How to 4 Wheel Drive Snow: Pro Tips

Snow wheeling for many off-road enthusiasts is the best kind there is. If you’ve never been out snow wheeling before then you might want to continue reading to learn the fundamentals about snow wheeling and how it can offer a different set of challenges for you to enjoy IF you are well prepared.

You need to be extra observant and always use precaution when snow wheeling. Engaging 4-Lo and maintaining steady momentum is one of the vital elements when driving off-road in deep snow. Air down your tires to 6psi-8psi to expand the surface area, thereby increasing your vehicle’s capability and stability in snow. Fit snow tires with a flexible carcass, wide footprint, and semi-aggressive tread pattern to allow the tire to float the vehicle over the snow without digging in.

Off-roading in snow can be great fun but you need to exercise caution and be prepared if things go wrong. If you would like to know more about snow driving techniques and how to prepare yourself and your vehicle for an exciting snow adventure, continue reading…

GOOD READ: Do 4WD Trucks Need Snow Chains

Deep Snow Wheeling

As mentioned, when snow wheeling you need to maintain enough momentum. It’s similar to driving in slippery mud, except you don’t always feel the bottom surface. How you approach the snow is determined by the type of snow it is. There are times when a slow approach is needed and other times when you will need to hammer down and use lots of momentum to dig in, similar to when you are driving in mud.

In order to know when to use the correct technique, you’ll need to develop the ability to “read” snow. We will talk more about that a bit later.

So far we’ve determined, if the snow is soft and there is a firm bottom, not too deep down, you want to throttle down. Alternatively, if the snow is very soft and “fluffy” with no bottom in sight but it is packing firm, then you want to take a different approach. Lower down to between 2psi and 4psi and engage your lockers. Allow the snow to pack on the tires and keep the throttle steady because snow will stick to snow allowing for slow forward progression.

…you’ll need to develop the ability to “read” snow.

DO NOT dig down wherever possible and avoid churning up deep holes. Your natural reaction will be to power forward. If you lose momentum and forward progression stops, rather back up for a few feet and hit it again. This procedure might be slow going but it will definitely work in thick soft snow. Once you start digging holes, you are as good as stuck. If however, the snow is just a few inches deep, use the gas pedal and don’t be too concerned about the snow type too much.

NB: Avoid spinning your tires excessively when stuck. The heat generated by the friction will melt a layer of snow around your tires and freeze again, trapping you in place.

Another method is to try different drive-lines to the right and to the left of where you are having difficulty since there might be an easier way to go around that particular slippery section.

When climbing up slippery inclines, take it slow, engage your lockers immediately since they will greatly improve your vehicle’s climbing ability and reduce tire spin. With lockers engaged, both wheels on the same axle will turn at the same speed irrespective of traction, thus improving your forward progression.

GOOD READ: What Is Differential Lock Used For?

It is very important to know your vehicle and know when to engage and disengage the lockers. An example of this scenario is off-camber slopes where you want to disengage your lockers to allow a perfect mix between grip and balance.  Once in deep snow again, engage for maximum traction and control.

When descending slippery hills, always ensure you can drive back up if needed. Always approach with caution and monitor your speed carefully. Make sure your vehicle can make it back up once you return and the snow has melted and become slushy. When descending, you have gravity on your side, hence descending always seems easier.

Snow Wheeling Checklist

Before you head out to conquer your favorite trail in the snow, ensure you have all the essential equipment on board. Make sure you invest in decent air pressure gauges, as the “el-cheapo” kind will give you skewed reading and are no good if inaccurate. Winter snow wheeling is just a matter of “when” rather than “IF” you get stuck, so always prepare for the worst-case scenario. Carry as much recovery equipment as possible as you never know when you might need it or if you could assist a fellow wheeler. Make sure to test all winches before you venture out. It’s no use you are carrying all that dead weight around if it doesn’t work.

