By Andrew Beck
No feeling can match what it’s like to drive home for the holidays for the first time. You’re bathed in the freedom of deciding when to leave, and who to go with. Whether you’re a driver or a passenger, there’s a few things you need to know before you go. First and foremost, take your travels seriously. It may seem like nothing to drive a long distance during the spring or summer, but driving during the winter can be extremely dangerous. When talking about winter travel, you’re sure to hear buzzwords like “snow chains,” “4-wheel-drive,” and “hydroplane.” Here, we’ll discuss the basics of winter driving and why it matters to you.
Planning your trip
Be sure to check the weather regularly in the days before your trip. Weather in mountain passes and in central Washington can turn sour in a matter of hours. Try to plan your trip so that you won’t be driving in the darkness, it only makes it more difficult to deal with potential setbacks, such as having to install snow chains on your vehicle.
This graphic shows the breakdown of how much time you’ll spend in each area while driving from Seattle to Spokane or vice versa. Snoqualmie Pass and mountainous regions can get extremely cold and icy, and are more dangerous than other parts of the drive. Together, they make up almost 63% of the miles driven, which means you need to be prepared for dangerous conditions.
Snoqualmie Pass averages about 358” of snowfall every winter, according to the Washington State DOT, and has already seen 226” of snowfall during the current season. When the roadway is snowy or especially icy, the DOT requires drivers to install snow chains on their cars at designated locations on the side of the roadway. When driving with chains installed, it’s recommended that you do not drive faster than 25-30 mph, to avoid ripping the chains apart. You can purchase snow chains for your vehicle at auto parts stores such as NAPA, O’Reilly, and AutoZone. Be sure you buy the correct size, as there are different requirements for different vehicles.
FWD, 4WD, AWD?
You’ve probably seen these “codes” in car commercials or even labeled on the rear of a vehicle. What they describe is how your car provides power to the wheels. This can greatly affect your car’s ability to drive in the snow. FWD stands for “Front-wheel-drive,” and it means that your car only powers the front two wheels. This is the standard for most cars in general. Most SUVs and trucks have a form of 4WD or AWD. 4WD stands for “Four-wheel-drive,” and it means that your car powers all four wheels at the same time. AWD stands for “All-wheel-drive.” The difference between the two is that 4WD systems need to be turned on, and can only be driven to about 60mph while activated. Dennis Beloit, Whitworth University mechanic, explained AWD to me as “when the engine powers all four wheels at the same time, they’re calibrated so they don’t bind up when you’re turning around a corner”. 4WD and AWD are both considered to be very good for snow driving, but acknowledge that you must always drive cautiously in the snow, no matter how good of a vehicle you may be driving.
Helpful tips before you go
Along with checking the weather, you’ll also want to check the WSDOT site for roadway conditions and mountain pass restrictions. Idahoans can check the Idaho DOT, and Oregonians can look at TripCheck for up to date information on road conditions. Passes are frequently closed due to weather, and drivers can even get “trapped” on a mountain pass if the road closes while they’re on it. Closures can last a few hours or days. This is why you need to be prepared before driving across the state during the winter. The WSDOT has various restrictions for mountain passes, such as “chains required except AWD,” or “Traction tires advised.” Make sure you’re up to date before you go to avoid a ticket, or worse, an accident.
Things to bring with you
Being prepared means having everything you might need in the event of an emergency. Even if you don’t get trapped in a snowbank, there’s still a few items you should be sure to have.
Take blankets with you in case you need to spend the night in the car. Ending up with nothing warmer than your sweatshirt could turn into a very uncomfortable night.
Bring plenty of water, enough for two or three days. Nate Strain, local Whitworth student, travels often for his role in the theater and choir community at school. He told me, “I like to rinse and reuse those 2-liter soda bottles. They’re pretty easy to travel with and they hold a lot of water.”
In the event of a major storm or avalanche, things that are easy to keep in the car like trail mix could save your life. You may not think about it, but even if the pass is closed for two days during a storm, that’s two days with no food, no running water, and no bathroom.
You don’t know what kind of expense you’ll encounter on your trip. For example, you could have a flat tire and need to have your vehicle towed.
A must have for anyone driving around during the winter, but especially helpful where it snows often, and temperatures frequently vary between above and below freezing, causing ice.
Knowing where you’re going, possible detours, environmental factors, and being prepared are all part of a safe and stress-free holiday road trip.
Occasionally the WSDOT requires all vehicles driving over the mountains to have snow chains installed on them. Be sure you have snow chains that fit your car and that you know how to install them. Check your driver’s manual for more information, or visit your local tire store.
Top off your fluids
Your basic oil change shop can do this for you or you can do it yourself. Make sure you have plenty of windshield washer fluid, and are up to date on your oil changes. A proper coolant level is important for healthy engine function as well: read your owner’s manual for more information.
Take enough fuel
Finally — be prepared for detours, construction, and long waits. Bring lots of fuel and leave with a full tank if you can. Before driving over mountains, it’s advised that you don’t let your tank drop below the halfway mark on winter trips.