Like soft sand and mud, snow can be very unforgiving to the unprepared driver. Living in this hot, dry land, for most Australians a visit to the snow is a novelty. Many make the assumption that they will drive up for a day in the snow and all will go well. Luckily this is generally the case, but it is a worthwhile adage that it's worth doing everything to increase the odds in your favour.
First off make sure your 4x4 is in top notch mechanical order. There are a number of simple things that you can do to prepare your vehicle's for snow driving. Make sure the engine is thoroughly clean, and that all traces of oil and grime are removed. Old spark plugs should be replaced with new, and the ignition system should be checked for any potential faults. Replace any ignition leads that are cracked or frayed and ensure points and distributor cap are in good condition. Here you are undertaking preventative maintenance of your electrical system to create the best possible conditions for first time starting.
Clean the top of your battery and ensure that connections are clean and tight. Your battery should be in good condition and able to hold a charge, while your alternator must also be in top condition. Cold conditions require plenty of juice from your battery to keep things like the heater going, and for turning over a cold engine. It is therefore essential that your battery is relatively new, and your vehicles charging system is up to scratch.
Battery and electrical problems are common in Alpine areas as the battery and charging system is subject to overload in winter. Cold starts, use of lights, fan, rear screen heater, windscreen wipers, radio and a heater will all put a large strain on your battery. If you have a dual battery system ensure that the batteries are in good condition and that the batteries are isolated, so that you always have a fully charged starting battery.
Driving belts should be checked and worn or cracked ones replaced and correctly tensioned. The fan belt is needed to drive the water pump and alternator and is an important link in the electrical and heating/cooling systems. A fan belt in good condition will ensure these systems are working efficiently. Ignition leads can be given a spray with a de-watering fluid such as WD40 to give additional protection against electrical short circuit. Antifreeze should be added to your radiator, and a suitable additive should be placed in the windscreen washer bottle to stop freezing. Methylated spirits is a cheap alternative.
One of the most helpful things you can do to aid winter starting is to keep your fuel tank topped up. If the tank is say half full, condensation will cause water to be formed and this will mix in with the fuel. When the water settles to the bottom of your fuel tank, as it has a greater density than fuel, in a vehicle left standing in the snow overnight, it could freeze and block the fuel outlet pipes. With the tank full there is less air space for condensation to occur.
Owners of diesel vehicles need to take extra precautions as diesel contains a wax solution, which under extreme cold conditions can coagulate and eventually block fuel filters, injectors, pumps and fuel lines. In winter a diesel fuel is available with a different blend and is referred to as 'alpine diesel', where it is usually available. If you are caught with a summer brew, which has waxed up, you will have a major problem trying to drain it. An often overlooked fluid is the type of oil you run, with oil viscosity having a potential impact on the ability of your vehicle to crank over on a cold morning. Basically we tend to run a heavier grade in summer and if this is not changed in winter will cause harder starting. A lighter weight oil is better for cold starting.
Those running LPG also need to take some precautions as LPG has a liquid percentage that can also shrink with cold temperatures. This may cause a problem in the water heater converter. It must be leak proof and correctly set, as vaporised LPG is very cold and will freeze on anything it comes in contact with. To overcome this, the converter is heated by water from the cooling system, which is warmer than the vapor gas, thus avoiding ice-up. If any interruption should occur to the water supply, this can allow an air lock to develop in the converter, causing the engine to stall.
Other home maintenance tasks include replacing windscreen wiper rubbers. It is also worth squirting some glycerin or lock de-icer into door locks to keep them from freezing. To open a frozen lock, try heating the key before inserting it.
Traction on ice and snow is minimal at best so ensure there is plenty of tread on tyres. You will also need to carry wheel chains, and it is a good idea to practice fitting them at home, rather than in the snow. If you are looking to tackle some solid four-wheel driving in snow you will need to carry chains for front and back. Wheel chains provide ultimate traction in snow, but will not ensure your 4WD can go anywhere!
Finally look to carry appropriate tools, jacking plate, wheel blocks, tarp, torch, shovel, UHF radio, warm (waterproof) clothing, matches, hot drinks and food. You will also need to carry full recovery gear - in particular a snatch strap - and a tyre gauge and air compressor. Safe snow driving starts at home and involves the thorough preparation of your 4x4 and associated equipment.