  1. Good quality rated bow shackles
  2. Tarps (If anything underneath your vehicle breaks, you really dont want to be laying in cold wet snow doing a repair)
  3. Snatch straps
  4. Winches are a necessity since your chances of becoming immobile are high
  5. Good quality air source on board (Compressor or CO2)
  6. A Set of chains for ice road conditions
  7. Quality tow straps
  8. Hi-lift jack
  9. Satellite phone
  10. Maxtrax are essential recovery kit
  11. Shovel (collapsible will do and is a space saver)
  12. A radio or satellite phone  (There are many dead zones caused by snow)
  13. All-weather space blankets
  14. Basic food and water for 48 hours for all on board your vehicle (eg. snack bars)
  15. Dry wood
  16. Spare clothes (Boots, Jackets, Pats, Shirts and socks) You might have to swap out a set once you get soaked
  17. Beadlocks are a very good piece of equipment to invest in. (They might not always keep you afloat, but they will prevent you from sinking completely)

Learn To Read Snow When Wheeling

Understanding snow layers and the dynamic of snow can help you make smart decisions while wheeling. Weather patterns are constantly changing and snow will behave differently from season to season. Keep up to date with weather forecasts and check for updates regularly. Understanding these varied consistencies like the difference between soft wet snow in the sun from hard cold snow in the shadows of trees can prove valuable when out wheeling.

From the top it all snow pretty much looks the same, however, it’s below the surface where things are constantly changing. The easiest method to determine what kind of snow you are dealing with is to make a snowball. If the snow packs and sticks together, it’s going to be easy enough to glide over the top without digging in. Soft powdery loose snow will require you to drive through it instead of gliding over.

From the top it all snow pretty much looks the same, however it’s below the surface where things are constantly changing

The snow consistency of slopes and shadows need close attention, especially when you are exiting the same way you came in the trail. These can change drastically over a short few hours and will determine how hard it is to drive. If the weather warmed slightly during the day then rapidly became cold again, the snow characteristics will change from soft to crusty and icy. The snow might have been crusty and firm enough when you traversed a certain section the morning, however, upon your return, the snow might have melted quite a bit. The way the ice and snow pack is determined by how wet and heavy they are. For example, ice melt or fresh powder provides a different pack and driving conditions to heavy wet snow. Remember, the angle of the sun, as well as the terrain level, plays vital roles in snow behavior and dynamics. Traction and stability is good when climbing over heavy wet snow compared to fluffy powdery flakes. The fresher the powder, the more challenging the off-road trail will be.   

How Snow Affects Off-Road Terrain

Snow can change any terrain into a challenging obstacle. Even a trail you’ve conquered multiple times in the summer will become a unique challenge for the most experienced off-roader. The terrain becomes more difficult to read as the snow fills all the ruts and holes and makes rock surfaces slick and slippery, thus transforming a moderate off-road trail into an extremely challenging one. This is why winter off-roading can pose much more of a threat and challenge no matter the skill level of the driver.

Snow Wheeling Tires

Dick Cepek Fun Country are popular choices due to their flexibility, width and aggressive tread patterns

There are basically two main types of snow and ice driving conditions and each has its recommended tire options. On the one hand, you have the “floaters” on thick deep snow, and on the other, you have the “cutters” on slick icy roads. The obvious thing here is, you need decent snow/winter tires before you even think of heading onto any off-road trails. Whichever tire you opt for, ensure it has reinforced sidewalls since that is extremely useful in the snowy terrain.

Follow the bellow guide to prepare yourself and your vehicle for slippery snowy trails

  • Air your tires down to 6-8 psi
  • Make sure you have an accurate gauge (the difference between 2psi can make a significant difference in traction)
  • Fit tires with aggressive tread patterns even on the sidewall once tires are deflated (Side wall protection and deep lugs will prevent punctures at low psi levels)
  • The wider the tire the better, since a wide footprint at low tire pressures will help you stay above the snow.
  • Invest in good quality rims with bead retention rings inside (even “el-cheapos” will do fine)
  • If you run beadlock wheels you can decrease to even lower air pressure levels
  • Invest in snow chains and mount them on your rear tires for extra traction
  • You want to stay afloat as much as possible without digging in
  • If you are of the “cutter” opinion, you will then opt for skinnier tires with lockers
  • Narrower tires with plenty siping and studs works just as well and are preferred by many on icy terrain
  • Whatever tire choice you opt for, you should have good reaction time since any tire that slips off the beaten track will quickly pull the rest of the vehicle in.

Tire brands like Dick Cepek Fun Country and Maxxis Creepy Crawlers are popular choices among experienced snow wheelers due to their flexibility, width, and mildly aggressive tread patterns.

