There's nothing that simultaneously terrifies and excites us Brits like a wee bit of snow. For the whole night before a minor snowfall, the news will be filled with hacks eagerly reporting on grit stockpiles, weather forecasters bounce around like small children, and Ranulph Fiennes gets called in to lecture on frostbite. It's a BIG DEAL. But don't worry, it's just a bit of precipitation: you're a 21st Century man or woman, and you can beat nature!
The first rule to remember when battling great Mother Nature is the Boy Scouts mythical motto: be prepared. Driving in the snow is no small undertaking. There are two main life-threatening dangers here: snow on the road makes the surface slippery, meaning you might crash, which is bad both for your treasured car and for your poor fragile human body; the other danger is that you get stuck and freeze to death -- not a nice option either.
Driving safely in the snow is a mixture of secret Jedi driving tricks and boring preparation. Let's tackle the dull stuff first:
- Tyres: Make sure your tyres are inflated to the correct pressure, and that they've still got a decent amount of tread on them (3mm plus). If you live out in the countryside, it's worth your while investing in a set of winter tyres, which have a deeper tread and different compound of rubber to help you stay on the road and out of snow-filled ditches.
- Chains: Again, worth considering if you live out in the 'cuds and your roads aren't regularly cleared. Chains sit on top of your tyres and should allow you to drive on a moderately snow-covered road. Check to see which model is best for your particular car and wheels, and remember to take them off before you drive on a non-snow-covered road, otherwise it'll all end in tears.
- Battery: Sadly, in the cold, batteries run down quicker. To avoid having to try and push-start your car through a few inches of snow, make sure you do a long drive occasionally, or get a trickle-charger to juice that battery up. Trust me, pushing a freezing-cold car through the snow along a slippery road is an experience that just plain sucks.
- Screenwash: Make sure you keep it topped up, and use a mixture that won't freeze up in the Arctic conditions of Britain in a cold snap.
- Fuel: Keep full where you can, and if possible keep a jerrycan of fuel stashed in your boot. Playing I-Spy-the-frozen-icicle-on-your-frostbitten-nose while freezing your arse off waiting for the breakdown wagon is not an appropriate or family-friendly game.
- Windows: Sounds obvious, but don't try and do a WWII tank commander and clear a tiny slit to see through; take the time to properly clean off your windows and mirrors of snow and ice before you get underway. A pro tip: don't pour boiling water onto your windscreen, as this will quite possibly cause the glass to rapidly heat up and shatter. While this admittedly removes the ice, you'll be picking broken bits of glass out of your seat for months.
The best way to scrape ice is with an ice scraper; if you don't have one to hand, a plastic spatula works a treat. Metal implements will just damage your window, so avoid them at all cost. If you're having real trouble, de-icer spray can be purchased that will soften the hardest of frozen-over windscreens.
- Locks: especially if you're burdened with an older runabout, locks can freeze up in winter. A squirt of good 'ole WD40 will stop this.
- Emergency/breakdown kit: The big danger, if you are unfortunate enough to break down/get stranded on the road, is freezing to death. Stick a couple of blankets or old coats in the boot, so you've got something to hunker down in if the worst happens. It's also worth throwing a bottle of water and some energy bars in there, in case you're stranded for a couple of hours. (A pack of cards also helps.) Make sure that you've got your fancy-schmancy smartphone so you can ring for help/play Angry Birds until the rescue team arrive.
It's also worth checking your breakdown kit. Normally, cars have a spare wheel of some kind, the gear for changing it, and other helpful stuff like a first aid kit and hi-vis triangle. Do yourself a favour, and make sure it's all still there -- if you can change your own flat, you'll save yourself a good few hours waiting for the breakdown truck, especially since the AA will be maxed out with calls on a snowy day.
The AA provides the following secret Jedi mind-tricks for actually driving your car in the snow:
- Wear comfortable, dry shoes for driving. Cumbersome, snow-covered boots will slip on the pedals.
- Pull away in second gear, easing your foot off the clutch gently to avoid wheel-spin.
- Up hill: avoid having to stop part way up by waiting until it is clear of other cars or by leaving plenty of room to the car in front. Keep a constant speed, choosing the most suitable gear well in advance to avoid having to change down on the hill.
- Down hill: reduce your speed before the hill, use a low gear and try to avoid using the brakes. Leave as much room as possible between you and the car in front.
