Driving to your Ski Resort

Imagine the scenario: you have just booked your dream winter break in a luxurious chalet nestled at the foot of the Alps. You’re hitting the gym to get into shape, you’ve searched online for the best deals on lift passes, dragged your skis and boots down from the loft, and you’ve got a trip to the shops planned to stock up on all the latest ski clothing. All that’s left now is the tricky decision of how to reach the resort.

It’s fair to say that most British skiers choose to fly to their skiing destination, taking advantage of cheap deals offered by numerous budget airlines. However, a common problem encountered by those who choose to fly concerns baggage constraints. Paying excess baggage charges which, if you want to take your own skis and boots, is the norm on most budget flights, can add a hefty amount to your total ticket costs. Furthermore, transporting your skis, boots, and numerous suitcases to and from the respective airports on public transport can be a nightmare, making driving to your resort an attractive proposition.

Although this can be expensive it makes sense for some people, particularly couples who have a large enough car to accommodate friends with whom the costs can be shared, to take the plunge and drive. Preparation is important though -a hazy notion that you need to pack a shovel and invest in snow chains is simply not enough!

Before you leave


What to pack in the boot

  • In case of a break-down or an accident, carry a warning triangle in your boot.
  • Buy a first-aid kit (or make your own) before you leave and keep it in your vehicle.
  • Prepare for the snowy conditions you will encounter in the resort by packing numerous cans of de-icer.
  • Keep a thick pair of gloves, a hat, and a good torch handy. These items will be invaluable if you have to fit your snow chains at night.
  • Invest in a set of jump leads and keep them in the boot.
  • Buy a high-quality shovel that will not break when placed under extreme pressure. Remember to unpack the shovel upon arrival at your hotel or chalet and keep it in your room.
  • The same rules apply for purchasing and storing a window scraper.
  • Other handy items to pack include a good-quality groundsheet for use when fitting snow chains and some brightly coloured cloth to attract attention if you get into difficulties.
  • Finally, just in case you are unlucky enough to encounter the worst case scenario, keep a couple of blankets and a warm change of clothes in the boot as well as making sure that you always travel with a few bars of chocolate and a fresh bottle of water.

Snow chains

Most people who choose to drive to the continent for their skiing holiday use snow chains. These are designed to provide your vehicle with additional traction whilst driving through snowy and icy conditions. They can be purchased either in England or upon arrival in Europe. Although it may be cheaper to wait until you reach the continent, this is a risky choice to make. The size that you need may have sold out or you may not be able to fit the chains properly. Ideally, purchase the chains a couple of weeks before you leave the UK and practise putting them on every few days. Then, when you encounter snowy conditions abroad, you won’t end up stranded by the side of the road stuck in a winter storm whilst reading an instruction manual and struggling with numerous chains.

Ladder style chains are a popular choice and here are some simple tips on how to fit them.

  • Place the hoops that are not fitted with levers over the tyres.
  • Very carefully, drive the car forward a couple of inches and then reach behind the tyre, locate the inner hoop and hook it up tightly.
  • Move around to the outside of the tyre and put the loose section of the chain over the level. Pull it tightly and hook the keeper over the end of the end-lever. If there is any chain left over, slip it over the lever.
  • Carefully drive the vehicle forward a metre or two and then tighten the chains again if it feels necessary.

Snow tyres

Non-studded

Snow tyres are the best option for those planning on spending a long time in snowy conditions. It takes away the hassle of using snow chains and you can keep your normal tyres for use when the snow has cleared. Good snow tyres will keep for several years. Non-studded snow tyres are probably the best type to go for, since they can cope with most alpine conditions. Make sure that you fit them on all the wheels of your vehicle and not just the driving wheels, as this could make you susceptible to skidding.

Studded

Studded snow tyres are only necessary in extremely poor weather conditions. Bear in mind that if you choose to travel with studded snow tyres, your car will need to display the appropriate sticker. Vehicles fitted with studded tyres are not allowed to travel on auto routes and must travel below 80 kilometres per hour at all times.

General maintenance

Firstly, use your common sense and give your vehicle a routine check. You should obviously do this regularly regardless of where you are travelling to, but a snowy destination will exacerbate any pre-existing problems with your car. Take your car to the local garage and ask them to check your antifreeze. If you are in any doubt as to the efficiency of your antifreeze, it is a good idea to drain the entire cooling system and refill it with new antifreeze. Ensure that your air-conditioning is working properly, as this is one of the best ways of clearing a windscreen when it has misted over. Check that all your lights are working, including your reversing lights, fog lights, interior lights, and tail lights. If you are travelling with a roof rack, make sure that it is properly fitted and will not be a hazard when you hit the roads.

The night before you leave

Once you have checked that your vehicle is in perfect condition and have packed your boot adequately, make sure that you have an early night. Fatigue is a major cause of road accidents and driving on the continent, particularly through snowy conditions, can be very stressful. Do not drink alcohol the night before you leave as this can have a detrimental impact upon how you feel the following day. Check that you have planned your route properly and have a back-up plan in mind in case something goes wrong.

On this subject, consider investing in a satellite navigation system, so that, if necessary, you can change your route along the way. However, if you can’t afford to invest in one of these, there are plenty of websites that can provide you with good routes. A very good example is the RAC Route Planner. On this website, you simply need to type in your departure point and your destination and a route will be supplied within seconds. You can then search for an alternative route just in case you encounter problems.

