This past month, a close friend of mine went out and bought himself a Jeep JK. Within two weeks of owning it, he bought wheels and tires, and drove it down to Metal Cloak to put a lift on it. Like most new Jeep owners, he could not wait to test his new rig out. He gathered up several of his other friends who were also novice Jeep owners, and they set off in their rigs to check out the Rubicon trail. In December of all months.
When I saw the pictures he posted on his social media, my heart dropped. They had no idea of how much danger they had put themselves in. Winter wheeling in areas like the high Sierra has been proven time and time again to be deadly. If you are not properly prepared with the right gear and knowledge, you can literally die, or at the very least end up with a vehicle stranded and buried in snow for months on end. Winter conditions can change in an instant, and it is the people that think nothing will happen to them, or the people that are not properly prepared that end up in trouble, and in some cases, dead.
This Winter Wheeling Handbook will be a three part series divided into: preparation and what to bring, how to wheel in the snow and finally, how to wheel responsibly on public lands during the winter.
Keep reading, because the knowledge on these pages just may very well save your life.
PREPARATION FOR WINTER WHEELING
The cardinal rule of off-roading is doubly important in the winter: NEVER WHEEL ALONE. Always have another vehicle with you. You can debate anything else I put in this article, but this is indisputable. It is more of a commandment than a rule.
During the winter, it is also mandatory to let someone know where you are going to be, and when you plan on being back. Even more importantly, let them know that you will check in with them when you get back. Someone needs to know if you are missing or not. Winter wheeling is also not a time to go exploring new trails. Search and rescue will not be able to do the rescue part of their job if they are searching in the wrong area because you said to yourself, “Hey, let’s go down this trail we have never gone down before!” Stay in the area you told people you were going to be.
Remember that most tow companies will not drive up some snow covered 4×4 trail to pull you out. Ideally the best thing to have is a buddy with a rig that will be able to tow yours out in case of a major break down. It is also good to have a friend with a car trailer on call just in case. While most serious off-roaders may have these connections, most people do not. If you really need help pulling out a vehicle, there are also many “4×4 recovery” Facebook groups that you can join with people that are willing to help with recoveries. In California for example, there is the “NorCal 4×4 Recovery” group and the “SoCal Off Road Recovery” group. I highly recommend that you join one of these groups in your area for a safety net. One word of warning: if you are wheeling off trail illegally, some of these groups may refuse to help extract your vehicle, or if they do pull you out, you may get an earful from them about wheeling responsibly.
Another thing that should never be forgotten: Do not trust the weather man. The skies may be clear, the forecast could call for no snow, and the next thing you know, snow is dumping on you. Winter conditions can change in an instant. You need to be prepared to be stuck in the snow overnight even if you do not expect snow to fall. During the winter you cannot just throw a tent, a sleeping bag and a cooler in your rig and take off, you will need all the gear listed below to make sure you will survive.
WHAT TO TAKE
Of all the things on this list, why did I put a shovel first? Because it is the most basic and most used tool while winter wheeling. If you wheel in the snow, you WILL need a shovel. If you wheel in the snow and do not bring a shovel, quite frankly, you will look really stupid and the people wheeling with you will make fun of you. It would be like trying to play baseball without a mitt. DO NOT use a snow shovel, a flat bladed shovel or rely on a spade. You will want to buy a “pointed digger” shovel. The point also allows you to break through ice if necessary.
At the very bare minimum, you will need a couple of decent tow straps. NEVER skimp on tow straps, and ALWAYS have them in your vehicle. Know where all the tow points are on your vehicle. While most newer 4×4’s have tow points from the factory, older rigs like Jeep YJs do not. You will need to install them yourself or buy a bumper with recovery points. D-ring shackles are always better than hooks.
Having a winch is great, but you do not want the first time you ever use your winch to be when you are buried in four feet of snow. Educate yourself on how to use it and actually practice using it. You should also know how to use a snatch block and a tree saver. I highly advise finding a hands-on 4×4 clinic that will teach you how to use a winch safely and properly. DO NOT rely on some Youtube video when it comes to learning how to use a winch.
Keeping in mind that weather conditions can change unexpectedly, always pack more clothes than you think you will need. In cold weather, it is always best to dress in layers. A water-proof jacket is key in winter weather conditions. Ideally, a jacket with a hood is better for your head than a knit beanie which can get wet. Never ever forget gloves (preferably two pairs), and extra pairs of cold-weather socks. Also spend the money and buy a good set of boots. In 25 years of winter wheeling, I have seen more than my fair share of miserable wheelers stuck with tennis shoes and wet socks. You do not want to be that guy. My glove box actually holds gloves and socks year around and I have two jackets stuffed behind my roll cage. Hand warmers are not a necessity, but they can be a big plus and I also keep several of those in my glove box.
