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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!

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