Saturday, February 4, 2017

It’s snow joke

I know I’m not an experienced winter driver, but I have driven on snow a number of times in the few inches we typically get around Victoria. I know to take things slowly - only light touches on gas, brake, and wheel - and to think much further ahead than usual. I’ve never had a problem getting to where I need to go.

Until yesterday.

We woke up Friday to an inch or so of snow on the ground, but it was still falling steadily. I got outside and shoveled the driveway clear. By the time I showered and dressed for work you wouldn’t know I’d been out there. Oh well.

We live in a dip at the bottom of a hill. Not normally a problem because our road is a school bus route and they always keep the road clear.

Not today. I guess it wasn’t yet bad enough for them to bother.

Regardless, it was still only a couple of inches. Shouldn’t be a problem. Ali set off ahead of me in the Expedition. That is usually my car but yesterday she needed to get into a parkade downtown so that left me with the much bigger truck. She got out of the slight rise at the end of our drive and made it up the hill.

I followed in the truck. Except I didn’t. She’d warned me that it was light at the back end and prone to slipping getting out of the drive and she was right. Rather than mess around with 4 wheel drive at this point I decided to head the other way. A few yards away there’s a side road that leads back up to rejoin our road - a long but fairly gentle uphill.

Shouldn’t be a problem for a big truck, should it?

Half way up, I realized I was losing speed and the slightest touch on the gas simply span the wheels. No way to keep up my speed. I came to a stop, engaged 4WD and tried to move. No dice. Worse, with each try I was drifting sideways towards the side of the road and a ditch. I stopped again and put my foot on the brakes to consider my next move.

To my horror, I noticed I was slowly but steadily sliding backwards down the hill! Let’s gloss over the next hour of rising panic as I tried to maneuver myself out of danger and back home. I can summarize it by saying I managed to reverse cautiously back to level ground, had another run at it which got me a bit further but not to the top, reversed to the bottom again and headed back the way I’d come only to be defeated by the rise at the exit onto our main road - so frustrating, I was literally across the road from our front hedge but couldn’t get out! I seemed to have absolutely zero traction to tackle the slightest incline. Reversed back to the bottom of that dip, along the way getting stuck across someone’s driveway where I mistakenly though it would be easier to turn around, before finally taking another more level side road and making it back home.

Apart from the sheer frustration, my biggest emotion at that point was profound embarrassment at my dismal failure. One or two smaller cars passed by during my skating exercises, seemingly oblivious to the slippery conditions. There was I sitting in a big 4WD truck completely helpless. I’m sure I must have made good entertainment for some of the neighbors!

To cap it all, I still don’t understand what I was doing wrong or what I could have done differently. Surely a vehicle like that should be able to handle a bit of snow and ice, shouldn’t it? Any thoughts from folks more experienced in those conditions?


  1. I stay home when it snows so I'm not in a position to offer advice.

  2. It was too light for its size. That's my best guess. At least you didn't slid back down and hit something.

  3. Stephen, I remember you saying that when you talked about your trip to the coast recently.

    Alex, the back of the truck was empty and I've since read about people putting things like bags of sand in to add weight, but I honestly didn't think conditions were that bad.

  4. Hi Ian - I didn't realise you lived on the Island - now I know.

    I've got my uncle's car now ... and it's an automatic ... and when it snows - I don't move! I tried that to get out of my previous flat and thankfully didn't bash into cars ... but couldn't get out via the small incline -

    Check in with your neighbours I guess, or just let Ali have the truck next time regardless of her needs!! Selfish thought ... Snow is a strange beast though ...

    Good luck this week - cheers Hilary

  5. Hilary, we had more snow today but managed to get around OK. It was a bit dicey getting home this evening though, and conditions on the highway now (nighttime) are dangerous. We'll see what tomorrow brings.

  6. First, I want to tell you that I know exactly how you felt when you were stopped and then realized you were sliding backwards toward the ditch. That is a truly horrible, terrifying feeling.

    My best guesses...

    You have much (MUCH) greater traction when there is weight over the drive wheels.

    I agree with Ali. Trucks are so light in the back that they may as well be 2WD. Add some weight in the bed over the rear axle. Even some firewood will help. I grew up in a steep valley with a half mile long farm lane, and all 8 of us kids learned to haul bags of steel shot, sand, or bags of fine limestone chips in the trunks of our vehicles for when we got stuck. The motor (and all of its weight) was up front, above the steering tires--not the tires with the power going to them. (This was pre-front-wheel-drive btw) I know... My age is showing.

    One benefit of hauling limestone chips or sand is that if you can't get traction, you can always break open a bag and sprinkle it on the road by your tires. That trick might have worked at the end of the road where you could see your hedges but the truck wouldn't go for you.

    The temperature has a huge bearing on the traction, too. Anything close to freezing is bad. The colder the better. If there must be snow and ice for a prolonged period, we'd rather it was close to 10F for traction rather than as warm as almost 32F.

    The tires, too. We tend to view all season radials as not being real winter tires. Dave likes to keep 2 sets of tires for our vehicles, and one set is aggressive winter tread. He changes them in late autumn.

    Also, a dead start on an ice covered hill is pretty impossible, even with studded tires or tire chains. Ice is the pits. So please don't feel bad about looking at your hedges and not being able to move.

    I just read this to my husband. His first words were "Tires--what kind of tread is he running?" Dave drove a line truck for the phone company for 30 years-- and they were the guys who went out on horrible winter roads to fix broken poles and downed lines at accidents scenes.

    I wish you much luck. :-)

  7. Tread matters, but many of my college friends (from and in rural Pennsylvania) would put a bag or two of fertilizer in the back of their pickups to improve traction. The extra hundred pounds or so made a big difference. They were farmers, and had the fertilizer already. I'd use playground sand if I were doing this today.

  8. Teresa & Amelia, yes, you're right, some weight in the back should help. Also we only ever use all-season tires here. Thing is, we get so little snow we're just not prepared for it. In most of the winters we've experienced here there's typically just one day when it drops 6" to 18" in one go and that's it. A few hours' confusion until they clear the roads, and that's our winter.

    The temperature is an interesting point too. We never go more than a couple of degrees below freezing out here.


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