Winter Driving Tips for 4x4s

Four-by-four vehicles have benefits and limitations

Four-wheel drive systems are helpful options, but they aren't a cure-all for winter driving problems. It's important to become familiar with a few 4x4 driving basics before you tackle snowy roads. Today's vehicles offer a number of different drivetrain systems designed to help out in slippery, icy conditions, and you should take the time to familiarize yourself with the type of system you are using.

Read on to learn about how your 4x4 might perform in wintry condictions—as well as its limitations to keep in mind.

Always Drive on Matching Tires

Tires that differ in circumference can create handling problems and possible damage to a truck's driveline (all of the time, not just in snow). That's true for full-time and part-time four-wheel drive vehicles, as well as for all-wheel-drive vehicles. Check the manufacturer's instructions to ensure that you buy the right kind of tires for your 4x4—especially for driving in snowy conditions.

Put It in 2WD

If you're moving slowly downhill in a low gear, allowing the engine to help slow you, the momentum of the truck can make the front wheels slide, causing a loss of control. Shifting into 2WD keeps the front wheels rolling but helps the rear wheels slow the truck.

Also, be aware if you have automatic 4WD, which many of today's trucks, and especially SUVs, have.

An automatic 4WD is a full-time system that lets the vehicle operate in 2WD—either front or rear— until the system judges that 4WD or AWD is needed. It then automatically routes power to all four wheels, varying the ratio between front and rear axles as necessary. Usually, a slipping wheel activates the system.

However, automatic 4WD vehicles are not recommended for serious off-road driving—during summer weather or on wintry roads—because all four wheels are powered at all times, which is not wise under certain off-road, wintry conditions.

Turn of Traction Control

A traction-control system can bring the truck to a stop if the tires start spinning when you are trying to move up a snowy hill—that's a normal side effect of traction control. Turn off traction control if possible. If that's not an option, increase your speed to gain momentum, but don't go so fast that you lose control.

If you're going up a somewhat steep driveway in the snow, and one tire starts to spin, brake pulsing could slow you down or bring you to a stop if you do have the traction-control system engaged.

Driving Tips

  • Four-wheel drive helps get you moving in snow, but it does not help you stop. Slow down—a slick surface requires more stopping distance regardless of the type of vehicle you're driving.
  • If you can, take your truck to a snowy (but empty) parking lot to practice maneuvering on a slick surface.
  • If you try to take a curve too fast on snowy roads, the truck's front wheels can corkscrew, causing the vehicle to go straight instead of turning. Let up on the gas to correct the problem.