Off-Roading in Snow: 20 Tips (Winter Guide)
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In recent decades, winter off-roading (a.k.a. snow wheeling) has become increasingly popular with enthusiasts and recreational riders. More and more people are gravitating toward the winter sport, seeking out the unique and thrilling challenges of the riding experience.
So whether you are a long-time enthusiast or have just recently joined the bandwagon, this guide provides top tips for off-roading in snow that will get you prepping for a ride or revisiting this old hobby in no time.
Off-roading in snow can be a thrilling experience, but it also presents unique challenges. From proper vehicle preparation to safe driving techniques, this guide will help you navigate and conquer snowy terrain.
Want to make the most of your upcoming winter adventures? Read on and gain confidence with these helpful tips.
Tips for Off-Roading in Snow
1. Check climatic and trail conditions before heading out.
Preparing for weather and road conditions when off-roading in snow is essential for several reasons:
- It allows you to assess whether the driving/off-roading conditions are safe in advance.
- It enables you to adequately prepare for possible scenarios you may face during your journey.
- It allows you to plan your route and avoid hazardous areas as needed.
- It enables you to adjust or match your driving style based on the current road conditions.
2. Familiarize yourself with different types of snow.
If you are a seasoned winter off-roader, you should know these details by heart. Otherwise, here are the different types of snow you should be acquainted with:
- Powder snow — dry, fluffy snow that falls in cold temperatures and can easily move around by the wind.
- Packed snow — compressed by weight, temperature changes, or grooming equipment. This type can be firm and smooth or uneven and bumpy.
- Wet snow — has a high water content, making it heavy and dense. It is often found in locations with warmer temperatures or high humidity.
- Ice — frozen precipitation taking several forms, including sleet, hail, and freezing rain. Even with the best off-road snow tires, ice can be slippery and challenging to traverse.
- Slush — not your favorite childhood cooler from 7-eleven but a mix of snow and water forming on roads and sidewalks when temperatures are near freezing. It can be slippery and conceal potholes or debris, making it tough to navigate.
- Snowdrifts — accumulate when snow is blown around by the wind, often forming large drifts or banks. These snow piles can be unpredictable. Similar to slush, it can keep on-road hazards or obstacles from view.
Out of these types, a good set of snow tires can perform pretty well on packed and wet snow. However, there may be more difficulty traversing ice, slush, snowdrifts, or powdery snow due to their density and unpredictability.
Knowing these tendencies before heading for your winter adventure enables you to choose your lines more carefully and helps you discern which snow-laden terrain to avoid.
3. Dress up warmly and in layers.
When off-roading in snow, you dress up pretty much like how you would in other winter sports — except for a helmet and chest protector that would typically be worn for snowmobiling or other ‘more exposed’ winter activities. Simply put, the ‘layering method’ applies to anything snow or cold-related.
I have mentioned this quite a number of times in some of my previous articles. This system of clothing includes a “moisture-wicking base layer, heat-insulating mid layer, and protective outer layer.”
4. Equip your rig for snow driving.
Off-roading in snow typically lasts longer than your average off-roading escapade, given the difficulty of navigating snow-covered trails. You should have everything you need to last the trip in your 4×4 (including extra clothes and food, equipment, and tools for emergencies).
Specialist snow tires and snow chains are part of your rig’s checklist. As for all other requisites for snow riding, they will be enumerated in a later section.
5. Invest in high-quality snow tires.
Note that the operative word here is high-quality (and there is good reason why your aftermarket knobbies have to be of this caliber). Like human beings, not all snow tires are created equal — meaning there are considerable differences between mediocre and premium brands.
You can always compensate for this deficiency by airing down your tires. However, this may not always be enough to safeguard you from hydroplaning or skidding on icy trails.
A good set of snow tires with deep grooves and large channels is your best bet for winter off-roading. These knobbies are typically constructed from a specialized rubber compound and are sometimes equipped with metallic or ceramic studs that augment the tread’s grip on snowy surfaces.
6. Air down your tires.
Airing down your tires enhances your 4×4’s grip and displacement on slick, icy surfaces. By reducing your tire pressure by a tiny bit, you increase the contact patch between the ground and your knobbies.
Resultantly, you reduce your vehicle’s propensity to spin or dig itself deeper in a hole and make it easier to have it stay on top of that pillowy snow.
As a rule of thumb, cut back your tire pressure by around 3—5 psi. Typically, doing this once or twice is enough to get that much-needed contact patch to make handling better suited for snowy roads. However, you can continue to lessen the OEM-recommended tire pressure incrementally until you reach the optimal pressure for the terrain you are navigating.
Nonetheless, it is ill-advised to delate your tires excessively. Doing so can negatively impact your wheeler’s handling and stability (if not cause severe damage to your tires and rims).
