A common road sign on New Zealand roads is, “NZ roads are different. Allow extra time”.
We’ve done a fair bit of winter driving around the world and that road sign is very accurate. With temps varying from above to below freezing level, causing thaw-freeze, and the lack of road salting or winter tyres (the relatively short winter season in NZ mean most people don't bother fitting winter tyres), makes driving here in winter pretty treacherous. On a powder day, you often see cars in the ditch, their drivers caught out by the changing conditions.
With all that in mind, we’ve put together some pointers for fitting snow chains (an essential skill if you plan to drive to any New Zealand snow resort), tips on driving with snow chains and driving in winter conditions.
Fitting Snow Chains
Fitting your snow chains doesn’t have to be a chore and with a little planning you’ll have your snow chain ‘pit stop’ down to a fine art. Jen are I take a wheel each and we’re usually done in less than 5 minutes, only minimally delaying our first tracks in the pow!
The following videos show how to fit two of the most popular types of snow chains, but to summarise:
Pack some gardening or work gloves, along with a rain jacket or old shirt.
Use a foam mat or the snow chain bag (depending on how big it is) to minimise kneeling in the mud.
Practice in a warm, hospitable environment. Much better than trying to learn how to fit snow chains for the first time on a cold, wet, windy day!
N.B. Fit the snow chains to the front wheels of front wheel drive or AWD/4WD vehicles. Only fit to the back wheels if the car is rear wheel drive.
By the way, in the video Jen is fitting snowsweat snow chains (also same as Polar easy fit) which are the most common type. The second video shows a generic ‘diamond’ snow chain design. Jen also wants me to mention that she hates the lighting in this video. I convinced her that it's meant to be a useful tutorial and not a cinematic production!
Snowsweat / polar easy fit styled snow chain tutorial
diamond Pattern snow chain tutorial
Driving with Snow Chains
The key word here is gently. Every action, whether it’s accelerating, braking or turning should be done very smoothly. If you’re abrupt with the throttle or brake, not only do your risk losing traction, but there may be a chance your snow chains come loose or break (unlikely but you don’t want to risk it). Don’t rely on your vehicle’s ABS, give yourself plenty of distance between cars so you’re never in a situation where you have to jump on the brakes. And when you’re turning, make sure you don’t turn too quickly at speed for the same reasons above.
Once traction is lost and you start sliding, it can get ugly very quickly. Even with chains, we’ve seen plenty of vehicles, including buses, squashed up against an embankment or in a ditch!
Important Tip: The maximum traction is just before sliding so try to stay in that zone.
Top speed with snow chains is fairly limited too and I wouldn’t be driving faster than 40-50 km/hr.
Driving on winter roads without snow chains is the same concept, i.e. gently, gently. Look out for ice, watch what other cars are doing (e.g. sliding, in the ditch, etc.), and always check the road conditions on your local council’s Facebook page (QLDC for the Queenstown Lakes Districts area) or NZ Transport Agency.
Hopefully, these suggestions and tips will allow you to have a safe journey driving in New Zealand in winter. Less time in the ditch leads to more time on the snow and usually the most dangerous conditions on the road mean the best on the mountain!
If you have any questions or would like to provide further tips for driving with snow chains or in winter in general, please leave a comment below.
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Mick is a lover of speed runs and hitting every feature on the mountain. Ex road bike and motocross racer with plans to dabble in mountain bike racing. Spends a lot of time looking at fast cars and bikes. Jen’s instagram model and selfie camera holder due to long arms. Sometimes an optometrist.