Monday, 27 February 2012

A Tip on Parking in Snow

     We've had a sudden dumping of snow on our streets this past weekend, and while it isn't really a stupendous amount in historical terms, it is enough to get stuck in if you don't know how to drive in it. Sadly, I find a lot of people don't, which includes many SUV owners who claim to have bought their vehicles specifically to deal with Alberta winters. It's as if they think an SUV is magically immune to weather, without considering what exactly it is that makes an SUV better able to handle certain kinds of driving conditions. And so, one winter a couple of years ago when I had an hour long highway commute, I once counted 38 vehicles in the ditch, the disproportionate majority of which were SUVs, an alarming number of which had rolled over after leaving the road (owing in part to their high center of gravity).
     I'm not a fan of SUVs generally, at least not as private vehicles for ordinary use. It's not that I don't see their utility in certain contexts, but the same can be said of SCUBA gear. If you want to wear an air tank around town as a Cousteau-chic fashion statement, fine. You'll look silly. But if you wear it on a crowded elevator, you can expect to annoy people. Likewise oversize vehicles that take up more parking space than is warranted, with high suspensions that make even your low-beam headlights shine down directly into the eyes of drives of smaller vehicles. (This latter problem is made worse by following too close.) But I'll grant that it's true that the higher wheel base does make it possible in principle to go through deeper snow than I can safely manage in my sanely sized car.
     Last winter, an SUV got stuck in the lane behind our house, and when we went out to help dig it free, it became clear how the driver's confused thinking about snow caused the problem in the first place: he seemed to think that more power was the solution. To be fair, it's not necessarily a completely stupid idea; if you think of snow as creating more resistance to the movement of the vehicle, then greater force to overcome that resistance is a natural inference.
     Of course, snow doesn't just create more resistance; it also decreases traction, and this is usually the bigger problem. Indeed, ordinary small cars like mine have more than enough power to get through even fairly deep snow, provided the tires can firmly grip a solid surface underneath. So one of the tricks to driving in snow is to manage the surface under the tires. Be aware of the effect your wheels are having on the snow, and use it to your advantage.
     An example: Last night, I had to drive to pick up my son at the home of a classmate, which was in a residential neighbourhood where the snow had piled up, especially along the curb where I would normally have parked. I parked in the snowdrift anyway, and had no trouble extricating myself. Here's how I did it.
    First, I approached with just enough power to keep me moving forward into the snow drift, relying primarily on my vehicle's momentum to get me to the parking spot. I was careful to keep the wheels rolling through the snow, not spinning free but maintaining firm contact with the snow underneath. Like a rolling pin going over pie dough, the wheels compressed the snow into a firm track under the tires. I let the snow itself bring me to a halt, not using the brake at all, so that the tires never scraped the snow beneath. Spinning or sliding tires will polish the snow underneath them into slippery ice, so avoid that at all costs.
    Then, when it was time to leave, I knew that there was lots of deep snow ahead of me, and the front of my tires were right up against it. To try to drive straight out, as I would in summer, would require enough traction not just to accelerate the mass of the car but also to overcome the resistance of that snow. However, the way I rolled gently to a stop in the snowdrift meant that there was a flat track of compressed (but not polished slippery!) snow under and behind my wheels. So, I very gently backed up in that track until I had enough room to build up the momentum to roll through the deeper snow and out into the main thoroughfare. And that was that.

     So, to put it another way, the lesson is this: Do not treat the snow as an enemy to be overcome with force. Treat it gently with your tires, so that it becomes your ally. 


  1. Excellent advice! And very clear description of the procedure!

    Here is another tip I learned from my now-deceased landlord: keep some old newspapers in the car during potentially snowy weather.

    I thought having learned to drive in New England when winters were snowier than most have been since my early 20s, I knew my way around in-snow driving, given I had conscientious driving teachers including my Dad.

    But my landlord got me with that one (he grew up in New York.)

    This is more for somewhat deeper snow or snow with an ice coating.

    However, what he taught me was that if you get stuck in such a situation [the light coating of ice, say], you can help the traction along by placing some newspaper underneath the wheels of the car in the direction you want to move to extricate yourself.

    That is to say, if you want to 'rock' your car out in a reverse direction, place some newspaper sheets behind each of your four wheels; if you wish to accelerate in a forward direction, place some newspaper sheets just to the front of each of the four wheels.

    Usually the car will move the 1/4 to 1/2 inch to get onto the newspaper sheets: once on it: hey, presto! You have traction!

    He first showed me this when I got stuck on an ice slick here in the driveway at home, and it really does work like a charm.

    If possible, once you have cleared the sheets, stop and retrieve them for re-use later or proper disposal. This, of course, depends on the safety of stopping to do so.

    Always good to have tips like this for winter driving.


    1. That's a good idea. I know some people carry strips of carpet for that purpose, but it seems to me that newspaper would stick to the ice more, now that you mention it.

  2. Yes, it does work very well.

    In an uncertain situation, if you have enough newspaper, you can even put some to the front and some to the rear of each tire, that way whichever way the car first moves [such as if there is a depression so you can't be sure], you'll get the traction from the newspaper sheets.