Maxxis Creepy Crawlers are popular choices among snow wheelers

Snow Wheeling And Your Vehicle

Knowing your vehicle and knowing how to react when things go out of kilter while snow wheeling is of vital importance. If you have selectable electronic lockers, engage them (especially front lockers) once things get serious. Snow wheeling without a rear locker is not a smart idea. Test your lockers well before you hit the deep snow.

Engine cooling is vital under extremely cold temperatures and running straight water is not recommended. This can cause your engine cooling system to freeze up or even cause damage to engine blocks. You might think cooling is not an issue under extremely cold conditions, however, snow wheeling in deep snow is a high-resistance environment that places a huge amount of stress on the engine.  This could result in overheating torque converters and radiators reaching boiling point quickly. If you are breaking the trail, regularly inspect your radiator to make sure it’s not blocked up with snow, which can limit airflow and cause over-heating. Also, alternate who breaks snow as it is very heavy on your vehicle’s cooling system.

Automatic transmissions need to be modified to run the biggest transmission cooler you can possibly fit under the vehicle. The high resistant snow places a high amount of load on your engine and transmission system. Make sure your vehicle is serviced on schedule and ensure high-quality anti-freeze is used.

Longer wheelbase vehicles tend to be more stable under deep snow wheeling conditions. Generally, you want to carry all your essential equipment as well as clothing and emergency supplies, but you want to travel as light as possible too. It’s a fine balance but I would suggest two occupants per vehicle as sufficient to keep weight down since that is necessary to keep your vehicle on top of the snow.

Essential Snow Wheeling Tips

When going wheeling always take a buddy or two along. Make sure you inform your loved ones of your estimated time of return and let them know exactly where you are going. Take warm blankets in case of an emergency and you are forced to overnight up in the mountains. Even seeking shelter inside your vehicle can become deadly under extreme temperatures without the necessary emergency gear. The more vehicles, the better! Once a vehicle gets seriously bogged in snow, it could take up to 3 vehicles to recover it.

Follow these additional tips:

  • Keep a dry bag with supplies like energy bars, water, blankets and a sleeping bag ready for those unplanned emergencies.
  • Do not take alcohol along as it dehydrates you, makes you more vulnerable to cold stress and drastically impairs your judgement.
  • Fill up all fuel tanks before heading into deep snow. Your vehicle will burn through fuel at an alarming rate and your MPG will be drastically reduced. Carry more than enough fuel than usual.
  • Take a satellite phone along as snow hampers mobile reception drastically resulting in many dead zones with no mobile signal. In the event of an emergency, you can contact family and friends to update them of the changed ETA.
  • IF you are taking pets along, ensure they are adequately dressed and have enough protection from the elements.
  • When it comes to tools, every vehicle doesn’t need to carry a complete tool-set and you can share the load between the vehicles. One of each recovery item will do for a group of 2-3 vehicles.
  • Do not kick the packed snow off your wheels as you can easily kick off the valve stem from your tire, resulting in an unnecessary problem on your hands.
  • If the hill is too treacherous to drive up – DO NOT drive down that hill either. Especially if you need to return home on the same track you left.
  • IF you need to recover a vehicle, snatching them straight out the same way they went in could prove a safer and quicker recovery than the direction they were intending to go.
  • You need to know where the sold ground is at all times
  • Be aware and look out for any hazards like rocks, ruts or tree stumps covered underneath the deep snow.

Helpful Resources

Purchase Light Truck/SUV Snow chains x2

Purchase Anti-Slip Car Tire Traction Chains here

Purchase Snow/Sand/Mud Recovery Traction Boards Here

Conclusion

If you’ve never been snow wheeling before you want to take heed of these tips and ensure you are well prepared to enjoy the experience. Every off-road excursion should start with careful planning, methodical packing and a thorough technical inspection of your vehicle. Snow-wheeling requires even more comprehensive preparation since the environment is harsher and more threatening than usual on both man and machine. The extreme conditions, shorter daylight hours as well as low traction are all factors that increase the chances of something going wrong.  

Bottom line, be prepared and respect the environment and nature and you’re guaranteed to have a fun and exciting snow-wheeling adventure.

Happy 4 Wheeling and remember, safety first!!!

Jade C.

4-Wheel drives and off-road driving techniques has been my passion for over 20 years. Here we strive to provide the most accurate, up-to-date, information about the functionality, common faults and latest technology built into most 4 Wheel Drives.

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