Winter Snow Wheeling: A Guide To Off-Roading in Snow

How to plan and prepare for your winter snow wheeling adventure.

To some, the winter months are a down time for off-roading. A time to relax, repair, and plan for the coming warming months. But there are others, who embrace the cold and snow, who journey out onto frigid trails to explore the beauty of grandfather winter’s snowy wasteland. 

Snow Wheeling, as it’s referred to by some, is an opportunity to get out and explore the capabilities of your rig on a far different type of terrain than the typical dirt, rock, and mud. It offers its own unique strategy and can take an easy trail and scale its difficulty and challenge. 

Photo: Justin Wirtalla

How to Find Snow Trails:

Another challenge with 4×4 Snow Wheeling is finding a place to go. Depending on where you are in the country, some trails can be locked behind seasonal gates. Sometimes the data online can be unreliable or only can be found via social media or word of mouth. A great resource  to find seasonal trail information is the onX Offroad App. Browsing trails on the Webmap or within the app itself will display trails in red that are closed and trails in green that are open. 

You can use the Discover feature over a broad area and look at available trails in the area. Each trail has a Discover card that displays detailed information such as trail width, distance, difficulty, a description, technical rating, and how to get there. Just tap or click on the trail to bring up their info cards to evaluate the trail for your snow wheeling trip.

Trail difficulty ratings are intended for trails when they’re in dry condition in peak wheeling season during the summer months. Keep that in mind when it comes to evaluating trails for off-roading in the snow. Often an easy trail will become substantially more technical with snowy and slippery conditions. Frozen water crossings take on a new level of difficulty, and areas that are off camber can be down right dangerous.

Find Open Trails Near You
Find open off-road trails near you for snow wheeling. Plan your route and download maps for offline use with onX Offroad
Photo: Justin Wirtalla

Types of Snow:

Now that you found a trail in the app, the next variable  to consider is the condition of the snow. You should keep in mind what kind of snow you will be wheeling in, because not all snow is created equally. 

  • Powder is a fine crystalline snow that is mainly found in higher altitude, drier climates. This type of snow is the premium snow wheeling experience. Powder does not pack and clog your tires as easily. Drifts with powder can be easily pushed through if it is fresh and has not had many thaw and refreeze cycles, making it crusty.
  • Crusty snow has larger ice crystals and is often the result of a wet snow that froze, or snow that has been experiencing a partial thaw and then refreezing. This is slippery snow and can easily pack into an icy road base. Drifts made of crusty snow can be much harder to push through and can lead to you getting stuck. Make sure you have a friend that is ready to pull you back out if you end up losing forward momentum and start to sink.
  • Slush is a partly melted snow. This snow can clog your tires and drastically reduce traction. It can build up on the underside of your vehicle, and also it is the most likely to get you stuck. Be careful when wheeling in slush as you can easily end up stuck or find yourself slipping.
  • Ice should be avoided. If you have had a recent sleet, freezing rain, or an ice storm. The terrain conditions are not safe and you should avoid driving on a trail covered in ice.
Photo: Expedition Rove

Preparing for Your Wintery 4×4 Adventure

 A Good and Trusty Shovel:

A good shovel is absolutely required for Snow Wheeling. Digging out a buried Jeep by hand is never fun and often the frustration of coming ill equipped will lead to decisions that can get you in an even worse jam. And take it from my personal experience, bringing two shovels will coax a friend into helping you dig!

Winch & Recovery Gear:

A winch can be used to pull out your stuck vehicle, help to recover a friend, and even help to control a dangerous and icy situation. Winches are just one of many helpful tools, and it is always better to have one and not need it than to need one and not have it.


For your basic recovery gear, you should have a set of d-rings, a snatch block, a tree saver, a tow strap, and if possible, a kinetic rope. These can help you construct a means of getting off the trail safely if things are to go awry. 

Tires:

Your tires are one of the most important factors when it comes to driving 4×4 snow trails. They are how your vehicle meets the terrain, and without proper tires, you will not go very far. A common street tire is not advised for an off-road snow trail. They do not handle being aired down well, have thin sidewalls, and their tread pattern is not made to grab and grip the terrain. 

The best tires for deep snow wheeling are ones that have a more aggressive tread pattern such as an all-terrain tire or mud-terrain tire. These types of tires will air down better and offer superior traction. Another thing you will want to keep in mind is the firmness of the rubber compound as temperatures will cause rubber to harden. A softer rubber compound will have better traction than tires with harder compounds. This is important to keep in mind when purchasing tires where a lot of snow driving will be expected.

Traction Aids:

Traction boards are a very popular means of getting traction when you are in a slippery situation. Often made out of a very durable plastic, they act like a little bridge to help your vehicle find traction and move over the terrain that is causing  difficulty. Traction boards are not a must but they are definitely nice to have.

Limited Slip Differentials are some of the best traction aids for snow and slippery conditions. LSDs work by sending power from a spinning wheel to the wheel with traction. This can help prevent you from getting stuck, and in a lot of cases, these have better road manners when it comes to slippery surfaces than lockers and open differentials.

