Winter Driving
January 20, 2022
Winter Driving

I’ve spent a lot of time in snow. A lot.


From growing up on a farm in Northwest Wisconsin, to racing snowmobiles, to establishing my home in the ski paradise that is Park City, UT - snow has been a way of life, and one that I love.  But with everything I enjoy, there are limits and learning curves to overcome. Understanding how to safely navigate ice, slush, snow and storms is critical to not only having fun, but staying safe. 


I thought I’d take a minute and share some of my favorite tips around driving in the snow.  For a blog on what to pack and how to plan, click here.




If there is anything my experience has taught me, it’s that almost every accident happens when you are forced to make a quick change in speed or direction, and your diminished traction simply can’t hang on.  So… slow down!  No matter what vehicle you are driving, winter weather will reduce its effectiveness, meaning you should compensate accordingly.


Give yourself plenty of space between you and the cars around you.  Keep two hands on the wheel and stay focused.  Slow, and deliberate movements are often just fine.  But slam the brakes on ice and there’s a good chance you’ll fishtail your way into a snowbank or barrier. When stopping on slick pavement, try lightly tapping your brakes repeatedly, instead of pushing the pedal down in one quick motion. You want to avoid locking up and sliding.


Speaking of tapping brakes: One thing I always like to do before I get on to a main road, is to test my traction.  Accelerating hard, slamming on the brakes, and even quickly steering from left to right can give me an idea of how slippery conditions are.  Obviously things can change a mile down the road, but having a reference point has always been helpful for me. Just make sure you do this at extremely slow speed without any vehicles around. Typically I do this in my driveway.  




Three major pieces to improving the odds in my opinion:  clearance/weight, tires and drivetrain.


Clearance - This only comes in to play when off-road or the plows have not been out. Clearance is the distance from the road to the underside of your car.  More clearance does a few things: 


  1. Having high clearance on your truck or car reduces the amount of snow you’re pushing, thus giving you more power to propel forward. It also reduces getting ‘sucked’ left or right when your front bumper comes in contact with deep, heavy snow, effectively acting like a brake on that side of the vehicle.


  1. High clearance also reduces the amount of weight that is being distributed on your belly pan. The more snow compressing between the road and your car, the less weight is being pushed directly down on your tires, eliminating traction.  Again, this really only comes into consideration when driving in unplowed or drifting snow, but something to consider before you venture off in a vehicle with low clearance.


  1. The weight aspect of this - traction comes from downward pressure from your vehicle. In much the same way a racecar has a spoiler designed to push the back tires in to the asphalt, you can add sand, weights or whatever you’d like to your trunk. It makes a difference.  Just make sure you don’t overdo it and overweight your vehicle’s small engine, reducing your ability to accelerate.


Tires - I don’t care what vehicle you drive.  The most advanced traction systems and all the power in the world is useless if it’s not transmitting to the ground.  Proper tires are everything.  Fortunately, when it comes to tires, you have a few options. 


All-Season tires:  All-Season tires are O.K… but make sure you find the Three-peak mountain snowflake (3PMSF) symbol on the tire’s tread-wall. Tires branded with this symbol are expected to provide improved traction beyond a standard M+S (Mud and Snow) branded all-season tire.  This means the tire meets required performance criteria during snow testing to be considered severe snow service-rated. This testing measures a tire’s acceleration traction on medium-packed snow only.  This does NOT include braking, turning, or ice traction tests. 


But all-season tires pale in comparison to winter tires.  Winter tires use specialized rubber compounds, treads and siping engineered to maximize traction in freezing temps and icy surfaces.  In addition, tread patterns are often designed to push snow and water away from the tire’s contact points, giving additional traction.  If you’re curious if your tire is winter rated, simply look for the three-peak mountain snowflake (3PMSF) symbol on the tire’s sidewall. 




AWD vs 4WD - There’s often a lot of confusion between All-Wheel Drive and 4-Wheel-Drive.


All-wheel drive systems are commonly found on cars and light-duty SUV’s.  AWD systems deliver power to all four wheels at the same time, or they can automatically engage torque to all four wheels when needed.   When driving in changing conditions on plowed roads or highways, this is often the best of all worlds, removing guess work from the driver and simply letting the car decide when and where to distribute power based on traction it’s sensing from the road. 


Four-wheel drive is another great option, but with less variability.  4WD, often found on full-size SUV’s, trucks, and some cars, is best used on unplowed roads or when navigating deeper snow, and the need for maximum traction is apparent. 4WD is not recommended for highway driving when you are encountering patches of ice and blacktop. 


Fortunately, most modern 4x4 systems feature several modes.  If you’re driving one of these vehicles, I strongly recommend doing some research on your car’s systems and knowing which system to use given your current conditions.