How to drive in snow is much more than slowing down and taking it steady. We tell you how to avoid ending up in a ditchwhen driving in hazardous conditions.
How to drive in snow is not usually a skill that comes top of the British agenda. In the US they have proper winters, feet of the white stuff engulfing whole towns. We’re accustomed to something a little more restrained. That makes it a bit more dangerous, as we don’t know how to drive in snow. So whether you want to get to your shooting, hunting or have a desire to embrace full throttle winter speed and go ice driving (watch our video: ice driving in supercars), take heed of the advice below.
HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW
As English winters have progressed from mild, wet affairs to the violent cold snaps of recent years, getting from A to B has, at times, proved something of a challenge. Every year images of abandoned cars on snowy motorways grace the front pages of various papers. We need to know how to drive in snow.
Knowing how to drive in snow, on ice or through mud doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Add to this the ever-increasing reliance on electronically controlled traction assistance on cars, and drivers are gradually having their skill set eroded. Less is more when driving on a slippery surface: gentle throttle, subtle steering input, steady braking.
ROOT CAUSE: LOSS OF TRACTION
The root cause of all challenges drivers face in difficult conditions is always loss of traction. At some stage, most cars lose grip. The tyres spin and the vehicle won’t go forwards; it might even begin to slide in an elegant but uncontrolled arc across the road. The various drivetrains affect the car in different ways.
FRONT WHEEL, REAR WHEEL OR FOUR WHEEL?
A front-wheel-drive car has to steer and propel itself with the same pair of wheels – not great for handling under pressure, especially with no traction. They do not, however, over-steer as violently as rear-wheel-drive cars. These push from the back and leave the front wheels free to steer, but too much throttle (and it doesn’t need to be much on ice) will send the back of the car round the front: in other words, oversteer. This can be hard to correct and a rear-wheel-drive car poses the greatest challenge in these conditions.
Four-wheel drive is the best option. As all four wheels drive, less power is needed by each wheel which means less slip and more grip. If a wheel or two are slipping, the others should still get you going. What four-wheel drive doesn’t do, however, is help you stop.
What happens when it goes wrong? Tales of motoring mishaps in icy conditions are generally rather amusing. Take the chap in his low-slung sports car in Northumberland. The inside of the windscreen had iced up so he sprayed it liberally with de-icer, almost fainting from the fumes. Luckily, he got plenty of fresh air as the car took on snow-ploughesque tendencies and every 20 minutes he had to get out and free the radiator grille, which had become clogged with snow, by hand.
Another unfortunate driver wrongly assumed that his Land Rover 110 was immune to the conditions, bounced off the high banks of the country lane he was driving down and laid the poor vehicle down on its side. As for the BMW owner who put snow chains on his front wheels… there are no words. Especially when you remember that BMWs are rear-wheel drive.
Fortunately, there are various solutions.
HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW: THE SOLUTIONS
HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW: SNOW SOCKS
These are, literally, a pair of grippy fabric socks that can be kept inside the car for use in an emergency. They fit over the tyres in minutes and are safe for use up to 50mph. They must not be used on bare tarmac as they will wear out quickly. Less bulky and lighter than snow chains, they are ideal to buy just in case: £45 upwards.
HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW: SNOW CHAINS
Compulsory in the Alps (snow socks are not approved), they are harder to fit than socks but are slightly more effective and likely to last longer. You can’t drive fast with chains (around 30mph) and they make for quite a noisy, bumpy ride: £35 upwards.
HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW: TYRES
The most expensive solution but also the best. Winter tyres offer more traction and better braking than chains or socks. You can drive at any speed (within reason) and they will last years, especially if you remove and store them at the end of each winter. A set of good winter tyres for an Audi A4 will start from £230 per tyre for a premium brand (such as Goodyear) or £140 per tyre for a mid-range tyre (Kumho).
Who better to ask about technique than the holder of the world record for the fastest crossing of the Antarctic? Jason de Carteret smashed the previous record in December 2011, reaching the South Pole in 15 hours and 54 minutes in a Toyota Tacoma truck.
HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW: ELECTRONIC DRIVING AIDS
Virtually every new car on the planet has traction control now, mostly electronic. But sometimes this just leaves you motionless as the computer has a row with reality. On detecting that the wheels are slipping some systems won’t let you move at all. You need to know how to drive correctly when you turn all the systems off. Many modern four-by-fours even have sophisticated programs for ascending and descending and will, literally, drive themselves up or down the slope. Handy, but, as ever, don’t rely on technology – you still need to know how to land the plane.
HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW: COURSES
With most things in life, getting some decent instruction has a positive effect on one’s skill set. Driving is no different and the skills mentioned can be taught and honed.
HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW: SKID PANS
The simplest way to learn how to control a skidding car is to go to a skid pan. Cars are mounted on special trolleys that reduce traction, so the instructor can teach the driver how to respond to and correct loss of control at various speeds and levels of grip, as well as learning how to try to avoid a skid in the first place. From £99 upwards.
HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW: OFF-ROAD DRIVING
Land Rover offers courses aimed at improving off-road driving skills. You can take your own 4×4 and it doesn’t have to be a Land Rover. Land Rover Experience, from £365 upwards.
THREE GENERAL RULES FOR HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW
- Never spin the wheels. If you get stuck, just stop, reverse and take another run at it, keeping a steady speed. Use the torque of the vehicle to keep the wheels turning and not the power, as if you keep too high a rev range you have a much higher chance of spinning the wheels and digging yourself a hole.
- If you do find that you are digging yourself a hole, stop immediately. If it is small, you may be able to rock the vehicle forwards and backwards and get out of it in reverse. If it is deep, dig the snow away from the rear of the wheels and reverse out.
- The correct speed is important: too slow you will get stuck, too fast and you will lose directional control and will more than likely end up in a ditch or hitting another car. If it is desperate that you must get out, you could try letting air out of your tyres to give you more flotation on the snow. However you need a lot of experience to get this right so you don’t let too much out and ruin your tyres and wheels when you get back on to normal roads.