Winter Driving: On and Off Pavement

I am always appalled when a driver speeds past me on an icy highway, refusing to drop below the speed limit regardless of road conditions. More often than not, you see that same driver slide out into the median some miles up. And, also more often than not, when you ask them what they were thinking they reply, “It’s 4-wheel-drive!”

Today’s new vehicles almost all provide some sort of anti-skid program. On Jeeps it’s called ESP (Electronic Stability Program), which senses when the vehicle is going to slide and uses the brake system (ABS) to correct the vehicle. However, ice is still ice, and though an anti-skid program may prevent you from doing a triple sow cow with a double axle (a lovely spinning figure skating maneuver--I have done this particular maneuver before, in a 2wd pickup in Colorado), slide you will if you don’t employ good driving BEFORE hitting the ice.

Regardless of your vehicles programming, you are better off preparing in advance for what may come than trying to recover from it after you have made some driving errors. Slow down and try to just maintain a steady pace rather than “making good time”. The goal is to get home in one piece, not necessarily on time. Be alert to changing conditions and anticipate what changes may occur on the road surface.

The concept of situational awareness and constant vigilance while driving, in any conditions, is one I attempted to relate to the author of a survival book who came to me for advice about what to do if your car careens down a steep mountainside. I told him “If you have already made the series of wrong choices that led to you careening off of the road in the first place, it is unlikely that you will be able to properly execute the techniques to save your hide as you are sliding down the hillside.” I humored him anyway, but my opinion stays the same: it is preferable to properly prepare than to engage in recovery.

Here are a few tips for winter driving conditions, applicable to both paved and unpaved driving:

  1. 4-wheel-drive vehicles are not invincible. Ice provides little or no traction, regardless of whether you have power to one wheel or four or eighteen. When I warn people about icy roads going to Flagstaff, and they shrug and say “I have a 4-wheel-drive”, I usually respond “…with studded tires? Because ice doesn’t care how-many-drive you have. No traction is no traction.” I’ll put my money on an experienced winter driver in a front-wheel-drive Toyota Corolla over an inexperienced driver in a 4wd Lincoln Navigator any day. Also, if you have huge lug gaps in some super aggressive rock tires, you can paddle powder like a champ, but your tires will be lost on ice.
  2. Slow and steady wins the race. When you find yourself on slippery roads, paved or not, maintaining a slow steady pace, with as few speed or course corrections as possible, will get you across the slick section better than hitting gas, slamming brake, or yanking wheels back and forth. On pavement, do NOT use cruise control on wet or icy roads. Do NOT use axle locks, except at low, slow speeds—driving a full time locked Jeep on a highway with icy patches was one of the most thrilling and frightening experiences of my life. All that said, the number one mistake I see is SPEED—whether on dry sandstone or icy highway, it seems that I am always yelling at people to slow down. But, inversely, you also don’t want to panic stop—if you are wheeling along a shelf road and you start sliding toward the edge, often a little more steady pressure on the throttle will keep you moving forward on the road, whereas braking will just enhance the slide. STEADY is the key. Did I mention that you should slow down?
  3. Give yourself some space. Not only should you allow plenty of extra time in winter conditions, but remember that the same dirt road that allows you to stop within 10 feet, may take 30-50 feet or more if it’s muddy or icy, depending on your momentum (see point 2, above, about slowing down!). If you are traveling with other vehicles, proceed one at a time up or down even hills that are easy when dry, that can become like a greased slide when wet.
  4. Plan ahead. Many tragedies can be averted by just a little planning, research, and preparation. What are the current conditions where you are going? At what altitudes will you be traveling? What is the weather forecast? What is the temperature range for your route (day and night)? What time does it get dark? Are you prepared to turn back if conditions get dicey? Are you prepared to be outdoors in cold/dark/wet conditions? Let’s say you blow a tire or your vehicle battery dies at night in a snow storm—do you have sufficient equipment and clothing for it NOT to become a life-threatening incident? Always have an escape plan—where is the best turn around point? Where is the closest point of civilization?
  5. Anticipate. It’s better to be proactive than reactive. If you come to a decline that is slushy, muddy or icy, and you have only driven it dry before, you should expect this descent to be quite different! You should anticipate it to be slippery. You should be reminding yourself that if the rear end starts to come around, you want to ease off the brake and turn the wheel into the slide or lean. If it’s solid ice, you may want to consider what the bumpstop is at the bottom, or decide not to proceed at all! All of these things should be mentally assessed BEFORE you proceed. Be alert--LOOK and THINK!

Even the most careful drivers and trip planners encounter problems. Here are some for recovering from sliding or getting unstuck:

  1. In a slide or a lean, turn your tires into the slide/lean for the best control. The instinct of many drivers is to turn away from the slide or lean, but that will actually diminish your traction and control. Watch what this guy does with the steering wheel when his Corvette starts to slide at the 27-second mark of the video.
  2. Understand where your best power is. The rear wheels are always pushing you forward. The more you crank your front tires to one side or another, the more resistance you are creating to the forward power which your rear wheels are trying to provide. Keep your front tires straight for maximum forward power.
  3. Balance the weight: if passengers or luggage can be shifted in the vehicle to balance the weight on the wheels, you have a better chance for traction with equal weight distribution between each of the 4 wheels. Sometimes, just lightening the load in the vehicle is enough to get you unstuck, by either getting passengers or luggage safely out and away from the vehicle.
  4. Give the tires something to grab: rocks, floor mats, salt or sand. If you have a tire on one side of the axle spinning and not the other, concentrate on giving the spinning tire the traction. Another trick for this situation is to use left-foot braking (if you have an automatic) or e-brake application (if you have a manual)—applying the brake, while applying a little throttle at the same time allows some power to transfer to the other wheel, arguably the one that does have traction.
  5. A winch or another vehicle with a strap is always a great option for a seriously lodged vehicle, but always remember personal safety first. Take the time to carefully assess the situation and make sure all PEOPLE are safe before proceeding with any recovery of a vehicle.

Some more reading about Winter 4-wheeling:

Happy trails!