Offroading in snowy terrain requires finesse and skill, which can only be developed with experience. I’ve run a few snow trails now and I learn a ton each time I’m out in the back country. Recently I ran Sevenmile Creek trail with Wheelers for the Wounded of Colorado, and here are eight takeaways from that trip!
1. Big tires might matter, but not on ice. (Or packed snow). Some of the rigs with bigger tires had more trouble through the icy creek crossings where there was foot-high ice on either side of the water. And, as a matter of fact, one of the vehicles that performed admirably was a stock Jeep Liberty! Airing down tires helps a great deal in loose snow (or rocks or mud) but when the snow is packed and icy it doesn’t matter what the tires are or what they’re aired down to – we’re all like cows on skates.
2. Chains on the front, not on the rear. (And, carry a set of chains in your rig).
I carry a whole lot of recovery items in my rig because I like to be prepared, but one thing I don’t have is a set of chains. On the recent snow run the only way some of the Jeeps made it up a snowy hill (that had turned icy after 20+ rigs had packed down the powder) was to be towed up by a built rig with chains on. Notice the chains are on the front, not the rear. Frank from Bighorn Automotive explains why: “I do it for directional control; I don't want the front end sliding off the trail. The rear tires will follow the front in most situations.”
3. Never be afraid to winch. Speaking of sliding off the trail, when I was pulling a Jeep behind me my rig started to... you guessed it... slide off trail – front tires first and the rear followed – because I didn’t have chains. I engaged my lockers and tried to gently get back on trail but I kept sliding downhill (and further off trail) which is not the way to wheel. So I spooled out my winch line and quickly got myself unstuck and back on trail using the Jeep in front of me as an anchor. There are so many reasons I love my winch but a couple big ones are that setup is easy and it’s gentle on my rig. There’s no yanking or pulling, just gentle power, and in just a couple minutes I could carry on with my day.
4. Pay attention to your recovery strap specs.
If given the choice I prefer winching over towing but in some situations there isn’t a choice. Perhaps the stuck rig doesn’t have a winch, or maybe the situation doesn’t allow for it. So make sure you choose the appropriate recovery strap. Here is my understanding of the various options, from browsing the interwebs (if I’m incorrect in these definitions please comment below and enlighten me).
A. Tow straps should be used for towing at steady speeds and generally on level ground. Tow straps, or tow ropes, are generally not stretchy and should not be used to jerk a stuck vehicle.
B. Snatch straps have more stretch, which allows the strap to stretch under load and then return to its original length, thereby enabling better recovery of a stuck vehicle. ARB has some good snatch strap options.
C. Lastly, kinetic rope is the stretchiest recovery strap and it lets the tow vehicle get some momentum in order to “snap” the stuck vehicle free. I would recommend learning to use kinetic rope from someone who is experienced with it, and who knows how to recover stuck vehicles correctly and safely.
5. Love my lockers! I wheeled Sevenmile in the snow back in early 2016 and had to be winched, and winched, and winched. I had good tires but no lockers at that time and my wheels just spun all over the place. On this year's run I did use my lockers for the tougher spots and I was impressed at the difference! I’m still practicing with how best to use them, though – because turning is virtually impossible with my front lockers engaged I only use the front plus rear if I’m stuck and the trail is straight. Otherwise I’ll just engage the rear to give a bit of a boost and that usually works. I think it really depends on the situation, but nonetheless having lockers has made a huge difference in making it over some tough terrain.
6. 4-Wheel: Hi or Lo? In the deeper snow I tried both 4-Hi and 4-Lo. My theory was that if 4-Lo is better in steep rocky terrain maybe it’d give me more power in deep snow. However, I found I needed a bit more speed through some of the deep snow so 4-Hi actually worked better. I don’t know if there’s a science behind this but it seemed to work although I’m still learning.
7. Never wheel alone. I preach this, and veteran wheelers will tell you the same thing. Always have at least one other rig with you when heading into the back country – especially in snowy and cold conditions (which is usually the case in mountain terrain). Another vehicle assists in recovery, and provides support in survival situations. Better yet, wheel with a whole group – there’s added safety in numbers.
8. Be prepared. Carry adequate recovery gear, and prepare to survive in the wild for a few days if needed. It's unlikely that you'll have to spend the night in the back country but you never know. Plus, what you don't need someone else might, so it's far better to be prepared.
Do you have any snow wheeling tips? Comment below, thanks for reading, and stay safe out there! Here in Colorado the worst of winter is yet to come…
by Dawn Gallegos
Dawn Gallegos is the founding editor of the Chicks On The Rocks blog. When she's not working to fund her Jeep habit she's thinking up new ways to inspire others to explore the great outdoors.