By: Lewis Williams (member of the Mountain Rescue Team)
In our previous post on Winter Driving in The French Alps we discussed snow-tyres and accessories for successfully navigating the wintery wonderland of the French mountains. In this follow-up post we share advice on the basic preparation and driving skills that ensure our drivers are always on time, whatever the weather.
The Basic Kit
All our vehicles carry spare bulbs, warning triangle and high-vis vests as French law requires. Our fleet are equipped with Nokian snow-tyres and carry snow-chains stowed in an easily accessible place.
In addition to these essentials we recommend carrying:
- ice scraper
- torch (for attaching snow chains in the dark)
- first aid kit
- jump leads
- gloves (for attaching snow chains)
- sunglasses (to look good! …and because of the low winter sun)
We pride ourselves on being bang-on-time to collect guests. How do we do this? Time! …and lots of it!
Our drivers are given ample time to reach their guests, especially in challenging conditions. This enables them to prepare their vehicles and have time to cope with any unexpected delays.
To prepare we start the vehicle, turn up the heating and screen de-mister, turn on the headlights (to melt any ice), have a brew and check the road conditions in the Tarentaise valley. Then clear all snow from the windows, mirrors and the top of the vehicle with a broom (braking on an steep descent can cause snow on the roof to slide over your windscreen and severely restrict your view). Finally, dig out any snow from around and in-front of the wheels.
Then once all that powder and ice is cleared run through the POWDERY checklist:
P - Petrol (or diesel) - Got more than enough fuel for your journey?
O - Oil - Got enough oil?
W - Water - Got radiator water? Screen-wash? Drinking water?
D - Damage - Check vehicle for damage. How are your windscreen wipers?
E - Electrics - Are your lights, heating and de-mister working ok?
R - Rubber - Check tread and inflation on tyres. Are your chains or socks easily accessible in the vehicle?
Y - Yourself - Are you rested and feeling fit for a long journey?
On The Road
Obviously, it is sensible to drive at a lower speed on snow or in cold temperatures. Even if the road is clear of snow, ice may persist. Gain traction by staying in a high gear and accelerating gently and when breaking softly apply pressure to the break pedal. If you have a safe place, away from other road users, try your brakes a little harder to get a feel for the grip on the road.
It is possible that not all road users are as vigilant, careful and considerate as you. Check your mirrors often, keep your distance from vehicles in front and don’t feel pressure to accelerate away from vehicles that are too close behind. Pull over at a safe place to let impatient drivers pass. Drive defensively, it is best to concentrate on your own driving and not let other road users phase you.
To add a bit more spice to the winter conditions we have to contend with hair-pin turns (or ‘switch-backs’). The best method to negotiate an acute turn is to break slowly on the straight before the bend then steer smoothly round the bend without sudden breaking or change of direction. (Vehicles can slide when simultaneously braking and turning on ice). With a little practice this becomes second nature.
When do we need to put chains or socks on? See this blog post.
In the mountains it is common to encounter fog. Use your fog lights and switch off full beam (full beam can reflect back from the droplets of water in the air making it more difficult to see the road). De-mist your screen as this can mist up unnoticeably. Reduce your speed and don’t be tempted to follow the tail lights of other vehicles too closely!
In the event the fog becomes too dense, don’t panic, pull over and wait… fog is often patchy and may clear as quickly as it arrived.
More Mountain Rescue Tips!
- Check your route - many mountain roads and passes are closed in the winter
- Take major roads as they are ploughed more frequently than minor roads
- Respect the snow ploughs - do not try and overtake unless you have a snow-free lane available
- Be vigilant of buses and large vehicles on hairpins - they may need to ‘swing out’ to make the corner
- When parking on an incline turn your wheel toward the side of the road - so if your vehicle slips or is nudged it goes into the verge
- When parking your vehicle lift your wipers - this prevents them freezing to the windscreen or being damaged from heavy snow, especially if you accidentally left them on
Our professional drivers spend a lot of time on the road and although the majority of journeys are on snow-free roads we often encounter adverse conditions. We see how quickly the weather changes and how easy it is to be ‘caught out’. In such circumstances experience becomes a key factor, but we hope our winter driving advice highlights that with good preparation, lots of time and conscientious driving, risk and delays can be minimised.
Bonne route et bon ski!