ABC of off-roading part 7: Snow and Ice

In part 6 of our ABC of off-roading series, we take the Jimny to the majestic Himalayas to show you how to safely tackle mountain passes
The challenge with snow chains is that you will always need to strap them on when the weather is harsh
The challenge with snow chains is that you will always need to strap them on when the weather is harshTeam evo India

Here's a reason why you've had to wait so long for a tutorial on driving on snow and ice. You need all the knowledge you can amass about off- roading before you venture onto snowy and icy surfaces, from driving on mud and slush to rock crawling and crossing streams. One minute the pedal smashed into the floorboard, and the other you’d be feathering it on super-slippery surfaces.

And on the occasional trail drive where the depth of snow cover is more than your SUV’s ground clearance, you need snow chains. This tutorial deals with it all and hopefully, if you’ve read this before your first winter drive, we’ve made you a better driver on the white stuff.

Preparing for the weather

A spotter with a walkie talkie can prove to be very useful when you’re trying to get out of a tricky situation
A spotter with a walkie talkie can prove to be very useful when you’re trying to get out of a tricky situationTeam evo India

The winter months in Ladakh bring with it cold beyond what most Indians could ever imagine. Unlike developed countries, infrastructure doesn’t make life easy for the people who live in sub-zero temperatures in Ladakh so most of the prep done by locals is jugaad and the ability to handle the cold better than the people in the plains. So when you venture into the mountains with your off-roader and are willing to tough it out, prepare yourself for the cold; Do not try to deal with the temperatures like the locals do. Extra sweaters, more layers of clothes than your personality, ability to not challenge your ego when fighting the cold, it’s all essential human prep before you even get behind the ’wheel in the white winters of Ladakh. A full check list should include thermal inners, a couple of layers of t-shirts, sweaters, fleece jackets and finally, wind- and snow-proof jackets and pants. Ensure you have a pair of thick gloves, a hat to cover your ears, a neck gaiter or scarf, and snowshoes with excellent grip. Since the snow can reflect up to 85 percent of light into your eyes, sunglasses are essential.

Next, prepare your car for snow drives in winter months, even if the weather is clear and you can see tarmac. It can take a matter of hours of heavy snow to blanket a blacktop. Firstly, get your SUV serviced and checked thoroughly at least a week in advance. This lead time allows you to ensure any recently replaced parts are functioning correctly. Check the tyre tread, and if it’s below 75 per cent, you will need to replace them before

heading into the snow. Renew the wipers and swap the coolant with antifreeze if your plans involve spending more than a few days in sub-zero temperatures. As a precautionary measure, make sure to carry snow chains with you. We’ll get to the snow later though, let’s first learn how to deal with ice.

Dealing with ice

Sand-ladders work equally well in
the snow
Sand-ladders work equally well in the snowTeam evo India

In technical terms, snow forms when water vapour freezes into ice crystals in the atmosphere, and this falls to earth as snowfall. Ice, on the other hand, is formed when liquid water freezes solid. From inside the car, however, the difference is that tyres can still generate traction on snow but on ice, there is absolutely no grip.

Black ice is particularly dangerous because you can rarely spot it, it’s that thin film of ice that forms on tarmac and because it is transparent you think it is a normal road until you hit it and completely lose traction. The most important thing to do when you hit a patch of black ice is to not panic. Sudden steering movements will only make things worse. Get off the accelerator and hit the brakes. ABS will kick in and initially with no grip nothing will happen but as soon as you get to grip the electronics will release the brakes and give you some retardation – leave the car to sort that out for you. You concentrate on applying very gentle steering corrections, half a turn of lock is the maximum we would recommend.

Also important is to look where you want to go. Suppose the car is going towards the edge of the mountain, staring at the 100-feet drop will freeze your brain in abject terror. It’s called target fixation and it happens to the best of us. Make sure you look through the corner, where you want to go, apply small steering inputs to position the 4x4 in such a manner that when you eventually regain grip, you are best placed to drive through the corner.

