A Guide to Driving 4x4s in the Winter

Driving in wintery conditions can be challenging. In fact, according to Policy Advice, 17% of car crashes occur during the winter month.  While driving a 4×4 or four-wheel-drive (4wd) can be beneficial in winter, it won’t protect you completely. This guide was initially put together for drivers who have completed our 4×4 Familiarisation training, as a reminder. However, the guidance applies to all 4×4 drivers. 

Winter Driving Guidance for Company 4x4 Operators.

Optimise Your Car for Winter Conditions

Knowing how the 4×4 system works on your vehicle is essential. Being able to ensure the best traction in winter conditions can make the difference between a safe journey and a failed journey.

  • Always have access to the vehicle manual – we can’t all remember everything about our vehicle, but being able to find details like tyre pressures, jump lead connection points, and the technicalities of the 4×4 system is a must.


  • Make sure that your vehicle has been prepped for winter – winter tyres should be fitted, anti-freeze levels should be checked in coolant, and unreliable batteries should be replaced in anticipation for the conditions.

Check Your Vehicle Daily

  • Check tyre pressures – low pressures can lead to blow-outs, high pressure can lead to loss of grip


  • Check tyre tread depth – in extreme conditions, less than 3mm of tread can dramatically reduce your grip whilst steering and braking


  • De-ice all windows, and demist them to give you the best chance of seeing problems in bad visibility


  • Remove snow from roof and bonnet – this is a legal requirement, and it’s no fun being behind a 4×4 throwing lumps of hard snow onto our windscreen


  • Check warning lights on ignition – many modern 4x4s require the computer systems to function safely – without these, handling can be dangerously compromised. This also helps you to find out whether an unfamiliar vehicle has ABS or Traction Control, helping you to take control of how you drive the vehicle in different conditions


  • Check fuel levels – many drivers have been caught out while stuck in snow – ensure you always have at least half a tank of fuel available to you


  • Check lighting systems – head and tail lights, brakes, indicators and hazards, reversing and fog lights


  • Wipers and screenwash – wipers that work smoothly always help, and de-icing them from the windscreen prior to use will keep them in good condition. In really bad weather, top up screenwash with neat concentrate (as per the manufacturers’ instructions) in order to keep the system from freezing solid.

If any faults are found, report them immediately. If there is any doubt about legality or safety – do not drive it

Advice, information and training are always available if required – if you feel that you don’t fully understand the vehicle you are using, or don’t feel confident in your skills in any situation – ask – don’t put yourself in a situation that makes you feel nervous.

Check your emergency kit

Even with a vehicle in excellent condition, winter driving is hard on both vehicles and their drivers, and sometimes, events can overtake you unexpectedly. If you always keep a stocked emergency kit, you’ll be able to contact help, and will be safe and more comfortable while waiting for it to arrive.

You are the most important part of the equation, having the following available at all times is essential:

  • Good warm clothing and boots – will help with comfort while stranded, and will give you the chance to walk a short distance where necessary to get a phone signal, or pinpoint your location, but remember that searchers will spot a vehicle before they spot an individual in bad weather


  • Food, drink and medication – always have emergency rations available, as well as any medication you require, as help can often take a while to reach you in extreme conditions


  • Mobile phone, fully charged – this is likely to be your first lifeline in many situations. Letting people know where you are, and what your situation is will help. Keep emergency numbers available at all times


  • Sunglasses – this may seem odd, but low sun in winter, and driving through snowy landscapes can cause real problems. Sunglasses can make a big difference to your ability to drive safely in these situations


  • First Aid kit – all vehicles should be provided with these. Make yourself familiar with their contents and how to use them.


  • Blanket/Emergency survival bag – these will make the difference between a comfortable long wait, and severe discomfort or possible problems from prolonged exposure

Getting Stranded or Stuck

  • Warning triangle – place this a reasonable distance from your vehicle, to warn drivers approaching you that you are stranded, and may be an obstruction. Place these on the approach to corners to give drivers as much chance to drop their speed as possible, but be aware of highway code restrictions on their use.


  • Hi-visibility jacket or clothing – Orange stands out much better against snow than yellow. If working around the vehicle this will help other road users spot you early enough to take action to avoid you, and may help you to be spotted from above if stranded.


  • Jump leads – having these will give you a better chance of re-starting a vehicle with electrical problems (which are more prevalent in extreme cold). However, be very aware of the dangers. Modern vehicles must be jump started safely, to avoid damaging batteries and engine management units, or causing fires – check the manual for how to do this safely


  • Shovel – often the simplest tool for recovering a stuck vehicle, but be careful of working under the vehicle, and ensure that it cannot move as you dig yourself out.


