Winter and the first snowfalls of the year bring - for many Australian's - the excitement of the ski season. And while we have a short snow season in Australia compared to Europe, North America and Japan, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy snow sports like downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and even snow shoeing.
The weather changes rapidly in Australia's Snowy Mountains. You may find yourself driving up the hill with the sun shining and blue skies, but by the end of the day the clouds may have rolled in. You may be faced with a car covered in snow and treacherous roads. And if the snow is very heavy, roads may even be closed until snow ploughs have cleared them and they are deemed safe.
These facts alone mean that if you are driving in the mountains in winter you should prepare your vehicle, as well as yourself and your passengers, for the conditions.
Once roads get covered in snow and ice, traction becomes an issuei. Tyres that are correctly inflated and that have good tread are important. Long lines of cars stopped by the side of the road fitting snow chains on the way to ski resorts like Thredbo and Perisher are a common sight for many skiers. The snow chains - chains that wrap around your tyres - provide traction on roads that are affected by snow or ice.
Indeed snow chains are not just a good idea for safety - they are a requirement. If you are travelling in the Kosciuszko National Park on specified roads from the beginning of the June long weekend to the end of the October long weekend snow chains must be both carried and fitted when directedi. While 4WD/AWD vehicles are exempt from this requirement, the NSW RTA does recommend snow chains be carried and used. According to the NSW RTA, one reason for this is that while 4WD vehicles apply torque to all 4 wheels as required, this does not 'translate to better braking performance'.
When looking to buy or hire snow chains, look for chains that will have some part of the chain always in touch with the road surface, such as diamond snow chainsi.
When temperatures fall below zero it's important to also protect your engine. That means using antifreeze in your radiator to prevent the radiator coolant fluid from freezingii. Otherwise you may end up finding a vehicle with a cracked radiator or engine block: leaving you both stranded and with an expensive repair bill.
Diesel owners should also fill up on a special mountain fuel called Alpine Diesel. Otherwise the cold temperatures will cause diesel vehicles with standard diesel not to run. Alpine Diesel can be purchased at fuel stations in the Snowy Mountains region.
When there is snow and ice on the road you should also adjust your driving technique to match the conditions. Your car will respond better if you keep the wheels rolling - brake, accelerate and turn gently, use the vehicles engine and gears to help control downhill motion, brake before corners, keep your speed downiii and don't tailgate.
Extra care should be taken early in the morning, late at night or where the road is in shadow. This is because surface moisture and dew may freeze on the road causing what is commonly called 'black ice'ii: this is slippery, dangerous and hard to spot.
The changing conditions and circumstances mean you should be prepared for any eventuality. You should have adequate clothing in case you are stranded for a period of time or have to get out of your vehicle to fit snow chains. This should include warm clothes, waterproof outfits, gloves, hats/beanies and boots for all members of your party.
You may have to get ice and snow off your car windows so you should carry a tool for this such as an ice scraper and brush. Safety gear including a torch, first aid kit, safety vest and warning triangle should be carried.
It's also important to listen to local radio stations and check Web sites for road conditions including road closures. And if you are parking in a ski resort, park only in designated areas as snow clearing vehicles may be used in other areas.
i Driving in snow and ice conditions, NSW Centre for Road Safety, New South Wales Government, 2009, http://www.rta.nsw.gov.au/registration/downloads/vsi/vsi_57_driving_in_snow_and_ice_conditions_9_june_2009.pdf
ii Driving in the snow, NSW Centre for Road Safety, New South Wales Government, http://www.rta.nsw.gov.au/roadsafety/snowdriving.html
iii Land Rover Winter Driving Guide, http://www.trivett.com.au/media/documents/winter_driving_guide_2009.pdf