Advice for driving on snow in ski resorts

23 November 2006 00:00

Ed. With all the snow on the floor already in resort, we thought this would be a good time to bring this article, originally written by Boggart in November 2005 back to the fore.

cars in snowA regular question in the Natives Chat Room is, ‘Should I bring my car out to the Alps and what do I do if I decide to?’ After having replied numerous times to this perennial question the good folks who pedal the Natives computer asked me to put all my thoughts together to help you all.

The info is not meant to be a definitive guide; it is only my opinions and experiences garnered from my time in the Alps from the last 20 years.

BEFORE YOU GO (ideally!)
As well as any routine maintenance you should also do the following:

Headlight Converters
Buy headlight converters and fit them on arrival on the continent. These are self adhesive covers that are stuck on the headlights to mask the dipped angle of the light beam from blinding an oncoming vehicle as you are driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. If you car does not have a rear view mirror fitted on the outside left hand side, fit one otherwise overtaking and pulling out into traffic can be very dangerous. You must also carry a warning triangle.

Spray WD40 on all the moving parts of the door locks and down the keyholes, smear Vaseline on all the rubber door seals and do so every month. If you use your car on a daily basis the driver’s door is unlikely to freeze shut but the other doors and the boot can do if used infrequently, as can the driver’s door if only using the car occasionally. If the door does freeze shut do not try to force it open as you will more likely than not tear the sealing rubber round the door.

A lighter and de-icer
You should always carry a lighter or lock de-icer in your pocket because even with doing the above the bugger can still freeze shut! If the lock freezes heat the key up with the lighter but be careful of melting the plastic part of the key! Once the key is hot push it into the key hole and leave to cool, it normally takes quite a few goes to defrost a lock.

Have the antifreeze checked; any garage or service station can do this. Tell them where you are going and make sure it is up to strength for at least –20°C. If in doubt drain the cooling system and start afresh with new antifreeze. It is much cheaper than a cracked block or cylinder head in the long run.

Petrol vehicles
Fuel tanks should be left full as far as possible, to prevent the accumulation of condensation, and subsequent water in fuel, thus freezing fuel tanks!   [Thanks to Rob Ainsworth for this tip]Winter diesel
If you have a diesel, try and work it out so that you have a fairly empty tank when you arrive in the Alps, then fill up with winter diesel, which only freezes below -20°C, nearly all the garages in the Alps sell it. Otherwise put 5 litres of petrol in the tank, when filling the tank to the top, to stop it freezing.  (NB this is the author's opinion only - depending on your vehicle you can do damage to your engine by doing this - check this link for more info)



In France snow chains are NOT a legal requirement however your car must have the 'Equipement Obligatoire' when passing a round blue road sign with a wheel equipped with a chain, electronic road signs or Gendarmes signalling this. 

This means the vehicle must be equipped with either snow tyres (studded or non-studded) on ALL wheels OR chains on at least the driving wheels.

If the sign is shown and no gendarmes are stopping cars, then it is up to your discretion to fit chains or not. However if you get stuck/block the road/have an accident due to snow cover or ice on the road and you have not fitted chains or do not have snow tyres, this is an infraction and you can be in serious trouble.

The three choices are:

Normal tyres with chains
You are only doing small and infrequent amounts of kilometres, eg coming out for a week or two on holiday or are only going to use the car once a week for a short shopping trip.

Buying chains in the Alps is cheaper than buying at home but if you do, don’t leave it till the last minute and then find that the size you want is sold out. Practice putting the chains on at least 3 or 4 times so you know how to do the job. Trying to do it in a blizzard at the side of the road at 10 o’clock at night is not the place to learn!

You also need to keep with the chains are an old pair of ski gloves, woolly hat, a small groundsheet and an old waterproof jacket and trousers. Putting on and taking off chains is a mucky job. A head torch is also a good idea for working at night and for also checking on the wheel arch side of the tyres.

If you are ‘mechanically challenged’ and you do not know which are the driving wheels on your car find out before fitting the chains to the back wheels only to find out your car if front wheel drive and vice versa...

Non-Studded Snow Tyres
If you are out for the season and driving regularly, it is worth getting a full set of snow tyres as it takes out the pain of using chains. Keep the normal tyres for the rest of the year and change back in spring, keeping the winter tyres for next year. If you are going to do multiple seasons, go to a scrap yard and buy four rims for your snow tyres, this makes changing over at the end of each season a lot easier.

Any quality non-studded snow tyre will get you through what could be reasonably called passable road conditions.

DO NOT buy two snow tyres just for the driving wheels as this will severely affect the handling of the car and if your car is front wheel drive, very dangerous.

Studded Snow Tyres
Studded tyres are only for serious conditions and not generally required for ‘normal’ alpine motoring. If you do have studded tyres you must have a sticker on the back of the car showing that you have studded tyres. You are also limited to a max speed of 80kph on ALL roads and BANNED from the autoroutes.

One final point, if you are going to do a high mileage out here, high speed runs down the valley, lots of up and down between the resorts - check your tyre pressures at least every two weeks, as the difference in running temp, air temp and altitude can cause severe air loss.

This information is very biased towards motoring in France but the information is generally relevant to all European countries. Drive carefully, enjoy the views and have a great time in the Alps.

Click here for more useful Alpine Driving Tips

Many thanks to ‘Boggart’ from the Natives Chat Room for this article

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