  • Torch – with short days, night will be upon you before you know it if you’re stuck. Being able to see the problem is essential. Also, a torch can be invaluable for signalling to other road users or rescuers

Check the conditions and your route, and stay in contact:

Knowing what to anticipate will give you every chance to avoid problems. Routes cannot always be changed, but drivers and vehicles with better capabilities for the worst routes can be chosen. Having the information to hand about weather forecasts will allow you to plan for your own safety. Often, you will have to adjust your route due to weather and traffic conditions, but if you’ve not let anyone know about these changes, if you are stranded, it may well significantly delay the arrival of help.

Always Plan Your Route

  • Check weather and traffic conditions in your area regularly – this will give you invaluable information that can be used for safe and efficient planning


  • Have maps and check your GPS – modern satellite positioning systems can provide us with invaluable information, but if they fail, then maps are essential. Know where you are, and be able to direct help to your position accurately.

Stay in Contact

  • File a journey plan where possible, and make sure that if your plans change, you alert colleagues to the changes and your reasons behind the change.


  • Use the lone working system where necessary. These systems are simple to use, but do require the operator to work with them. Obviously many areas can be out of mobile phone signal, but lone working in extreme conditions can have high risks, and ensuring that you are safe is essential for both the company and for your safety. Discuss contact times and durations between contact with your line manager is required, and should be based on both the likely risk and sensible pragmatism, but if in doubt – err on the side of caution.

Driving in Ice and Snow

Driving in winter conditions is extremely dangerous, and should only be undertaken by drivers who have had the relevant training and information. It relies on individuals understanding how their vehicles will react in different grip conditions, and upon them recognising changes between conditions. These tips are not intended to replace suitable training and experience, but as a memory refresher prior to the first signs of winter setting in.

Remember that 4×4 systems have their limitations. Larger and heavier vehicles are less stable than small, low and light vehicles. Use their capabilities cautiously, but understand the inherent dangers:

  • Engage 4 wheel drive as soon as you anticipate grip being lost. If your vehicle can be switched from 2 to 4 wheel drive, find out how to do this while driving, and engage 4wd prior to problems to ensure the best control in slippery conditions.
  • Be aware of ice and black ice – if temperatures are reading below zero, you may encounter ice. At extremely low temperatures (below -10C), grit loses some of its effectiveness
  • 4 wheel drive does not improve braking. If your ABS (anti-lock braking system) is activating, then grip is being lost – reduce your speed and brake well in advance of hazards and bends
  • Dis-engage 4 wheel drive when good grip is regained. Well gritted and clear roads, without ice, will give good grip (ABS will engage much later when braking). In these situations, dis-engaging the 4 wheel drive system, or unlocking the central differential lock (if this is a driver option – many modern crossover 4x4s will do this for you – know how your vehicle works), will reduce the danger of damaging the transmission system. If you don’t understand how your 4×4 system works – ask, read the vehicle manual, and request training
  • Always ensure that you can stop within the distance you can see to be clear. If there’s a chance that there could be a hazard around a corner, or on the approach to a junction, ensure that you can stop if you need to. Remember that on narrow roads, where it is difficult or impossible for vehicles to pass, both you, and the oncoming vehicle, will need to stop in half the distance you can see to be clear
  • Only change speed in a straight line. Braking in a straight line, will give you much more control of the vehicle. However, many drivers forget that in snow and ice conditions, acceleration can lead to loss of grip (wheelspin) – in these situations, having the vehicle in a straight line will allow you to ease off the throttle to reduce wheelspin, and will minimise the likelihood of losing steering and positional control of the vehicle.
  • Reduce speed prior to hazards, junctions and bends. Braking on bends, or while steering is a sure way of ending up in a spin, or in a drift, which could put you in danger from coming off the road, or put you in the path of other vehicles.
  • Leave acceleration until past hazards, junctions and bends. Speeding up while steering can lead to spins (especially in rear wheel drive vehicles, like pick-ups and other part-time 4x4s), or drifting wide (especially in front wheel drive vehicles, but also in vehicles operating in 4 wheel drive mode).
  • Give other drivers space. Many other drivers on the road will have less experience, less capable vehicles, and less training in how to deal with bad weather conditions. Allowing yourself more space will give you more time to react if they lose control of their vehicle. Ice and snow can lead to braking distances 10 times longer than normal.
  • Be aware of condition changes, for example:
    • Under and on top of bridges
    • On exposed hillsides
    • In shaded valleys
    • As weather worsens
    • Temperature drops, especially as evening approaches

Remember that you are responsible for your own safety, but that you have access to information, equipment, training and above all, help, at all times.

For more information on winter driving in 4x4s, consider undertaking our 4×4 Familiarisation course, or contact us.


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