Snow driving isn’t common throughout Australia, but it’s easy enough to seek out if you’re hankering for something different.
Snow isn’t something that we tend to associate with Aussie four-wheeling, yet there are several regions where winter snowfall is commonplace. Whether you’re planning a long weekend on the ski fields of Victoria’s Alpine Region, a trip to the highest point of Australia in Kosciusko National Park or a tour of Tasmania in the depths of winter, there’s every chance that you’ll encounter a sprinkling of the white stuff at some point in your travels. Thankfully, it tends to be isolated to specific parts of the country, so you’ll have plenty of time to prepare and won’t likely be caught off guard.
Alpine driving presents a number of challenges that are unique to colder climates. While the driving itself can be challenging and unpredictable, the extreme cold can also affect your vehicle in surprising ways.
The first thing to be aware of when driving in snow and ice is that your tyres must be in good condition. If you plan on driving in snow regularly, then it’s best to get a set of winter tyres fitted, which are specifically designed to improve traction in wet and icy conditions. If buying a whole new set of tyres is a bit excessive for the one or two trips you have planned, then at the very least, make sure you have deep-lugged tyres that are in good condition.
A common belief is that deflating your tyres will prove advantageous in snow, however tyre manufacturers advise against it. Instead, it’s suggested that you keep to the vehicle’s recommended pressures (there may be a figure given for winter driving in your vehicle’s handbook) keeping in mind that if you’re travelling from somewhere warm your tyre pressures will drop as the temperatures drop and the air inside cools down. That said, on fresh powdery snow and off-road situations, it may still be beneficial to air down slightly, to that you can stay on top of the snow, rather than sinking in.
If you have a diesel vehicle, be aware that regular diesel fuel can thicken and become waxy in sub-zero temperatures (especially when left overnight), so that it clogs up fuel lines and doesn’t run. Petrol stations in snowy areas will sell alpine diesel, which is designed to function at lower temperatures. Try to plan your trip so that you arrive at with a near empty tank, so that you can fill up with local alpine diesel – simply topping up with it may not be sufficient. Cold weather can also contribute to battery failure, so if you’ve been sitting on the same battery for a few years now then it pays to have it checked before heading into the mountains.
In the Australian Alps, it’s mandatory that you carry snow chains. It’s possible to rent them in surrounding areas or you can pick up your own pair if you plan on heading into the snow regularly, but either way you should practice putting them on before heading into the snow so you aren’t stuck fiddling around in the cold with cars queued up behind you, only to discover you’ve brought the wrong size.
When travelling on trafficked routes there will be level chain fitting areas where you can pull off and safely fit chains. Obey all signage that advises you to fit chains, or you can face heavy penalties. A pair of gloves and a torch will make the process much easier. Once the chains are on, you’ll notice the vehicle handles differently. Braking and cornering will be affected, and you shouldn’t drive at speeds over 40 kilometres per hour.
Ice can form on cleared roads and be almost impossible to spot, so you’ll need to be on guard. It’s more likely to form in areas that experience water run-off, on sections of road that are in shadow (under bridges, beneath cliffs and so forth) and after rain or sleet.
The main thing to remember when driving in alpine environments is to be cautious and to take all measures to maintain traction. That means accelerating gently to avoid wheel spin, braking gently to avoid locking up, avoiding braking when cornering, observing all signage and road rules, and keeping a greater distance when following other vehicles. If you’re on uncleared roads, then it’s a good idea to drive in the tracks previous vehicles. These tracks will be more compact, may make it harder to slide sideways and will make it easier to see any obstacles that could otherwise be obscured by deep snow.
Traction control systems, anti-skid systems and terrain pre-sets are all effective in snowy environments. When driving off-road, diff-locks can come in handy if things get slippery.
Always drive slowly and cautiously in snow, maintaining traction is paramount.
Ensure tyres are in good condition, take snow chains and know how to fit them.
Pack plenty of warm clothing and emergency supplies in case you get stuck.