By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Winter is decidedly upon us. If you’re the typical RVer, your rig is probably tucked in, taking a deserved winter’s nap. On the other hand, maybe you’re a snowbird or full-timer, and your rig is probably somewhere in the sunshine. But what if you’re somewhere in between and that nightmare scenario develops: You’re driving your rig when suddenly, that “not too bad” weather turns cold and the white stuff begins to fall? Can you drive your RV in snow or ice? Should you?
We’ve gathered several winter driving suggestions for RVers – and many of these come from the trucking industry, where nasty weather and big rigs often have to mix.
First, RVers need to remember that they’re taking a “house” with them. You’ve got a lot of gear inside your rig, be it a motorhome or trailer. Unlike the big truckers, much of your household stuff isn’t lashed down. If you’re rig starts to get out of control, things can start flying – damaging not only your stuff, but seriously wounding (or worse) anybody that happens to get in the way. Recall, too, that your rig (especially a motorhome) is not designed to withstand a lot of twisting and the strain of a sudden “off road excursion.” Put your coach in the ditch, and the damage may be severe or irreparable.
For that reason, the first and foremost rule for winter driving in snow or ice is this: Just don’t. Pull off the road, turn up the heat, put on the coffee, and wait until the weather clears and the road crews get the roads back in safe (snow- and ice-free) conditions.
But what if you’re caught off guard and find yourself in a weather system while on the road? First, be prepared. Check your tire inflation. As temperatures drop, so goes your tire pressure. Tire maker Goodyear says tires can lose one to two pounds of pressure for every ten degrees of ambient air temperature drop. Low pressure tires are not only subject to damage, but also don’t have the traction of a properly inflated one. If you’re towing a trailer, make sure your hitch system is properly adjusted, and using a load equalizer system may help you keep better control. Motorhome drivers, your rig probably has standard highway tread tires, and they’re simply not designed for bad weather, particularly for snow. If you think you might be in snow country and just have to continue, consider putting on “winter shoes,” before heading out.
What about equipment? We’ve already touched on highway tires versus traction tires. What about chains? If you’re in an area where the “chains required” sign is up, you’ll have to have them. What about on the trailer? In California, if chains are required on your drive rig, then chains are also required on at least one axle of any trailer that has brakes. The same may be true in other states as well.
Driving an RV in snow makes you subject to the same issues as driving a car – only your problems are a bit larger. And while you may be the world’s most cautious driver, the other guy probably isn’t. People ahead of you may become the worse problem, doing “stupid driver tricks.” But with your rig, you have a lot of weight, and the forward momentum will keep your rig rolling right into the danger they’ve created, so the farther back you can stay from the guy ahead of you, the better.
If worse comes to worst, you may find yourself in a skidding situation. How do you cope with it? For motorhome drivers, it’s much like dealing with a skid in your car. Forget about the old, “turn into the skid” baloney. First you’d have to figure out which way the skid came from. Just LOOK AT WHERE YOU WANT YOUR RIG TO BE, and drive there. Your piloting instinct puts your rig where you look – if you look at where you don’t want to be (the ditch), you’ll be sure to wind up where you don’t want to be. Keep the foot off the brake!
Trailers add an additional element to skidding, and the cause of the skid will dictate how to deal with it.
• Hitting the brakes too hard, locking up your wheels is one way to head into a skid. When driving on snow, keep the speed down, and when braking, go EASY on the brakes. Slow down slowly, if you will.
• Over-steering is the next issue – making turns too sharply. Just like braking in the snow, turning in the snow means easing into steering.
• Over-accelerating: When moving out from a dead stop, ease onto the accelerator very gently until your trailer is “with you,” then give it more fuel.
• Driving too fast: A principal reason for skidding is just trying to take it too fast. Pay attention to the old trucker’s admonition: “Snow? Go SLOW. Ice? No go.” We’ll assume you’re in a snowy condition and you’ve gotten yourself in a skid. What’s happened? If your rear wheels have lost traction, get off the gas, but don’t hit the brakes. Here’s where it can get real scary with a trailer, because if you can’t get it back into control, a jackknife is the likely outcome. Stay off the brakes, look where you want to be, and go for it. As you begin to regain control, the forces involved will then likely push you the other way, and you’ll need to keep working the steering wheel until you’ve finally recovered – or crashed, whichever comes first. Sound scary? Absolutely! All the more reason to try and avoid being out on the roads when the snow falls.
• Stopping in a turn: Let’s say you’re doing well, but then ahead of you there’s an accident. If you’re heading straightforward, a stop is much easier than if in a turn but, sadly, accidents don’t always cooperate. If you’re in a turn and need to stop, what’s to do? Understand that your rig has much more traction when going straight ahead than in a turn. As crazy as it sounds, you may find it better to straighten your wheels, then brake. If there’s flat ground off the road, so much the better. But if there’s a ditch, you may well end up in it. However, it’s easier to pull a rig out of a ditch that’s “nosed in” as opposed to trying to get a big unit out of the ditch that’s gone in sideways. Either way, there’s going to be some nasty repercussions.
• Steep grade ahead: When traction is in question, it’s best to avoid them altogether. But again, if you’re forced into this situation, SLOW WAY DOWN, and do it long before you hit the grade. If you hit the grade too fast, you’ve already committed to a disaster.
Finally, the big disclaimer: Ice and snow on the roads makes driving hazardous for any vehicle. Add in driving an RV makes the hazard increase exponentially. Our strongest recommendation is STAY OFF THE ROAD if ice or snow is present. If you decide to proceed, our suggestions are meant as informational only, based on the best information we could research. We’re not accountable for any misfortune that befalls you if you apply these suggestions.
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