Snow and Ice Driving for Ski Touring and other Winter Sports

Post by blogger | February 23, 2006      

I thought I was a good driver. I was wrong.

Over the decades my beautiful mug has graced a Colorado driver’s license, I’ve done a huge amount of snow and ice driving. From busting 2-foot drifts on December jeep trails, to white knuckle 10-hour ice epics to Jackson, Wyoming. As the old song goes: “I been every where, man.”

All that practice made me a better driver; it’s been years since I’ve had even a fender bender — but how good at it was I really?

Today my son and I took a winter driving course at Aspen Winter Driving Experience (AWDE) here in the Roaring Fork Valley of Central Colorado. I’d heard taking an AWDE course was valuable, but I was blown away at just how much I learned. More, to see our 15-year-old out there learning how not to get killed was simply awesome.

You do not want to end up like this when you are trying to go skiing.

You do not want to end up like this when you are trying to go skiing.

Aspen Winter Driving Experience operates at a private race track near Aspen. After parking next to AWD’s three current model Volvos (equipped with Nokian super snow tires), we met our instructors and sat down for a short whiteboard talk about car handling and safety. The instructor (a former law enforcement officer who now investigates auto accidents) started his talk with ideas about how our brains interact with the driving environment, e.g., “sensory driving.” The idea is that instead of just motoring along in a mental rut, you’re constantly taking in everything from the feel of the steering wheel to how your brake pedal feels under your foot, and reacting. The key: react the correct way and live. But you’ve got to know the correct ways to react, and you’ve got to practice.

To me the most interesting concept they taught was that a human can still outperform anti-lock brakes. After 4-wheeling with anti-locks and having some scary experiences, I’ve always suspected this was the case, but to have these guys verify it was fascinating.

Driving for backcountry skiing.
A short chalk-talk begins the festivities. Everyone paid attention — this guy has analyzed hundreds of automobile accidents.

The scenario works like this. In the old days (and perhaps still) we were taught to pump the brakes for stopping on slick surfaces. The pulsating action of pumping was supposed to allow enough rolling friction to keep steering control while still getting some stopping force. Anti-lock brakes simply do the same thing, only faster. The problem? Every time you pulse or pump, you not only input less braking force, but when the wheels slow they may still lock up for brief moments. Result: less steering control while braking, and longer stopping distances. (Caveat: AWDE does teach that you should try to always “straight line” brake and leave off the brake while actually turning, but mistakes are made…)

The solution is called threshold braking — the simple act of applying force to the brake peddle till you feel the anti-lock system engage or feel you’re getting close to a skid, then letting up just a hair of pressure so you’re getting a constant braking effect rather than the stuttering and lurching of anti-lock or old school pumping.

Enough classroom. We were soon out on the snow packed and icy race track for 4 hours of intense driving practice, one instructor per car with a couple of students swapping the hot seat.

Exercise one was a simple straight stop with distance markers. The difference was remarkable between jamming on the anti-lock brakes and using threshold braking. It took some practice, but I got quite a bit more dialed on having a “light foot” instead of standing on the brake like an elephant. Interestingly, during the chalk talk the instructor told us many accident victims suffer injury to their right ankle/leg/hip because they’re straight-leg panic standing on the brake when they impact — a totally unnecessary thing to do, but something that’s encouraged by anti-lock brakes.

Next, using the same traffic cone markers we did an evasive maneuver that involved a desperate swerve around an obstacle (imagine stalled semi in the fog). Here we began practicing more involved concepts such as applying throttle to weight the rear wheels and straighten out a fishtail, and how to use the correct steering input (quick in, steady out, hands at 3:00/9:00). Though most of us didn’t ace this like our race-car-driver instructor, we all improved after a number of runs.

Being a good driver helps you enjoy backcountry skiing.
View from the cab during the brake exercise. You blast down through the cones and learn how to threshold brake instead of letting the anti-lock try to think for you.

Then the fun really began. We ran a cone slalom numerous times, practicing our integration of throttle and steering, then it was the king (as far as I’m concerned) of all safety maneuvers: the shoulder drop. This exercise simulates that terrifying event when you get distracted on the highway and trap your wheels over the asphalt edge. Most untrained or inexperienced drivers do exactly the wrong thing in this situation, overreacting and wrenching the steering wheel over like they’re shoveling gravel, then finding themselves shooting across the highway into the median, getting T-boned or head-on bashed in the other lane, or barrel rolling — all with a likely end of saying hi to Saint Peter or being crippled for life. When you’re driving the secondary roads for backcountry skiing this is a particularly important thing to learn about, as shoulders are often disguised by snow that’s been flattened by a wing plow.

Being a good driver helps you enjoy backcountry skiing.
You head into the cones at speed, then it’s brake, turn, brake, throttle (if you do it right). Everyone blasted a few cones. Thanks Volvo, it was fun beating on your cars and they took it well.

After a few spins and a bit of snow berm exploration, everyone mastered the shoulder drop and made what could be “a disaster into a non-event,” as the instructors termed it.

Being a good driver helps you enjoy backcountry skiing.
Heading into the chute during the braking exercise.

After the shoulder drop it was time for our reward: timed laps around the race course, with numerous tips from the instructors on how to wring the most traction out of 4 tires on snow. That’s when I realized I had a long way to go in my skills — but I came away a better driver and now I know what to practice when I’m on those long backroad drives to my favorite winter ski descents and backcountry skiing havens.

(2015, defunct links removed, everyone feel free to leave comments with suggestions for winter driving courses.)


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11 Responses to “Snow and Ice Driving for Ski Touring and other Winter Sports”

  1. Paul February 23rd, 2006 7:08 pm

    Great tidbits Lou, Thanks. So what do we do in the event of a ‘shoulder drop’?

