Winter Wheeling 101

Last weekend I split my time between working on the trailer Saturday and venturing up into the mountains to play in the snow on Sunday.  I contacted a few local friends and we got a small group together.  Two JKU’s, a WJ Grand Cherokee, a Toyota Tacoma, and of course my LJ.  Collectively we were a pretty experienced bunch with a fair amount of gear.  That’s why it’s a little embarrassing to admit we only logged 3.3 miles.

Shortly after this pic he stopped forward momentum.
After a recover we opted to turn around.

Taping into my days as an educator I’ll say that failure is always an opportunity to learn.  With that in mind let me share a few Winter Wheeling 101 tips and hopefully you’ll make it more than 3 miles on your next snowverlanding adventure.

Recovery

The number one thought in your mind before venturing out for some winter wheeling needs to be recovery.  It’s not an issue of IF you will get stuck but a matter of WHEN and HOW BAD.  As with any overland adventure you want to make sure you have solid recovery points both front and rear.  Appropriate straps and D-rings are the absolute minimum you need to carry when you’re with another vehicle.  If you have a winch, D-rings, snatch block, tree-saver, and all that jazz should already be in your kit.  It should go without saying that everything should be easily accessible.

One of the more complex recoveries I was a part of.
Bonus: Notice the large snow shovel on the TJ in the back.  Very useful.

I don’t recommend winter wheeling alone.  Even if you have a winch working in deep snow is exhausting and sometimes even self recovery with a winch is not the best option.  Sometimes the best course of action is to just pull you backward out of whatever drift or ditch you got stuck in.  In the rare case you backed into a ditch or drift (I’ve been there and done that) a winch will be useful, if you can find a good solid anchor to pull from.

Straight-line pull from the Tacoma’s front hook
While hooks aren’t my first choice, a solid OEM hook like the ones on the Taco aren’t bad.
They actually have small “ears” to help retain a slack strap.
My preference is always to use a “closed system” whenever possible.

At any rate, be mindful of how you will recover yourself when you get stuck.  Have a basic plan for quick and easy recovery.  Don’t sit there and spin your tires digging yourself a hole and glazing snow into ice.  Once you lose momentum give it one or two tries then wait for recovery.  It’s also a good idea to pre-attach straps (if you can do so safely) or keep them coiled up and ready to go.  No point wasting precious time digging around the back of your rig for your one and only tow-strap that’s buried under the rest of your get (this goes for the rest of the year to).

A lesson I learned the hard way is how useful traction mats could be.  I don’t own a set myself (yet), but they would have helped immensely.  My friends over at Off Road Consulting and Instruction have a very good writeup and review on their MaxTrax and how they work in all kinds of conditions.  They will be one of my next investments (once I’m done working on the trailer).

Winter Specific Gear

Many of us probably already have a shovel in our overlanding kit.  Chances are though it’s a dirt shovel.  A relatively small metal spade with a sharp point that is great for digging through compacted soil.  Those aren’t the best when it comes to digging in snow.  If you have the room it won’t hurt to carry a larger plastic snow shovel.  This will make a world of difference when trying to dig a 4×4 out of a drift.  There are a few compact folding snow shovels on the market designed to easily fit in a car truck.  Even a kids snow shovel is better than nothing.  It’s not like you’ll be shoveling an entire driveway.  Just something more than a standard spade shovel that can move a lot of snow in a quick amount of time.

The mess I made getting myself unstuck after nosing into the first ditch (on the left)…
… and the second ditch (right) I backed into…
… and the first ditch a second time…
Luckily I was able to get myself out with a shovel, some sand/salt mix, and aired down tires.

Another good winter specific thing to carry is some kind of sand/salt/gravel mix.  I like taking old juice containers and filling them up with a 50/50 blend of rock salt and sand.  Give it a vigorous shake or two and you have a pretty useful mix.  This came in really handy when I got stuck last year.  I ended up in a ditch and once I aired down my tires and through the sand/salt mix under them I was able to pull right out.

Even the big boys need to break out the chains when the snow gets deep.

Tire chains are a popular option for winter wheeling as well.  In some areas they are required to carry with you, in others they are mandatory to be installed on both vehicle and trailer.  Chains help chew through deep snow and ice as well as provide extra traction when stopping.  That said, chains require special care and attention and constant monitoring.  A thrown chain can do a lot of damage to your vehicle as well as potentially injure bystanders.

