With winter just around the corner, temperatures are dropping rapidly – and road conditions in the mountains will be becoming more and more treacherous.
Whether enjoying quick laps at the resort or exploring the backcountry, we love spending time in the mountains during winter. We all accept the varying degrees of risk associated with venturing into the wilderness, however arriving at the trailhead safely is one of the biggest challenges. In fact, many winter recreationalists say that it’s more dangerous driving to the parking lot than spending a day the backcountry!
The intent of this post is not to instill fear, but to help inform your risk-tolerance when it comes to winter driving. Risk tolerance can be significantly lowered with the right preparation, so you don’t need to stay inside when the roads are questionable. Instead, prepare your vehicle and plan your day accordingly to get to your destination safely when the roads become tricky.
We learned this the hard way last winter, while two of us, including our Founder, Richard had a winter driving accident of our own.
Our winter mishap occurred in March of 2018, while driving to a late-winter ski touring week in Jasper National Park. We were travelling along the famed Icefields Parkway – easily one of the most scenic drives in the entire country, if not the world.
As the drive to Jasper is quite remote and lacking cell phone coverage, we had taken some precautionary steps prior to departure including:
- Informed family members of trip details and route
- Planned to drive during daytime to make the drive safer
- Drove a 4WD SUV with good winter tires
- Drove a modern car equipped with airbags, traction control and other safety bells and whistles
- Kept an emergency kit in the vehicle
- Wore winter clothes, with extra warm clothes in the vehicle
- Loose gear was secured in the back of the SUV so it wouldn’t fly around in case of an accident
- The skis were on the roof
- A Garmin InReach device was kept in the vehicle in case of emergency
All told doing the above took a few extra minutes before we set off. These steps can make a world of difference – and even save your life – in case of an emergency.
Despite all precautions taken, Mother Nature had decided to have a bit of fun the evening prior, with a spring snowfall of 10cm. All major highways had been plowed and cleared by the time of our departure. The plows and highway teams had not quite made their way onto the Icefields Parkway, yet as we travelled north, the snow had mostly melted.
We were driving 10km/hour below the speed limit and going even slower around corners, while a few trucks passed us going quite quickly.
As we crested over a small pass, conditions on the north side of the hill were much different than those we had just driven through. Most of the snow had already melted to the south, but on the north side, it had turned to two or more inches of very wet slush – a car’s worst enemy, after black ice. It was the perfect recipe for hydroplaning off the side of the road.
At the top of the hill, a large frost heave had made an especially deep slush puddle that concealed a big bump underneath the slush.
As we hit the bump the car started to hydroplane as the road curved to the right. We continued straight, hydroplaning on the slush and eventually went off the road and then down the bank. The SUV rolled and was eventually arrested by the deep snow and pine trees. Thankfully, there was no cliff or steep drop-off where we were, as things could have been much worse.
As scary and dangerous as the experience was, we made it out without injury. The airbags had deployed all around, protecting us from impact and hitting our heads on the windows.
Being upside down, our first worry was would the seatbelts release. Luckily, quick-release seat belts allowed us to make a quick and easy escape from the vehicle, though with a bump on our head from the drop. We realized that if we hadn’t been able to release the seatbelt a knife would have been helpful to cut through the seatbelts.
We were able to wade through the deep snow and get up to the road, where we flagged down a few passing cars. Had there been no cars, we would have been able to call for help by using the InReach personal locator device that we had brought with us.
While we totaled the SUV and were shaken up, many of the seemingly insignificant steps we had taken prior to departure had played a huge role in lessening the consequences of the event. For example:
- The airbags had prevented physical injury to the party of two
- Skis stored on the roof lessened the loose items that could have caused damage and injury
- All loose luggage and items were secured, preventing them flying around and causing injury
Our slower speed meant that while we flipped, we stopped quickly in the snow and didn’t continue deeper into the larger trees.
There were a few things that did not make it onto our precautionary list that were learned during this event and will change the way we prepare for winter travel in the future.
First and foremost – we were driving slowly, but not slow enough. We hadn’t considered that the conditions on the north-facing road could be significantly different from the south-facing. Slowing down over the crest of the hill could have lessened or eliminated the significance of this event.
Our safety kit was buried under our luggage, making it inaccessible when we needed it most.