Also, remember to bring the cold-tire pressure back to spec with a tire gauge and inflator set like a VIAIR 450P- 45053 RV Silver Automatic Portable Compressor Kit (view on Amazon) when driving on the tarmac, as aired-down knobbies can decrease your vehicle’s fuel efficiency and lead to premature tire deterioration.
7. Shed some weight off your vehicle.
Reducing the weight of your rig can help prevent sinking into the snow when the surface is soft. However, do so accordingly without sacrificing protection from the wind and cold.
Weather permitting, you may shed a few hundred pounds by removing the hardtop and doors of your four-wheeler. Otherwise, make sure you have nothing but essentials inside your cabin.
8. Keep your vehicle’s weight balanced.
To ensure stability and traction while off-roading in snow, you need to keep your rig’s weight balanced. Doing this means doing the following:
- Packing light and foregoing unnecessary items
- Distributing weight evenly throughout your wheeler
- Keeping hefty items closer to the ground to lower the center of gravity and improve stability
- Using a roof rack or cargo carrier to carry additional gear and equipment and place extra weight directly above the center of gravity
- Installing a suspension lift kit, upgrading to heavier-duty springs, or doing any other modification that will help support additional vehicle weight
9. Use traction aids.
A non-exhaustive rundown of traction aids would include tire chains, snow socks, sand ladders, traction mats/boards, spikes spider, and the ever-reliable winch.
Most of us are familiar with the 1st, 4th, and last items. But for the rest, let me give you a brief description of each:
- Snow socks — (a.k.a. tire socks, auto socks) textile devices that wrap around the tires of a four-wheeler to increase traction on snow and ice. Some off-roaders believe they perform better than tire or snow chains.
- Sand ladders — quartz-coated flat boards or plates constructed from glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) that enable maximum traction in soft snow and most slippery conditions (including mud and sand).
- Spikes-Spider — removable traction aid that attaches to the wheel hub and functions similarly to a tire chain and snow sock but even better!
Better-known traction aids include front/rear lockers that lock the differential and evenly distribute torque to both wheels on the same axle and terrain modes for snow (although not all four-wheelers have this as a standard feature).
10. Stay on marked roads and designated trails.
Aside from rider safety, off-roading enthusiasts are advised to keep within marked/designated trails for several other reasons.
- Natural habitats and wildlife are safeguarded from unnecessary damage or disturbances.
- The propensity for accidents happening is reduced.
- Riders are kept from trespassing on private properties.
- The integrity of the snow trails or grounds is preserved for future generations to enjoy.
11. Avoid steep inclines or declines.
Steep slopes pose risks such as loss of traction, mechanical damage, and getting stuck in deep snow, making them challenging to navigate. Given these possibilities, I strongly recommend avoiding these terrains when off-roading during winter. Instead, opt for routes that are more gradual and safer to navigate.
Should you encounter a steep incline or decline, remember to keep your cool, maintain a steady speed, use your brakes gently (especially when descending), and steer clear of jerky or abrupt movements that could result in vehicle instability or loss of traction.
12. Stay away from snowdrifts.
Other things to veer away from when off-roading in snow are snowdrifts or piles of snow. They often look treacherously shallow, only to be deeper than they appear outside — potentially causing your vehicle to tip over, become stuck, or lose control.
Moreover, these deep snow trenches can hide obstacles such as rocks, stumps, and other debris that can puncture your wheels or damage your rig.
13. Avoid sharp turns or sudden stops.
This is easier said than done, especially on icy, slippery terrain. Luckily, well-conditioned reflexes, sound driving techniques, and snow-appropriate badass tires can help you execute this item with little to no failure.
Maintaining a steady speed, leaving enough space between you and the vehicle in front, and anticipating obstacles and changes in the road also aid in preventing sharp turns and abrupt halts.
14. Ease on the throttle when you feel resistance.
Taking it easy on the accelerator pedal may seem counter-intuitive, but doing this actually prevents your tires from spinning and losing traction.
When the wheels encounter resistance, they begin to spin if too much power is applied — this usually happens with folks who choose to power forward. Consequently, the spinning results in the 4×4 losing traction and becoming more stuck in the snow.
By applying power gradually, your tires are less likely to spin — enabling your rig to maintain grip and move forward more smoothly. Ultimately, this method helps maintain vehicle balance and reduce the risk of spiraling out of control on slick surfaces.
15. Ascertain your cooling system is in tip-top shape.
Winter off-roading can be taxing on your 4×4’s cooling system due to the power mill working harder than usual to maintain heat. Verify that the cooling system is properly working before heading out to the snow.
The former should be leakage-free, the radiator clean, and the coolant at the proper level and concentration. Otherwise, a malfunctioning cooling system can result in engine overheating and serious damage to your vehicle.
