Gaining traction for winter

Car headlights in snowy nightI got cocky. That’s often how trouble starts, and this particular Saturday night was no exception.

The first winter I lived in the Ohio country, my dairy farmer neighbor told me that a truck without four-wheel drive was about as useful as a chocolate teapot. I soon learned why, the hard way, and quickly said hello to winter travel with a four-wheel-drive F150 and the whole new world it opened. With the bed filled with firewood for extra weight, I drove everywhere in the snow – unplowed roads, through the field, backwards up the ramp to the bank barn. Compared to driving the old rear-wheel drive truck, I felt unstoppable and invincible in all my winter travel thanks to four-wheel drive, and of course, a car emergency kit with food and other supplies in case I did get stuck. A man has to eat!

Then that Saturday night rolled around. My wife mentioned previously that the truck was spinning out from a stop and didn’t seem to have traction in bad weather. Like a good husband, I wasn’t listening. We went to a friend’s house for dinner that evening and when it came time to leave, found that the County snowplow and some fierce winds whipping across open fields had drifted the driveway shut.

“No problem,” I exclaimed. “We have four-wheel drive!” Except we didn’t, as I found out much to my embarrassment after my third attempt at trying to back through the drifted driveway failed and I had to go back in and ask my friend to help shovel us out. It seems the four-wheel drive was broken, compounded by the fact that we had marginal tread depth on the tires, and they weren’t even snow tires. Not a good winter-travel combination. But, to my credit, we did have a car emergency kit.

Whether you’re driving a car, SUV, or pickup with or without all-wheel or four-wheel drive this winter, you can learn from my mistakes. If you live in the country, doing everything you can to prevent yourself from being stranded in the snow is particularly important because another vehicle might not pass by for hours, and there are plenty of spots without cell phone reception. So, here’s what you should do to prevent yourself from being stranded and increase your comfort level if it happens.

  1. Listen to your significant other.
  2. Test your four-wheel drive periodically (preferably before it snows).
  3. Don’t be cocky.
  4. Pay attention to tread depth and replace your tires as needed. This handy tool makes it easy.
  5. Consider tire chains. Sized to fit your vehicle’s tires, they are installed without raising the vehicle or even moving it, making them an excellent resource to keep in the vehicle and install when bad weather strikes.
  6. Keep a car emergency kit in your vehicle that includes, among other supplies, food, water, a blanket, and a compact snow shovel (it helps when digging yourself out of a friend’s driveway on a Friday night).
  7. And finally, consider switching your all-season  tires, which is what most drives have today, to true winter tires – what many people call snow tires. Tire makers optimize their tire and tread compounds based on what type of tire they’re building. With snow tires, the tire’s rubber and chemical compounds are designed for maximum performance in freezing temperatures and on ice and snow. Outfitting vehicles with winter tires is routine in Europe, particularly on high-performance vehicles .

In addition to rubber compounds that are designed for winter performance, these winter or snow tires also feature tread designs that maximize stopping and steering ability on snow, slush and ice. Just about every major tire manufacturer offers a winter tire, a selection of which can be seen at Firestone, Goodyear, Michelin, and others.

For example, Goodyear’s Ultra Grip 8 Performance Winter Tire features a tread design with multiple biting edges that enhance traction on slippery surfaces, a directional tread pattern that channels water away from the tread surface on slushy roads, and a saw-shaped center area that helps push snow aside during braking.

For areas where ice-covered roads or packed-snow conditions dominate the winter travel season, drivers might want to consider using snow tires with studs. The studs are metal pins that protrude from the surface of the snow tires and “bite” into ice and packed snow. Studs are noisy on dry roads, however, and performance and handling can suffer too.

Remember that winter tires shouldn’t just be fitted to the vehicle’s drive wheels, but rather all wheel positions in order to maintain control.

Most importantly, slow down during hazardous winter travel and leave extra space between yourself and the vehicle in front of you. And don’t get cocky when it comes to your driving prowess or four-wheel drive’s performance. We know now where that can lead.

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