Lockers should only be used in specific situations to increase traction and not left on during your snow run. With all four wheels turning on a slippery surface, it would be easy for your vehicle to start into a slide if you are not careful.

CB / GMRS / Ham Radios

Something that should be kept in mind when heading into the backcountry is ensuring you have a means of communicating with your group. You may be wondering, “what type of radio should I get?” There are a few factors you should consider. 

The first being, what type of radio your friends are using. It is important that you are able to connect and communicate with your friends.

Secondly, it is important to think about the range of your radio. f you are in a precarious situation and outside of cellular range, will you be able to reach help? A radio with a longer range will be a better choice.

Lastly, vehicle mounted or handheld. Both types of radios have their merits, but if there is an emergency and you have to set out on foot, it would be better to have a handheld unit that you could take with you as you hike back to civilization.

With those factors in mind, there is nothing stopping you from having multiple types of radios and multiple forms. Many off-roaders will have a vehicle mounted radio and then a handheld unit to offer a friend or spotter out on the trail.

Photo: Erin Borel

Personal Gear:

Clothing:

When out in the deep snow, make sure to wear the proper gear. Even if you plan on spending most of the time in your vehicle, there is always the chance you may find yourself out shoveling or trudging through drifts to place a winch line.

Thermals are a good starting layer, depending on how cold it is in your area. They can help you stay toasty warm and add another layer of protection under your clothing to help maintain your core temperature.

Warm waterproof boots are a necessity, along with warm socks. Cold and wet feet can ruin your trip. Look for boots that are listed as waterproof and insulated on their packaging.

Jeans are totally fine for pants, however they will quickly get wet and freeze. A good option is a pair of ski pants or better yet, a good set of arctic insulated bibs such as Carhartts. 

A heavy jacket is always advisable to protect you from wind and snow will help maintain your core temperature while protecting you from the elements.

A good pair of gloves will keep your hands and fingers warm and allow you to work unhindered. Gloves are another item you want to ensure are waterproof and insulated. Wet and cold fingers will make it harder to work.

 And lastly, a good hat will keep your head and ears warm.

Additional Supplies:

It is good practice to put together a survival pack to use in  an emergency. The first thing in this pack should be a first aid kit. Next you should pack a warm blanket or two. A change of clothes never hurts. And lastly, some bottles of water and some food such as protein bars and trail mix. If by some unfortunate circumstance, you end up in a bad situation, you have some basic necessities and these will ensure you are able to survive.

Photo: Justin Wirtalla

At The Trailhead:

Airing Down: 

This may be a given to some, but airing down is important for not just snow, but off-roading in general. Spreading your tread pattern wide gives you more area, just like when crawling through rocks. Inn the snow, it acts more like a snowshoe and allows your vehicle to move more easily through the snow where a more narrow and rigid tire would likely dig deeper and get you stuck. The more tread you have in contact with the terrain, the most potential you have for creating motion. How far you should air down really depends on your vehicle’s wheel and tire setup. Some tire and rim combinations can tolerate lower air pressures such as beadlocks. On a normal tire and rim setup, you may not want to drop below 12 PSI. However,with a beadlock setup you can easily drop down into the single digits to spread that tread pattern a bit wider.

4-Low is Your Friend:

When out on the trail, speed is not your friend. Momentum can carry with it consequences when you end up in a place you do not want to be. Setting your four wheel drive to 4-Low will allow you to maintain a steady speed, prevent you from digging down and getting stuck, and provide you with more torque to push through when the snow gets crusty.   

The Basics of Slippery Terrain Still Apply:

Use your best judgment here. Something to keep in mind with a four-wheel drive is that the front is pulling just as the back is pushing, so you don’t want to overcorrect. Sometimes less is more and you will want to go easy on the skinny pedal. Let your front end pull you in the direction you want to go. Often, spinning and slipping tires are not going to get you far with your foot on the gas. You will wind up polishing up the ice and may find yourself going sideways instead of forward. Traction boards are very helpful in this situation. If all else fails, find yourself some dirt gravel to sprinkle onto the ice and ease it out of the slippery patch.

Photo: Justin Wirtalla

Always Stay The Trail:

As good stewards, we always want to practice good off-roading etiquette and stay the trail. A nice snow covered meadow might be tempting, but it’s important to let it stay beautiful. The plants beneath the snow can be easily torn up by tires that dig too deep. Keep your vehicle to designated and numbered trails at all times. This will ensure that our trail access remains intact for generations to come.

Closing

In closing, Snow Wheeling is a fun and exciting 4×4 experience, but should be approached safely, just like any other off-road activity. Do not go alone, be prepared, and make wise decisions when out on the trail.

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Erin Borel

Erin Borel

Erin is a Marketing Manager for onX Offroad. She lives in Colorado where she and her wife are members of a small jeep club that maintains some of the the local trails along the front range. She spends her free time riding her horse (Valkyrie), volunteering with her local community, and prepping her Jeep for the next big adventure. She is most at home in her rig on the trail, exploring the beautiful Colorado Rocky Mountains.