Skitouring - Driving In Alpine Conditions

Driving In Alpine Conditions

Knowing how to drive on winding mountain roads, in snow and ice conditions, is an important skill to acquire. Travelling on alpine roads in winter can be dangerous, unless special driving techniques are used. Even where snow has been cleared from the road, the surface may still be covered by a film of snow or ice.

This section explains some of the basic rules to follow when driving in snow conditions

Before Leaving Home

Equip yourself. You'll need the best wheel chains for the maximum grip and safety (get the right size for your car's tyres) - with diamond-pattern being strongly recommended. Vehicles fitted with these chains will be given priority access to resorts in heavy snow conditions.

  • Carry a spade, tow rope, ground sheet (for fitting chains), rubber gloves, plastic ice scraper, torch and warm clothes.
  • Use anti-freeze compound in the radiator and take along spare heater and radiator hoses.
  • Make sure the battery is clean and in good condition.
  • Make sure all lights are working, check the condition of your tyres (including the spare) and increase the pressure in your tyres.
  • Check that your roof rack is well secured.
  • Practice fitting chains before you leave home to ensure they are the correct size for your tyres.
  • Include a spare key.

Fuel

Before you drive up the mountain, ensure that your fuel tank is topped up as you may experience lengthy delays in bad weather when you need to keep your motor running. If you drive a diesel powered vehicle, fill your fuel tank with alpine mix diesel from a service station close to the snow fields to avoid freezing of fuel. Dual fuel vehicles (LPG/petrol) should switch to petrol before entering alpine areas.

Poor Visibility

If minimum visibility (white-out) conditions occur and the road ahead and snow poles are not visible, bring the vehicle to a stop, leave the motor running and switch on your hazard lights. Travel in daylight hours whenever possible. It is difficult to judge distances in snow at night.
In poor visibility conditions, drive with your headlights on low beam. Use front and rear demisters, with air-conditioning on, to ensure windscreens are clear at all times.

Snow Driving - The Basics

It is better to control your car by steering rather than braking. Hitting the bank or being stuck in a snow drift is better than going over the edge! If you go into a skid, turn the front wheels in the direction of the skid and release your brake. After the skid ceases, gently apply your brakes.

  • Observe local speed limits in resorts, chain fitting bays and elsewhere.
  • Before leaving the ski fields, be sure to clear any snow from the car roof, to avoid creating a road hazard to other vehicles. Failure to do so is an offence.
  • Drive cautiously with gradual pressure on the accelerator to avoid wheel spin.
  • Avoid unnecessary gear changes. Engage first or second gear on level ground (including automatics) before ascending or descending hills in snow or ice conditions.
  • Brake gently. Front and rear wheels can lock easily with loss of steering and control.
  • Keep well behind the vehicles in front.
  • Avoid braking when cornering.
  • Remember that when meeting oncoming vehicles, common sense dictates that the vehicle going up has right of way. It is much harder for an ascending vehicle to start again if it has to stop.
  • Be patient approaching large vehicles, such as buses, and only overtake if visibility is good.

Chain Fitting

Fit chains at bays where you see the "Fit Chains Here" sign. Always fit chains to driving wheels only. When required, four wheel drive vehicles should fit chains to front wheels. Chain fitting bays are level and make fitting easier. If you don't use the chain fitting bay you may find yourself in a lot of trouble. Chains are hard to fit on slopes, and you will obstruct other vehicles and snow clearing equipment. At all resorts you can be fined for not carrying and fitting chains as directed.

If it has not been necessary to fit chains when traveling to the resort, it is advisable to fit them upon arrival in preparation for the return trip. It is quite difficult to fit them to cars covered by snow.  Do not drive faster than 40kph.

Checklist

  • Fit chains to driving wheels only.
  • Always test fit chains before a trip.
  • Fit at fitting bays on level ground.
  • Keep speed below 40kph.
  • If chains fall off or loosen when a vehicle is in motion, stop and check brake lines for damage before retensioning.
  • Carry a torch, plastic garbage bag and gloves to make fitting easier.
  • Use correct fitting chains.
  • Tyres must be in good condition with minimal wear.
  • The use of diamond pattern chains is recommended at most resorts.
  • Chains alter your car's handling. Take time to readjust your driving and take care!

Tyres

One of the greatest problems for a motorist driving on an alpine road in winter is the unsuitability of their car, in its standard form, for driving in ice and snow conditions. For most vehicles the same standard "summer" tyres are used all year round. Many imported car manufacturers recommend the use of "winter" tyres on snowy and icy roads. For most of us though this is not practical. Therefore the following must be understood by all drivers when driving in the alps:

With any tyre the greater the tread wear, the less safe the tyres are in winter alpine conditions. A worn tyre may be legal to use, but it has a greatly reduced safety margin.

High speed (V and Z) rated, wide based, low profile summer tyres are not suitable. Fitting chains to some vehicles is not possible as tyre and rim combination does not give enough suspension clearance.

Parking

  • Park only where directed. If you do not, you run the risk of another vehicle or snow clearing vehicle running into what looks to the driver like just another drift of snow.
  • Do not apply the handbrake. Moisture can freeze the cables and brake linings.
  • Leave the car in gear with the front wheels turned away from the slope.
  • Always park as close to the bank as possible, to leave room for two-way traffic.
  • Do not use rocks to chock wheels as they may damage snow clearing machines.
  • Remove wheel chocks from parking area when leaving.


Even if chains were not required to enter the area, it is advisable to fit them when parking. It is much easier than trying to fit them later for the return trip if weather conditions change or the vehicle is snowbound.

  • Cover the radiator to help prevent freezing.
  • Periodically clear snow from on the vehicle and around the immediate vicinity.
  • Lift wipers from windscreen or place in a plastic bag if parking for an extended period so that wipers do not stick to the glass.
  • Cover door locks with masking tape to stop locks freezing up.
  • Don't use wooden chocks, these tend to slip on icy surfaces.

Other Helpful Hints

  • Clear all glass and mirrors of ice before attempting to drive away from snowfields.
    For fast demisting of the front windscreen, use the car's heater and fan in conjunction with the vehicle's air-conditioner.
    Warm the engine for a few minutes before driving off.
  • Motoring on alpine roads not only requires concentration and adept driving skills, but also a lot of patience. Keep your cool if stuck in a long queue of traffic, and always follow directions by resort staff and road signs. They are there for your safety.
  • Have a spare set of keys.