- If you have to use brakes then apply them gently. Release the brakes and de-clutch if the car skids.
- Automatic transmission - under normal driving conditions (motorways, etc) it's best to select 'Drive' and let the gearbox do the work throughout the full gear range. In slippery, snowy conditions it's best to select '2', which limits the gear changes and also makes you less reliant on the brakes. Some autos have a 'Winter' mode which locks out first gear to reduce the risk of wheel spin. Check the handbook.
If you do get properly bogged down in snow (unlikely in all but the most remote parts of Britain), here are a few tips to get you out:
- Check your exhaust pipe before you start the car. If it's buried in snow, your engine will have decreased power and carbon monoxide might build up in the car and kill you. Awkward.
- Dig out excessive snow from around the wheels
- Stick those old blankets you put in the boot earlier under/in front of the wheels (roll them up first to give a firm base for the wheels). This will allow the wheels to actually get some traction.
- Rock the car back and forth a tiny bit, accelerating until the wheels just start to slip, and then easing off again. This can scoop a tiny bit of snow out each time, eventually letting you drive away. Requires patience and clutch control beyond the reach of many mere mortals.
- Emergency/pro tip only: deflate your tyres slightly, allowing the surface area of the tyre in contact with the snow to increase, allowing you to drive out. This is very much a last resort, and especially dangerous if, like most of the population, you don't keep an air compressor in your car.
- Ride the brakes: putting the brakes on ever so slightly whilst accelerating the car in theory increases the amount of torque necessary for the wheels to turn and should help prevent wheelspin. Again, this is an emergency tip and can do unspeakable things to your car. You're probably better off waiting for the tow truck.
It's a well-known fact that National Rail are pathetic snow-fearing babies who run away at the merest flake of the white stuff. If you're reliant on trains for your commute, there's little you can do about National Rail's shittiness, but forewarned is forearmed; I'm sure that somewhere in The Art of War it says something about "knowing your enemy is really important" or somesuch like that. Anyway. The point is that if you know that the trains are borked before you leave for the station, it's much easier to make alternate arrangements.
The National Rail website isn't half bad; the service disruptions page has a list of all delays caused by snow or otherwise, or you can sign up for customised email or SMS alerts, or you can just follow them on Twitter if you're into that whole social media thing.
Assuming you're one of the enlightened masses with a half-decent smartphone, you can also check how screwed the trains are right from your pocket; I use the cross-platform Journey Pro (free on iOS and Android), but there are lots of others, including National Rail's official app.
If you normally train to work but Transport for London's throwing a hissy fit about the "slippery rails", try walking or cycling to work. Yeah, cycling in the snow can be a little bit dodgy, but on all but the most snowed-in roads it's a pretty damn good option. If you're going to try it, ideally use a mountain bike, or at least get some knobbly tyres for your ride.
Also remember to wrap up warm, and plan a route in advance -- you might know your tube commuting route down to angle is best to enter the train carriage at, but you'll still have absolutely no fecking clue about the actual path to take on the roads. Google Maps can help you here. (Unless, of course, you're on a Windows Phone and Google hates you.)
Of course, there is a Third Way. Rather than battle through the gummed-up road network or pathetic excuse for a rail infrastructure, call your boss with an apologetic "sorry, it's snowing and I can't make it in today", whack those PJs on and crank up the (insert feelgood music of choice here); it's 'work' at home day!
I'm not going to say that working from home is a total skiving doss (otherwise my boss may never let me do it again), but it's pretty damn sweet. The key is to log on nice and early, while still in bed and half-asleep, and make it seem like you're keen to do work. You can then drag projects out with infeasible delays and hang-ups; if your work isn't totally brain-intensive, you can probably multitask nicely between 'working' and watching old people flog crap on Antiques Roadshow.
All in all, though the snow might be wet, cold and fierce, you can beat it. Unless you're totally dependent on the train network (and boy do we feel your pain), you can probably trek into work somehow. If you have the option though, working from home is easy and painless, and provides endless procrastination opportunities.
Written from the safety of my bed. God, I love the internet.
Header image: Winter from Shutterstock
1st image: Checklist from Shutterstock
2nd image: ArcticTrucks
3rd image: Snow Train from Shutterstock
4th image: Mountain Biker from Shutterstock
5th image: Man on Laptop from Shutterstock