February 17, 2023 9 min read
So you want to overland in winter time...
There’s lots of beauty in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter, so we don’t blame you! But if you’re planning a trip it’s good to be prepared. Winter conditions can get gnarly very quickly once you get off road. Here’s our top tips on how to overland in winter safely and responsibly:
4 WHEEL DRIVE
Most overland rigs are 4 wheel drive by default, so this is pretty obvious: but if you’re going to be sending it into an inaccessible place in the winter, you’re going to need four wheel drive to even consider it. It’s dangerous to go beyond the terrain that your vehicle is capable of driving on. Be responsible - get a 4x4 overlanding rig.
TELL SOMEONE AT HOME WHERE YOU’RE GOING & WHEN THEY SHOULD HEAR FROM YOU BY
Like with any trip into the backcountry: tell a trusted friend! Before you go, establish a plan with someone at home to check in with. Let them know:
WHERE YOU ARE GOING - your planned route/itinerary and any established checkpoints/stops along the way
WHEN THEY SHOULD EXPECT TO HEAR FROM YOU - when do you expect to be back in cell service or be able to contact them? When is the cut off date for when they should be concerned and alert authorities if they haven’t heard from you?
WHO YOU ARE WITH - basic information about who else you are traveling with and their contact information when appropriate in case your loved one can’t get a hold of you.
VEHICLE INFO - make & model, color, and distinctive details (e.g. roof rack, bumper stickers, etc.), and plate numbers of your vehicle. A photo of the car also helps.
PHOTOS - just before you leave, take and send a current photo of the car kitted out with whatever's on it. Also a photo of yourself! Worst case scenario they can use it to share with search teams, best case scenario your homie back home gets a beautiful photo of your precious face to gaze at while you’re gone.
EMERGENCY/FIRST AID KIT
Some basic medical and emergency supplies are a must. A first aid kit, a shovel, matches, emergency blanket, flares if you’re fancy… you know the drill. Here’s a list from the American Red Cross on what to pack at minimum in terms of emergency supplies.
If you’ll be out of service for a long period of time, it’s worth considering an investment in a satellite radio or phone. Being able to periodically check in with someone at home can go a long way in enjoying your time out of service. Sometimes people’s lives are set up in a way where they need to be able to be contacted in case of emergency, so if that’s you, get a Garmin! There is no shame in being safe & responsible on an overland trip & you can still get the escape from screen time that most of us humans so desperately need.
Fire is key when you’re moving through cold weather. Sitting around the fire and drying out does wonders for the spirits. Dry kindling & wood, fire starters, paper, waterproof matches, etc. bring what you need to get a proper fire going in wet weather.
PLENTY OF FOOD
A multi day trip means multiple nights of sleeping in the cold.
Do some preparation for your cold sleeps: read this blog and get the gear properly rated to perform across cold temperatures. HEST’s temperature resilient memory foam will retain its plush, body contouring properties across all temps and with a high 11.8 R-value, keep you insulated against the cold ground or truck bed.
If you’re sleeping inside a vehicle, getting some insulated curtains can go a long way in keeping the space warm. If you’re in an RTT or ground tent, wind exposure can be a huge problem in winter time. You’ll want to make sure you’re properly anchored if you’re in a ground tent, and get a cozy cold weather sleeping bag. For more tips on making your vehicle more comfortable click here.
BE STRATEGIC ABOUT WATER STORAGE AND POTENTIAL TO FREEZE
If you typically keep your portable water in jugs attached to the exterior of your rig, you might want to rethink finding a place to keep it inside the vehicle. If it’s cold enough to snow it’s cold enough to freeze your water. Which while not the end of the world, can be annoying when you want to cook or hydrate. Also depending on what type of container you use to store water, some jugs have been known to crack when water freezes/expands in them.
Some cars start to run poorly at extreme temperatures, so keeping extra antifreeze on hand is a good thing. You never know when your engine starts acting up or burning coolant more quickly than usual.
TIRE CARE & SPARE
Cold air means low tire pressure, so keep an eye on your tires! If temps and tire pressures start to get really low, you will want to have something on hand to inflate your tires like an air compressor or pump. Also driving in the off season on poorly maintained roads means sticks & nails are common in the roadway. Be prepared for a pop with a puncture repair kit and a spare.
“Never drive through a fire ring or place where it looks like someone’s had a campfire. I’ve seen nails from burning pallets, bullet shells, broken glass/bottles, and plenty of other sharp tire popping stuff in campfire rings before. Save yourself the headache of a flat tire and drive around the ring!”
