Driving in snow is lots of fun, but it can also be extremely dangerous. Knowing how to drive in snow is a skill that takes practice. Mastering it will allow you to react in situations where driving conditions aren’t optimal.
There’s plenty to cover in this guide, including driving technique, the basics of how traction works, and more. By the time you’re done reading this guide, you should have a better understanding of how your vehicle behaves in snow and why.
Snow Driving 101 – The Basics
If there’s one thing you need to remember about driving in snow or anything else that isn’t tarmac, grip, and traction come from the surface, not the vehicle. The only reason why your vehicle sticks to clean, dry asphalt is due to that surface being specifically designed to work with your car’s tires and provide maximum grip.
Snow doesn’t play by those rules, which is why you need to change your driving style and adapt to it. First thing first, you’ll want to make sure that your vehicle has proper tires on and that you can actually see where you’re going.
Winter tires make all the difference in the world as soon as the temperature falls below 32F. Sure, the aggressive tread is a bonus, but the main reason you should buy winter tires is the softer compound they’re made of.
Regular summer tires will go stiff once the temperature drops. At that point, they offer very little grip. On the other hand, winter tires remain soft and responsive even when temperatures drop below freezing. The difference in braking distances is massive, not to mention the overall lack of maneuverability that summer tires suffer from when exposed to ice and snow.
Visibility is Everything
Being able to see where you’re going is imperative, especially when you’re caught in the middle of a blizzard. Our friends over at eEuroparts.com argue that investing in a good set of Valeo wipers will keep your windshield clean no matter how much snowfall you’re pushing through. If you want to take it a step further, get yourself a set of silicone wipers. They really make a difference.
How to Drive on Snow?
Having a vehicle that is ready for snow is an essential first step towards being a safe driver. However, it’s time to look at the technique of winter driving. As you’re driving, three things are happening at any given time:
- Throttle control
Do’s and Don’ts of Steering in Snow
Steering on snow-packed asphalt is a whole different ball game compared to steering in standard road conditions. Snow acts as a buffer that nullifies most of your steering input unless you’re precise and careful.
Sudden and aggressive steering input will get you nowhere. In a front-wheel-drive car, you’ll get understeer – i.e., you can go full lock to either side, but your vehicle will keep going straight. In a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, you’ll get oversteer where your back end swings one way or another.
Steering in the snow has to be slow and deliberate. Right now, you’re probably wondering – how am I supposed to evade a deer or a sudden road hazard in the snow if aggressive steering input does nothing?
The answer is, you don’t. Avoiding road hazards in heavy snow is only possible if you drive as fast as road conditions allow you to, and you have winter tires on. Speeding in snow will strip you of any control over the vehicle, at which point you’re just a passenger on board a ballistic object.
Throttle control is everything when it comes to snow driving. The fact that you can break traction in a split of a second means that you need to be extremely light on the throttle. Use too much gas, and you’ll get wheel spin. Similarly, if you use too low of a gear and the results will be the same.
Maintaining traction in the snow is all about finding the right gear, usually a higher one, and using a small amount of throttle. This is much easier to do in manual cars as you can choose which gear you’ll be in at all times. With regular automatics, you need to know gear rations and how your transmission reacts to throttle.
How to Brake in Snow?
One of the most common mistakes people make when braking in the snow is fighting the ABS and other built-in safety systems. ABS is there to release the death grip of locked calipers when you frantically mash the brake pedal. Let it do its job.
Even so, the ABS isn’t always enough. It’s still possible to lose traction when braking. Once again, anticipating the conditions of the road is key.
Brake Before the Corner
Knowing when to break is every bit as important as how you brake. For one, you should never brake in the middle of a corner. Instead, brake right before the corner. Braking as you’re taking the corner might seem like the right thing to do, but it rarely ever is.
As you brake, you’re not just slowing down. You’re also shifting the weight of the car towards your front wheels. In a rear-wheel-drive car, that’s more than enough to break the back end loose and push you into oversteer. Mind you, all of this is also happening when you take a corner in dry conditions as well.
If you find yourself going too fast into the corner, all you need to do is let go of the gas. Don’t brake. Let the car slow down and stabilize. Letting go of the gas will also cause some of the weight to shift forward, but nowhere near as much as braking.
Unless you’re driving through North Dakota, the chances are that you’ll find yourself going downhill at some point. If that hill happens to be covered in snow, you could easily lose control by braking. Braking on a snowy downhill is a great way to lock up your wheels. Instead, what you should do is engine brake.
Engine braking allows you to maintain speed downhill using nothing more than the resistance of the engine. Don’t worry; your engine is designed to handle this type of use and will happily oblige. If you’re in a manual car, find a gear that works best for your speed and stick with it. Although the idea is more or less the same for automatics as well, you’ll need to pay attention to how your specific gearbox behaves.
None of these driving techniques will help you if you’re not cautious out there at the end of the day. You should always adhere to the road conditions. Don’t become complacent just because you’re on a straight highway and in a hurry.
Additionally, it’s always a good idea to find an empty parking lot and take your car for a spin when the first snow hits the ground. You’ll want to know how your car behaves in snow, where the traction point is, and just how far you can push it before it loses traction. It’s much better to figure these things out in a relatively controlled environment than out on the road.
Hopefully, we’ve helped you become a safer driver with these tips. Driving in snow is a skill just like any other – the more you practice it, the better you’ll get.