You’re fully recovered from Blue Monday—the most depressing day of the year—only to be thrust deep into Sad January. (Is that a thing? Let’s call it a thing.)
At this time of year those of us up north are either A) preparing to tow south to Alumafiesta or Alumaflamingo, or B) miserably regarding our winterized Airstreams out in the driveway, glumly counting the days until spring. But after learning more about winter towing, I propose option C): beat the post-holiday doldrums by fleeing to, not from, the cold and snow. Winter Airstreaming provides the opportunity to experience your favorite cold weather sports with your own personal, towable ski chalet, and well-traveled summer locations seem new again under a blanket of snow.
New owners (or those unfamiliar with snowy climes) might wonder what to expect regarding agility and handling. How much bravery does it take to tow in the snow? Read on, and be encouraged.
“Winter towing is certainly something to be cautious about,” said Coloradoan Roger Moseley, a pilot and Airstreamer who has logged many miles driving in the snow and ice in the west. “The vehicle will perform great but you need lots of space between you and the guy in front of you so you don’t have to touch the brakes very much.”
Moseley’s flying background informs his towing skills. “I’m careful with what I call the unaccelerated mode of driving: don’t touch the brakes, don’t touch the throttle, don’t turn the wheel–don’t do anything much when you’re on a really slick surface,” he advises. “And reduce your speed. Sometimes when the weather is really great and it’s just a little snowy and the Interstate’s wide open in front of you, you have a tendency to speed up. But suddenly you’ll get into an area where there’s a turn and a patch of ice and there’s nothing you can do about it. You really have to stay on your toes the whole time; driving when the roads are a little icy is constantly a stressful situation and you just have to accept that.”
Garth Cane,Technical Editor at RV Lifestyle Magazine, advises observing “The Three O’s”: “Don’t overpower, which can cause the rear wheels to skid; apply the accelerator smoothly. Don’t over brake, as this can cause the trailer to slide around behind you. And don’t over steer–make steering corrections smoothly. If you try to turn the steering wheel too quickly, the wheels could turn further than you want them to."
"You just have to take it easy,” advised Moseley. “When I started driving my Airstream I pulled it at 75mph. After about a year I decided I didn’t need to get anywhere that fast. I slowed down to 65. And 50 or so in the winter weather is terrific.”
“In some cases you’ll terrify yourself going around a turn when the Interstate is banked,” he warned. “The trailer will want to slide to the inside of the turn which pulls the nose of the tow vehicle to the outside of the turn and you either wind up going sideways down the road or you can’t help creeping off toward the outside of the turn.”
Yikes. The remedy? Chains on the trailer, as well as your tow vehicle.
In some states chains are not required on tow vehicles equipped with 4WD; in others, where roads aren’t de-iced with sand and salt, chains are a must. To further complicate matters, some states mandate that if the tow vehicle has chains, the trailer should as well. (Google your state’s motor vehicles code or visit tirechainsrequired.com to find links to the local rules and regs.)
Moseley carries both snow chains (for one axle) and tire cables (for two axles). “I can put cables on the front of the truck, chains on the back of the truck, and cables on one of the axels on the trailer,” he said. “I have some now that work great, but the first set of cables I ever bought lasted about thirty minutes on the truck. Cables are easier to put on than chains; they ride better, because they’re thinner, and they provide great traction. Just make sure to get some that are durable.” Be on the safe side and purchase chains or cables for every axle.
Bottom line: Your truck and trailer will handle just fine. And if they don’t? Don’t panic. “Driving in powder is sort of like sand—it’s not real slippery,” said Moseley. “But you might hit a spot that’s thawed and refrozen, or wet snow that’s packed into ice, and suddenly now it’s slick.”
“It’s about being careful and having lots of space between you and everybody around you,” said Moseley about encountering an icy patch. “And not panicking—not jamming on the brakes. Now you’ve lost all steering capability; as soon as you jam on the brakes on ice, you’re a hockey puck. You have no control. Make sure you maintain traction by letting the wheels turn a little bit, and steel yourself not to panic.” Moseley has been in a slide or two and regained control without incurring any damage. “It’s a slow motion ballet until you can get stopped,” he said.
