Towing Vehicles Over Snow and Ice

Now that fall has turned into winter and snow threatens to ice over roads and deliver countless traffic jams and detours, what would normally be a four-hour job at a remote site will likely be transformed into a backcountry expedition. As we gear up our fleet for the wintertime, we need to remind ourselves and our drivers about the driving and trailering hazards that snow- and ice-covered roads create. Breakdowns and accidents may not be entirely avoidable, but some potentially disastrous situations can be prevented even before leaving the shop.

Pre-Trip Inspections
Pre-trip inspections are a must for all work-related driving and trailering. In addition to inspecting all of the critical components of a tow vehicle and trailer before embarking, following are a few more common points that are often overlooked:

Tire Inflation
Most everyone will reiterate how important proper tire inflation is, but when was the last time anyone put a gauge on those tires? Every 10-degree drop in temperature will reduce your tire pressure by approximately 1-2 psi. Check tire pressure often because even a small psi drop can significantly compromise tire traction and dependability, especially over snow and ice.

Hitch Capacity
Ensure the capacity of the trailer hitch is properly rated for the trailer you are about to tow. Don’t assume that because it’s on the trailer, it’s the right capacity. You also might want to consider installing a weight distribution hitch. These hitches greatly improve towing capacity, brake performance and general stability in winter driving conditions.

Survival Gear
A vehicle breakdown in a remote area can quickly escalate from an uncomfortable situation to a potentially dangerous one if no heat is available. A fully stocked survival kit should be stored in any vehicle traveling off road or to remote locations. If you don’t have a survival kit, here are a few critical supplies that all vehicles should have:
• Ignition sources: Always have multiple sources of ignition – such as lighters, strikers or matches – in the event that you need to build a fire nearby to warm up.
• Emergency space blankets: Taping up space blankets in the cab of a broken down truck can raise the inside temperature from below freezing to 70 degrees in minutes.

These are critical supplies that are too inexpensive to overlook. A few space blankets and boxes of matches can cost less than $10 and save your life if you become stranded in the wintertime.

Trailer Loading
Ensuring the center of gravity (CG) is properly placed on the trailer is crucial for trailer towing. A load that is out of CG from front to back will lead to dangerous vertical loading and unloading at the hitch point and possibly to a loss of front axle brake performance. Placing the load CG too far to the rear also can lead to dynamic instability of the trailer and cause it to fishtail side to side. It is extremely important to avoid this when the traction coefficient of the tires is compromised due to snow and ice on the road.

Another important point to keep in mind is that safety regulations require that all cargo control equipment used is to be inspected prior to each and every use. Do your straps have any cuts or tears in the area that will be used for securing the load? Are the straps protected against sharp edges? Are securement chains free of any damaged links? Even after securing the load and driving a few miles, especially when off road, it may be necessary to stop and check the tension on the securement chains or straps since it is possible that they have loosened.

Stopping Options
Do each of your vehicles and trailers have antilock braking systems (ABS)? Even with an ABS, a driver still has to understand how to provide driving inputs that allow the ABS to work most effectively. Since the ABS only assists in decelerating, the speed at which you are traveling, as well as the steering inputs that you provide, may hinder how quickly the ABS can help bring you to a stop.

Stopping in a Turn
When attempting to stop in a turn, should you straighten the wheel and apply the brakes even though you might be steering off the road? You have more traction and would stop faster by straightening the wheels, but is there a ditch or is the road on flat ground where it may be safe to drive off straight? It would be much safer to go straight into the ditch and much easier to tow the vehicle out of the ditch after going in straight as opposed to going in sideways.

Another option is to continue in the turn and apply the brake at the same time to try to stay on the road. Doing this may keep you on the road, but you also have the least amount of traction and face the consequence of sliding sideways and possibly off the road.

The key factor here is understanding when you have committed to going off the road. Many untrained drivers don’t think they are going off the road until their tires have crossed over the white line, which can be a deadly mistake. A trained driver will understand that if they make a mistake, such as approaching the turn too fast, they actually committed to going off the road well before they hit the ditch. Understanding this point a split second earlier can allow you to make a better decision of the two bad choices that you now have. Putting it another way, you could ask yourself, “Do I want to end up in the ditch?” or “Do I want to end up in the ditch sideways and possibly roll over?”

Descending Steep Grades
Steep grades can pose some of the most dangerous driving conditions in winter. Stopping distances can be exponentially larger when traction is reduced by snow and ice and momentum is increased due to the weight of a trailer. Starting a decline too fast can put you in the same situation as approaching a turn too fast – you may have committed to going off the road well before you realize it.

There are no absolute safe driving procedures to follow when driving on snow and ice. Every road, every patch of ice, every vehicle and every tire is different. It is important to train drivers about how to utilize the vehicle-trailer combination to properly perform in the conditions in which they are expected to drive. While you may think that you have acceptable traction at one point, conditions can quickly change and that traction may not be there when it is needed. The most important thing you can do is understand the conditions that surround you and drive in a manner that allows you to safely react if something does start to go wrong.

About the Authors: Nick Bassarab is Safety One Training International’s operations manager and a lead trainer for the company’s ice driving and trailering classes. Safety One, based in Littleton, Colo., also offers training classes on snowcat operations and winter survival, tower climbing and rescue, and other critical safety subjects. Learn more at

Carl Maxey is the president and general manager of Maxey Manufacturing and Trailer Sales in Fort Collins, Colo. He also is a former president of the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers and a lead trainer for Safety One’s ice driving and trailering classes.

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