Winter Driving Tips

Winter Driving Tips for On- and Off-Highway by Bill Burke
On-Highway Winter Driving

My home state of Colorado was hit with a massive snow storm that literally shut down the roads from the borders in (November 1997)! DIA couldn’t get any planes off the ground and people couldn’t get out of their driveways to catch their flights! Even my dogs couldn’t get out of our driveway! The Colorado Association of 4WD clubs had to mobilize FEAT, the 4WD emergency assistance team to help shuttle essential service personnel like police, nurses and doctors, city managers and help deliver food and medical supplies to those that were in need. Properly equipped and experienced 4-wheelers certainly helped keep the city moving!

It was the other type of 4-wheelers that hindered and   clogged the roadways. You know, the new sport utilities, purchased without training the drivers who had the false impression that 4WD is a panacea for go anywhere ability. They–who sped down the dangerous, slippery roads–thought that the go anywhere vehicles, indeed, could. Except they ended up in the ditches and guard rails of the highways and, not understanding why, abandoned their now useless steeds and sought refuge in front of the fireplace at home until the tow truck delivered their rig safely to the garage.

Let’s talk about this phenomenon of using 4WD ON the highway! Since at least half the country sees some type of snow or ice on the pavement at least half the year, at sometime, somewhere, there are people using 4WD on the highway.

REMEMBER that 4WD is not really 4WD. It is only 2WD.

In theory, and using computer models developed by engineers, the 4WD drivetrain is 4WD. All four tires get some amount of torsional relationship via the drivetrain. In reality, it is only two tires (when the transfer case is in 4WD mode) getting the full benefit of power application from the engine. I’m not here to start a debate about how much torque goes to which tire, but to shed some light about traction conditions when driving what a majority of people think is really 4-wheel drive!

When in 4WD mode on the snowy, icy highways, the vehicle can stop no better than before. The increased traction and forward control (to a degree anyway) is actually reduced by the lack of stopping power due to road conditions. Driving like we have all the traction in the world only gets us in the ditch, upside down, in the guard rail, under a trailer rig and usually in a lot of trouble!

Sitting up high should offer us better reaction time than the average Honda Accord. Instead it gives us a false sense of control and we push that reaction time and the rules of spacing for X miles per hour and the “2 second rule” for distance and brake reaction time to the point that we end up running over the little Geo Metro that somehow we forgot was right in front of us. Because we have that commanding view of the road ahead and can see the goings on way ahead, it means we have a chance to prove we are attentive, aware and capable drivers.

The boon of ABS brakes has helped save many people from disastrous consequences. Some of the “old school” drivers have a hard time relating to the new style of braking. If you have ABS brakes, read the owners manual about how to use them properly. Some vehicles have only rear wheel ABS some have all wheel ABS. Generally, if you have ABS and need to stop quickly, hit the brake pedal and hold your foot down (feeling the weird pulses is normal) until the vehicle is stopped or you gain control of the situation. In the “old days,” we were taught to feather, pump, lightly drag the brakes when in a “panic” stop situation. This is still true if you do not have ABS. Practice “panic” stops if you have ABS. Get used to the way the brake pedal feels when “pulsing.” In the winter time, go to a snowy and icy vacant parking lot and practice skid control. Learn to turn into the skid. Learn how much pressure to use on the brakes. Learn how to use the ABS when controlling the skid. It takes practice to be able to handle on-highway avoidance techniques when they count. Watch out for parking buttons and sewer covers in the vacant lots!

If you are going to shift the transfer case into 4WD mode on the pavement, make sure you have some slippage. Yes, the tires must be able to “slip” sometimes. If you do not get slippage, you will get what is called “wind-up.” Wind-up is the condition where the front end drivetrain pushes against the rear end drivetrain right about in the middle, or the transfer case. The gear train in the transfer case gets bound up and can cause the rig to come to a stop like someone was holding the vehicle back with a tow rope. Worst case is the transfer case could break or you could twist a drive shaft. Usually, though, the rig will start to slow down for no apparent cause. The remedy is to shift into reverse and back up for a short distance (safely) and “un-wind” the gear case then shift out of 4WD mode.

Some vehicles offer “full-time” 4WD. They will usually have a viscous coupling in the transfer case that allows some slipping of the drive train when on dry pavement. This system allows for one (1) tire to “look” for traction. You can literally feel the vehicle searching for traction at one of the tires. It is a kind of a surge effect that rotates from wheel to wheel.

With part-time 4WD, you will have to shift into 4WD mode to have the advantage of the front axle traction. Some vehicles will allow the “shift on the fly” move, at speeds up to 50 mph. Be careful doing this, as the sudden gain in traction and the sudden torsional force to the front axle could cause a slide or spin losing control.

Tires are another mitigating factor in traction on wintry pavement. Research has proven that specific tires like the “Blizzak” are better in snow and ice conditions than studded snow tires. I like using the BF Goodrich Radial All-Terrain tires in snow conditions. They have a lot of siping and offer very good control.

