Tips for driving in the snow and on icy roads

A snowy car tyre

Craig Duff

Posted May 17, 2022


Before you hit the road and head for the ski fields up the icy and winding road, make sure you know how to get there and back safely.

Winter is coming. Sub-zero temperatures and precipitation mean there’s snow on the peaks, and convoys of vehicles queueing to access our alpine areas.

Whether it’s tobogganing, snowboarding, skiing or just taking the kids to freeze their mitts off building a snowperson, the lure of playing in powder sees hundreds of thousands of Victorians heading for the hills.

Those numbers are expected to spike in 2022 with the easing of the COVID-19 restrictions that limited Melburnians’ ability to escape the city in the previous two seasons.

To give you some idea, 2021 numbers were 341,000, according to the Alpine Resorts Co-ordinating Council, while 2020 was a dismal 91,000.

The last time Victoria had a full snow season was in 2019, when 933,000 people visited the ski fields.

With that in mind, here are some basic tips to ensure you and your car are ready for the journey to and from the snow.

A man skiing.

Most people haven't been able to hit the slopes for the past two years, so don't expect this much isolation this season.


 

Preparing your car for a trip to the snow

A little bit of planning goes a long way when it comes to any form of long-distance travel, and with some of our snowfields a four-hour drive from Melbourne, it’s well worth considering.

Check the radiator. Anti-freeze agents are what you’ll want at this point. Water has a freezing point of 0 degrees and you’re heading into conditions that can be well below this temperature.

Pump up the radiator reservoir with fluids that drop the freezing point well below this. If you’re not sure how to do this, get the car serviced before you head off.

You’ll need to fit chains, and that will involve getting down and dirty in terms of lying on the ground to physically connect those chains to your tyres.

Pack a tarpaulin. The plastic sheet will prevent you from getting covered in dirt - snow may be the goal but the time you need to fit chains will be at a lower elevation and that means muddy sludge.

You don’t want to be getting back into the car covered in crud ... it’s not a good way to start your ski-field experience, to say nothing of what it will do to the look of your expensive ski attire.

Take fluids. Yes, you’re heading into a winter wonderland, but it will take time, especially if you are heading up on the weekend, when you’re most likely to join the queue.

The vehicles in front of you may not be as well-equipped. That’s going to be frustrating, but also time-consuming Having snacks and water in the car will help offset the stress.

A car wheel covered with snow chains.

Snow chains are a must-have when heading to the snow. Test-fit them before you leave.


 

Driving up a snowy mountain

There are some simple rules when heading to our alpine areas.

Rangers will have signs denoting when (and where) to fit chains. Casual users will probably only have hired two chains, which should be fitted to the drive wheels.

That means the front tyres for front and all-wheel drive models, and rear sets for RWD variants.

The chains “bite” through the ice and snow to maximise grip.

Remember you’re on snow. You slide, and that’s why you’re going there in the first place, to enjoy that experience. It’s great on skis, not in the car.

Hire the right size. Modern chains are often self-tensioning but if they’re the wrong size for your vehicle or incorrectly fitted, there’s the potential for flailing metal to wreak havoc with the paint around the wheel arches or the plastic liner insider.

Regular snow-goers should buy, rather than hire, their own chains. Some companies even offer a trade-in service if you change cars and need to replace the chains.

If you are driving a diesel-powered vehicle, fill-up at a service station near the mountain before you ascend. Yes, you’ll likely pay more, but the alpine servo should be stocking an alpine-blend fuel that won’t freeze in the tank if you plan to spend the weekend up on the hill.

 

A red car climbs a ski ramp

Ascending and descending snowy slopes is an acquired skill, so don't rush it. 


 

Parking your car in snow

Having reached you destination, how you prepare the car can potentially have a significant impact on easily how you leave.

Day-trippers should aim to park in a sunny area if possible. Those solar rays will help avoid ice build-up.

People looking for a weekend away need to prepare. Lift the windscreen wipers up to stop them sticking.

Don’t engage the park brake if possible. Moisture in the lines means that brake can stay engaged if it freezes. If you’re driving a manual car, stick it in first. Automatic operators need to (as always) engage park. If you are on a slope, arc the front wheels so they’re pointing into the bank and/or find something to chock a set of wheels.

Descending a mountain in snow and ice

Clear the ice off the roof, then the windscreen. There’s nothing worse than tapping the brakes on the first slope and having a pile of snow slither down the screen. And ice-scraper is a smart investment, too.

Smooth application of the accelerator and the brakes is the key to driving down safely. Going up, gravity gave you a helping hand. Dropping down, the opposite applies.

Engine braking is always better than physically hitting the brakes, so use the lowest possible gear, whether you’re in a manual or auto.

If you do need to brake, do it in a straight line before the corner.

Finally, don’t get upset if the driver in front is slow. First-timers tend to be cautious, and we were all there once.

Finally, remove the chains when you’re confident you can travel around 30-40km/h. They’re designed for low-speed operation and travelling beyond that pace won’t do the chains or your tyres any good.