- Washington Overlander & HEST customer
BASIC TOOLS & KNOWLEDGE
Okay maybe this is super obvious but we’re going to say it anyways: you should overland with basic tools (wrenches, spare jack, puncture repair kit, extra oil, etc.) to do any maintenance work you foresee potentially needing on the trip. While not everyone is a mechanic, YouTube is a treasure trove of videos to learn how to do literally anything you can imagine to your car from changing your tire to engine swaps to converting your car to run off veggie oil. Getting some baseline knowledge about how to fix stuff on your car is always a good idea.
CHECK BEFORE YOU GO
Before you head out on the trip do a once over of your rig. Checking tire pressure, fluid levels on all the important fluids, engine, etc. If there is a problem with your car, it’s better to find out about a problem at home where it’s easier to fix, as opposed to finding out about the issue in the middle of nowhere. As a matter of fact, do another once over at the last gas station before you disappear into the woods. Safety checks are key and have prevented many disasters for many people!
PLENTY OF FUEL
Pack extra fuel! When it’s cold, some cars can burn through gas more quickly, so you want to make sure you have more than enough fuel to make it to the next gas stop.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE PATH AHEAD
Eyes on the road! When you’re cruising down rough roads dangerous obstacles can appear out of nowhere. Whether it be big rocks, wildlife, washouts, ice, or deep snow, you’ll want to be able to react quickly and stop on a dime. Put your co-pilot on navigation/DJ duty so you can focus on driving like a bat out of hell!
GO WITH A CREW
Overlanding is more fun with friends. Meals are tastier and campfires are brighter! Plus you have the benefit of safety in numbers. When you’re stuck or running into car troubles, it’s always a huge help to have a friend there to tow you out of a ditch or give you a ride to the nearest town.
TRUST YOUR GUT/INSTINCTS
If you get that funny feeling about a certain turn or road or route, listen to it. Your gut can sense danger way before your brain can catch up, so don’t ignore your instincts!
If you have a place you can safely practice driving and most importantly STOPPING in snow go do it. The best way to get good at driving in hairy situations is to practice these high stakes maneuvers in low stakes environments (think big empty parking lot).
So you’re stuck! That sucks. But, if you remain calm, smart & keep your wits about you, you’ll probably make it out just fine. The real danger in this situation is letting your own panic and fear overwhelm your rational/logical brain. Don’t start freaking out and wasting energy, cause you’re going to need the energy to dig. Also, don’t start wildly spinning tires and wasting gas, if you can’t rev your way out of the stuckness the first time, continually gassing the car in place is just going to make it worse and make you more frustrated. When people start to stress they become less rational in their thought processes and that’s when bad things happen… usually when there’s a tragedy related to a snow storm or trip going awry in the backcountry, it’s because someone made a bad decision in a moment of panic that ultimately screwed them over. Countless stories of people in snowstorms deciding to leave the warmth/shelter of their vehicle to try and walk to help, people burning the tires on their car for warmth and further immobilizing themselves, etc. etc. Before you make a desperate decision take a moment to calm yourself down and consider if this is actually a good idea or a panic idea that hasn’t fully been thought through.
Nothing like a good old fashioned winch to literally pull yourself out of sticky situations! It’s as simple as strapping on to a nearby big tree, boulder, or other vehicle and turning the winch on. Unsticking made easy! Just make sure you don’t get stuck alone somewhere with nothing big enough to hook on to. Why traveling in a pack is always a good idea. With a winch and a friend with a rig- you can get yourself out of anything!
You’ll need tow ropes if you want someone to tow you out of mud (and for the winch if you have one). Tow Ropes are crucial & must have.
MAX TRACKS OR OTHER TRACTION ASSISTANCE
For those who aren’t quite ready to invest in a full winch set up, max tracks or other similar product is key. And if you want to keep your max tracks clean and packed this bag from our friends at High Road Adventure gear is awesome.
One of the common problems with remote roads in the winter is blow downs. Unlike summer time, if a tree falls into the road during a winter storm there’s a smaller chance someone’s already come through and cleared it. Forest service maintenance crews usually don’t operate during the winter, so it could be weeks or months before someone ventures down the road to clear fallen trees. If you’re the first on the road since a storm it’s up to you to blaze the path and clear the road, and a chainsaw makes that job a heck of a lot easier.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS
Look at your surroundings and what’s there and see how you can use it to your advantage. Get crafty!
“I got stuck in some deep, soft snow once overnight on a forest service road. The car drifted the tiniest bit off the hard pack and we were done for. Spent hours trying to dig out without any proper tools (yes I was young and ill prepared) and finally the next morning when it was light again we came up with the strategy of using sticks from dead trees nearby to create traction in the treads until we were finally able to inch out. Now that I’m older and wiser I try to just be more prepared and have the appropriate tools/gear, but it’s good to know in a pinch that you can use what’s available in your surroundings to help get yourself out of sticky situations.”
-Washington Overlander & HEST customer