  2. Jason Hutter February 24th, 2006 12:05 pm

    Hey Paul, I am the instructor in the third picture down in the story. To answer your question, in a shoulder drop, you want to let the car settle down in a straight line before turning back onto the road. No sudden movements, just let the car settle down and when the weight of the car has settled and all your tire patches are back to normal just ease the car back onto the road. If the shoulder has a large drop, coming back up may need a little bit of a turn back towards the road to pop back up with a little gas when you are back up to transfer weight to the back the keep the car from fish tailing. Hope this helps! Jason

  3. Paul February 24th, 2006 11:06 pm

    Thanks for the feedback Jason,
    I think those are the basics I would have tried, or probably have tried. Of course trying it out in a controlled environment like AWDE is something I would like to try out. Better than hoping I will react correctly sometime it happens on I-70.

    One time I parked my Isuzu Trooper in a frozen slanted parking lot. Got out, locked it. Then I said to myself, “hey, I hope this thing doesn’t slid across the parking lot after I walk away, because if it did it would take out a bunch of those downslope cars.” Well, to make sure it wasn’t going to, I gave it a tiny, and I mean tiny, shove. It took off. I had already locked the door. I ran along beside it, trying to influence it’s direction. I don’t know how, but after about 60 feet of 5 mph sliding I got it to slide into an empty space between a Jag and a Saab and stop in a snowpile.
    Just a story that empahsizes the need to test hypotheses in controlled environments.

  4. Lou February 24th, 2006 11:26 pm

    That’s pretty funny Paul!

    Once I was hunting with a friend. We left his truck parked on a hill on the road, came back 10 hours later and it had slid backwards several hundred yards, off the road and down a big hill. We couldn’t even see it at first and we’re stunned, as we were on private property and no one else was around to steal it or play a joke. Alien abduction? Then we saw it sitting down the hill…we still talk about it years later.

  5. Steve February 25th, 2006 12:26 am

    That’s interesting about the anti-lock brakes. My understanding has always been that to get maximum braking power you need to activate the anti-lock brakes. In fact, I just bought a Toyota Highlander, and it has a feature with its anti-lock brakes that if it suspects you are in a panic braking situation but are feathering them and not fully engaging them, the car will power the brakes itself and engage the the anti-lock feature in order to get maximum braking.

  6. Lou February 25th, 2006 1:38 am

    In the case of the cars we were driving, we could stop them much quicker if we didn’t let the anti-lock engage but instead did threshold braking. We proved it in action over and over again.

    As for your Toyota, perhaps it has a better anti-lock system than most. Perhaps it does threshold braking somehow.

    The reason this is all so is that an anti-lock system makes stopping your car look like a dashed line in terms of brake force, while a good driver with the right touch gets a nice solid line of force.

  7. Steve February 27th, 2006 3:06 am

    Hearing about the new Toyota feature is troubling. Is there a way to turn that off?

    Way back some 13 years ago the company that I took for drivers training in high school was a defensive driving school. This was just as ABS started to appear in all vehicles. They taught us threshold breaking, shoulder drops and all sorts of pylon drills. We also learned to watch the mirror at traffic lights and how to bail fast if someone comes in hard & fast.

    I agree with your observations…I also find that threshold breaking is not only faster than ABS, but leaves me more in control of the car.

  8. Steve February 27th, 2006 10:32 pm

    I don’t believe I can turn off the ABS “enhancement” that my Toyota Highlander has. The propaganda that I have heard coming out of the automotive industry and the automotive press is that threshold braking makes ABS ineffective, and hence yields greater braking distances.

    I don’t doubt that threshold braking can be more effective. I am just surprised by the thoroughness and effectiveness of the industry’s propaganda.

  9. Lou February 27th, 2006 10:57 pm

    It is indeed an example of the power of advertising. The reality is that ABS is designed for the average driver, which happens to be a person who never learns how to really drive. Since lives depend on good driving, one would think there would be more emphasis in our culture on excellence in driving, but people tend to look at cars as an appliance that they just turn on and off. I’d imagine they can eventually make ABS that will threshold brake instead of stutter braking, when that happens I’d imagine it’ll be fairly effective. Also, in my opinion ABS actually helps in one way with threshold braking, as you can really go to the limit, and if you do exceed the limit you still don’t get wheel lockup but rather get the feedback of hearing the ABS engage. Interesting stuff, thanks for the comments!

  10. Lou March 2nd, 2006 4:41 am

    Steve, that’s amazing! Glad you’re okay. The driver behind you must have really been on top of it, and you probably were as well, you were just in a situation that had no easy out is what it sounds like.

  11. Steve March 2nd, 2006 2:51 am

    What a *REALLY* shocking coincidence. I haven’t been able to shake this out of my mind since it occured.

    On Sunday night, I wrote the comment that in my drivers ed we’d learned about bailing at a red light from a car that isn’t stopping. The next day, I got smashed up by exactly such a driver.

    I’m really not joking, but while I’ve long stopped paying as much attention as I probably should have to what is going on behind me at a light, I don’t believe it would have saved me even if I had.

    The driver behind me saw the guy coming in hard and fast and at the last minute moved aside. Even if I’d been watching every few seconds, the odds of seeing the car behind me move aside and then recognize the other car coming in fast are so small.

    I was hit by a car at a high rate of speed from behind (the driver of the car said he was going 70km/h) and got thrown into the bumper of the army transport truck that was stopped in front of me at the light. I had to use my window punch to get out since my door jammed.

    I think I’ll refrain from posting driving safety tips in the future. It’s dangerous for my health.

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