Driving in Ice and Snow in the Alps

Handy tips on driving in winter, with information on how to drive in snow and ice, as well as links to information about road conditions...

Winter driving in the mountains - particularly the Swiss and French Alpine regions - can involve snow and ice conditions. A vehicle is affected by the cold and snow and should be well-prepared.

Precautions

  • 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.
  • Always reduce speed in bad weather and use a low gear when heading downhill, this is to avoid skidding which can happen when using the brakes.
  • 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.

Tyres and Snow Chains

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 advice about fitting procedures.

If you are driving in the mountains in the winter - in both France and Switzerland - it is compulsory to carry snow chains in the vehicle.

In Switzerland, snow chains can be rented from petrol stations marked Service de Châines à Neige or Schneekettendienst.

Chains are relatively inexpensive but are invaluable if you are caught in bad weather. Before the trip, read the instructions and do a trial run of putting them on. Keep a pair of gloves with the chains; hands get cold very quickly.

Traffic Grade System

Both France and Switzerland grade the severity of the traffic as below:

 



fine traffic conditions busy conditions severe conditions

Access and Parking

  • Once you have arrived in the mountains, 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 (or tie a flag to the radio aerial) so that it can be found if there has been heavy snowfall.

The Swiss mountain resort towns of Braunwald, Murren, Wengen and Zermatt cannot be reached directly by private motor vehicle. It is obligatory to park at the railway or sky tram station and complete the journey via public transport.