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How to get your car ready for a snow trip

Snow-goers are heading to the fluffy white stuff for a spot of frosty frolicking. (image credit: Mt Hotham Ski Company)

It’s winter and snow-goers are heading to the fluffy white stuff for a spot of frosty frolicking. Driving on icy alpine roads can be dangerous, even for seasoned winter travellers, so it pays to be prepared for the sometimes-challenging road conditions. Your car of choice also needs to be ready for the journey and for freezing night-time temperatures.

Here's a line-up of our top tips and basic checks so you can have a great trip to the snow, no matter what vehicle you're driving.

Check your tyres before a snow trip

The tread in your tyres is designed to disperse water from the tyre's contact patch, i.e. where the tyre meets the road surface. If the tread is worn, the tyre can trap a layer of water between the surface of the tyre and surface of the road. This can cause the car to aquaplane – to completely lose grip and slide dangerously when braking or cornering – and is made even worse if the road is icy. 

  • A pre-season dry road now... (image credit: Tim O'Brien) A pre-season dry road now... (image credit: Tim O'Brien)
  • ... but alpine roads can quickly turn to this. (image credit: Mt Hotham Ski Company) ... but alpine roads can quickly turn to this. (image credit: Mt Hotham Ski Company)

To negotiate snow roads safely, you need tyres with a lot more tread depth than the minimum roadworthy measure of 1.5mm. Worn tyres can be dangerous and they're especially dangerous in low-traction situations, such as the wet, icy conditions you'll find on your way to the snowfields during winter.

Think about getting a set of winter tyres fitted; the correct tyres will improve grip and traction on slippery icy roads and keep your family safer. 

Also, maintain uniform tyre pressures, as advised by your owner's manual, to suit the conditions. Uneven tyre pressures can severely affect a vehicle's handling, especially under braking and cornering, so check that all five tyres – never forget your spare! – are at the recommended pressure.

Get your car serviced before a snow trip

Have your vehicle properly checked and serviced before you go on any snow trip; in fact, that's a good thing to do before any touring or off-road trip away. Get your mechanic to check everything.

Get a new battery if your current one is old. A battery with a low charge can fail in cold conditions, will not crank the engine over and leave you stranded.  

Check all fluid levels before you leave for the snow.

Add only the recommended coolant/anti-freeze to the car’s radiator or cooling system. Without anti-freeze, the coolant can quickly freeze solid when left, even for just a few hours in frigid conditions. 

Did you remember the anti-freeze? (image credit: Mt Hotham Ski Company) Did you remember the anti-freeze? (image credit: Mt Hotham Ski Company)

Never remove the radiator cap or coolant reservoir cap while the engine is hot or running. Fill the reservoir to the cold fill line – don’t add directly to the radiator.

Put a recommended anti-freeze additive in the screen-wash to stop it from freezing and damaging the washer system.

Use the correct fuel for a snow trip

Ordinary diesel, from city and highway service stations, thickens in sub-zero temperatures – called the 'cloud point' – forming wax crystals that can clog fuel lines, filters and injectors. This can happen when the diesel's temperature is around -3 degrees celsius or lower and will prevent the car from starting if left overnight or outside in sub-zero temperatures.  

Alpine diesel mix, available from service stations nearer to the High Country, has special cold-weather properties with a lower cloud point (generally regarded to be about -7 degrees celsius) to prevent wax crystals forming or freezing. Plan your trip to ensure that you take on a full tank of alpine diesel mix before driving into the snowfields; a half-tank top-up can still leave you with problems. Carry just enough fuel in your tank to get to the alpine region, then refuel locally, filling with alpine diesel.

What fuel does your car use, petrol or diesel? If diesel, fill up on alpine diesel mix to prevent freezing. (image credit: Tim O'Brien) What fuel does your car use, petrol or diesel? If diesel, fill up on alpine diesel mix to prevent freezing. (image credit: Tim O'Brien)

Fitting snow chains for a snow trip

In Victoria and NSW, you are required to carry chains if heading into any of the alpine resort regions in the winter season, and can be fined if you don’t fit them where directed. This also applies to 4WD vehicles – see Alpine Resorts (Management) Regulations 2009, Vic.

Chains must be carried into the alpine resort regions over the winter season and fitted where directed. (image credit: Tim O'Brien) Chains must be carried into the alpine resort regions over the winter season and fitted where directed. (image credit: Tim O'Brien)

Before fitting and using snow chains, read the owner's manual for your car as vehicle manufacturers will provide instructions on how to best fit and use snow chains on that particular variant.

Fit the chains to the driving wheels: that is, to the front wheels if your car is front-wheel-drive, to the rear for rear-drive cars, and to the front wheels for all-wheel-drive cars.

Chains can be hired, and are easily fitted, but it may be best to buy your own set so that you can be sure you’ve got the right chains for your exact wheel size. A set of chains is not a big expense.

Test-fit snow chains at home before you set off so that you know how to correctly fit them. Even better, ask staff at the store you bought the chains from to demonstrate how to fit them.

  • Test-fit the chains before you head for the snow. Ask staff at the store where you bought the chains to demonstrate how to fit them. (image credit: Tim O'Brien)
Test-fit the chains before you head for the snow. Ask staff at the store where you bought the chains to demonstrate how to fit them. (image credit: Tim O'Brien)
  • Test-fit the chains before you head for the snow. Ask staff at the store where you bought the chains to demonstrate how to fit them. (image credit: Tim O'Brien) Test-fit the chains before you head for the snow. Ask staff at the store where you bought the chains to demonstrate how to fit them. (image credit: Tim O'Brien)
  • Test-fit the chains before you head for the snow. Ask staff at the store where you bought the chains to demonstrate how to fit them. (image credit: Tim O'Brien) Test-fit the chains before you head for the snow. Ask staff at the store where you bought the chains to demonstrate how to fit them. (image credit: Tim O'Brien)
 

Carry a torch, towel and gloves; your fingers will freeze while you’re fumbling with the chains' metal links. Always pack a first-aid kit in your car and have your skills up to date as well.

When heading for the snow, fit your snow chains at the level chain-fitting bays along the routes closer to the snow fields. Don't fit chains on uneven, soft ground at the side of the road, or have yourself dangerously exposed to passing traffic. 

Once snow chains are fitted, adjust your driving style. Chains alter the feel of the car and the way it turns and brakes. With chains fitted, drive no faster than 40km/h. (For more tips on how to drive in snow, read this yarn

Get home safely from the snow

When you're ready to head home, snow may be piled high on your car's windscreen, bonnet and roof. 

Don’t pour hot water on your windscreen to clear it, otherwise you'll be paying for a cracked windscreen to be repaired or replaced. 

Carefully scrape away the snow and ice with a plastic scraper, or use a de-icing fluid. Also, check that the wipers are not iced onto the glass. If they are, and you switch the wipers on, you will strip the rubbers off the blades.  

When you finally get all of the snow off your car, gently warm up your vehicle. (image credit: Mt Hotham Ski Company) When you finally get all of the snow off your car, gently warm up your vehicle. (image credit: Mt Hotham Ski Company)

Once you’ve de-iced the windscreen and cleared around the car, start the car carefully, and let it warm gently. The oil will be thicker from the cold and you need to give it time to warm and circulate through all the moving parts before driving. 

Get all of the snow off the car before driving it anywhere. Big clumps of snow falling off cars as they head down the mountain can be a real hazard to other drivers.

Do you have a few great snow-trip tips? Tell us in the comments section below.

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