Billowing waves of feather-light powder washed up and over as I plowed through the snow, and I felt completely weightless. The ultimate skiing experience, right? Unfortunately, in this case I was driving a Ford Bronco and had lost control of the vehicle as I rounded a curve. Three of us sat spellbound as the truck did a 360 on a snowy hillside abutting the road, eventually coming to rest in the proper lane, facing forward again.
Ah, the joys of winter driving. Heading into snow country on four wheels requires preparation, proper equipment, and a conservative driving approach. We've gathered a few tips so that you can save the bumpy ride for the mogul runs.
Do you go through a mental checklist¿skis, boots, poles, gloves, goggles, hat¿before setting out for the ski area? Add to that list some recommended essentials for winter driving: a small shovel, a bag of sand or kitty litter for traction if you get stuck, blankets, food, water, extra clothing, and a cell phone.
Get plenty of fluids
Check the antifreeze level and have your coolant system flushed out if the coolant hasn't been changed in several years. Use a winter-weight oil: 10W30 is adequate for milder climates; 5W30 or synthetic oils are even better in cold weather. And if you usually use up every drop of gas before refilling, break the habit. In frigid temps, empty space in your gas tank allows water to condense and even-tually find its way into your gas line, where it can freeze. Keep your tank at least half full. An anti-ice additive, like Heet, can also be helpful. And don't forget plenty of nonfreezing windshield-washer fluid.
Never underestimate the power of a snow tire
I had a Toyota Celica that I was ready to enter in ballet-skiing competitions, based on the pirouettes it was inclined to perform on snowpacked roads. Then I invested in a pair of monster-tread snow tires, and my Celica was transformed into a rock-solid freeskier.
You probably won't want to invest in snow tires if you only drive up to Vermont, say, one weekend a season, but if you consistently spend time in snow country, they're well worth the extra outlay. And yes, even if you drive an SUV. "An all-season tire is a compromise," says Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs. "It's not the best performing tire in ice and snow." Consumer Reports gives high marks to the Michelin Arctic Alpin, the Bridgestone Blizzak WS-15, and the Firestone Winterfire. And studs? Their time has passed.
Get first tracks
It's snowed a foot, you can't wait to try out your new powder boards...and your car won't start. Give yourself the advantage by getting a top-notch battery. If you've had your battery five years or more, it's time for a new one. "The more powerful your battery is, the happier you'll be," says Cox. Get the most "cold cranking amps" (CCA) as possible within your vehicle's battery-size specification. CCA is a rating of the maximum amps a battery can deliver for 30 seconds at zero degrees F.
If you want to be extra nice to your car, get it an engine-block heater, available at auto-parts stores for less than $100. Since the engine will be prewarmed, your car will start more readily, with less wear and tear. According to Cox, 80 percent of engine wear comes from cold starting. An added benefit is that you'll be toasty, too, since interior heat will be immediately available.
See the light
Yeah, it's tempting to scratch out a Frisbee-sized clearing on the windshield, jump in the car, and go. But it's not safe. Buy a large windshield scraper with a brush and take the time to clear your windshields, windows, headlights, and mirrors of snow and ice. And don't forget the roof. That wedding-cake layer can eventually bury your back window, front windshield, or cream the person behind you. Additionally, winter wipers¿the kind with the thick rubber blades&mmdash;are invaluable in keeping windshields snow and ice free.
Save the rad moves for the halfpipe
Snow and ice don't leave much room for driver error. "The most important thing is to be smooth¿in steering, accelerating, and braking," advises Cox. Moreover, braking technique differs according to what type of brakes you have. With regular brakes, you pump, but only if the wheels lock up or you skid. And if you need to steer, take your foot off the brakes. If you've got antilock (ABS) brakes, however, hit them hard and hold them down, even if you hear noise and feel vibrations in the pedal (that's the ABS working). "If you start pumping ABS brakes, it actually takes longer to stop," Cox notes. ABS also allows you to brake and steer simultaneously, "but you really have to pay attention to pointing the car where you want it to go," says Cox.
What about handling a front-wheel-drive vehicle versus one with rear-wheel drive? If you're using good driving technique, there's no difference, according to Cox. Differences crop up with poor technique. For example, accelerating out of a corner will cause the front wheels to lose traction in a front-wheel-drive car; in a rear-wheel-drive car, the back will slide to the outside, and the car will spin.
Don't overestimate your SUV
Ever notice most of the cars stuck in the ditch or flipped over in the median are four-wheel drives? Don't think you'll be invincible in your new Jeep Grand Cherokee. SUVs have a high center of gravity, which makes them harder to control in a skid and more prone to tipping. "You have to be very careful, especially if you're a new SUV driver, not to get a false sense of confidence," cautions Cox. "They don't corner or brake any differently. In fact they have no benefit in that regard."
So, you enjoy this driving in snow and ice thing. Or maybe you're so incapacitated by winter conditions that you can't make it out of the driveway. Either way, hone your skills at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs. The school offers two-day performance clinics ($975) as well as one-day ($225) and half-day ($115) winter-safety programs. 800-WHY-SKID, www.winterdrive.com