Winter Driving in The French Alps (Part Two)

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)
  • shovel
  • sunglasses (to look good! …and because of the low winter sun)

Preparation

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?

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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.

Fog

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

And Finally

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!

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Winter Driving in The French Alps

By: Lewis Williams (member of the Mountain Rescue Team)

We love snow! Goes without saying if your coming to the French alps in winter. But, as fun as the ‘good stuff’ is, it can also cause a heap of problems if your driving. 

Here at The Mountain Rescue we regularly deal with snowy road conditions. We are experienced drivers who would love you to book your ski transfer with us in our lovely fleet of comfy vehicles

But, if your driving yourself, we would like to share some of our knowledge with you so you too can safely drive through the wintery wonderland of the snowy alps. 

In this guide to winter driving we offer basic information on what vehicle accessories you need to get up those mountains and when and where to use them.  

Snow tyres

Snow tyres are awesome! The improved grip on snow and ice is considerable and noticeable. Normal tyres get harder with lower temperatures, the tread fills with snow and you loose grip. Snow tyres stay softer in the cold, which enables snow to fall out of the tread so they can re-grip the snow on each rotation.

Our fleet is equipped with Nokian snow tyres and we highly recommend them.

At present snow tyres are not a legal requirement in the alps, but life, or at least the snow, is easier with them.

Socks and Chains (…or Studs?)

Wether you have snow tyres or not you still need to carry snow chains or socks. It is useful to have a pair of snow socks tucked away in your car because they can be easily stowed as they fold flat and take little space.

Unfortunately snow socks are less suitable for prolonged driving in snowy conditions. Snow socks may help you get out of a sticky situation but may struggle to handle the punishment when the big dump of snow arrives and your driving 30km up a mountain to Val Thorens. With excessive driving snow socks can ‘walk’ or slip from the tires as you drive, or catch on the bodywork and tear. We use and recommend snow chains.

There are many varieties of snow chain, too many to cover here. You’ll need to check your vehicle handbook to see what is suitable for your vehicle or seek advice from a dealer. We prefer ‘traditional’ snow chains, they are fitted to the two drive wheels and then tightened up after 50m of driving. Once they are securely fitted they will give great traction and reassurance as you trundle on your jolly way up the mountain.

But what about studded tyres so you can race up those crazy switch-backs? Think again! Studded tyres are only permitted from December to late March (dates subject to change) and are not recommended unless you live at extreme altitude and won’t ever be driving on tarmac.

Check it out  

Delays are created by drivers getting stuck in the snow and putting snow-chains on, or abandoning vehicles in unexpected places. On busy weekends be prepared for a little chaos, especially if it snows heavily.

It is well worth spending some time to practice putting the chains on before you make your trip. All our drivers refresh their chain ‘putting-on-skills’ at the beginning of the winter, because there is nothing worse than being at the side of the road in -10 °C, in the dark, getting splashed by slush as you frantically get entangled in snow chain. It’s an art to fit snow chains quickly and calmly and well worth the practice.

It also useful to pack a head torch and thin water proof gloves to aid you in attaching the snow chains.

Where and When? 

Snow chains and socks limit your speed to approx 40 km/h maximum. If there is no snow on the road you don’t want to be ambling along the motorway at such a low speed, for safety’s sake. But neither do you want to be stuck half way round a snowy hairpin trying to put your chains on. Luckily there is a way to judge this. The French road signage uses a few signs to help us out.

French mountain roads display a blue sign of a wheel with a chain on the tyre. This denotes that in snow you will require snow chains.

You may see ‘pneus neige admis’ written below the sign, in this case chains are not required if you have snow tires fitted. But, even if you have snow tires, use your judgement as to wether you should put your chains on.

The sign ‘équipements speciaux recommandes’ may be displayed on electronic signage as you enter the mountains. This sign indicates that it is likely you will encounter the need for chains (or socks) as you gain altitude, so keep vigilant. When there is snow on the road you should make a judgement as to wether you should put the chains on.

Alternatively you may see ‘équipements speciaux obligatoire’, this sign may be displayed as you join a specific road to a ski resort or mountain pass. It means when you encounter snow on the road the use of chains is mandatory and you should put chains on.

French mountain roads display a blue sign of a wheel with a chain on the tyre. This denotes that in snow you will require snow chains.

You may see ‘pneus neige admis’ written below the sign, in this case chains are not required if you have snow tyres fitted. But, even if you have snow tyres, use your judgement as to wether you should put your chains on.

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Most major roads in the French alps have specific areas for putting on chains. The ‘Aire De Chainage’ is where you should stop and put your chains on.

Similarly on the descent there are areas marked ‘Aire De Depose Chainage’ and, you guessed it, thats where you should stop to remove chains once there is no snow.

Bonne Route!

Most journeys in the French alps can be made relatively stress free on clear roads. But the weather in the mountains changes quickly and around ski resorts, at peak periods, traffic can become heavy. Every year there are delays and times of heavy snow, so it really is necessary to be prepared. 

Like us, you should check your route, give ample time, have chains to hand and equip your vehicle with quality snow tires for any snowy mountain adventure. 

This is by no-means a definitive guide but we hope it gives an idea of what to expect and what to look out for as you enter the beautiful snowy mountains. Bonne route!

Close up of TDI Blue Motion Badge

Volkswagens Blue Motion Technology

Exciting innovations

Owning a transport business its normal practice to keep an eye on the latest technologies as it arrives and there has been a lot of exciting innovations over the last few years and plenty to come in the not so distant future. Back the the present and this winter we have updated all our vehicles to Volkswagens latest Caravelle T6 models and very nice they are to. The new 20.0 TDI Euro 6 engine with blue motion technology is more fuel efficient and even more powerful with 150 PS (147.90 BHP) than its predecessor.

For the latest generation of vehicles Volkswagen have come up with a few innovations to improve and make these vehicles more efficient than the previous models. This technology they have called Blue Motion.

The first improvement in the Blue Motion range is the stop start feature, it detects when the vehicle has come to a halt and automatically stops the engine, at this point another starter motor restarts the engine when the clutch it pressed. The idea of this is to reduce the costs of fuel when the vehicle is idling as well as making it quieter if you are sitting in a traffic jam or at the lights.

Another feature is the energy recuperation system. The alternator increases its output during braking and reduces it when the vehicle is accelerating to recover lost energy and reduce the strain put on the engine. This is a simpler version of the system used in a lot of today’s hybrids.

The vehicles included in the Blue motion range also enjoy tweaks to their aerodynamicness (think that’s a word) tweaks to the panels and more importantly the gaps between them to maximise arodynamicness even further. Lower ride heights where possible and finally reprofiled bodystyles to ensure smoother airflow around the vehicle which in turn also improves handeling and lowers CO2 emissions. Nice.

All in all, it’s a great idea, we all want to do our bit for the environment and every little thing we can do is defiantly worth while.