Ensure that your mobile phone is fully charged and that you have enough credit to make an emergency call whilst in Europe. Have a look on the internet before you leave and make a note of important emergency phone numbers that could come in handy during your journey. Finally, make sure that your wallet is well-stocked with cash, since you will need to fork out at regular intervals for meals, snacks, and inescapable charges such as road tolls.

During your journey


Upon arrival on the continent

As soon as you arrive on the continent, fit headlight converters. These are sticky covers that attach to your car’s headlights, altering the angle of the light beam and preventing it from blinding any oncoming vehicle. If you are driving in the snow during the night, do not use your main beam since falling snowflakes will reduce vision. Also, since you will be driving on the right-hand side of the road, make sure you have a rear view mirror fitted on the outer left-hand side. Once you arrive in Europe, check that this mirror is properly positioned. If you do not check this, overtaking and other standard driving procedures can become very dangerous.

When you enter a snowy area, lubricate your car straight away. All the moving sections of the locks and keyholes should be covered to prevent the doors from freezing shut. The same rule applies to the boot, which is at risk of freezing shut if you do not use it frequently whilst staying in the resort. If your lubricant fails, do not force the doors or the boot, since this can cause severe damage. Instead, apply plenty of de-icer and be patient. Furthermore, when you arrive in Europe, purchase windscreen washer as soon as it is convenient. The good-quality windscreen washer sold in garages on the continent is fairly cheap and will work well, even at extremely low temperatures.

In the resort

Every few days during your stay, check your tyre pressures. Factors such as changes in altitude and air temperature can culminate in increased air loss. Severe, unnoticed changes in tyre pressure can be very dangerous. Furthermore, take your car out for a proper drive at least once a week as this will keep the battery charged. If your resort is extremely cold, run the engine properly at least once a day. The accumulation of heat in the engine will prevent potential problems such as split hoses.

Remember when parking your vehicle to leave it in first gear pointing in an uphill direction. Handbrake systems can become congested with slush and may freeze once the car cools down after the engine has stopped running. Before setting out on any journey in your resort, no matter how small the distance, clear your car of snow completely. It is tempting just to clear the windscreen, the windows, and the areas around the door handles but this can be extremely dangerous. Snow on the roof can prove fatal if you need to brake suddenly. This snow can fall forward onto the windscreen, leaving you driving blind, possibly at fairly high speeds and windscreen wipers will have absolutely no impact on it. On the subject of windscreen wipers, make sure that you lift them off your windscreen once you park your car. This will prevent them from freezing and sticking to the vehicle.

How to handle skidding

There are several ways of preventing skidding whilst driving in snowy and icy conditions. Turn off the ABS if it is fitted in your vehicle and try to brake using your gears only. You should only use the brake itself when driving at very low speeds and, if you do need to use it, pump the pedal with your foot so that the wheels do not lock. Try to avoid braking whilst travelling around corners and always maintain a sensible distance between your car and the vehicle in front of you. Wheel spin can be avoided by applying only gradual pressure on the accelerator. Only change gear when you need to, since unnecessary gear changes can destabilise your vehicle. Try to change gear whilst you are on level ground, engaging first or second gear prior to ascending or descending a steep hill.

If you do end up skidding, turn the front wheels of your car into the direction in which you are skidding. If your rear wheels are sliding to the left, steer left as well. If they are sliding right, steer to the right. Your rear wheels may then begin sliding in the opposite direction. If this happens, turn the steering wheel slightly to that side. You may need to turn it in both directions several times before the vehicle is brought fully under control. Release the brake as soon as possible and disengage the clutch if you drive a manual vehicle. Once the skidding has stopped, apply the brakes gently. Always keep in mind the fact that it is better to steer into the skid rather than braking. After all, it is preferable to hit the bank or a snow drift rather than skidding off the edge of a mountain road.

What to do if you get stuck

If your preventative methods do fail and you become stuck, always stay with your vehicle, rather than setting off to seek help. Eventually, the authorities will find you. Tie some brightly coloured cloth to the radio aerial to attract attention. Keep the car running for approximately 15 minutes out of every hour in order to help you keep warm. However, whilst doing this, leave a window open a couple of inches, to prevent the build-up of potentially dangerous fumes. Make the appropriate phone calls from your mobile phone and then try to remain calm. Hopefully you will have packed extra warm clothes and a blanket or sleeping bag which will help you to stay warm.

If you wish to tackle the problem yourself, don’t give in to the temptation of spinning your wheels as this will only make the situation worse. Instead, turn your wheels from one side to the other in order to push the snow away. Gently try to ease your vehicle out of its position by applying light pressure on the accelerator. You should carefully clear the snow from your tyres and the car’s underside with a shovel. To gain more traction, pour salt or grit if you have it, onto the path of the wheels. Finally, try rocking the car, shifting from forward to reverse and then reverse to forward, gently pressing the accelerator each time you engage the gears.

Conclusion

Although it may seem that there are a lot of things to remember, proper preparations can prevent numerous problems which can turn not only your journey, but your holiday as a whole, into a nightmare. At the end of the day, much of the preparation is common sense but make sure that you are well-informed as well by taking any advice provided by your local garage.