Chains

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Snow Chains

Diamond Pattern Chains
Ladder Chains

Overview

Chains are literally chain links placed around the wheels to bite through snow and ice and provide improved traction. Before travelling to the snow, check your vehicle handbook to determine if chains can be fitted to your wheels. Some newer vehicles with low profile tyres or small clearances in the wheel arches cannot fit chains as they will damage the suspension, brakes or wheels.

Chains can either be purchased or hired. Unless you are a regular visitor it is probably most economical to hire chains - you will find several outlets in major capital cities, and almost every petrol station in the alpine areas along with many other businesses will hire chains.

There are two basic types of chains, Ladder and Diamond Pattern. The RTA in NSW recommend using diamond pattern chains as these provide more points of contact with the road and better lateral grip.[1]

When hiring, make sure the provider demonstrates how to fit the chains, and preferably practice yourself before reaching the alpine environment - it is easier to work out any problems in a relatively warm and dry area than in freezing conditions in the middle of nowhere.


Fitting Chains

In extreme conditions chains may need to be fitted to the drive wheels of your vehicle due to snow or ice on the road. Sometimes you will be informed by rangers, police or resort staff of this requirement, either in person or by a sign on the side of the road. Other times you will need to make the decision on your own. You should only put chains on if there is snow or ice on the road. Often if there is only a light dusting of snow they will not be required but you should drive with extreme caution. If travelling out of the snow, remember to remove the chains as soon as it is safe to do so. Leaving chains on when they are not required damages the road and can damage your car.

  • If you are in a Front Wheel drive vehicle the chains are fitted to the front wheels of the car.
  • If you are in a Rear Wheel Drive vehicle the chains should be fitted to the rear wheels of the car.
  • If you are in a 4WD or AWD vehicle chains can be fitted to the front, rear or all 4 wheels. If you are unsure which wheels to fit the chains to, check the owners manual for your vehicle or with the manufacturer. With some types of transmissions chains must be fitted to all 4 wheels.
  • If hiring chains check that they fit your vehicle prior to leaving the shop to ensure that you have the right size chains. It can be very inconvenient to have to turn around once you realise later that your chains don’t fit and you cannot continue your journey.
  • Slow Down! When driving with snow chains speed should be kept to a minimum. You should not travel any more than 20-30 kph with snow chains on as it can damage both your car and the road.
  • When fitting chains pull completely off the road to the left. Do not stop in a traffic lane where you will endanger yourself and block traffic. Use a chain fitting bay if one is available.
  • Chains should not create banging noises when driving, you should just hear a rumble. If you hear a banging noise the chains are loose and hitting part of the car. Stop and tighten the chains or tie up any loose ends - failure to do this could damage your bodywork or suspension. I always carry a small roll of wire and pliers with a cutting edge, very handy for taking care of those loose ends. I've seen hundreds of dollars worth of damage done with loose fitted chains, avoidable damage.

New South Wales Regulations

NSW Chain Map (click)

In New South Wales, if you are driving a Two Wheel Drive (2WD) vehicle, you must carry properly fitting snow chains from June to October long weekends on the following roads:[2]

  • Kosciuszko Road beyond Sawpit Creek (Park Entry)
  • the Island Bend/Guthega Road for its full length
  • the Alpine Way between Thredbo and Tom Groggin

Chains may also be required in certain weather conditions on the Alpine Way between Jindabyne and Thredbo and the Snowy Mountains Highway - for this reason the RTA recommends that chains be carried in these areas during winter. In addition, you should check road conditions before you travel.

Snow chains should be fitted when directed by authorised NPWS, RTA, and Police officers.

Four Wheel Drive (4WD) and All Wheel Drive (AWD) vehicles are not required by law to carry snow chains but due to the high incidence of 4WD vehicle accidents in Kosciuszko National Park, the RTA now recommends they do - especially if drivers have little experience driving in snow/ice risk sections.More information can be found in the RTA publication "Vehicle Standards Information - Driving in Snow and Ice Conditions". [3]

NSW Police and the RTA conduct random chain inspections throughout the season (usually on sunny, clear days) on the road to Perisher and all eligable cars are checked for compliance. You will receive a fine in excess of $300 if found not to be carrying chains.

Victorian Regulations

In Victoria all vehicles must carry chains in the alpine areas of the major ski resorts of Hotham, Falls Creek, Mt Buffalo and Mt Baw Baw. Victoria Police are currently developing new regulations relating to fitting chains. This section will be updated when more information is available. Mt Buller and Lake Mountain have special arrangements in place that require 4WD vehicles to carry chains only on certain days. 2WD vehicles and all overnight visitors must carry chains at all times.

Snow Socks

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Snow Socks
Recent technical developments overseas have produced 'Snow Socks' or 'Auto Socks', a type of fabric sleeve or sock that can be placed over wheels quickly and easily to provide snow traction.

Snow Socks are not considered chains by either Vic Roads (Victoria) or the RTA (New South Wales) and hence do not satisfy the requirement to carry or fit chains, however in NSW they are permitted as supplemental traction devices for 4WD / AWD vehicles.

The RTA (NSW) have issued a new Vehicle Standards Information (VSI) No. 57 for "Driving in snow and ice conditions" [4] as a reference for businesses and consumers.

Vehicle Preparation

  • Check your radiator for antifreeze to be prepared for colder temperatures.
  • 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 (see above).
  • 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.

Alpine Driving

Overview

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Alpine Driving - Lights on, leave room
Many roads in alpine areas in Australia are in steep mountainous terrain. This can make driving difficult, especially if you are unfamiliar with the roads.

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.

Driving Tips

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 kms an hour 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'.
  • The speed limit in the Koscuiszco National Park is 80kph during winter.
  • 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

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.


Parking

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.

Resources

Videos tips for driving in Alpine areas