Winter Driving in the Forest

You want to explore the forest in the winter, but how do you travel safely?   Here are some ideas to keep in mind before and during your winter explorations.

Plan your route carefully.  Some roads may be inaccessible to any type of vehicle.  Check the weather conditions, and consider whether your trip might be better undertaken in another season.

Know what kind of roads you'll be on.  Maintenance levels of forest roads vary in the winter.  Some roads will be fully plowed and possibly salted and sanded, some are only plowed after heavy snow accumulation, and some aren't plowed at all.  What kind of vehicle you’ll need and how you’ll drive depend on the road conditions.

Ensure that your vehicle is in suitable condition.  Check that it is in good mechanical working order with plenty of fuel and with good tread on the tires.  Snow tires are best for driving in snow on unimproved roadways and actually provide better stopping traction.  

Be ready to share the road.  Meeting oncoming traffic can be more difficult in the winter.  Roads may not be at their full width, and the compacted tracks made by vehicles may restrict your ability to move to the side.  In addition to road vehicles, snowmobiles, ATVs, and cross country skiers often use roadways as travel routes.  This is permitted on some classes of road in the winter, but unfortunately may happen on any road.

Winter is logging season.  Timber harvests happen in all seasons, but the frozen ground of winter makes operating large machinery easier.  In areas with active timber sales, there may be high volumes of logging truck traffic.  Watch out for logging trucks on blind corners and when coming over hills.

Four wheel drive does not create eight wheel brakes.  It is easy in a good powerful four wheel drive vehicle to start driving far faster than is safe.  Four wheel drive is excellent at forward traction and controlling steering, but when it comes to braking, you are no better off than a regular car.  When driving a four wheel drive on a snowy road, you may not even be aware of how slippery it is until you try the brakes.  Test your braking ability in safe areas occasionally so you can stay aware of the current conditions.

Know where you are.  Take along a Forest Map, and keep track of your location.  If you get stuck, or are forced to stop due to deteriorating weather conditions, you will be able to give your location to rescuers if you can use your cell phone.  If cell phones are out of service, knowing your location can help you decide what course of action to take next.

Be prepared to get stuck.  Even the best drivers can skid off a slippery road into the ditch of no return.  You should pack along a snow shovel, tow ropes, and possibly a come-along type hand winch to pull your vehicle back onto roadways.  Don’t try it though unless you know what you are doing.  If you are pushing a vehicle out, make sure you are safe in case the vehicle rolls or skids backwards.

Think of your return trip.  There are many hills in winter that you can go down, but that you will not be able to get back up.  If snow is falling, think about how much snow will accumulate by the time you are returning.

Have a winter survival kit.  Your vehicle should have equipment for possible overnight stays.  You should always travel with boots and warm outer gear along.  Food, water, a sleeping bag, flashlight, and fire starting equipment will help you to be more comfortable if forced to wait in a vehicle for help.  A rope will help you to safely exit your vehicle and find your way back in a snowstorm.  One simple small addition is a square yard of fluorescent orange nylon fabric.  This will make you easy to spot from a searching aircraft.  Cell phones, chargers, and two way radios are also good additions to a survival kit.

You can download a list for a survival kit here.  This list was modified from a list provided by the Wisconsin DOT.

If you end up snowbound... Before your trip, make sure that someone knows where you are going.  This will minimize your unplanned stay in the woods.  Few forest roads are plowed during snowstorms and after a storm, many forest roads will be unplowed for days.  Some roads are never plowed.  So in short, don’t expect quick rescue from a plow truck coming by.  Stay in the car during the storm, but avoid running the engine due to possible exhaust gas buildup.  Open a window slightly for ventilation.  After the storm passes, you may still wish to stay with the car.  Cars are bigger and easier to locate than a person, and provide excellent shelter.