Studs in tires are a good idea, but must be used carefully. Although forward traction is usually good, if in a slide, the steel will allow for less resistance to stopping than bare rubber. Also when starting out, the tires with studs are more likely to spin, causing lost traction. Lots of siping is the key to good snow tires. Tire chains are, of course, the ultimate traction device for snow and ice. They require time to put on and take off and can’t be driven over 30MPH.

Driving on snow and ice covered roads is different than ‘wheeling on the trail. Heading up to the slopes for a weekend of skiing or over the bridges to grandmother’s house for turkey does take a certain amount of caution and driving finesse. When on the highway, pay attention to traffic patterns ahead, anticipate road conditions, have your rig properly equipped for winter travel with good snow tires, emergency supplies, and tire chains.

Off-Highway Winter Driving

I talked about snow chain use in my last article. I have been on snow and ice covered trails with the BFG Mud T/A’s on my rig and have had a stock Discovery do much better with the BFG A/T’s than my lockers and all the mods I have. That is when I put the chains on. Why mess around?

When driving off-highway in the snow and ice, use common sense. Deep powder can and does hide stumps, rocks, logs and icy patches. Early season snow usually is easier to push through than late season stuff. That is because the late season snow has built from additional snowstorms. It has a hard layer in between the soft snow and presents problems due to this hard layer.

Sometimes it’s easier to drive across the deep snow with high flotation tires. I’ve seen very low geared rigs with big fat tires float across 20 foot drifts only to have a less experienced driver chew the drift up with chains. That makes it hard to come back over for the others. Sometimes it is best to do the snow trips past midnight when the snow has a chance to freeze or “set up.” You can drive over the snow more easily. Just remember how deep it really is when you’re in the middle of a 15 foot drift that spans across a 200 meter ridge. Believe me, it’s no fun digging a rig out of 15 feet of snow for 200 meters when you’re in jeans and sneakers! Try to stay on top if that’s where you started. Chains are great for the snow that is usually up to 3 feet deep. Of course, it depends on if it’s fresh powder and how hard the bottom is.

Be aware of snow packing under the rig. It can literally freeze your engine solid, even if it is running. Snow bashing is hard on the rig. Slow speeds, snow clogged radiator and packed snow around the engine will ruin a tough truck in a minute. Make sure the engine area is cleared out often and pay attention to the transmission/transfer case oil temperatures as well as the diff oil temp. Watch for chunks of ice and hard snow getting caught under the rig and severing brake lines. In creek crossings, watch for ice flow and frozen brakes. Keep the engine running as much as possible when snow 4-wheeling. I have seen a distributor crack due to moisture build-up and freezing when the engine was turned off. Wet fan belts and wet brakes can freeze and will cause damage.

The lead vehicle should swap off often with others in the convoy as breaking trail is hard on the rig and driver. Plus the others behind get bored watching the leader smash forward then back up, etc. Let them have some fun also.

I sometimes drive forward slowly and set a path, then back up. Drive forward some more, then back. Kind of like two steps forward one back type of thing. If you have chains, you may just want to let them churn slowly with slow, steady progress forward.

If you’re going to run chains, keep the tires inflated to normal highway pressure. DO NOT air down with chains.

When running chains and you encounter rocks, ledges, etc., BE CAREFUL, the chains will slip easily on the rocks, especially on downhill descents. You will have very little control on solid rock faces with chains. Anticipate this! With chains on, you’ll also up the damage potential if not paying attention for roots, stumps, etc. The chains can catch if they are loose and cause a broken hub or axle.

On off-camber trails, I will keep the lockers off, drive very slowly and let the tires get traction.

You may slip off to the side and the hard snow will prevent you from getting back in alignment. I will usually back up and then get out and stomp a channel so my tires can stay on the trail and not follow the ruts I dug previously with the tires in the deep snow.

Be extra aware of the center of steering. The wheels can get full turn easily and they will fight you for control. Keep slow and steady, with the wheels getting traction aimed straight ahead.

For both on – and off-highway winter driving, having your rig properly
tuned and winterized is important:

  • Check the antifreeze – flush and refill to manufacturer’s specs.
  • Inspect the hoses – replace if squishy.
  • Look at the belts – replace if they are cracked or glazed over.
  • Tune the engine – check the wires, distributor cap, coil output.
  • Change to winter weight oil according to manufacturer’s specs.
  • Check or change gear oils and other drivetrain reservoirs.
    The moisture built up over the past summer from the mudbogs
    and water crossings can freeze in the differentials.
  • Check the tire pressures – is the spare tire up to snuff?
  • How about the wheel bearings, brakes, power steering, air filter,
    fuel filter, heater controls, door hinges and locks, wiper blades
    and washer fluid.
  • Inspect the exhaust system for holes and leaks – remember that cold weather means closed windows and a leaky exhaust system can put
    you into a deep sleep!
  • Put together an emergency kit in a duffle bag or small container that consists of: road flares, wool blanket or two, jumper cables, energy snacks, small cook stove and some soup packets (if you don’t have water, you can melt snow), small cook pot, thick socks, hat, mittens, medications, tire chains, snow shovel, candle, lighter and matches, flashlight and radio with good batteries, a good book and whatever other personal items you deem necessary.