Excessive throttle may lead to you digging up
and getting the car stuck in snow, so it’s essential to be easy on the throttle pedal
Excessive throttle may lead to you digging up and getting the car stuck in snow, so it’s essential to be easy on the throttle pedalTeam evo India

Remember, you have the ability to rock crawl in a 4x4, but it isn’t essential at all times. From 2H, shift to 4H when you see trails that are relatively smooth but steep – these are shortcuts that the Army trucks use and in the Jimny it is highly recommended that you take them, for the thrill it offers and of course considerably shortening the drive. Just remember to stick it in 4-H before hitting the trail and make sure you maintain momentum up the trails. If the trails are particularly steep, and that will be the case more often than not in the Himalayas, shift to 4-Low before you hit the trail so that you get all the traction on hand.

At this time of year, you could see snow and ice on trails as well. If they are mixed with mud, you will find grip so aim for the muddy sections instead of the shiny icy bits. If you don’t have a choice and the trail is too tricky, brake before the slippery sections, go to neutral and shift to 4L. 4L in a high third gear will give you the momentum to pull up even over icy surfaces, but ensure your steering is straight, chalk out your path and do not brake on the ice patches. You will pull out of trails easily in your 4x4. This of course is on surfaces that haven’t been buried under days and weeks of snow and ice. Once that happens, you need snow chains.

Snow chains are better than knobbies or studded tyres

The Jimny gets two tow hooks on the front and rear end, which make it very convenient to tow
The Jimny gets two tow hooks on the front and rear end, which make it very convenient to towTeam evo India

You don’t get studded tyres in India because our cities don’t get any snow. The number of vehicles running on snow is so low that it doesn’t make a good enough business case for manufacturers. That said, a good pair of snow chains will do a better job in the snow than metal studs would, but you need to know how to use them.

The best way to do it is to invest in a set of four snow chains. You will have to spend between `3,000 and `18,000 on a set of snow chains, with varying quality levels. Depending on your budget, get at least a pair of chains so that a minimum of two powered wheels can have them strapped on. Snow chains get links that can be removed or added to make them fit your tyre size. Once you figure the required length of the chain, lay it on the ground behind or in front of your tyre and then roll onto the chain. Wrap the chain around the tyre, fasten it and you are good to go. The challenge with snow chains is that you will always need to strap them on when the snow is thick and the weather is harsher than usual. You will also have to tackle high altitudes and a cold metal chain so pace yourself, use a good pair of industrial gloves over the regular gloves you are wearing and tighten each chain.

If you only have two, you can either put them on both the powered wheels or on diagonally placed wheels to maximise the possibility of grip. Strap them on and the chains will dig through snow like a hot knife through butter. Snow higher than the ground clearance of your car can be ploughed through with snow chains strapped on. Shift the low ratio transfer case to 4H, stay in second or third gear depending on your momentum and you can happily bash through snow. The Jimny’s impressive approach and departure angles (36 degrees front/47 degrees rear) give the tyres a free run at the white powder. Give good gas and the SUV will power through everything you throw at it.

There will be times when you will get stuck. It happens to a lot of vehicles in the snow because it is impossible to gauge the depth of snow like you can of water. Recovering a vehicle from snow is similar to any other off-road situation but there are a couple of notable differences. Ensure that the towing vehicle has enough traction and is positioned facing downhill. Use shackles and tow ropes to securely connect both vehicles, and initiate the towing process cautiously. Avoid excessive wheelspin and try different approaches if the tow vehicle is unable to find traction. Finally, if the vehicle is stuck on a snowbank, place sand ladders under the wheels to get some traction.

The best way to hone your skills is to get out there and practice, but when it comes to snow, you don’t get that many opportunities if you don’t live in the Himalayas. Whenever you do get the chance, make the most of it, and remember to keep a level head and take a friend along with a capable 4x4 to back you up through the entire adventure.

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