Following the chaotic scenes in the French Alps on 27 Dec 2014, we thought we would offer a few tips just in case you ever found yourself facing similar conditions.
Make sure your vehicle is fitted with winter tyres
We wrote an article about winter tyres last year. When I was a transfer driver in the Alps, I got the feeling that many of my customers thought that winter tyres were just a marketing ploy and would not make much difference. This is not the case. Good winter tyres are amazing and they are essential if you want to have any hope of driving on a snow covered road. Not only that, but they are hugely beneficial even when the road is simply very cold or a little bit icy. If you are thinking of renting a car, then make sure it is fitted with snow tyres (many are not). If you are driving to the Alps from somewhere warmer, then this may not be a feasible option for you but read on for some more tips.
If you are already worried about not having winter tyres, then book a transfer as all of the vehicles operated by companies operating in the mountains will be fitted with snow tyres.
Carry snow chains – and use them if needed
You absolutely must have snow chains in your vehicle when driving in the Alps. Again, if you are hiring a car look in to this as they will not come as standard.
Make sure that the first time you attempt to put snow chains on is NOT the first time you need them. I have seen a thousand people standing at the side of the road looking at snow chains like you would look at a 10,000 piece jigsaw. Practice putting them on somewhere nice and dry and bright.
If it starts snowing heavily and the road is becoming covered in snow, then look for a place where you can pull over and put your chains on. Do not keep going until you can’t go any further because your wheels are spinning, because then you will get in everyone’s way and cause chaos. This was the main cause of the issues in France that made headlines – cars got themselves stuck in the snow and prevented the snowploughs from clearing the roads.
Conversely, don’t put your chains on if there is no snow on the road – this will really damage the road surface.
Do you know who is guaranteed to be carrying chains and able to fit them in just a few minutes? Professional transfer drivers.
Use a low gear when driving downhill, high gear when driving uphill
If you are driving downhill in snow, the aim of the game is to use your breaks as little as possible. By putting your vehicle in a low gear, the engine will control the speed which reduces the risk of you locking the wheels up when breaking.
If you are driving uphill in snow, then get up the gears as soon as possible. This will reduce the torque and will mean there is less chance of you spinning your wheels. Also when driving uphill in snow, try to maintain momentum. This does not mean “drive fast”, it just means try to avoid coming to a complete stop, as it is really difficult to get a vehicle moving again on an uphill slope covered in snow (unless the vehicle is really well equipped).
Check the weather forecast
It really helps if you know what to expect. If you have got to be somewhere at a certain time, such as a ferry terminal or airport, and the forecast is for heavy snow, then leave yourself plenty of time. By this, I don’t mean an extra half-hour – you should be leaving hours ahead of schedule.
Clear snow off your vehicle before setting off
I have seen a few people who think it is a novelty to drive off with half a metre of snow on the roof of their car after it was parked outside all week in a ski resort. However, this can be really dangerous as if you have to break, this snow could cascade all over your windscreen – and driving in the mountains is hard enough when you can see where you’re going. If the snow doesn’t fall on your windscreen, then it will probably come off sideways when you are going round a corner and could hit another vehicle. Just take a few minutes and get it off your roof and bonnet one way or another. You should also make sure that all of the windows are clear of snow and ice, and also clean snow and ice off your lights.
Put anti-freeze / de-icer in your windscreen wash or use a special formula
There are lots of things involved in maintaining a vehicle in the Alps, but this is perhaps one of the most important things to remember.
The roads are heavily gritted, which is great for preventing ice and stopping light snow from settling. The downside to all this grit is that your windscreen becomes caked in it if you drive behind any vehicle for any amount of time. So, you instinctively pull the stick / press the button to wash the windscreen and it is an absolute disaster if the windscreen wash liquid is frozen because your windscreen wipers simply smear the dirt all over your windscreen making it 10 times more difficult to see. When you put the anti-freeze – de-icer in with the fluid, give it a good spray so that you get all of the non-treated liquid out of the system.
Drive slowly and steadily and keep your distance
I was going to try to avoid stating the obvious but it needs to be said. The last thing you want to do on snow or ice is to stop in a hurry, so make sure you don’t have to. Accelerate and decelerate slowly and maintain a safe distance from anyone in front of you.
It is not easy to drive in snow or ice, and it is always a possibility no matter what time of the season you arrive or depart. If you are debating between driving yourself or booking a transfer with a local, experienced, professional company, I know what I would do 😉