Mountain Girl’s Lessons Learned ~ Winter Driving Tips

You can take the girl out of the mountains, kicking and screaming, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl.

I learned to drive in Pennsylvania’s mild Pocono Mountains, where I called 911 to report the state snowplow I’d just passed stuck in a blizzard. I moved to Vermont, where I studied in college,when I wasn’t skiing or having other mountain fun. Finals were a breeze compared to learning to drive a stick shift in Burlington, VT. I moved to Colorado, at 8,000′, completed my Master’s, and, depending on I-70 traffic, drove west to the Continental Divide for alpine, or south for Nordic (cross-country) skiing. I checked on the driver of a snowplow who flipped, yes, flipped, his snowplow in Conifer, CO. Really.

We stopped to help a driver whose precariously balancing car teetered on the guard rail of Berthoud Pass. I’ve avoided rockslides and avalanches near Georgetown, CO, and made a dorky (according to Hunk) survival kit for my car. I drove Oh My God Road (which SO lives up to its name) in the snow. When Hunk had to head through a snowstorm to Aspen for business, he asked me to make a survival kit for him. Haha.

Most recently, I lived in Northern California, hiking, skiing, and snowboarding the Sierra Nevada. I crossed the country by car, in all kinds of weather, over the Sierra and Rockies, six times in the past two years, once in my convertible in a blizzard (car top closed). I’ve made a few observations about driving in ice and snow. Even though I am currently writing from just north of DC, I hope you find these tips credible, and helpful!

  1. 4WD helps you go, but it does not help you STOP.
  2. Cleaning your windshield of snow is just the beginning. I clear my headlights of snow, and turn them on in bad weather. I also appreciate when other drivers clean the snow from their cars’ roofs, and side and rear windows, so they can see me and not splat my windshield with snow. Seeing is good when you drive.
  3. Road spray uses up your windshield wiper fluid. Keep some in the car for winter travel. That same dirty film covers your headlights, but worse, since they’re closer to the road. I clean them, too. Otherwise, I’m left thinking my alternator is failing because my lights are so dim.
  4. Same rules apply for driving as skiing and boarding. Plan ahead for icy spots. Slow before you hit them. Don’t try sudden turns mid-ice.
  5. Underpasses, bridges and even culverts allow colder air to circulate under that part of the road, enabling black ice to form on roads. Anticipate that possibility when the temperature gets near freezing, even if it’s just raining.
  6. Where gravel is used for ice and snow, remember that it adds its own degree of marbles-on-the-road when trying to stop.
  7. I never assume that the other driver can stop, even if I have the right of way. In bad weather, I always assume the car traveling downhill has the right-of-way at intersections. Likewise for people traveling fast in 4WD vehicles. See #1.
  8. That dorky homemade Girl Scout survival kit in my car? A flashlight, mylar blanket, pocket poncho, waterproof matches or a lighter, tissues, canned camp candle, some hard candies, protein bars, XL plastic trash bag (can double as rain poncho), a couple of small ziplocs that can be used for water or anything else. The small items I store in a metal cup, which I could heat over flame. I always have some water with me, regardless of weather. In winter I add a shovel, scraper and sleeping bag. In a pinch, your credit card or similar card can double as an ice-scraper for your windshield.
  9. If you do get stuck in deep snow, #8 comes in handy, but also remember that your tailpipe exhausts carbon dioxide when the engine is running. Balance staying warm with being safe – you may need to clear the tailpipe area, but try not to get wet – more danger of hypothermia when wet.
  10. And one more on being safe: if you need to pull off the road, please remember that other drivers in snow and ice may skid or simply not see you. Standing outside your car on an icy roadside? Nope.

More next time. Until then, have fun in the snow, and be safe out there!

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