We couldn’t get into the trunk due to the position of the vehicle, which is where we had secured our bags containing our warmest gear. Richard’s coat and toque were thankfully in the backseat, yet neither of us had gloves readily available, and our hands were uncomfortably cold as we waited for help.
It took six plus hours waiting for a tow and getting the SUV out from the bottom of the embankment we rolled over. We were outside until the tow truck arrived. We also had nothing to eat or drink during this time.
Our membership with the Canadian Auto Club included free towing, which saved us from having to pay the nasty $2,800 bill for hauling the car out of the ditch and getting it back to Banff. A flipped car is expensive to extract from an embankment, and long tows from remote locations are very expensive.
We now know that having warm gloves, hats, and even socks accessible can make a significant difference in the event of an accident. Having extra food and water available is important and can keep you warm and alert while waiting for help. This event was a tried and true example of why we should not take the simple things for granted, and should always prepare for any incident.
This was a wake-up call for us. Even though we prioritize safety whenever we go to the mountains, not every day is perfect. We were prepared and driving safe, but there’s no way to predict a frost heave sending your SUV hydroplaning on a curve.
Admittedly, the thought of flipping a vehicle had never been something we thought to be a realistic possibility, but it’s actually quite common in winter. A small accident can turn big in the mountains.
Now think about rushing out on a weekend in a snowstorm to chase some powder. You’re up early, driving in the dark, racing to the resort for first tracks. Maybe the plows haven’t been out, so the roads are in terrible shape. After a day living your powder hound day dreams, you drive home in the dark, exhausted. The potential for risk is inherent, and it is something we take for granted time-and-time-again.
Preparation is key to minimizing bad outcomes. Before leaving home, ensure your vehicle is equipped for driving in winter.
Start with clearing the snow off all of the windows and making sure there is no frost.
Ensure your tires have ample tread on them and are rated for winter driving. Snow chains might also be required in some places, especially on trucks and larger vehicles, there are good options available on Amazon.
In our case it was an accident that left us cold on the side of the road, yet it is entirely likely that mechanical issues can leave you in a similar situation. Make sure your car is in tip-top shape and make sure all regular maintenance has been done; oil is fresh and can handle winter conditions; brakes and defrosters and working properly; and anti-freeze is topped off. Keep jumper cables, some sand or kitty litter, and flares in the back, and make sure that old battery is fresh enough not to die in freezing temperatures.
Now is the time to pack that emergency kit that everyone always talks about. Include warm clothes, a first aid kid, spare water, a warm emergency blanket, gloves, candles (for heat), matches and flashlight, among other items. Be sure the emergency kit is placed somewhere accessible in case of an accident.
Cell phone coverage can be rare in mountainous regions, especially on remote highways. Consider purchasing an emergency satellite transceiver like a Garmin InReach, to alert help in case of an accident. Even on busy highways, it is possible no bystander will recognize your car has gone off the road, so it is important to be able to call for help on your own. In our case the snowplow came by 15 minutes after our accident, and radioed to Lake Louise emergency response to send out a tow truck and the RCMP. This saved an hour on the response time.
It sounds too easy, but if conditions aren’t ideal, slowing down will be the most beneficial thing you can do to maintain control and traction. Hang out below the speed limit and don’t be in a rush to get to your destination. Use the brakes lightly too; slamming them could cause you to skid on icy or wet surfaces. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) systems found on newer cars will definitely help but aren’t a magic bullet.
When approaching bends in the road, especially in the mountains, slow down ahead of time and be sure to take the curves easy.
As we learned (the hard way), driving a 4WD SUV doesn’t make you immune to bad road conditions. It’ll help get more power and traction, and get out of snow banks, sure, but a 4WD car with regular tires still won’t be as good as any other car with winter tires. Use common sense and take it easy to arrive at the trailhead in one piece.
If you do start to slide or lose traction, don’t use your brakes. You’ll just make the skid worse. Instead, let the wheels spin freely, and turn into the slide by turning the steering wheel the same direction the car is heading. In other words, if you’re sliding to the left, turn the wheel to the left. And do so gently; moving the wheel too suddenly will cause you to overcorrect and spin around the road.
Take care this winter and drive safe. If you haven’t already, invest in winter tires and a satellite transceiver to help improve your chances against mother nature.