Along with the general challenges of snow and ice, the extreme cold can exacerbate any existing issues with your vehicle. Before you leave, give your car a quick health check and ensure you consider the following;
- Check your radiator for antifreeze to be prepared for colder temperatures.
- If driving a diesel vehicle, ensure you fill up with Alpine Diesel before entering the alpine areas. Petrol stations in the towns surrounding the snow fields all stock alpine diesel.
- Check your tyres. Ensure they are inflated to the recommended pressure and the tread is in good condition.
- All season or winter tyres can be helpful. These can have a relatively deep and aggressive tread or different rubber compounds. Some have the letters MS, M/S, M+S or the words MUD AND SNOW moulded or stamped into the sidewall, while dedicated winter tyres carry the 'snowflake in a mountain' symbol. (right)
- Always carry chains. Make sure they are the correct size for your tyres and are in working order. Ensure that you know how to fit them and if they are hired fit them prior to leaving the shop.
- Check your brakes, windscreen wipers, heater, rear demister and exhaust system are in good order.
- Make sure you know if your vehicle is Front Wheel Drive (FWD) Rear Wheel Drive (RWD), 2 Wheel Drive (2WD), 4 Wheel Drive (4WD) or All Wheel Drive (AWD).
Items to Carry
Consider carrying some or all of these items with you:
- A tarpaulin, ground sheet or old blanket. It can make fitting chains more comfortable if you have to lie on the ground on wet snow.
- An old pair of gloves and an old towel to clean your hands after you have fitted chains.
- An ice scraper or brush to clear any snow build up from your windscreen. An old credit card can sometimes help if you have ice, or a plastic ice tray from the fridge.
- Water, food, warm blankets and extra clothing in case you get stuck.
- An extra car key in you pocket. A number of motorists have locked themselves out of their cars when putting on chains and at ski areas.
Driving in Alpine Regions
On slippery roads, with or without chains everything takes longer. Aggression, and fast acceleration or hard braking do not work. Your wheels will spin or you will slide and you will lose control. The golden rule is smoothness and gentleness. And leave a lot of space between vehicles. If someone is tailgating, pull over and let them go by. Particularly going up hill, driving smoothly will maintain your momentum and keep you rolling. Once you stop it can be very difficult to get started again. If you aren't sure, fit chains.
A summary of alpine driving tips can be found below:
- Allow time. Trips to the mountains can take longer during winter than other times of the year, especially if you encounter storm conditions or snow or ice on the road. Get an early start and allow plenty of time to reach your destination.
- Check road conditions before driving - if conditions are bad consider adjusting your schedule, stopping early and heading up once conditions improve.
- Keep windscreen, windows, headlights and tailights clear. You may want to stop at a safe place to use a brush or scraper.
- Use air conditioner in conjunction with heater for quick demisting. The air conditioner acts as a dehumidifier even when the heat setting is on warm.
- Slow down. A highway speed of 80 kph may be safe in dry weather but is an invitation for trouble on snow and ice. Snow and ice make stopping distances much longer, so keep your seat belt on and leave more distance between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead. Bridges and shady spots can have black ice on the road.
- Remove snow from roof / bonnet / boot - it may 'look cool' up there, but snow falling from your car can be a hazard to other traffic and you can be fined as it is considered an 'unsecured load'.
- Be courteous. Merge fairly and carefully, give way to other vehicles and if you find are slowing down traffic flow, let the other traffic past when safe.
- Avoid braking hard, sudden stops and quick direction changes. Use engine braking if possible to slow you down. Applying the hand brake gently may also prove more useful than pedal breaking. As with all driving conditions, practice makes perfect.
- Be more observant. Visibility is often limited in winter by weather conditions. Slow down and watch for other vehicles.
- Be seen. Turn your headlights on, and in inclement conditions, fog lights (if fitted). In severely reduced conditions turn your hazard lights on to help others see your vehicle.
- Diesel Vehicles should fuel up close to the snowfields. The fuel in alpine areas is an Alpine Diesel and has a lower freeze point and additives to stop the fuel system waxing up.
- If stalled, stay with your vehicle and try to conserve fuel while maintaining warmth. Be alert to any possible exhaust or carbon monoxide problems.
- On narrow roads, the vehicle heading uphill always has right of way. It's much harder to start moving when heading uphill and if forced to stop the car may lose traction and get stuck.
- 4 WD, 6 WD or a gazillion WD will not make a skerrick of difference if you start sliding on ice.
- Stop, Revive, Survive. Take a break from driving every 2 hours. Driving in/on snow takes a lot more concentration, plan to have a break after clearing the snow bound area (in an area safe to stop), depending on your level of experience you'll probably need it, especially if you're heading 2+ hours back home.
Black ice is perhaps the most dangerous thing you will encounter. It is a film of water that has frozen solid on the road. It is usually indistinguishable from the road surface, particularly if the surface is wet. Smooth ice covering the road means almost no traction for braking or steering. Early in the morning the air has not warmed up enough to melt the ice so there will be a lot of ice around. As the sun hits the road it will melt the ice in sunny areas, but shaded areas will still be frozen. Be alert for shaded areas near trees and in road cuttings, which will stay icy longest. Bridges also tend to freeze up more than other areas of road.
If you need to park your vehicle in an alpine area:
- Ensure that parking is allowed where you plan to park. Many of the resorts have specific times when you can and can't park. Often access is required to day parking areas by machinery to clear roads etc, so overnight or after hours parking may not be permitted. If in doubt, ask a resort empoloyee or ranger.
- Leave the vehicle in gear if it is a manual or 'Park' if it is an automatic with the parking brake off. The parking brake can freeze on leaving your vehicle stuck. Chock your wheels if parked on a slope.
- Lift your wiper blades off the screen. This will stop your wipers from freezing to your windscreen, although there is a TINY chance that a small avalanche will launch off the roof of your car and slide down your windscreen and bend your windscreen wipers.