When you finally reach your destination, whether it’s a campground or parking lot at a ski resort, the conditions will likely be more navigable than the road leading there, whether or not the area has been plowed. “You weigh a lot,” said Moseley. “Your vehicle typically will pull through snow, no problem. Traction can be great if no one has been driving on it.” (Snow pack on the highway is the root of most mishaps.)
WINTER TOWING TIPS
Allow others to pass you. Motorists who are driving faster may have traction tires with studs, more snow driving confidence, or are experiencing different road conditions. “If your vehicle is telling you, ‘hey, I’m not so good on the ice’, go slow,” Moseley advised. “You need to drive the speed at which you’re comfortable. There’s no sense in going fifty or sixty when you’re not comfortable and want to go thirty. Just go thirty—don’t let ego or traffic in front of you be a concern—and pull over every so often so that people can get around you.” If you see two or three vehicles in the mirrors, or even one or two, pull to the side and let them pass. It’s the right thing to do, and often the law.
Don’t stop on a steep incline. “You’ll never get going again," said Moseley. “If you’ve got chains, no problem. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be driving in steep winter conditions anyway.”
Distribute weight properly. Do your homework by reading the many comprehensive discussions online.
Study up on the road to your destination and the weather ahead. “Try to find out as much as possible about the route and the road conditions,” said RV Lifestyle’s Garth Cane. “It is not fun to be stuck between two hills and not be able to get up one, or back up over the other.” Check topographic (and BLM) maps ahead of time, and identify potential overnight sites.
If the forecast is particularly vicious, schedule an extra day of travel time to allow for an overnight emergency boondock. “If the weather turns ugly you may have to stay overnight at a highway service area or store parking lot,” said Cane. “Before we stay on a shopping center lot in the winter, we always go in, buy a few things at the grocery store, and ask the manager for permission to park overnight or until the storm passes. Often they have shown us where there is an electrical outlet around back.”
Be aware of black ice. “When you are driving at night, if your headlights do not reflect off the road, or the road looks black, you are more than likely on what is called black ice,” said Cane. “It’s a smooth layer of ice, formed when the sun melts the snow during the day and then the moisture freezes smooth as the sun goes down and the temperature goes below freezing. While on black ice, continue in a straight line if possible; don’t turn or brake. If you must drive at night, remember that your headlights do not shine as far ahead as the distance you need to stop.”
Slush from rear tires of your tow vehicle causes ice to build up on the front of the Airstream. “I’ve had chunks of ice a foot thick and two feet wide and three feet high coating the front of the trailer,” said Moseley. “That’s not a danger, it’s just ugly and dirty.” Salt or other anti-ice chemicals on the roads can corrode polished vintage trailers, however. “It leaves little dots about the size of a pencil eraser that look like water stains, but they’re not, it’s corrosion,” Moseley explained. “It comes off pretty easy if you take it off right away. The first chance you get, when it gets above freezing, go to one of those car wash places that’s tall enough for your trailer and high pressure-hose it down to get the salt off. That helps a lot.”
When towing in extreme conditions, run your heater and refrigerator to keep your trailer warm enough to prevent canned goods, bottles and food in your fridge from freezing. Little known fact: “It’s perfectly safe to run propane while towing,” said Moseley. “If the fire goes out, people think the propane will be leaking. It doesn’t. It has the same safety controls as a house heater; a thermocouple will shut that gas line down.”
As always, year ‘round, carry a disaster kit. (“Right, I tow one behind me. It’s about thirty feet long,” quipped Moseley.) You’ll need the basics: lights, flares, chains, clothing that’s adequate for thirty minutes in the chilly outdoors while you install the chains, and food and water—enough for each passenger for 72 hours. Other items for winter trailering could include a farm (also called a handyman) jack, snow shovel, and sand tubes (for weight distribution and sprinkling on the road for traction).