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Winter Driving Tips

There’s snow on the hills, the ski areas are open and it’s time to head to the slopes. Exciting! But we do have to make sure we get there and back, safely. Here’s a few winter driving tips if you're planning a winter road trip or driving to the slopes.

Before you go

This might seem like a long list (well, maybe it is!) but it’s super important that you, and your vehicle are ready for driving in winter and mountain conditions.

  1. Your windscreen should be spotless both inside and out to reduce sunstrike. Buy an ice scraper (although a credit card works well!) and get a microfiber cloth for inside.  
  2. Check your windscreen wipers, are the blades ok? And fill up the washing fluid.
  3. Check you tyres – they need a decent tread and to be properly inflated. And check your spare – is it inflated?
  4. Be prepared, take a small shovel, jumper cables and a tow rope. Maybe also a tarpaulin for lying on when fitting chains
  5. Make sure your car has a full tank of gas, just in case …
  6. Check the forecast – is a storm about to arrive? Check the winter warnings at
  7. And check the road conditions, both getting there and on the mountain. NZTA and AA can provide information on state highways and passes, ski areas will have a report for their road. So check them both.
  8. And you must have chains. Before you leave, practice fitting them. Believe us, this is SO much easier than in the dry and warmth!
  9. Note that different tyre sizes require different chain sizes. If you’re renting or buying, check this size. And if you’re renting, it’s best to do this before you leave town. Check with your local ski or auto shop.

Getting to the Mountain

Winter driving can be trickier. Often it’s darker when we’re travelling, and weather may also affect visibility. Road conditions are also more crucial and it’s important to try and understand the conditions. Has it been a clear frosty night? Then watch for black ice, especially in damp areas, such as shady tree lined sections of roads.  

  1. Be visible. Drive with your headlights on.
  2. Be patient. Extend the 3 second (following) rule to maybe 8 seconds. It does take longer to slow down, and braking accidents are the most common in wet or icy conditions.
  3. Be alert. Always drive to the conditions – this may sound obvious but can be easily forgotten
  4. Drive Safely. Avoid sudden braking, Drive slowly, Avoid sudden direction changes,  Look for shiny, wet patches on the road

On The Ski Area

Firstly, if you’re not sure about driving in the snow and ice, the good news is that many areas have a shuttle. Check with the areas for times, and park lower down the mountain and let someone else do the driving. Easy. But if you do drive, here are a few tips for driving mountain roads.

  1. Observe all signs, such as “fit chains here”. It is better to put chains on early, than too late. And note, even four wheels drives often need chains.
  2. Drive slowly and surely and avoid braking if possible. Skids are more likely to happen when braking.
  3. Try not to stop when going uphill, unless you have to. Often it’s hard to get going again and you risk sliding.
  4. This might be obviously, but use a low gear. This is especially important coming downhill, and in an automatic you may wish to change out of “D” into “1” and use the engine to brake you as you come down hill.  

And finally... Safety (and Knowledge) in Numbers.

Travelling with companions is always a good idea in winter. The combined knowledge and experience of a group will always outweigh that of an individual, plus you’ll have someone to snuggle up to should you break down in the middle of nowhere on a frosty night. Remember that innovations like 4WD, ABS and ESP are only there to aid in accident avoidance – they cannot override inexperience or lack of attention.

With a little planning and armed with knowledge, you’ll soon gain experience driving in the snow and ice, ensuring that every trip is a fun and safe one! Safe travels.

Key Numbers and Links

  1. 24 Hour Breakdown Services: AA: 0800 224 357
  2. 24 Hour Road Closure Information: AA Highway Reports: Non members 0900 33 222, calls cost $1.30 per minute. Members 0800 500 222, and select the option to listen to state highway conditions through our automated phone system
  3. Online, or
  4. Emergency Services in New Zealand. Dial 111