16. Make sure the fuel tank is sufficiently filled and the battery fully charged.
Never take chances with a quarter-filled fuel tank or marginal battery when off-roading in winter. These components do not work well in cold temperatures — thus increasing the likelihood of getting stranded in a remote location.
17. Stay alert and focused on your surroundings.
There is nothing more straightforward than this tip, and rightfully so. The moment you step on the gas and make your way to the snowy trails, you should keep an eye and ear out for everything you see and hear while driving.
A keen sense of alertness is fundamental to doing most of the other items on this list, like keeping to designated trails, veering away from sharp turns and slopes, and avoiding snowdrifts.
18. Heed advice from veteran off-roaders and enthusiasts.
Sometimes, having the right vehicle and set of wheels is not enough. More than the physical requirements, being savvy in snow riding is more important.
That said, it makes perfect sense to heed the below best practices of seasoned winter off-roaders and riding savants — especially if you want to emerge unscathed from your off-roading adventure:
- Drive slower than you normally would on tarmac.
- Utilize high-range for cruising and low-range for control.
- For enhanced traction, pull away in a higher gear than normal.
- Raise suspension settings if necessary to prevent grounding in deep snow.
- Engage your differential lock when on slippery surfaces.
- Use the highest gear possible when climbing steep inclines. And do not forget to keep a steady momentum until you reach level ground.
- Keep your speed down, especially on downhill slopes.
- Unless there is an on-road hindrance, keep Traction Control systems on.
- Keep all lighting assemblies clear of snow and ice.
- Leave more room for stopping distance or braking.
- Brake before entering a turn, and accelerate when getting out of it.
- Ensure that all your inputs are deliberate and progressive but gentle.
- Adjust 4WD settings according to road conditions.
Tip: This online resource by Driving Fast is also a great reference if you want further details on 4WD usage when off-roading in snow.
19. Know what to do when you get stuck in the snow.
No one expects you to do it perfectly and on your own. However, if your sticky situation is minor, you should be able to get yourself out with a few tools and some patience.
To free a stuck vehicle, try rocking it back and forth to gain a few inches at a time. (Note that spinning the tires is a bad idea as it melts the snow and causes it to refreeze and harden).
If rocking back and forth fails, use a recovery strap, or utilize your winching gear and ask assistance from a buddy or the group you are riding with.
20. Turn back and seek shelter if conditions become too dangerous.
When it comes to snow wheeling or winter off-roading, it is always best to err on the side of caution than put yourself in harm’s way.
Remember, illogically braving danger is never a true measure of love for the outdoors or free-spiritedness. It will never be taken against you if you back down from hazardous trails or riding conditions. After all, every off-roader’s dream is to live another day to tell the tale.
Off-Roading in Snow — Other Essentials
Ideally, you should have all these items in your rig before off-roading in snow. Completing specialized off-roading and avalanche training covering driving techniques, safety protocols, and recovery procedures is also important.
This certified training and the right gear (listed below) can prepare you to handle precarious situations and unforeseen difficulties.
- Tool kit
- tire chains or cables
- tire pressure gauge and inflator
- Traction aids (some of these are specified in item #9 of the preceding section)
- snow shovel
- correctly rated ropes and snatch straps
- extra clothes and gloves
- flashlight or headlamp
- Hi-lift jack with a bumper-lift accessory
- first-aid kit
- multitool knife
- duct tape
- jumper cables
- GPS and vicinity/trail map
- fire starters and matches
- transceiver or beacon
- flare pen launcher
- 1/2″ drive ratchet, socket, socket bits, and extension
- adjustable wrench (or wrenches in these sizes: 8mm to 24mm)
- good-quality (locking) pliers
- spare quick link and belt
- torx bits (T25, T30, T40, T55)
- flathead screwdriver
- 8″ zip ties
- repair tape or duct tape
- mechanical wire
- Overnight emergency kit
- Dry wood
- Ice scraper
- Snow brush
- Quality-rated bow shackles
- A well-maintained winch kit
- CB / GMRS / Ham Radio
- Satellite phone
- Sleeping bag
- All-weather space blankets
- Food, water, and snacks good for 48 hours (in case of mechanical failure or an emergency)
- Portable stove, crockery, and cutlery
- Additional fuel
- Recovery equipment
- Other ‘common-sense’ items
Note: This list is non-exhaustive but contains key items fundamental to a survival kit.
Conclusion — Tips for Off-Roading in Snow
All in all, snow wheeling is fun and exciting — especially when you approach the experience safely and confidently.
With proper training, thorough research, careful planning, and the information shared in today’s guide, I can guarantee that you will enjoy winter off-roading as you have never done before!