Just because the snow is flying doesn’t mean you need to park your rig for the winter. Even open-topped vehicles can have fun in the cold weather, but you must be well prepared. The cold temperatures, short days, and lack of traction that winter brings means that the stakes are high if something goes wrong. Winter wheeling, and snow wheeling in particular, require extra precautions. Even within the shelter of your vehicle, unplanned nights in the snow can be deadly for the unprepared. Fortunately, we have compiled some tips from longtime snow wheelers that will ensure you get home safely.
We headed out near the final resting place of the Donner Party with seasoned snow wheeler Dave Perez, who regularly enlists his locked, open-topped Bronco to make it to work at a nearby ski resort. In the back he keeps a dry bag with a sleeping bag, a blanket, a gallon of water, and energy bars in case he doesn’t return home on schedule.
“I’ve only needed the water for my radiator,” Perez says, “but I was still glad it was there, and I replaced it when I got home.”
Airing down your tires to increase the contact patch is the best thing you can do increase your vehicle’s prowess in deep snow. We typically run single-digit air pressure on tires that have a lot of sidewall and are mounted on beadlock wheels, like these 38-inch Maxxis Creepy Crawlers.
It might seem counterintuitive that you need a good cooling system in single-digit temperatures, but snow provides a high amount of resistance that puts your engine and transmission under a tremendous load. If you have an automatic, run the biggest transmission cooler you can fit under your vehicle to keep it running cool.
Perez said that on icy roads he prefers his heavy Super Duty with narrow snow tires and studs to driving his Bronco. “The longer wheelbase and higher weight of the Super Duty keep it stable on ice,” he notes. “When the snow gets deep, though, the Super Duty sinks where the Bronco floats.”
While he does commute solo, Perez says he never goes snow wheeling alone “A simple tug from another vehicle can save you hours of digging and winching.”
Perez also mentioned that he always tells his wife when to expect him back from a trip in the snow—unless she comes with him, in which case he tells a wheeling buddy with a capable rig and a trailer who could come out and help him if necessary.
You can’t control the weather, but you don’t need to fear it either. A healthy respect for Old Man Winter and being prepared can make for a fun wheeling trip, and you don’t even need to clean your rig afterwards!
When you get to the snow, make a snowball. If it compacts nicely, throw it at a friend. Also know that the snowball means that the snow will pack under your tires. If the snow won’t compact into a ball, then expect progress to be much more difficult.
Snow wheeling is entirely different from driving on icy roads. On icy roads you want a narrow tire with a lot of siping and even studs for traction. In contrast, deep snow is best conquered with wide tires that have flexible sidewalls and tread that is open, but not too aggressive.
We like the precision of winching when rockcrawling, but in soft terrain like snow and sand it’s tough to beat a tug from a friend with a kinetic recovery strap such as those offered by Bubba Rope and Master-Pull.
Never pull from your winch during a recovery. Only use sturdy recovery points attached to the frame. This advice is not specific to snow, and not doing it could damage the brake and other internal components in your winch.
If you have tube work on your vehicle, or a full tube chassis, Bubba Rope’s Gator-Jaw soft shackles are a wonderful way to attach a recovery rope. They are lightweight and easy to handle, even when you’re wearing gloves.
If you drive an open-topped rig, insulated Carhartts will be your new best friend. Grizzled snow-wheeling veteran Dave Perez says that he likes the bibs with an insulated jacket because they provide more options to tailor to the temperature than full coveralls do. He also recommends using a Utility Mat from Mac’s Custom Tie Downs to lie down on in the snow.
A shovel is a great way to help get your vehicle unstuck in the snow. A full-blown snow shovel is best, but this collapsible avalanche shovel was inexpensive, takes up little space, and gets the job done.
A Maxtrax is a useful tool that can help you get back on top of the snow if you break through the crust. Some work with a shovel beforehand will make the process easier, and we recommend carrying four Maxtraxes so you’ll have one for each corner of the vehicle.
Don’t have a top? That doesn’t have to stop you from snow wheeling. Doors help trap heat, seated heats take the edge off, and Summit Racing Equipment offers a variety of small heaters designed for hot rods. A blanket around your passenger, or a dog on their lap, can go a long way to keeping them warm, too.
A warm drink can make all the difference when you are chilled. We fill our Stanley vacuum bottle with hot water that we can then use to make soup or hot chocolate. Avoid drinking alcohol when snow wheeling. Besides impairing your judgment, the alcohol can dehydrate you and make you more susceptible to cold stress.
Wheeling in the snow at night adds an entirely new dimension to an already dangerous hobby. Temperatures are lowr at night, and it’s easier to get disoriented. These are issues that can be overcome, but you need to be aware of them and prepare with the right equipment.
We never recommend wheeling alone, especially not in snow. Having someone else along who can yank you out, or even give you a ride back to safety should you suffer mechanical issues, can mean the difference between life and death.