Fire Starting Supplies
If you are stranded over night on the trail in the snow, you are going to need a fire. Not only for warmth, but mentally, a fire can really help out in a stressed out situation. Buy multiple lighters and stash them in your glove box, clothing bag, first aid kit, center console etc. along with fire starter sticks. In a pinch, oily snacks like Frietos can be used as a fire starter, as can gas, but fire starter sticks are ideal when the wind is blowing and it is wet out. Do not wait until after the sun goes down to start collecting fuel for your fire.
Ax and Chain Saw
To piggy back with the fire starting supplies, a small ax is essential for gathering fuel. If the ground covered in snow, collecting dead sticks and branches off the ground is out of the question. You will want to look for dead branches on tree for fuel, and a small ax can be a God-send. While a chain saw is also great for cutting logs for a fire, there is another, more important reason for having one: clearing the trail of fallen trees. Last winter I had to help recover a guy who had driven down a hill and had the trail he was on blocked with a log. With snow and Ice on the hill, his rig could not make it back up the trail, and there was no way around the fallen tree without cutting it out of the way with a saw….which he did not have. It is always beneficial if at least one person in your group has a chain saw and knows how to use it.
If you get stranded, or if you have some type of medical emergency, you need a way to call for help. Even in today’s day and age, many of the remote areas we wheel in have either spotty or zero cell phone reception. You cannot rely only on your phone. The Rubicon trail is a prime example of this since nearly all of the trail has no cell coverage. A HAM radio is nothing like a CB. Using repeaters, a HAM Radio can broadcast out over a great expanse of area, and there is always someone listening. They are so powerful that you need to hold a HAM licence just to use one. Over the past few years, the Rubicon Trail Foundation has made a huge push to get as many licenced HAM operators as possible on the trial for safety. I can not stress enough the value of becoming a HAM radio operator as an off-roader. It may seem like a pain taking a class and a test to get a HAM radio licence, but that is nowhere near the pain of losing a friend or a loved one on a trail because you had no way to communicate with the outside world to get medical help. More information on HAM classes can be found here: http://www.rubicontrail.org/rtf-hamradios.htm
Pack enough food for at least 2 more days than you need. Even if it’s jut a day trip you will need food for an emergency. Since this is survival food, it can be energy bars or even better, military MRE’s. (Meals Ready to Eat) I normally load up the bottom of my center console with Power Bars and shove 4 MRE’s under my seats. Also make sure to bring water, and in cold conditions, stay away from alcohol as it can actually lower your body temperature.
There has been many a day trip that has turned into an over-nighter because someone broke down or got stuck. Find a decent tent with fairly thick poles that will not collapse from the weight of snow. You also want a tent that is relatively quick and easy to set up and has a rain fly. If there are adverse conditions like wind and snow, you do not want to be spending hours putting up some massive Taj Mahal of a tent. For winter wheeling you will want to pack at least 3 good-sized tarps. One to put under your tent and another to put over it. The third tarp can be used to cover any gear left out over night so you can find it in the morning if it got covered in snow, or to lay on under a rig you may have to work on. Do not buy a normal sleeping bag, find a decent cold weather bag that is rated. Mummy bags are the best. If you KNOW you are going to tent camp in winter, a tent heater and a cot can make life a lot less miserable, but for an emergency shelter kit, you just need to pack tent, tarps, sleeping bag and rope.
Tools and Parts
Know which tools you need for your rig. Nothing is worse than snapping an axle in the middle of nowhere and not having the right tools to swap it out. You need to make sure that you have the right size sockets and wrenches. Broken U-joints are a common wheeling break. At the very least you will need 2 U-joints, an extra serpentine belt (or belts) and preferably spare axle shafts. You really need to know your vehicle and what the common breaks for your make and model are. An on-board welder or a Ready-Welder can be a life saver if you have major breakage. In addition you need to pack various fluids, oil, ATF, power steering fluid, brake fluid and especially extra gas. Wheeling in snow will burn more gas that you would expect. Starter fluid and ratchet straps to set a bead can also come in very handy if you know what you are doing, but make sure you have a fire extinguisher
Since airing down your tires is essential for more traction on the trail, one of the most common break downs in off-roading is “losing a bead” and having a tire go flat. A regular car jack will not cut it with a lifted vehicle, especially in the snow. Much like a winch, a Hi-Lift jack seems simple enough to use, but there is much more to using one a Hi-lift than you would expect, and they are way more dangerous than you would expect. Even after 20 years of using one, it was not until I attended a clinic by the Diablo 4 Wheelers 4×4 club that I learned just how dangerous they can be. Hi-lifts should really only be used for emergency situations. So again, make sure you take to educate yourself on safe and proper use of all your equipment.
This may seem like a lot of gear just to take wheeling, especially for just a day trip into the mountains in the snow, but you will always need that ONE thing that you did not take. One common theme you may have noticed with this list of gear to take, is to know how to properly and safely use much of the stuff on it. It’s not enough just to take the gear, its also about knowing how to use it. Take the time to educate yourself, because that knowledge could save your life.
Stay tuned for the second part of this series will focus on how to wheel in the snow and impress all your off-roading friends with you snow-wheeling ninja skills!