Driving in Ice and Snow

Some handy tips on safety when heading to the mountains in winter, with useful information and links to essential weather and snow report websites...

Winter driving in the mountains of France - particularly the French Alpine regions and the Pyrénées - can involve snow and ice conditions. As well as preparing for a mountain or ski trip, it is worth remembering that a vehicle will also be affected by the cold and snow and should be well-prepared.

Precautions to be Taken

  • Even if there is no snow on the road be aware of the temperatures, black ice can linger all day in sheltered places, causing hazardous driving conditions. If the temperature is below freezing ice may melt if it is exposed to the sun, and vice versa, ice that is not exposed to the sun will not melt even though the temperature may be above freezing
  • Plan the route and check the weather before you leave. Many of the high mountain passes, cols, will be closed during bad weather.
  • Also check for wind, many cols are in exposed areas and wind can blow enough snow across the road to close the route without it actually snowing
  • Try to keep the fuel tank full; if a road is closed and a diversion is necessary this can be a lengthy extension to the trip
  • For prolonged stays in the mountains it is recommended that the vehicle be fitted with snow tyres, most major garages can do this. Snow tyres are specially adapted with a thicker tread and improved performance in cold conditions. Take professional advise about fitting procedures
  • If you are driving in the mountains in the winter it is obligatory to carry snow chains in the vehicle. Chains are relatively inexpensive but are invaluable if you are caught in bad weather. Be aware that they are generally much more expensive if bought at a resort. Before the trip, read the instructions and do a trial run of putting them on. Snow chains are rarely required on warm dry pleasant days in well-populated areas; it is usually dark, cold and in the middle of nowhere. Keep a pair of gloves with the chains; hands get cold very quickly
  • Always reduce your speed in bad weather and use a low gear when heading downhill, this is to avoid skidding which can happen when using the brakes
  • Saturdays are generally "change-over" days in France; this is the time when huge numbers of people are moved up and down the mountain roads, in and out of the resorts. Hundreds of cars coaches and camper vans will be using the road and even in good conditions accidents and congestion can occur
  • The periods when skiing areas are at their busiest are Christmas, New Year, February and Easter. Weekend traffic during these periods is usually on a red alert in the skiing areas and major motorway junctions, particularly around Lyon, Grenoble, Albertville and Geneva are all prone to problems
  • The French system is to grade the severity of the traffic:

fine traffic conditions busy conditions severe conditions
  • Traffic Info website (French)
  • Most resorts have a single road in and out so if there is a problem the traffic will build up very quickly
  • Once you have arrived at the resort, try to park indoors if possible. If not, park facing downhill leaving the car in gear and with the handbrake off (it can freeze)
  • Lift windscreen wipers away from the window
  • Remember where it was parked, a car is not easy to identify under a metre of snow