Driving through Australia’s snow country in the winter can be exhilarating – but it can also throw up conditions that you might not have ever seen before.
The wintry mountains also have a knack of uncovering any faults with your car.
Then there’s ice on the road and the mystery of snow chains.
Here we explain it all: from how to prepare, to how to park your car in the ski resort car park (yes, there are some things you should know…).
Before you leave
Have your vehicle checked
Snowfield conditions can highlight minor mechanical faults, particularly in the electrical system, so give your car a thorough going over before you leave.
Get your mechanic to check your tyres, battery, brakes, cooling system, engine and windscreen.
Make sure that your mechanic also checks your vehicle’s electrical system (particularly the battery and the alternator), the heater/demister and the windscreen wipers/washers as they will most likely be working flat out.
Most modern cars use coolant with wide temperature capabilities, but you should check with your mechanic to see if you need to add any anti-freeze or change to special coolant intended for low temperatures.
If you must add anti-freeze to your car’s radiator, make sure you match the amount of anti-freeze that you add to the capacity of the cooling system.
If you don’t, the engine block, heater core and radiator may crack as the coolant freezes, leaving you stranded and with an expensive bill for towing and repairs.
Get together a little emergency kit: a torch, blanket, tow rope, spade, wheel chocks, plastic scraper (for scraping ice off the windscreen) and a first aid kit.
Depending on where you’re staying, you should hire or buy snow chains before you go or on the way. Make sure you get detailed instructions from the person who sells or hires you the chains and, ideally, practice fitting them before you get to the snow.
It’s much easier to practice in warm, dry conditions than by the roadside in a howling storm.
You may also find it more comfortable if you have a waterproof blanket or groundsheet to put beneath you while you’re doing the job. It’s not as scary as it sounds, but you do need to be prepared. Click here for more info.
Don’t get tired
Chances are you’ll have a lengthy drive to the snowfields – from Sydney, for example, it can be five to seven hours depending on your departure point and destination. If the weather’s bad or the traffic’s heavy it may be even longer.
So allow plenty of time for the trip, plan to stop every two hours for a rest and don’t leave ultra-early or late at night.
You can call Roads and Maritime Services (replacing Roads and Traffic Authority) on 13 22 13 or click here for a map with rest areas marked and with estimates of driving times.
Think carefully about your return journey and, again, leave at a sensible time.
Nothing spells disaster more than partying all weekend and hitting the road with a hangover at 6am. Just don’t do it.
Driving in snow and ice
Be warned, the Police and Roads and Maritime Services (replacing Roads and Traffic Authority) conduct operation Snowsafe to target speeding, drink driving and seatbelt offences committed by people travelling to and from the snow.
Watch your speed
Adjust your speed to the weather. Slow down when conditions deteriorate and proceed with caution, particularly in fog, snow or ice.
Use fog lights or headlights
When the weather gets bad, use your headlights or fog lights to increase your visibility to other drivers.
Take extra care overtaking
Never overtake on a hill, at a bend or at intersections.
Braking distances in snow and ice are increased compared to dry conditions. Allow extra distance from the vehicle in front.
Brake and accelerate gently
Braking should be gentle and early. Accelerate slowly.
Obey traffic signs
Of course you should always obey the speed limit and any signs. But in the snow country you need to watch out for signs advising you to fit snow chains.
Also take note of wildlife warning signs because many road crashes in alpine areas involve native animals crossing roads, particularly at night.
Snow poles and road edges
Snow poles are painted orange and are tall enough for drivers to get their bearings in heavy snow. Don’t keep driving if you can’t see the edge of the road or the next snow pole. Stop your car, put on your hazard lights and wait for a break in the weather.
Certain sections of the mountain roads are signposted as snow and ice danger areas. Black ice is actually a clear layer of ice which forms on the road surface in certain conditions, especially in shaded areas. You can’t see it, but you’ll certainly know about it if you hit it.
If you do find some and manage to safely get through it, use your headlight to warn any oncoming drivers – they may not be so lucky. Pay attention to the signs and always drive very carefully in these areas.
