*merrily singing “It’s beginning to look a lot like ‘Ah, damn, not another snowstorm.’” Yep, winter is upon us and while the weather outside can be frightful indeed, not getting to your important meetings, doctor’s appointments, or rushing to the airport can put a real damper on your holiday cheer. So today, we’re gonna talk to you about how to drive in snow.
Snow is an interesting medium to drive through. It’s not rain, nor mud, nor sleet but has attributes of all three. It’s a mixed-medium where at times can deliver icy slipperiness to gravel-esque traction and can change between its surface textures inch to inch. That makes it extremely difficult to safely navigate if you don’t know what you’re doing. Luckily for you, I’ve been driving in the snow for three decades and currently live atop a mountain in Utah.
To ensure you make it to your final destination this winter, I’ve put together the basics of winter driving, i.e. how to drive in snow, how it affects handling, and why, most of all, you should slow the heck down whenever that twinkly white stuff falls from the sky. So who’s ready for some eggnog and corrective opposite lock?
Why Is Driving In Snow Dangerous?
As mentioned above, driving through snow can be extremely dangerous for a variety of reasons, chief among them the constantly changing of surfaces and surface textures. Snow can be slippery like ice, fluffy like dirt, wet like mud, or gritty like gravel and it can change foot by foot.
What snow, sleet, and even rain do is create a layer between the tire and the pavement which affects the chemical bond created by your tire’s contact patch and the pavement below. This, in turn, negatively affects its ability to do what’s asked through your car’s inputs, i.e. steering, throttle, and brakes, meaning you run the risk of not getting going, not being able to turn properly or, worse of all, not being able to stop.
This is why you get compilation videos of folks “attempting” to drive through snow each year with either hilarious or calamitous endings. While there’s no one-stop solution to safely driving through snow, you can mitigate your chances of showing up on the evening news by practicing some safe driving techniques as well as equipping your ride with one very helpful aftermarket solution: winter tires.
Why Are Winter Tires Essential?
Because they are. Period…
Just kidding, I’m not gonna leave you hanging like that. Let’s first talk about winter tire construction as there are a few things that differentiate them from all-season, all-terrain, and summer tires.
First up, the rubber is different. Rubber is greatly affected by temperature. Warm temperatures heat the rubber, make them stickier, and better the chemical reaction between it at the road. Warm temperatures also degrade the rubber faster. Cold temperatures have the opposite effect, as the rubber becomes harder and doesn’t stick to the pavement as well. Nor do they degrade as quickly. Winter tires have a special rubber formula that keeps them pliable even in very cold temperatures so that they stick to the road and do not become hard.
Snow tires also have different groove patterns called sipes. These sipes are designed to shed water, slush, snow, and ice away from the tread and grip the snow and pavement even in low-grip environs. Essentially, there’s beefier tread here to increase the tire’s overall traction in low-grip situations. Winter tires are also directional, as to push those substances away from the car and keep traction, so if you’re planning on doing a rotation, just front to back, not side to side.
Winter tires, however, aren’t the end-all, be-all for winter driving. They’re helpful, but without the proper knowledge behind it, you’re gonna end up in a ditch anyway. So let’s talk about a few helpful methods to drive in snow.
Here’s How To Drive In Snow
Let’s get down to business.
Slow Your Roll
Folks, this ain’t Rally Finland and you aren’t Walter Rohl, slow the heck down. By slowing down, you give yourself more time to catch the car if it starts to slip out from underneath you. Reducing your speed when it’s snowing out by even just 5 mph can have a profound effect on whether your front end kisses the Jeep in front of you.
Manhandling your car isn’t the way here, you want to be gentle and deliver light, but precise, inputs. If you just yank the steering wheel, you’re gonna induce either understeer or oversteer, and potentially putting you into a spin. Likewise, if you slam on your brakes, they’re gonna lock up and you’ll end up skidding and hitting what you didn’t want to hit. And as for throttle, lead-foot Larrying over here will see you spinning your wheels like Wile E. Coyote.
Look Up and Out
If you’re looking 10 feet in front of you, by the time you blink, you’ve already passed it. By tilting your head up and looking both far forward and out, you’ll have a far greater chance of seeing obstacles and reacting to things that could impede your travel. Look up, look out, and stay vigilant and you’ll have a far easier time of driving through the snow.
The worst thing you can do is get agitated behind the wheel. It isn’t good for when the road is clear, nor is it good for when the road is full of snow. By getting too excited, nervous, or scared, you’re more likely to cause an accident. Staying calm, however, will lead you to the promised land of getting that very necessary 10-piece Chicken Nugget.
Opposite Lock Isn’t Scary
Eventually, your tires are going to lose traction and the vehicle may begin to rotate. When this happens, it shouldn’t be a “Jesus, take the wheel!” situation where you let go and hope your god saves your behind from hitting a tree. You need to take control of the situation yourself. Here’s how.
- When you feel the slide begin, gently lift your foot off the throttle. Do not rapidly do so as it will increase the spin. Do not jam on the brakes either, as it will increase the spin and reduce your chances of correcting it.
- Begin to turn the wheel in the direction of the slide, i.e. turn you wheel left if the rear of the car is rotating left, turn your wheel right if the rear is rotating right.
- The car will slowly return toward straight. You may, however, have to correct it again if it begins to rotate the opposite direction.
- Continue correcting until straight and you feel the grip return to your tires. Once grip has returned, you can now brake and tell everyone you’re a professional drifter. Congrats.
Why Do AWD and 4WD Vehicles Still Get Stuck?
Because people think they’re invincible in them. Most drivers conflate AWD and 4WD to mean they have better traction in snowy conditions. That’s only somewhat true as AWD and 4WD really only mean they have better traction from a start. It doesn’t give them better braking, nor better turning. And while AWD and 4WD are better for getting going, if equipped with all-season or summer tires, they’re still at a detriment compared to their winter tire brethren.
For years, I drove a rear-wheel drive Scion FR-S through Chicago blizzards. It had winter tires and I routinely saw Raptors, Range Rovers, and F-150s stuck in snowbanks while I tooted along. Remember folks, winter tires are essential.
What About Tire Chains?
Tire/Snow chains are great for certain situations as they improve your vehicle’s grip far more than even winter tires can. However, their use is limited to packed snow roads and speeds of below 40 mph. If you want to know more about tire chains, click this link and find out how to install and use them.
Car Bibles answers all your burning questions.
Q. What Do “Snow Driving” Modes Do?
A. That depends on the make and model of your vehicle but generally, “Snow” modes reduce the immediacy of your throttle inputs, reduce horsepower, allow for further traction slip, and increase stability control in order to reduce the chance of a spin.
Q. Is 2WD OK to Drive in Snow?
A. As I mentioned previously, I drove my 2WD FR-S through the snow for years. So long as you follow the advice above, get a good set of winter tires, and pay attention to the conditions, you can drive your 2WD vehicle in the snow. Will it get you through Antarctica? Probably not, but it will get you through this year’s Snowmageddon.
Q. What Do I Do If I Hit Black Ice?
A. Pretty much the exact same thing as when you lose traction and begin to feel the car rotating. If you want to know more about black ice, check out our Black Ice guide here.
Video on Driving In Snow
While I won’t subject you to a video of myself teaching you how to drive in snow (I’m not that cruel), I do know that there are those that would rather watch a how-to rather than just read it. I’m definitely one of those people. So here’s a video from my friends at Dirt Fish Rally School explaining how to best drive through snow.
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