights regularly draws more juice; and, as the temperature drops, so does a battery's cranking power, particularly if it's weak to begin with.
While you're staring suspiciously at your battery, it might be a good time to check out its cables and test alternator output. Ditto for inspecting belts and hoses.
Wipers: C'mon, when was the last time you changed wiper blades? Nothing is more annoying than staring at the winter landscape through streaked glass or being serenaded by the sound of squeaking rubber. Bosch claims its "Twin" blade uses a two-component rubber that's tough enough to hold up, yet soft enough to be quiet. Whatever blades you buy, shell out the dough for two sets and change them at the first sign of deterioration.
Fluids: Again you're rolling your eyes, but how many times have you endured little or no heat only to realize you're anti-freeze is low. And when traveling on sloppy roads, you'll use twice as much windshield-washer fluid. Top it off!
If you really want to light Jack Frost's fire, try mixing him up a special washer- fluid cocktail with Prestone's Windshield Melt De-Icer Additive. The people at Prestone say a bottle of the stuff will keep your standard-issue blue fluid off the rocks all the way down to -30-degrees F.
Provisions: You know at least one person who's more prepared than a Boy Scout Jamboree at Martha Stewart's house. This fall, follow that person's lead, and put together a travel kit that'll keep you from being victimized by Old Man Winter.
The National Safety Council recommends a snow shovel, a scraper with a brush on one end, a tow chain or strap, tire chains, a flashlight (with extra batteries), abrasive material (cat litter, sand, salt, or traction mats), jumper cables, a warning device (flares or reflective triangles), bright-colored cloth to signal for help, empty can containing candles, matches (in a water-tight container) or a lighter, high-energy food (chocolate or dried fruit, for example), sleeping bags or blankets, ski caps, and mittens, first-aid supplies, and a compass.
To that we'd add a compact chain hoist or come-along unit that might be handy for winching a truck out of a ditch or deep ruts.
Driving Tips
Here are some pearls of wisdom from the people at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School, which can help gauge the precariousness of your surroundings and prevent you and your truck from skating off the road like Oksana Baiul.
Look in your rearview mirror first, then tap your brakes to see what it takes to lock up the wheels.
That broad roadside shoulder is probably just a ditch filled with snow. So before you pull to the right, test it, and prepare to ease back on the road if the going gets soft.
Brake and accelerate only in a straight line to prevent your truck from chasing its tail.
Intersections are often the most slippery and dangerous places to drive in a snowstorm. Ditto for hills. With drivers all sharing the same path, hitting the brakes and spinning tires in virtually the same spots, an icy road can get polished like a mirror. Keep speed in check and think about where your best bets for traction might be. Slow and steady will get you and your truck home safely.
It doesn't help to turn lights on if they're caked with snow and ice. Clean them off and turn them on to keep other motorists aware of your presence. Auxiliary lights are great for guiding you through a desolate part of town, but keep them off in traffic to avoid blinding everyone else.
Correctly reading the road can prevent metal-crunching collisions. Be aware of the stuff they taught you back in high-school driver education. Bridges and overpasses ice over first because they don't benefit from Mother Earth's natural warmth. Look out for places that receive little direct sunlight all day.
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