The only other winter specific gear I can recommend is all clothing.  Good boots, long underwear, snow pants, and layers – lots of layers.  If you think you can go winter wheeling without ever getting out of your rig you’re not doing it right.  Also, you’ll find you spend a lot of time driving with the windows down (foggy windows are a &%#@) and after a while you’ll enjoy the cool refreshing air because you’re probably over-layered and way too warm.

Beyond that, it’s always good practice to have food, water, and warm clothes and blankets for two or three days in your vehicle during the winter.  This goes for your daily-driver too.  That 48 hour supply can mean the difference between life or death when your winter wheeling adventure turns south.

Plan Your Route and Know Your Bailouts

This is pretty common sense for any overland adventure, but you should always know your route and where you can bailout when needed.  On this last trip out I knew the route well (basically half of the “One Lap of Michaux”) and I knew where all the bailouts where.  Sadly we didn’t even make it far enough to reach the first bailout.

Always a good idea to check with local weather outlets to research snow depth.
This can be a good indicator as to snow depth at higher elevations before you find out for yourself.

One of the reasons this is more essential for winter wheeling is because the differences in terrain.  Snow and ice can make even the easiest of trails treacherous.  Just think how often you see cars off the road in a snowstorm.  Just because we have four wheel drive doesn’t mean we can’t end up in ditches or snowbanks.  Luckily we can usually self-recover without having to call a professional tow truck, but that doesn’t mean we don’t lose time and energy.  At some point a time will come when you need to wrap it up and head home, or get ready to make camp.  We all set progress goals but there should always be a “Plan B” in the event progress is much slower than planned.

Snow + 4×4 + dirt = Mud.
Know what’s under the snow.

Winter Overland Driving Tips

A lot of people are scared to drive in the snow, and rightfully so.  That said, there are a few things you can do to help mitigate risk when traveling on very slick surfaces like packed snow.

  • Maintain safe following distance – This is true in general, but give yourself a few extra yards when winter wheeling.  Even with ABS your stopping distance is greatly increased in snow/slush/ice.
  • DO NOT SLAM YOUR BRAKES – Even ABS systems can lock up in the snow.  I actually went for a downhill slide as a passenger in a Ford Explorer Sport Trac when the driver panic braked.  We slide downhill into the vehicle in front of us because he was not maintaining a safe following distance.  However, do not pump your brakes if you have ABS (that can cause air bubbles in the system – and that’s very bad).  You’re best bet is slow steady pressure.  If you have ABS and it kicks in, let it do it’s thing.  If you don’t have ABS you can modulate accordingly if you feel your tires locking up.
  • Speaking of brakes, to a few test stops from time to time to gauge your stopping distance.  There are so many variables to consider (and this is not a lecture on the relationships between hydro dynamics, the coefficient of frication, and Newtonian Physics) and no two storms are the same.  There have been times in some snow conditions I’ve stopped quicker than I expected.  In others that looked the same I’ve slid just beyond the edge of control.
  • When in doubt, take a hike – It never hurts to scout terrain on foot even in dry conditions.  However in winter it’s a good idea to take a hike to check out the depth of the snow, what the drifts are like, as well as how the packed surfaces (if any) are and what’s under them (see above photo).  Had I done this last year I would have known under the 4″ of fresh powder I was driving through was a 2″ layer of hard ice.
  • Slow and steady wins the race – The tortoise was onto something.  Slow and steady is safe when conditions aren’t at their best.  Far too often I’ve see people get over confident in the snow thinking they have 4×4, good tires, lockers, etc only to end up in a ditch.
I get asked a lot, before heading out to do some winter wheeling, “What the best 4wd setting is to use for winter wheeling?”  My default for off-highway winter driving is four-low.  I like having the gearing working for me when slowing down.  I fine I need my brakes less which helps me modulate my speed better with the throttle.  However, I often need four-high when momentum is needed to dig through untrodden snow.  In deep snow I have found my wheel speed isn’t fast enough in four-low to adequately clear the lugs of my all-terrains.  Some of that might change with different tire size and tread types.  Again, more often than not my default setting is four-low.

Conclusion

Most of this is of course common sense, and I’m sure at one time or another we’ve all heard these things.  I’m equally sure at one time or another we’ve all forgotten one of these pearls of wisdom.  Hopefully this is  a good primer to get you thinking more critically about your equipment list for winter wheeling and helping you plan your next winter overland adventure.

The ultimate goal of winter wheeling is to have fun!

0 thoughts on “Winter Wheeling 101

  1. In towing with this kind of trailer, be mindful where and when will you stuck with lots of snow. You might guess that being stuck would just go up lightly without getting yourself tired. Be vigilant at every road.