It’s a good idea to carry snow chains on the Snowy Mountains Highway and the Alpine Way. All two-wheel drive vehicles entering the Kosciuszko Road in the Mount Kosciuszko National Park must carry snow chains in winter unless the signs say otherwise (you’ll be fined if you’re caught without them).
The chains must be fitted when directed by signs or an Roads and Maritime Services (replacing Roads and Traffic Authority) Traffic Commander. Generally, this will happen at the special chain fitting bays along the route.
If you do need to fit them on the roadside, choose a straight stretch of road where other drivers can see you and where there’s enough room to safely park and fit the chains.
What are they?
Snow chains are loops of chain that fit over your car’s wheels (usually the back wheels on rear wheel drive cars and front wheels on front wheel drive cars) to provide extra traction in the snow.
If you’re not sure which wheels to fit the chains to, ask your mechanic or check your car’s handbook.
While four-wheel drives may not be required to fit chains, it’s still wise to carry them if you lack experience driving on ice and snow. You may also need them in the event of extreme weather conditions.
Driving with chains
Make sure the chains are properly tensioned and secured. Also, make sure the ends of the chains aren’t left loose as they can do a lot of damage to your car if not properly fastened.
Tyre manufactures recommend that cars with radial tyres shouldn't travel faster than 40 km/h when fitted with chains. Stop and check the tension of the chains after driving about 200 metres.
Remove the chains immediately when you’re told it's safe to do so.
There are many chain hire outlets along the route to the NSW snow country in Cooma, Berridale and Jindabyne.
Make sure the chains you buy or hire are suitable for the wheel diameter and tyre size of your vehicle. If possible, practise fitting the chains before the journey so that you understand how they work. Doing this job won’t be easier in bad weather, particularly if it’s your first time.
If you’re unsure of anything, don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions at the hire shop.
Remember, you don’t need to jack up your car to fit the chains. In fact, it could be very dangerous if the road is icy and slippery. Modern snow chains are made to be fitted over the wheels and secured without having to drive over them.
When you get there
It’s important to park only in the marked parking areas and follow the directions of parking attendants. It may mean a slightly longer walk but it’s better than finding your car buried by snow drifts or damaged by the snow clearing vehicles.
Don’t apply the handbrake
Moisture can freeze cables and brake linings. Instead, chock the wheels, but don’t use rocks as they may damage snow clearing machines.
Leave the car in gear
Leave the car in gear with the front wheels turned away from the road slope.
Apply your chains
Even if chains were not required to enter the area, it can be a good idea to fit them after you park, just in case conditions change. It’s easier to do this straight away, rather than later when the weather may have turned ugly.
Clear ice from windows and mirrors
Clear all glass and mirrors of ice before you drive using a plastic ice scraper or something like it. If you don’t have one, use something like a stiff kitchen spatula or a CD case.
You can also use lukewarm water to clear away ice but don’t use your windscreen washers – they’ll just make it worse.
Use the vehicle's heater and fan in conjunction with the air conditioner to demist the inside of the windows.
Protect your windscreen wipers
Unless you’re parking for a short time, it’s a good idea to lift the wipers off your windscreen or place them in a plastic bag so they won't stick to the glass.
Warm your engine
Warm the engine for a few minutes before driving off.
- Go to the road safety section of Roads and Maritime Services (replacing Roads and Traffic Authority) website www.rta.nsw.gov.au
- The NRMA has heaps of driving and travel tips at www.mynrma.com.au
- The Snowsafe website www.snowsafe.org.au has all kinds of info about safety in the snow, including driving tips and advice on fitting chains.
TALK TO US
P Drivers Project
Learning to drive? Who's going to teach you?
Reversing the stereotype
Getting past it
Too sick to drive?
The pay off
Basic driving techniques
The Challenge: Nice to Cap d'Antibes
Roads trip tips
Newcastle and beyond
Be a traffic clairvoyant
Anatomy of a crash
Stagger on home
What to do in a crash
After the crash
Witnessing a crash
The panic zone
Slow down pledge
New safety cameras
Driven to distraction
Driving unregistered and uninsured
Spinal cord injury and motor vehicle crashes
Stop, revive, survive
Check twice for bikes